This was not an adventure for the faint of heart. Added to a schedule that kept us on the move from around 6 AM till well past 10 PM, was the enormous physical challenge of a 12,000 foot change in elevation. While touring the Galapagos we worried about getting sea sick. Then, one night we slept at 11,000 feet.
I was confident about my ability to withstand elevation. My childhood was spent at 7,000 feet and I frequently ski and hike at high elevations. But, the quick change from sea level was disconcerting. A few folks succumbed. I steadfastly avoided alcohol (such sacrifice!) and heavy meals. For once in my life, I heeded warnings to slow down and avoid strenuous activity. I gulped down hot Mate de Coca tea offered by the natives as protection against altitude sickness. I’ll never know if my precautions paid off or if I would have been okay anyway. I did notice that hiking the half-mile hill to our hotel in Cusco required several breathers along the way. At the hotel, I resisted the usual impulse to run up the stairs. Even at my turtle pace, I was huffing by the time I got to our room on the second floor. But I experienced no illness or headaches.
During our brief stay in Cusco we visited an amazing array of Inca landmarks: The Ancient Temple of the Sun; Q’enko shrine; Tambomachay shrine; and Pukapukara, the Inca equivalent of a stage stop; to name a few. We all suffered from exhaustion at the fortress of Sacsayhuaman which sits at nearly 12,000 feet. But by the time we were this far into the trip, we were exhausted in general so it was difficult to assess to what degree the altitude was affecting us.
Our visit to Machu Picchu required another half day of travel by bus and then by train. The train follows the Pongo de Mainique—Main Canyon—section of the Urubamba River, a tributary of the Amazon. Rock walls enclose the river and reach for the cloud forest that clings to the peaks above. I gaped at the churning chocolate of class IV rapids that actually made the renowned white water of the North Fork of the Payette River look tame.
The river was low, the equivalent of our November flow. Angry waters spill under a bridge which transports hikers on the sacred Inca Trail to the ruins—a four day trek that involves scaling an 11,000 foot pass. From the comfort of my train seat by the window, I developed a new respect for a friend who was scheduled to hike this ancient trail with his daughter a few days after my visit.
Mystery shrouds these ruins like the clouds that hover around the 20,000 foot peaks surrounding the sacred village. Our guide—Ramiro III—explained his theory that this place, located in the heart of the jungle and situated to align precisely with the sun, the moon, and geographic landmarks, was used as a holy sanctuary and academy for high priests of the Inca civilization. While the capital city of Cusco may be considered the brains of the Inca culture, Machu Picchu was the heart and soul of the civilization, and the Inca Trail was the artery that connected these two essentials.
Built between 1430 and 1530, the stone walls and construction are typical of Inca architectural genius. Without the use of metal tools or wheels, granite monoliths were cut to nest together as tightly as a three-dimensional puzzle. Without the benefit of mortar, the rocks are sealed by virtue of their precise measurements. Broad-based, trapezoidal geometry defies the frequent shuddering of the fault lines beneath the Andes. An integrated system of drainage and plumbing is build right into the granite structure of the city in the sky. It is believed that 90% of the inhabitants of the self-supporting sanctuary served the other 10% of the holy or royal residents. Agriculture, stone masonry, food storage and preservation, and the crafts necessary for living were all accomplished on site. It was a city built to support the sacred.
Why was the sanctuary suddenly abandoned? Why did the Inca civilization, so large, so spread out, and so scientifically advanced, disappear without a trace? Theories abound:
• Resource depletion
• Discontent among the lower echelons of the hierarchy
• Sudden climate change, possibly due to a major geological event
• Disease and epidemics—exacerbated by the presence of Spanish conquistadors
• Introduction of metallurgy in war—until the Spanish arrived, silver and gold were only used ornamentally
It is likely that all of these possibilities and more converged in such a way as to weaken the nobility’s power over the people, thus providing the heavily armed Spaniards enough of a chink to overpower the decentralized populace.
What is most astounding about Machu Picchu is that while the Spanish conquered the Inca, this sacred sanctuary was reclaimed by the jungle before the conquistadors learned of its existence. The ruins lay buried under the jungle carpet for nearly four centuries before Yale archaeologist/treasure hunter, Hiram Bingham, stumbled upon it quite by accident as he was searching for a different set of Inca ruins. Bingham was led to the base of the mountain by indigenous farmers who used some of the terraces for their own crops.