Justine Tyerman sees the light at Machu Picchu
It was such a simple gesture, but one I’ll always treasure. A Chilean lady was gazing at the sun with a look of wonder and astonishment on her face. She was wearing 3D sunglasses and her expression suggested she had just glimpsed the gates of heaven. As I passed by, she held out the sunglasses to me and pointed at the sun. I put them on, turned towards the sun and gasped.
A solar eclipse was underway… at Machu Picchu… at the Temple of the Sun.
The Chilean lady and her husband had come all the way from Santiago to Peru, armed with special glasses to witness the eclipse at the legendary ‘City of the Incas’ – but I just happened to be there on the right day at the right time standing beside a lady with 3D glasses. The sight of the sun obscured by a black sickle-shaped shadow was spine-tingling.
It was one of many moments of utter disbelief for me that afternoon as I followed our guide around the vast Inca citadel, incredulous that, after years of yearning, I was actually there. Had it not been for photographic evidence, I might still believe the entire experience to be a fantasy.
The day began early at Poroy train station in Cusco, where we boarded Great Train Journeys’ Belmond Hiram Bingham for the three-hour, 20-minute journey to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. The trip on the luxury train through the Sacred Valley of the Incas added to the magic. The champagne, lavish lunch and entertainment helped too!
After 112km, the train reached its final destination at Aguas Calientes, where a coach was waiting to take us up the narrow, zigzag road to the citadel.
When I dared to look down, I could see the railway track running alongside the Urubamba River and the mountains rising perpendicularly from the valley floor, their heads in the mist.
My pulse was racing by the time we reached the entrance to the historical site. The stars and, as it turned out, the sun were well-aligned for a perfect day. The winter sky was cloudless, the temperatures mild, I’d adjusted to the high altitude, the crowds were manageable (thanks to a new system of limiting the number of people allowed on the site at any given time) and I was well-prepared for the experience of a lifetime, having done some reading in advance.
To begin with, we climbed steps and pathways for 20–30 minutes to gain an elevated perspective of the entire site, and grasp the impact that first glimpse would have on hikers as they came over the ridge after four days on the Camino Inca.
From above, you see the full extent of Machu Picchu and the surrounding terrain. It’s a spectacular, heart-stopping sight. I had a sense of disbelief that the genius of Inca architecture and engineering, and one of the most famous archaeological sites on the planet, lay literally at my feet.
The Incas built the citadel in the 15th century (1450 to 1460) on the most improbable of sites – a long narrow ridge between the mountains of Machu Picchu and the rhinoceros horn-shaped Wayna Picchu (also known as Huayna Picchu), 2430m above the valley floor.
On three sides of the ridge there are sheer drops to the valley floor below, where the Urubamba River coils around the foot of the mountains like a snake.
At the southern end of the city, the Incas cut giant steps into the mountainside to allow the planting and cultivation of crops such as quinoa, maize and potatoes. These broad terraces (andenerias) supported by sturdy stone walls also stabilised the steep hillsides and facilitated drainage. They are now home to llamas that roam freely around the ruins, much to the delight of visitors.
The city itself is divided into zones, with around 140 buildings and more than 100 flights of stone steps – the Sacred District, where many important temples are located; the District of Priests and Nobility, where dwellings of superior architecture, stonework and size are found; and the Popular District, where those who served the nobles and priests lived in more modest homes.
The various levels are connected by flights of stone stairs still in excellent condition after centuries.
For the next few hours we explored the temples, plazas, dwellings and terraces of the citadel, walking the ancient pathways and steps the Incas once trod.
A keen reader of information boards, at first I found it odd there was little signage apart from arrows pointing us in the right direction. It certainly made for a less cluttered site, but unless you have a guide and have done some research, Machu Picchu can be quite bewildering. I had the benefit of both, but the experience still stretched my imagination to its limits.
The houses are set apart by the style of architecture. The Casa Del Inka, the Inca king’s dwelling, is a masterpiece of stonemasonry. The rocks are meticulously carved, polished smooth and fitted so tightly together you can’t slide a sheet of paper between them. The walls, like most Inca structures, tilt inwards to stabilise them against all-too-frequent earthquakes.
The king had a garden, a private bath and even his own toilet – the only private facility on the site.
I traced the flawless joins in the rock with my fingers, wondering what secrets they could reveal about Inca life. If rocks could talk…
The homes of commoners also had impressive stonework, but the workmanship was not quite so perfect.
The semicircular Temple of the Sun, next to the king’s house, is one of the most important structures at Machu Picchu. Inti, the sun god, was the chief deity of the Inca people. The interior of the temple is a small space that only priests and nobles were permitted to enter. At the centre there’s a rock that probably served as an altar. The windows of the temple are perfectly aligned to the summer and winter solstices. It was near here we met the lovely Chilean lady and observed the solar eclipse.
Beneath the temple, there’s a little natural cave that possibly served as a royal mausoleum, but its true purpose remains a topic of conjecture, like many of the structures at Machu Picchu.
One of the most sacred places at Machu Picchu is Intihuatana, known as ‘the Hitching Post of the Sun’, a stone the Inca believed helped to hold the sun in place and keep it on its correct path. It was most likely used for astronomical observations.
The Main or Principal Temple, so named due to its large size and prominent location on the Sacred Plaza, is where archaeologists believe large ceremonies would have taken place. Nearby, the Temple of the Three Windows overlooks the mountains, with windows aligned to the sunrise.
At the far end of Machu Picchu lies the Sacred Stone, a massive hunk of granite near the foot of Wayna Picchu. The stone is the same shape as the mountain behind it and was possibly a place of mountain worship.
The complex was well supplied with water sources, which the Inca directed via a series of channels for human and agriculture uses. The whole city is crisscrossed with an ingenious underground drainage system that still works today to funnel away rain water during heavy downpours. An astonishing feat.
After the city was abandoned in the 16th century (around 1572) for reasons unknown, the Andean jungle gradually reclaimed the land and the site remained hidden from the world for the next 400 years.
The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, so the structure remained remarkably intact until an American historian and explorer by the name of Hiram Bingham III rediscovered the ancient site in 1911.
Bingham and his policeman-interpreter, searching for treasure rumoured to have been hidden from the Spanish conquerors by the Inca Manco Capac II, chanced upon a local farmer named Melchor Arteaga, who described extensive ruins at ‘Old Mountain’, or Machu Picchu in the Quechua language.
On the morning of July 24, 1911, the party climbed up the steep mountainside in the rain and found a hut occupied by peasants who were growing crops there. A small boy was deputised to show Bingham around.
In his book, Lost City of the Incas, published in 1948, Bingham describes a scene that “took his breath away”.
“An unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and 10 feet high … suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stonework.” The ruins were overgrown by trees and vines and moss but the white granite walls were “carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together” … the scene “fairly took my breath away.”
Bingham mistakenly believed he had discovered Vilcabamba, the ‘Lost City of the Incas’, the last refuge of the Inca Empire before it fell to the Spanish conquerors in 1572.
It was not Vilcabamba, but the ruins he stumbled upon that day became one of the most important archaeological sites on the planet, one of the Great (New) Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage treasure.
Over the decades, many theories have been posited as to the role played by Machu Picchu.
Archaeologists now believe the complex to have been the mountain retreat of the great Incan emperor Pachacutec and his nobles, priests and servants. Known as ‘He who Shakes the Earth’, Pachacutec lived from 1438 to 1471.
Scholars also agree that Machu Picchu was a sacred place where the Incas worshipped their gods and observed the cosmos, the weather and astronomical phenomena. The Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Intihuatana are among structures dedicated to Inti, the sun god. The architecture there is perfectly aligned with the position of the sun and stars throughout the year.
The discovery of 170 skeletons at Machu Picchu, of which 150 were female, gave rise to the theory that it was a place where young virgins were consecrated to Inti and chosen to serve the Incas.
Also unclear is the reason the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu in the 16th century – the Spaniards never found it, so one theory is that the city may have been struck by an epidemic such as smallpox that killed much of the population, forcing others to flee. Or that the Inca Civil War waged between the brothers Huascar and Atahualpa from 1527–1532 may have undermined the supply of food to the city.
The truth may never be known.
After four or five hours at the site I had more questions than answers, but for me the mystery added to the mystique and allure of Machu Picchu. In a world obsessed with knowing and understanding all things, there is nothing more intriguing than an unsolved puzzle.
Some believe Machu Picchu embodies spiritual or metaphysical powers. There is certainly an undefinable aura about the place that awakens a heightened sense of awareness and inspires philosophical thoughts about time and space, astrology, the cosmos.
I wanted to stand still and absorb the energy, the genius, the magnetism and the inherent spirituality of the place. And also grasp the reality of how it was to create those magnificent structures, and to live there. I tried to envisage the city alive with people 500 years ago, craftsmen manoeuvring and shaping the massive rocks, priests worshipping at the Temple of the Sun and large gatherings at the Sacred Plaza. My 21st-century brain could not comprehend how such a city could have been built without the aid of metal tools or the wheel. I can understand how some believed it was the work of supernatural forces.
As Bingham said: “In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it.”
I could have spent days exploring Machu Picchu but there are time limits on the admission tickets, a necessary measure to cope with the vast numbers who visit the site. It’s just as well. I might still be there.
As I closed my eyes that night, images of the day were on constant replay inside my head.
An ancient stone city built on the most absurdly inaccessible of sites surrounded by precipices and encircled by dark green mountains rising abruptly from the valley floor; the wise old face of Wayna Picchu, all-knowing, all-seeing, an enigma shrouded in mist and mystery. I also thought of the kind Chilean lady who enabled me to witness a solar eclipse… in the presence of Inti, the Inca sun god.