Thursday, June 19, 2008

Machu Picchu, the Wonder

As all the guidebooks say, one can not go to Peru and not visit Machu Picchu, the site that has been voted one of the new seven wonders of the world. This old Inka city was discovered by the Western civilization only in 1911, when an American explorer Hiram Bingham first wandered through the lower terraces, cultivated at that time by a couple of quechua families. It is supposed that the city was actually abandoned by the Incas for some obscure reason just before the Spanish conquest, and that is why it has been preserved unnoticed for such a long time.

There are several theories or legends as to the purpose of the city and its quick demise. Bingam thought it was the Inca religious center, where the Virgins of the Sun lived. Out of the 100 bodies found on the site, 80 were mummies of women. Others thought of the city as a prison for select few rebelious Inca aristocrats, or as a mountainous estate for one of the rulers. As Incas did not develop any writing, much if not most historic information has been lost, only conjectures of more or less gifted archaeologists remain. Read here for further MP history background.

However, MP did not stay unnoticed for much longer. The 20th century saw an explosion of tourism to Machu Picchu, making the town of Cusco rise out of its provincial ashes, recover and proudly display its Inca heritage, filling in the meantime the pockets of a couple of enlightened businessmen, i.e. PeruRail. The only way to get to Machu Picchu is either by train or by foot, following what is now known as the Inca Trail (30km trek that has been so crowded lately that the Peruvian government had to allow only 400 trekkers per day, with permit issues and tour agencies´prices exploding consequently). Fortunately there are a couple of other different trails leading to MP, that take longer and do not require a permit.

We decided to take the train though due to time and planning issues. This train is the biggest discrimination of them all in Peru - it costs 15 soles ($5) for Peruvians to take it from Cusco to Machu Picchu, and over $80 for the rich outsiders like ourselves...The train actually brings you to the village of Aguas Calientes, down in the canyon, at the base of MP. From there, one can take a bus to the entrance of MP, for only...$14 both ways. We preferred walking up the old Inca steps, a not so bad 1.5 hour approach. Machu Picchu is reputed to be most strikingly beautiful during the sunrise, that is why we started at around 4:30 am from Aguas Calientes, to be at the entrance gate at 6 am. The entrance itself is $40 per person so far, with rumor having it going up to $70 in July...One of the most expensive places i have visited - it even beats DisneyLand!

End of money rent, back to the site itself. The first denizens we walked into upon the opening were these guys:

They guarded the entrance to the hike up Huayna Picchu, the big mountain seen in all the classic pictures of MP. Machu Picchu is situated in a saddle between Huayna, the young, and Machu, the old, mountains. The view from the top of Huayna Picchu is less classic but as beautiful:

For me, the most mysterious and enchanting spot in the Lost City has been in the vicinity of the sacred stone in the picture below. The stone was apparently used for telling different seasons and times to plant various plants (mainly corn and potatoes). It is situated on the highest point of the MP temple terrace and does have something unreal about it:

Visiting MP is rather tiring, as routes go up and down all the time. By noon we were happy to take a nap on one of the terraces, with this view at our feet:

It is rare though to have a picture without tourists crowding around. Usually it looks more like the picture below, with the Japanese play dolls this time. It is unfortunately very characteristic of MP nowadays, with more than 3000 visitors crowding the city each day:

After the MP visit it is nice to stop at Aguas Calientes hot springs (overpriced, as everything around here), and have a free Pisco Sour at one of the numerous restaurants, that offer free drinks to make you come into their door.

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