The Lost City of Machu Picchu
The air is very thin at 11,000 feet. We can’t stay in Cusco for long. Within a few hours of our arrival, we board another train and head to lower ground. The 3.5-hour train ride runs parallel to the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley. The dramatic canyon walls surround us on either side. The mountains in the not too far distance are covered with vibrant, green trees except for the snow-covered peaks that shimmer in the hot sun. The clear water races us to the small town of Aguas Calientes at 6,693 feet.
With the constant elevation change over the last few days, we decide to settle here before proceeding to Machu Picchu. The next two days are slow and lackadaisical. Norman and I wander around the remote, desolate town while adjusting to the altitude. Besides the tourists, there can’t be more than a few thousand people that live here.
At the crack of dawn on the third day, we prepare to hike up to the Inca ruins. We are heading towards the road and spot a stand that serves breakfast. We each buy two Tamals (Peruvian Tamales).
At the beginning of the road, we find out tour guide, Hector. We introduce ourselves and then Hector begins his tour.
“I hope you boys are ready to sweat,” he says with a large grin on his face. “It’s about five and a half miles to Machu Picchu from here. As you can see, the first part of our trek is on one side of the road. But then we need to climb about 400 feet up. Don’t worry amigos, there are several steps that cut through the slopes of the mountains. The final section continues along the road until we reach the entrance. We should arrive around nine.”
After a long, leg aching hike, we arrive at the one of the world’s most visited sites. The views on the way up were breathtaking. Hector also pointed out some wild animals and landmarks as we ascended higher into the Andes.
We make our way through the visitor center and Hector pulls us aside and starts to talk. Norman and I listen keenly through the heavy crowd noise.
“Today we will do as much as possible before taking the last bus back. We will walk along the main areas like Intihuatana (Inca sun dial), the Temple of the Sun, and the Royal Tomb. Also, we’ll hike up to Huayna Picchu, which is the large mountain you can see over there.” Hector points to the mountain behind the ruins and continues, “It’s another 1,000 feet up, and we have to go up the stairs of death, but the birds-eye view of the surrounding area is well worth it. The Temple of the Moon is up there as well. So, are you ready? Vamanos!”
We are walking to the first stop on our tour, and Hector encourages us to ask as many questions as we can think of. Right away, Norman blurts out, “What is Machu Picchu anyway?”
Hector can’t help but laugh and replies, “I was waiting for one of you to ask that. We hear it all the time. If anyone tells you they know exactly what Machu Picchu is, they are lying. We presume Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca citadel (fortified area of a town or city). Most historians believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti.”
I follow up by asking what people did that high up in the mountains.
“That’s a good question, amigo. It’s believed that only the upper class or people of religious importance lived here. The city is divided into two large sectors: the agricultural sector, where the Incas farmed on terraces and the urban sector, with the fine structures you see here.”
We enter the Temple of the Sun and look around. The structure is made from pure rock and is so exquisite. It faintly reminds me of the ruins in Tulum, Mexico. After Hector tells us about the temple, we carry on.
He speaks again, “Did you know that no wheels were used to transport the rocks for the construction of the city? Hundreds of men used minimal tools to build this city. All from hand.”
I’m thinking to myself how impossible that sounds. Nowadays, it takes 5 years to pave a road, yet they built this monstrosity without tools. I ask Hector what happened to the Incas who lived here.
He eagerly responds, “The Incas built this estate around 1450, but were forced to abandon it a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest. It was unknown to Francisco Pizarro and his people, as they never made their way up this part of the Andes mountains. In fact, the city remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.
I follow up by asking how Pizarro failed to reach Machu Picchu.
“Well, you see, Pizarro actually failed to enter Peru twice. He finally succeeded on the third time and founded the first Spanish settlement in northwest Peru, San Miguel de Piura. After a series of maneuvers, Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca. After demanding and receiving a large ransom, Pizarro still executed Atahualpa. Shortly after these tragic events, Pizarro made his way south and entered the Inca capital of Cusco. This completed his conquest of Peru. He never made it over here.”
Norman quicky blurts out, “Is that why people call it The Lost City of The Incas?”
“No, but that would make sense.” Hector gingerly responds. “They only say that because it was uninhabited for… Woah, check that out over there!” Hector points to the sky. “Those are Andean condors, the largest flying birds in the world. They are native to the mountains.” There are three of them soaring high in the blue sky.
Hector starts walking and we follow. Next, we see the Room of the Three Windows and Intihuatana. After we finish with the main area, Hector says we should take a break and eat before climbing the Stairs of Death.
We grab some food at the snack bar outside the entrance and walk over to meet Hector. A llama is next to Hector, but he is also speaking to an older man wearing a colorful poncho. Hector introduces us to Apichu, an Inca who lives in Aguas Calientes. His ancestors lived in these very mountains, and Apichu’s family tries to carry on their traditions.
We munch on our food in the hot, glaring sun as Apichu shares a deep, saddening story about the Spanish invasion. I couldn’t help but think of the Native Americans in the U.S. as I heard this.
I realize they had to fend off not only Americans, but the English, French, and Mexicans too. Eventually, America stole the Native’s land and drove many tribes to the verge of extinction. But why? Because they don’t look like us? Or was it the greed that came with the gold rush? What right did we have to blatantly lie, steal, and kill? I kept these question in the back of my head as we carry on with our day in the Lost City of The Incas.
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