So does Machu Picchu the most over-hyped and cliched destination on every soul-searching hipster’s bucket list live up to the hype? And then some!
My one regret about my visit to Peru is I didn’t have enough time. Not enough time to see the enigmatic Nazca Lines, Easter Island or to hop across to the Galapagos. In this part of the world you are spoilt for choice whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, a wildlife enthusiast or a conspiracy theorist (How on earth did they plan and execute the designs in Nazca and for what purpose? To send a coded message to a visiting delegate from another solar system far, far away?!). Partly because I was pressed for time and partly because I wasn’t confident of being able to handle the Inca Trail hike (which some online forums described as like being on a stair master for 3 days straight!) I opted for the train journey to Machu Picchu. Strictly speaking my Peru Travel Diary should begin in Lima, but I didn’t have much time there. I was there over Easter and just about managed to visit the main square, where most of the buildings are painted a bright canary yellow. It was certainly very festive with masses of the faithful crowding in front of the cathedral and the sidewalks crammed with vendors selling everything from posters to bouquets with a Jesus motif!
I used the travel company G Adventures, going on their 8-day “Machu Picchu Adventure” tour in April 2012. The tour started in Lima, went on to Cusco, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, then back to Cusco and ended in Lima.
Peru Travel Diary Part 1 : Cusco
From Lima I flew to Cusco which used to be the capital city of the Inca empire before the Spanish Conquistadors marched in and took over. Very little remains of the original Inca settlement. Its a lovely town nevertheless, nestled among the mountains at an elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level, it gives you the distinct impression nothing of any consequence has changed in the life here over the past few hundred years.
The beating heart of the town is the main square – the Plaza De Armas – it is surprisingly large like a football field. The centrepiece is the Cathedral which tries to make up in size what it lacks in the ornate design boasted by the smaller baroque-style Jesuit church to its left “La Compania”. There is a small park in the square at the centre of which is a fountain with a romantic statue of an Inca warrior atop it. The benches here seem to be a favourite evening haunt for local families. The square is flanked by stone arcades and more than a few of the restaurants and shops here have Moorish-style carved wooden balconies. One of the highlights of my trip to Peru was an evening spent in one such balcony of a cafe – people watching and taking in the view as the shadows of the surrounding mountains gradually lengthened with the onset of dusk. Atop one of the mountains in the background is a white statue of Christ the Redeemer, the smaller cousin of the one in Rio, nevertheless well worth a visit for amazing views over Cusco.
As I mentioned before very little remains of the original Inca settlement. Of all the colonial powers at the time, the Spanish were amongst the most destructive – plundering whatever they could find of value and destroying the rest. The church of Santo Domingo was built on the site of the destroyed Incan Temple of the Sun. Legend has it this temple had walls covered with gold, a massive disc of gold bejewelled with precious stones meant to symbolise the sun, gold statues and ornaments, and even a garden with plants, flowers, statues of llamas and their herds made completely of gold! It must have been quite a sight. Unfortunately all that remain are the stone foundations and part of the outer wall. Ironically when an earthquake hit the city the Spanish church was reduced to rubble while the Incan stone foundations remained intact!
This stone architecture is the main legacy of the Incan civilisation. They fitted together giant stones at all sorts of odd angles pretty much like a jigsaw puzzle lacking any straight lines or symmetry. The stones were bewildering in the variety of their shapes and the enormity of their size and weight. And yet they were fitted together so snugly you couldn’t even pass a knife through them. They never used mortar and yet these the stones were cut and fit so precisely that these structures have survived centuries of earthquakes where others have crumbled and disappeared..
Apparently even though they were aware of its existence the Incans never used the wheel. Which begs the question how they managed to drag these massive stones up to high altitudes like at Machu Picchu? The best guess is through sheer manual labour – hundreds of men pulling them up earth ramps.
The Incan settlements struck me with their simplicity. There were no carvings, no sculptures, no murals on the walls. The dwellings were small and simple, usually single rooms with trapezoidal windows. They didn’t even have a written alphabet! All they had was a primitive system of counting via stringing beads on threads like an abacus. This is what they used for things like keeping census, records of crop production etc. Perhaps this oral tradition is why they are so mysterious to us today…
I later read they didn’t have much use for currency either. There was a barter system in place of goods and labour, and taxes were collected in the form of crops or compulsory service in the army and in the mines. Yet they were clearly advanced in some ways as evidenced by the architecture, roadworks, irrigation systems and methods of agriculture, there are even signs that they successfully performed brain surgery!
Peru Travel Diary Part 2: The Journey to Machu Picchu
We visited three Inca sites on our way to Machu Picchu. The first was Saqsaywaman. For the sheer drama of its setting it is unrivalled in Peru except perhaps by Machu Picchu. It is a giant stone fortified citadel overlooking the city of Cusco. The Incans designed Cusco to be shaped like a puma with Saqsaywaman being its head. The main purpose of this site was military as it was the perfect vantage point from which to defend the city below. The highlight is three rows of zigzag stone walls covering the length of the plateau. They are one of the finest examples of the Incan technique of stone architecture. You wouldn’t think stone walls could be so mesmerising but believe me they were as absorbing as the most ornately decorated churches I had ever seen.
One distinctive feature of Incan agriculture are the massive terraced fields they left behind. Apparently each successive terrace was maintained at a slightly different temperature and level of humidity to test out growing different varieties of crops. The most impressive of these terraces I saw at Pisac – the second of the three Incan sites we visited besides Machu Picchu. It resembled a giant grassy amphitheatre on the side of a mountain with great views of the valley below and surrounding peaks.
The third site we visited was Ollantaytambo. Overlooking the settlement was a giant staircase carved into the side of a mountain which led to a plateau at the top where the main temple was built. Staircase is actually a misnomer as no one could possibly climb this, each “step” being taller than the average sized human. The actual way to the top was via smaller steps and ramps on the sides. Apparently this was the site of a great Incan military victory over the Spanish as the steps made it very difficult for the Spanish to scale the mountain what with slingshots and arrows raining down upon them! At the top there are six large slabs of pink granite standing together – an altarpiece of some sort.
Peru Travel Diary Part 3: Machu Picchu
I remember feeling almost giddy with excitement the morning we were to go to Machu Picchu – it might have been the altitude but I like to think not! The train journey from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the base town for Machu Picchu, has to be one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. The trains very helpfully have glass roofs as well as large windows so as to provide as unobstructed a view as possible. For the most part the train runs along the bank of a river – its muddy waters rushing and tumbling over a rocky bed as if in a mad race with the train, through the curves and folds of Urubamba Valley. The mountains around are thickly forested – every inch carpeted in lush mossy green. Peaks behind peaks behind peaks tower all around in every direction often shrouded by a blanket of clouds. As the clouds slowly drift together and apart with the ensuing play of sunlight and shadows the spell is complete.
It was a misty, rainy morning when we climbed the stone path that led to Machu Picchu and all of us were worried we would be denied a clear view. Our guide was unperturbed and shepherded us onto a grassy plain. The mist was so thick we literally couldn’t see much beyond our noses and stood patiently while the guide told us a little about the story of how the city was “discovered” by American explorer Hiram Bingham. It wasn’t in fact the Lost City he had sought, three farming families were living there when he came upon it. It was said to have been the winter retreat of the Incan king and I can see why he chose it. The rolling clouds of mist teased us with tantalising glimpses of the ruins here and there. And then finally before our eyes they slowly cleared amidst a collective chorus of “oohs” and “aaahs”.
There are some images that are ingrained in your earliest memories such that you can never remember when it was that you first saw them – the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and this. Seeing it in person is absolutely thrilling not so much for the ruins themselves but the natural setting they are in. It looks as if someone scooped out one side of the mountain with an ice cream scoop to build the city. The ruins are nestled amongst the peaks with a sheer drop on all sides into the narrow ravines below and the river snakes its way around like a necklace below. All around you as far as the eye can see are lush green forested mountains with clouds perennially and silently rolling across them. Its this palpable air of mystery I think that draws so many people to this place year after year…
The city is spread over stepped terraces with stone steps connecting the multiple levels. An important reason for building the steps was to drain rain water and prevent flooding and landslides. The narrow streets and the dwellings are almost perfectly intact. Thanks to the unique mortar-less technique of Incan construction, the city has survived multiple earthquakes over the years with minimal damage. There is an open square which was probably for communal activities, perhaps markets or town hall meetings and another field that might have been for sports. There are areas identifiable as temples thanks to the distinctive altar stones. Apparently these were sacrificial altars with animal and human sacrifices a common ritual in those times to appease this or that God. The most interesting of these is the temple of the Condor with a stone condor head carved on the ground in front of a couple of standing outstretched “wing”-shaped boulders. There was an underground chamber beneath the temple where mummified remains (of royals?) used to be kept. There were also stone dungeons behind the temple which led to speculation that some unfortunate condemned prisoners might have been used for the ritual sacrifices. Apparently laziness was a bonafide criminal offence amongst the Incas..not much for Netflix and chill then these lot! The houses are mostly tiny one room structures but honestly would you need anything bigger if you had that View to wake up to everyday…?