The sun had just barely broken over the horizon as we found our seat amongst the other tourists on PeruRail. Outside the window there were mountains all around us. Strong mountains, made of stone. Somewhere out there I knew the Incan Trail was just starting. Maybe the hikers were too, and after a little bit I thought maybe the hikers further along in the trail were just waking up, ready to finish up their long trek. There was a river beside the train, blinding in the sun, flowing around large stones that matched the mountains behind. We were traveling in The Valley, The Sacred Valley of the Incas, headed toward the most well known Incan creation: Machu Picchu.
As the train went further and further into the mountains, a subtle shift was happening around us. The stoney and dusty mountains were starting to become greener. There were trees popping up, and grass sprouting between them. As the sun was making its way up over the mountains, draping them in their light, it was bringing with it a vivid green blanket. We were getting closer.
By the time we stepped off the train, we were completely surrounded by greenery. And we were also surrounded by a rare energy. Everyone in that train station was there for the same purpose. They were all there to find their way to a city hidden from outsiders for almost 400 years. Some had never laid eyes on this place, others made the trip up the mountain every day, giving tours to fresh eyes, to support their family. One of these regulars at the Old Mountain (the Quechuan meaning behind Machu Picchu) is Williams, our fantastic tour guide from Condor Travels. From the second we met him, Williams was intent on getting us up into Machu Picchu as fast as he could. I looked at my companions, with a message written clearly on my face, “if we’re going to be shuffled through today like kindergarteners, it’s going to be a rough and short day.”
But we were on a bus and zigzagging up and up the mountain within 10 minutes of getting off the train. And turn after turn my anticipation was building. I do have to admit, I definitely did not do an appropriate amount of research. I didn’t know anything about Machu Picchu, except that a few overachieving people hike there, and it’s on a bunch of people’s bucket lists. But I wanted to be there. Maybe it was the hype other people ascribed, or maybe it was just that I could feel that we were getting close to a powerful place.
We were rushed through the bathroom,* and rushed through the gate, and then as all of us on the tour were preparing to advance at full speed ahead, we were told to take a breath. Williams had finally slowed down. His intention was to get us into Machu Picchu as fast as he could, so that we could take our time, and really enjoy every moment once we were there. We walked forward, and that’s when I saw it for the first time. I won’t say that it took my breath away, but it did take my words away. Overlooking this ancient city made me feel like I was intruding in on a secret society. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. But I was desperate to know more, to see more.
And then Williams took us higher. Step after step we climbed, reaching higher and higher, Williams encouraging us with each step, letting us know that the best photos were up ahead. And when we were all out of breath, and possibly ready to mutiny, we finally got there. We slowed down, made some alpaca friends, (more of an alpaca acquintance for me, we didn’t quite see eye to eye. Mostly because I wouldn’t feed it.) and then finally began to learn from Williams. Part Quechua himself, the respect he has for these ancient people is contagious, to say the least. According to Williams, “these people, they never had limits.”
And they truly did not. For instance, to have water in the city of Machu Picchu, instead of bringing it up from, the river at the bottom of the mountain, they found a natural spring in a neighboring mountain, and they created a series of tunnels to bring it into the city. It then flows through a series of fountains, accessible to all, and still flowing today. Centuries later. I cannot emphasize how much that amazes me. Especially when the city was abandoned. It isn’t as if someone was maintaining the plumbing every day.
They were also very conscious about every building they created. Their temples are perfect. The windows all face the East because the rising sun meant so much to them. Their place of worship that was build specifically for the sun, is aligned perfectly so that on the winter solstice the sun rises directly into the window, and bathes the alter in sunlight. And then to celebrate the summer solstice, there is a structure built on the top of a neighboring mountain, so when the sun rises over the ridge it does so directly through the structure. We did not have time to visit there however.
While their temples are perfect, the other buildings are not. But that doesn’t mean that mistakes were made. On the contrary, your dwelling’s quality directly reflected your standing in society. Farmers live in roughly stacked houses. They’re constructed well in the fact that they’re still standing today, but they’re messy. The king’s dwelling is nearly perfect though. Just not as perfect as the temples.
Another important thing Williams pointed out to us was that, “these people never worked against nature, they worked in harmony with what they had.” They used huge boulders in their construction instead of moving them out of the way. They brought water downward instead of trying to bring it up. They cooperated with the world around them. Until the Spanish arrived. Then they knew that they had to hide Machu Picchu so it wouldn’t be harmed. They erased the trail, and as a result the Spanish never found it. Which is lucky for us today, otherwise there would probably be a huge cathedrial right on top.
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through this beautiful place, attempting to both learn as much, and experience as much as we could. Machu Picchu City holds many secrets, but after a day there, it will let you in on a few. There are still a million questions I have, and I know I’ll never belong there, but I also know that I will be back. And I’ve been made to feel as though I’m welcomed to do so. Have you ever been somewhere that made you feel this way? Tell me about it in the comments.
* The only bathroom in Machu Picchu is outside the entrance, the line is a mile long, there wasn’t any toilet paper, and it cost one sol to get in. Be prepared.