Machu Picchu is 2,430m above sea-level, situated on an ‘eyebrow’ between the Andes and the rainforest. Built in the fifteenth century Machu Picchu was abandoned when the Inca Empire was conquered by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, although the Spanish never found Machu Picchu. It was rediscovered in 1911 and since then has been a site many dream of visiting.
I took an overnight bus from Arequipa to Cusco – and didn’t really sleep too well. At 5’10” I am a lot taller than most Peruvians, and even the foreigners they make cama (bed) seats for, so my trip on Cruz del Sur was a time-lapse of 53 different positions in the hope of getting comfortable enough (or exhausted enough) to finally sleep. I overnighted in Cusco and then took a colectivo van to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley – a magical small town which is said to be the best surviving example of Inca town planning, stone storage houses, engineered waterways and Incan architecture.
After a night in Ollantaytambo I took the train to Aguas Calientes, a small town 6km from the base of Machu Picchu so I could get an early shuttle bus up to the ruins (hence the 5am alarm). At 6:45am there were only about 100 people at the site so it was pretty amazing to see the near-empty ruins emerge from the clouds in the early morning. Most of the buildings at Machu Picchu had thatched roofs once, but time and weather ate them away.
The layout of Machu Picchu is separated into four areas – ceremonial, agricultural, urban, and religious. Terracing on the side of the mountain was used for agriculture and the most important ceremonial and religious areas are located on the top ridges of the complex, including a sun dial set at 13 degrees from a perfect right angle. Later when scientists studied this sundial closely, they discovered each edge aligns perfectly with the four cardinal points; Machu Picchu is located 13 degrees south of the equator, and at the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun shines overhead and casts no shadow.
The preciseness of Incan stonework was amazing. You couldn’t even fit a piece of paper between the joins in the walls. All the blocks were hand carved and carried into place. They fit a little like tetris, with the back side of them also cut into precise shapes so they fit together on several planes and all without the aid of mortar.
I joined a guided group at the site, but there is still a lot no one knows about Machu Picchu. Now it is thought it was used as a university for Incan elite, however for others it was a religious destination. Surrounded by steep blue-toned mountains in every direction, it would have made for a strenuous pilgrimage, walking for weeks even from Ollantaytambo. Another theory is that it was a vacation spot for Incan royalty.
It might have been the 5am alarm, it might have been the altitude, the excitement of actually being there, or walking up and down Machu Picchu’s steep terraces all day, but I was wrecked by the time I got back into Ollantaytambo at 6pm that night! Definitely an awe inspiring archaeological site that in person will exceed your expectations.