A Journey to the Greatest Archaeological Find of the 20th Century
By Sonja Stark
“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.” – Hiram Bingham
Travel to Machu Picchu and you’ll inevitably become emotional. Tears of joy will trickle down your cheeks when clouds lift to reveal an extraordinary refuge dubbed “Old Peak.” What was invisible seconds ago will overpower your senses. I tingled from head to toe during my visit in September.
A Sacred Geography
So lofty were the views of sacred mountains and dense jungle forest all I could do was stare in disbelief. Ancestral people contribute my visceral reaction to the overwhelming power of the Apus or spirit of the mountains. Many, who still speak Quechua, the native language of the Inca, welcome emotional outbursts as validation of the supernatural. I admit, I’ve been to many holy sites but none compared to this godlike sanctuary.
Outstanding Universal Achievement
Ever since 1911, when American archeologist Hiram Bingham discovered this secret world, 2,500 visitors a day crowd the mortar-free citadel. They pour over divine temples and ancient ruins: so vast and so varied. Queues are always long, even during shoulder season, but nothing upset my experience. Not surprising, Machu Picchu is an UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And, I’m sure a hardened scholar like Bingham even wept when he laid eyes on it.
Rather than follow, I broke from convention and let the omnipresent energy be my guide. I wandered off in all directions – through niches, hollows and up sculpted stairs. Standing at the edge of the astronomical observatory called Intihuatana I was overwhelmed with a sense of euphoria and peace.
What’s rewarding is that this journey activates both sides or hemispheres of your brain: the visual right and the logical left. Inca descendent and tour leader, Enrique Virto, says this is because of Pachamama or Mother Earth. Today, Peruvian culture honors this goddess of fertility with festivals and food. Energy is felt in huge stone monoliths like a sundial called Intihuatana and a ceremonial tomb called the Temple of the Sun.
Virto freelances as a guide leader for the Boston-based travel company Vantage Adventures. The well-versed local has been to Machu over 300 times but still gets excited being there.
“I always feel harmony here. Sometimes a rainbow stretches overhead or a condor flies by. It’s magical.”
My left brain is intrigued with how the Inca achieved so much without a written language, wheel or mortar. Instead, the 15th-century civilization relied on stone hammers and wedges to set heavy blocks in perfect interlocking positions. It’s still a technique studied by the world’s greatest stone masons.
Massive dwellings that once sheltered 1000 inhabitants withstand centuries of earthquakes and weathering. The Inca also constructed hundreds of andinas or agricultural terraces on the same steep, inhospitable mountain. Complete with a sophisticated canal system for running water and clean sanitation many Inca techniques remain a mystery.
Sipping and Sleeping under Machu Picchu
After a day of exploration we felt a bit overwhelmed. We returned by bus down a bumpy gorge to the remote village of Aguas Calientes. We had arrived here earlier by train and dropped off our bags with a porter. Vantage Adventures went the extra mile to tuck each guest into four and five star hotels. When we got to the Casa Andina Classic, our suitcases were waiting on cozy beds with views of the gushing Urubamba river. A few minutes later, we ordered fresh brown trout from the same river at Indio Feliz, a funky restaurant with a blanket of business cards tattooed to the walls.
Early the next day, Virto challenged us to a group hike up Intipunktu or Sun Gate. His description proved seductive enough for even the oldest couple to come along. A rugged stone trail dotted with llamas and alpacas leads us through a fragrant Andean rainforest. I stopped to watch hummingbirds flit and feast on wild pink orchids.
After a few miles, we reached the stubby stone gateway. We wait our turn for room on a platform that looked back on epic views of Machu Picchu. A jagged peak called Waynapicchu shadowed over the petrified acropolis. The youngest member of our group opted to hike the less congested but far more difficult trail to the top.
Virto launched into more stories, one about expeditions that traded goods from the Amazon basin to the Andes via this Inca trail. I smiled thinking that our own group experienced uncertainty traveling here too.
Strikes in Sacred Valley postpone plans
You see, when we arrived in Cusco – former capital of the Inca Empire – we were cautioned that nationwide strikes might disrupt bus and rail traffic in and out of the Sacred Valley. The Andean province is home to thousands who work directly for the tourism industry. Strikes, albeit rare, pose economic challenges to the profits of hotels, transportation, restaurants and shops.
Our guides wisely rearranged our itinerary to avoid confrontations and road-blocks. We were encouraged to stay patient and flexible. I went so far as to pray to the holy Chakana or Inca Cross for safe passage. But, if truth be known, it was this sense of uncertainty that fed my appreciation for the journey to Machu Picchu.
Living Like a Local
The wait also allowed us to “live like locals” throughout the city. We soaked in the culture at the lively Plaza de Armas, an epicenter of colonial arcades and imposing cathedrals. We took photos of women dressed in traditional costumes holding baby lambs for spare change or sol (currency). We listened to musicians play the pan flute and taste a popular white corn street food called Choclo.
And, we found time to pilgrimage at other enigmatic Inca ruins too: Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo. During a homestay our hosts secured friendships when they presented us with a slow-cooked delicacy of cuy or guinea pig. We were grateful but promptly chased it down with Pisco sours. These and many more spiritual experiences defied imagination and Vantage Adventures made it all possible.