I suspect that the picture of Machu Picchu that many a person has in their mind’s-eye is one that evokes fantasy, a place that one suspects could only exist in the imagination. There is the iconic picture of Machu Picchu that one has perhaps seen in a book, or on the Internet, that evokes a sense of wonder, a sense of this being a place that is really not of this world. It is a place that exists in many people’s bucket lists, a place that some people wish to see at least once in their lifetime. In fact, many in our tour group were visiting Peru primarily to see Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was about to become reality for us today. Could it even live up to the expectations? We were about to find out.
First of all, some background regarding the ruins at Machu Picchu. There have been many theories over the years regarding its significance, but it is now believed to have been a royal estate built by Emperor Pachachutec, the Incas greatest ruler. He was responsible for the expansion of the Inca Empire, which at a point was larger than the Roman Empire. (The Inca Empire, however, did not last too long, destroyed by infighting, disease, and finally the Spanish conquest.) Pachachutec deliberately chose a site for this complex that was difficult to access, on top of Machu Picchu (which means old mountain). The location seems to be most easily accessible from a single direction, through a mountain pass via the Inca trail.
The Incas were great civil engineers. They built a series of roads that spanned over many thousands of miles to connect their major centers. Some of these pathways still exist today. The Inca trail to Machu Picchu is probably one of the most famous of these roads. The Incas also developed strategies for supporting agriculture in the mountains, using techniques to build structures that optimized the use of their resources. They also built structures with great precision, managing to move large rocks and place them against each other for form walls with minimal gaps in them.
In order to build Machu Picchu, the Incas first built a series of terraces starting at lower levels to support the structures on top. These terraces were designed to drain excess water from the top quickly. They were marvels of engineering design, with layering of different kinds of material in the terraces to allow the water to safely drain away slowly. These terraces survive even today. They had rock quarries at the top of the mountain to also help with the construction of the buildings. They got a lot of rain in those parts. In fact one of the challenges of visiting Machu Picchu is experiencing good weather when you visit!
Machu Picchu somehow survived the destruction that the Spanish sowed everywhere in their path. They demolished anything that they found that had to do with the Inca religion. Perhaps Machu Picchu survived because the Spanish did not know of its existence. Machu Picchu was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 when he went to Peru on a National Geographic sponsored expedition. Bingham’s goal was to discover the lost Incan capital of Vilcambamba. He convinced himself that he had indeed found Vilcambamba at Machu Picchu, but he was wrong. (This is what happens when you have biases, and a predetermined objective in mind!) The good thing was that in spite of his biases, Bingham was a good explorer. He did a good job documenting what he had found. The road up the mountain to the Estate of Machu Picchu is named after him today. It is the only way to get to the ruins by motor vehicle. The only other approach is to hike the trails!