10 January 2013

Machu Picchu - The City in the Clouds

This was a trip that I had been planning for a few years and I was a bit apprehensive - would it be everything that I had hoped and imagined it would be, would it be the highlight of all my travels – pretty difficult considering all the amazing places I have been too including many on this trip itself.

Anyways, the day that I had been waiting for finally arrived as I found myself heading to Machu Picchu! We had an early start that morning as there was a 20 mins drive from our hotel to the train station in Ollantaytambo and we needed to arrive at the station 30 minutes before the departure time. As we waited for all to board the bus, I noticed these mountain peaks amidst cloud cover and this one snow covered peak stood out with the sun light falling on it – a very hypnotic sight. Was this just the start of a spiritual journey?

A scenic ride and we were there, all queued up and I wished I have a nice window seat on the Peru Rail…luckily I do and so worth it –one and a half hour of stunning views of the Peruvian Andes and Andean scenery. The train ride from Ollantaytambo is geographically diverse, and runs along the canyon floor with views of the majestic mountains and glimpses of ancient ruins. We travel along the thunderous and roaring Urubamba River...someone comments – that would be nice for river rafting. I am hydrophobic but why is it that every time I see rapids I want to go river rafting. And once I am on the raft…I enjoy it but also curse myself and promise myself that this will be the last time I will ever go river rafting. But then…there never is a last time as I find myself in a raft somewhere else…sometime later. Luckily there is no river rafting here!

We cross several small colorful villages and are also pointed out the starting points of the 4 days /3 nights and the 3 days/2 nights Inca trails…which is another thing I wish I could have done but know that I don’t have the stamina for it. Maybe someday I can do the shorter one day hike at the end of the Inca Trail. We reach our destination at Aguas Calientes from where a 20 minutes dusty bus ride completes our journey to the Inca site of Machu Picchu. The ride itself is spectacular as the narrow track winds its way through a series of 18 switchbacks up the mountainside. But also very, very scary at times - with almost vertical drops plunging down into the Vilcanota Valley below, whenever a bus came from the other direction my heart missed a beat! Noticed splashes of pink and orange flowers on the mountain side – later came to know these are the orchids or Wiñay Wayna.

The Citadel of Machu-Picchu often referred to as The Lost City of the Incas is one of the most renowned examples of Inca architecture. Surrounded on three sides by the rapids of the Urubamba River, Machu Picchu (meaning old mountain) sits on a ridge at the foot of a hill called Huayna Picchu (meaning young mountain). There is another mountain called Wayna Picchu right in front of Machu Picchu. Many people climb this peak for stunning views of the site from above.

Experts differ on the purpose of Machu Picchu. Some say it was the domain of female priests, the Virgins of the Sun, but remains found on site are of both genders. Some of the female remains show the women had given birth. Others speculate that the Inca Pachacuti built it as monument to his own greatness, possibly as a summer or royal retreat. Perhaps the city was an agricultural outpost, given the number of terraces, water channels and irrigation canals. Or perhaps an observatory, the summer home of the Inca rulers, or a combination of all?
Constructed around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire, it was abandoned just over 100 years later in 1572. It is believed that the inhabitants were wiped out by smallpox before the Spanish invaders arrived in the area. Hiram Bingham, a lecturer at Yale University has been credited with "re-discovering" Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911. He was led up to Machu Picchu by a local 11 year old Quechua boy named Pablito Alvarez. Left untended, Machu Picchu would quickly become lost again, covered with rampant rain forest vegetation.

Watch Tower / Guard's Hut
Our first stop is the Watch Tower or Control gate which consists of a building with three walls and windows. From this place, one can see the urban and agricultural sectors as well as the surroundings and is an ideal spot for picture taking. The lush cloud forest, the brilliant green grass across the ruins, the massive yet immaculate structure of the ruins - spellbinding! Adding to all this, the mystery surrounding the site so that as I stood and looked down across at the site, I was left totally mesmerized.

Funerary Stone
We pass the upper cemetery with the ritual stones. In every Inca city, the dead were buried on the outskirts of the town, which is where the archaeologists found human remains. In the upper part, they also found sculpted stones that belong to the area, which indicated the Incas used the stones to make offerings to their gods. On this same piece of ground lies a granite boulder sculpted with steps – the Funerary Stone. It is a curiously carved that some historians believe was used as a sacrificial altar, given that the Incas were prone to sacrificing llamas. Bingham himself believed that it may have been used as a mortuary slab where the deceased were laid out in the sun before mummification. In the Upper Cemetery just above this rock, he found a significant number of skeletons. But the most striking feature is that it is pierced with a ring, the purpose of which is unknown. In the upper part one can see a body-shaped spot as if people had been placed on their backs.

Old City Entrance
From here we split into two groups. My group had a steep walk up before we started our walk through the citadel. Machu Picchu was built according to its natural surroundings, with its constructions following the natural curves and dips and rises in the land and is divided into two sectors: extensive agriculture terraces and urban landscapes, which contain the main square, temples, palaces and residential terraces.

We entered through the old city gate entrance into Machu Picchu. After crossing the threshold into the ruins of Machu Picchu, I am totally mesmerized by the scale and beauty of the place. There are four squares located in different levels. Embedded steps interconnect these. In these squares social and religious activities took place.

The window lines up
perfectly with the guard tower
Doors are a common sight in Machu Picchu and especially in this sector. They vary in texture, size and architectural style that set them apart from each other, although all have the same trapezoid shape. Some only have one doorjamb and lintel, and some have two. Some doors are simple and others have different security mechanisms such as stone rings, central trunks and other mechanisms which served to tie together beams to make the doors more secure.

The stones all lined up to the angular trapezoid-shaped doorways and windows. At one particular place there was a window and if one looks through the window, it lines up perfectly with the guard tower at the top of the ruins. The Incas apparently were really big on windows lining up with things!!!

Many buildings have a triangular shape that mimics the shape of the mountain behind it.

There are many ceremonial temples and sites at Machu Pichhu. But the Temple of the Sun, used to honor and celebrate Inti, the Sun, and an important Incan deity is considered the most important.
Temple of the Sun
Formed by a series of buildings dominating the whole citadel, the temple has a semicircular shape and is located on top of a solid rock with a natural curve 34.4-ft long. It is composed of highly polished polyhedrons. There are two trapezoidal windows in this building with protruding knobs at every comer, and on the north side there is a carefully-sculpted door with bored holes in the doorjamb. When the sun of the winter solstice in June enters through the central window, it falls directly on the large ceremonial stone. The round building protects the stone. It is best observed from the side, descending the stone staircase in the main plaza.
Royal Tomb
Beside the Temple of the Sun is a two-storey building known as the Palace of the Princess, also sometimes referred to as the Temple of Pachamama. There are tall niches for offerings and the base of the rock forms a kind of cave that is called the Royal Tomb even though no human remains were found here.

The hillside, above the Temple of the Sun is believed to be an Agricultural Zone. To prevent erosion at the sides of the plateau, terraces were constructed, each shored up with stone walls, which were also reinforced with soil. The agricultural terraces were watered from natural sources and were separated from other sectors by a wide staircase.
We cross a tall stairway along which runs a succession of sixteen artificial waterfalls. Most of these fountains are carefully carved out of polygonal blocks and surrounded by drainage canals gutted out of the same stone. The water comes from a source located in the heights of the Machu Picchu Mountain and was canalized during the Inca era.

In the royal sector where Pachacuti may have stayed alongside other members of the nobility, the buildings are particularly large with massive rock lintels weighing as much as three tons, characteristic of imperial Inca architecture. The Temple of Three Windows, together with the Principal Temple close to it and the Intihuatana, make up what Bingham called the Sacred Plaza. The Temple of the Three Windows has a rectangular shape and gets its name from the fact that its main face has three windows and two blind bays. Bingham believed that the three windows framing the distant mountains represented the three mythological caves from which the Ayar brothers, children of the sun, stepped into the world. The walls are made of great polygonal blocks assembled in the fashion of the pieces of a puzzle. Together with the Main temple, this is the most impressive architecture in all of Machu Picchu- the enormous polyhedrons have been carved and joined with millimetric precision.
Temple of Three Windows
Principal or Main Temple
To the back of the Main temple is what is called the Priest's House, or the House of Niches. This construction was unfinished.
Intihuatana  Stone
Another famous feature of the site is a carved natural stone known as Intihuatana Stone- hitching post of the sun which is believed to have been designed as an astronomic clock or calendar by the Incas. This stone is one of many ritual stones in South America. It was believed that when destroyed, these ritual stones lose the godliness as the gods departed. This stone at Machu Picchu remains intact and many believe it is still sacred. This could be where all the energy in Machu Pichu comes from – since it is one of the major vortices or high energy spots on the Earth – I believe it is at No 2. It is believed that if you place your hands above the stone, the energy will pass onto you. Many in our group felt rejuvenated…but honestly, I didn't feel anything as such at the Intihuatana stone itself, though the Machu Pichhu as whole has a great positivity about it, leaving you feeling energized.

Intihuatana Hill
Intihuatana is a hill whose sides have been arranged into terraces, giving it the shape of a great pyramid with a polygonal base. It is reached via a stairway behind the Main Temple. At the top, surrounded by elite buildings, is the Intihuatana stone which is arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. It is carved so precisely that the four corners point directly north, south, east, and west. The Intihuatana Stone indicated both solstices and the two equinoxes, as during those times it would line up with geographic features in the landscape surrounding Machu Picchu. Also, at a certain angle, you can see that the stone is carved to look like the shape of the Huayna Picchu, the sacred peak rising beyond the ruins.

As explained by the tour guide, on the June 21 this stone casts a shadow onto a circle marked on a nearby stone to mark the winter solstice. The mark made by the Incas many centuries ago is still visible.
Calculating the angle of the Sun
He poured some water and it formed a circle!!!  And the shadow on it would help calculate the angle of the sun. The Incas believed the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky. On March 21 and again on September 21, the sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows whereas on June 21 the stone casts the longest shadow on its southern side and on December 21 a much shorter one on its northern side.
The Sun Clock was undamaged for centuries until a photo shoot for a beer commercial. What the ancient Spaniards looking for Machu Picchu were unable to do, modern man did!!!!

Sacred Rock
A giant flat stone erected upon a great pedestal called the Sacred Rock is a polished monolith 3 meters in height and with a base of 7 meters, whose shape reminds one of a feline. From another angle, it takes the shape of the mountain Putucusi that looms behind it. The small square in front of it may have been where poetry and music recitals took place.

Another stop is at the Condor Temple. The shape and position of 2 large rocks here create the shape of a Condor. Each represents one of the condor’s wings spread in flight. The Condor’s head and beak are carved into the ground below the wing formations. It represented fertility, and also, with the movement of it’s’ wings, the gathering of clouds to produce rain.

Condor Temple
The tour guide told us that this was a temple but I have now read that this may just be a sanitized version for the tourists. If you look closely between the wings of the condor is a chamber with grooves cut in the stone to secure manacles and many experts including Bingham this was the walkway behind where a torturer may have walked to whip the prisoners' backs, and a scary looking pit to let the blood of prisoners drain. Clearly the condor was a symbol of cruel justice!!!

We hang around for some more time before a late lunch at the adjoining restaurant and our journey back. The return train journey was quite interesting.
I was in the last seat and was just relaxing, savoring the whole experience when suddenly a devilish creature pounced on me…some of us, including me let out a shriek before I break out into giggles…it’s just the attendant of the train all dressed up in a colorful costume and a horrendous mask. Soon we are used to him and enjoy shaking a leg with him. This is followed by a fashion show of alpaca products…the lady attendant modeling encourages us to join her in the cat walk. Lovely stuff but very expensive.

We enjoy some shopping at Ollantaytambo and then take our bus all the way back to Cusco. It had been an interesting though very tiring day. But this wasn’t the end as we went for dinner at a local restaurant in Cusco where local dancers and a musical band entertain us. It’s quite late by the time we finish and bid farewell to Romeo, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

The natural surroundings and the mystical atmosphere make this place unique, enigmatic and unforgettable.