Machu Picchu: An Ancient Treasure Threatened by Man and Nature
By David Rich
The Wow factor of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures puts Machu Picchu near the top, along with Petra in Jordan, Ankgor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, among others.
But when it comes to that most important of factors: location, setting and surroundings, Machu Picchu is either number one or tied with Petra, which is strewn along miles of red-rock canyons frequented by those early capitalists, the Nabatean spice traders.
Machu Picchu nestles between two pointy peaks at a modest 8,000 feet (2400 meters), the best known yet least understood of the great Incan ruins. No one has figured out exactly who lived there or why, or the reason for Machu Picchu’s abandonment before the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s.
Since its discovery by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911 (two Andean families were living there on that fateful July day), fanciful theories have abounded and been abandoned, from Machu Picchu being a city of women, naturally virgins, to an experiment in agriculture.
A hundred years later, by 2011, Machu Picchu may be no more, as it may fall victim to an earthquake or to the daily earthquake of tramping travelers.
Everyone in the neighborhood seems to know Machu Picchu is a short-termer because by 10 am. in high season (June to September) the lines for entrance extend an hour long, and by noon Machu Picchu’s sprawling terraces, meadows and temples are amply overcrowded, creating the stampeding equivalent of a mini-earthquake.
But the second time I hiked the Inca Trail, after a four year hiatus, it felt special again, as if I’d earned the right of entry after sweating out the classic four-day trek in a mere three days.
Cuzco offers umpty dozen tour agencies organizing Inca Trail treks and since January 2001 that’s been the only way to hike in. Because the trail had become overcrowded and garbage-strewn (it isn’t now) the government limited hikers to 500 a day, including porters, who are the majority.
Pros and Cons
My latest group, a mere four tourists, required two guides, a cook and six porters to carry the tents, food, cooking gear and my pack. The pros and cons of hiring a porter to carry a backpack are simple:
Against the idea — don’t be a weenie but also don’t much enjoy the a hike ranging from 7500 feet to almost 14,000 feet, up and down and up and down over four high passes.
Pro porter — unemployed locals desperately need the money although the job is strenuous (even for fit 20-year old tourists) and dangerous, especially during the intermittent rains which turn ancient Incan stones into slippery slides, resulting in the crashing demise of at least one porter every season.
But how’s the hike? The second time around featured perfect weather (the first time it rained two of four days), trekkers frantically snapping photos of a dozen varieties of spectacular orchids, vivid wildflowers, red mossy foliage, mountain scenery, ancient ruins and precipitously carved granite steps.
In addition the trail is surrounded by perpetually snow-capped peaks, all over 20,000 feet, coincidentally equidistant from Machu Picchu, which was built in their exact center.
Dozens of Flavors Orchids
The route passes through and by a half dozen superb Incan ruins, two each day, and climbs up and down thousands of original Incan steps.
The dozen flavors of orchids are strewn among cloud forests of wild yellow daisies, bromeliads and trees dripping with Spanish moss, perhaps called Incan moss before the Spanish showed up.
Trekkers tiptoe across tree-trunk bridges spanning raging rivers below wildly cascading waterfalls bordering green terraces stretching to the hazy horizon.
Everyone endures the constant shriek of “Porters!” immediately throwing themselves against the closest granite wall while heavily laden locals, five foot tall and carrying 50-pound loads, scurry past like rapid wraiths.
Incredible Chaps in Sandals
Each morning the porters break camp well after we begin the usual slow slog up and up and up, porters jogging by slowly trudging tourists to set up lunch, re-break camp after lunch and pass the hikers again so everything is perfectly set up for arrival at evening camp and dinner.
The porters were incredible chaps clad in sandals, braving freezing sleet and rain in trailing plastic ponchos billowing behind like trousseaus.
While we hiked the trail in three days the record for an unencumbered porter is three hours and fifty minutes, to manhandle 45 kilometers (28 miles) of classic arduousness.
The last night’s camp on the four-day hike is at the sprawling hostel/restaurant complex of Winaywayna, most welcome hot showers for $3, beer and wine flowing like the raging rivers we’d crossed, the hordes of involuntary teetotalers heartily breaking their fast.
Of course this was the perfect way to prepare for a 3:30 am wakeup call, a hung over breakfast to hit the trail by 5 am in pitch-black darkness to stumble down vertical steps.
Following Moon Shadows
After clearing the checkpoint for Machu Picchu ($85 per backpacker, included in the package hike) the moon peaked from behind a cloud and we followed moon-shadows up and down thousands of Incan steps, mostly up.
At 6 am we notched through the Gate of the Sun, Intimater, and Whoops, at our feet lay a mysterious labyrinth of stone fortresses and golf green terraces, spread regally below the mountain behind us, Machu Picchu in all its splendor, meaning old mountain, named after the craggy fortress above our heads. The ruins and views stretched into infinity, way beyond a tomahawk green mountain on the far skyline.
Bits of fog wafted half a vertical mile from the canyon floor, off the Urubamba River, to wrap Machu Picchu into ethereal voluptuousness before the sun burned it cleanly off.
The best part was the early arrival, the first hiking group to hit the Gate of the Sun and almost the first of anybody into Machu Picchu proper.
Far above our heads the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Park stood notched against the brilliant blue sky next to Machu Picchu Mountain, overlooking cascading terraces of perfect greens. How could the Peruvian government resist installing a gooney golf course?
To the left sat the ceremonial center, the Temple of the Sun, impressively encircled by enormous and perfectly rounded monster monoliths above the Sacred Plaza where llamas grazed for convenient tourist photos, picturequely posing with red tassels on perky ears, regally bobbing by with uniformly evil eyes.
Above all this towered a high hill covered with edifices as up-to-date as any observatory, the Hitching Post of the Sun. On the summer solstice the sun’s rays cut from an hour’s hike high above, through the Gate of the Sun, to line up perfectly with the Hitching Post into a conduit which had a twin around the corner awaiting the winter solstice.
Crowds explode on June 21, thousands flocking to watch the phenomenon occur at the exact spot where the son of the sun, the Inca, stood each year without the interruption of a single tourist.
Pounding the Ruins to Pulp
The daily crowds at Machu Picchu during season from June to September (over 400,000 visited in 2003) are pounding the ruins to pulp as the next earthquake is certain to do. The end of Machu Picchu is almost in sight.
The Disaster Prevention Institute of Japan’s Koyota University reached this conclusion in a June 2001 study. Machu Picchu lies directly on the Tambomachuy Fault and its destruction is exacerbated by the daily earthquake of tromping feet that have already helped topple the middle wall below the Hitching Post of the Sun. Cracks are appearing in walls all over the site.
For a unique perspective of impending disaster, climb the mountain at Machu Picchu’s foot, Huayna Picchu, which is the Quechua word for coca wad, the hunk of coca placed in the cheek for chewing in defense against high altitude sickness, the dreaded soroche.
On the top of Huayna Picchu, when the crowds allowed, I could peer between my feet and appreciate the cant of Machu Picchu below. It sits on the slippery side of a jagged mountain below which wind 40 hairpin curves on the crude dirt road leading down to Aquascalientes on the Urubamba River, a road closed by massive landslides every year.
Go now before Machu Picchu disappears forever or becomes a gooney golf course, before it becomes Deja Vu, joining the madding crowds hastening its destruction.
When You Go:
Trekking-agencies that pay a living wage to their porters charge at least $450 for the four-day hike on the Inca Trail, but this includes everything (except a hot shower and booze at the hostel/restaurant on day four) such as the $85 admission to Machu Picchu ($100 for non-hikers), the $30 train to Ollantaytambo and the bus from there to Cuzco, all food, which is uniformly excellent, from superb chile rellenos Peruvian style to fired trout, lots of fruit and great pancakes.
A porter to carry your pack, which is highly recommended for anyone older than age 23 and for those who wish to enjoy the hike, is $100. These prices have been and will continue to slip ever upward.
For further information on hotels and restaurants in Cuzco, Aquascalientes and Ollantaytambo Google these names or Machu Picchu and the current facts will magically appear.
Specifically see www.peru-travel.net, www.cusco-info.com and www.cuscoperu.com.
All prices are subject to an upward spiral; never a bear market for deja vu.
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David Rich is GoNOMAD’s most intrepid writer, braving blizzards, monsoons, desert heat and State Department travel advisories to visit the world’s most out-of-the-way places from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the wilds of Borneo to the Harley-Davidson Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. He lives in Glendale AZ where his latest passion is flying his own plane. Click the link to see all of his books, including RV the World, The Isis Affair and Myths of the Tribe on Amazon.