4am – The Sun was not out, yet, but Mr. DBM and I were up bright and early (well, definitely early). We planned to get the first bus up to Machu Picchu so that we could enjoy the mystical and magical ruins of the Lost City in solitude, peace and quiet. Imagine our surprise when we reached the bus stop at 5:15am, only to find at least 10 bus loads of people already there! So much for our solitude, peace and quiet. Oh well, this is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, so perhaps we should not have been quite so surprised. It turns out that most of these people were heading for Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers over the ruins in all the pictures and postcards. Only 400 people are allowed on this trail per day, so if you want to do it, you have to get there early. I did toy with the idea of doing it, but only for about 24.7µsecs. Who was I kidding, the sight of just the flight of stairs going up to our hotel room was enough for me to break out into a cold sweat. So, while streams of people headed off towards Huayna Picchu, Joe and I headed back up towards the Sun Gate.
At the end of my last blog, I had conquered the Inca Trail. I had made it to Machu Picchu, the Lost of City the Incas. Was I ecstatic, excited, thrilled to be standing at the heart of a long dead civilisation? No. Quite frankly, I was knackered and I needed a lie down. I was also very disappointed that it was chucking it down with rain and that I could only see small portions of the ruin at any one time. But don’t fret, dear reader, that is not the end of my Inca Tale. For the sun will come out tomorrow.......
I may not have been paying much attention to my guide the day before, but I could remember him saying that the best views of Machu Picchu were not all the way back at the Sun Gate, but at a small series of terraces about half way back. Phew! I am pretty sure my tired limbs could not make it back up to the Sun Gate, but they did make it back to the terraces. As we reached our destination, I looked up, straight into the face of a llama. Just imagine my surprise and delight as I gazed into those deep, brown, liquid eyes, surrounded by long, curved lashes that any model would die for. I was captivated by those eyes..............but then the llama moved its head and I ended up staring straight into a mouthful of rather misaligned and somewhat too large teeth. I decided that the whole effect was delightful and immediately fell in love with Quido. I am not sure that the feeling was mutual. After all, I have blue eyes and, thanks to a good dentist, my teeth are relatively straight, but he did tolerate me for a while.
We then moved onto several viewpoints to get that view that I had been looking forward to every painful, arduous, grueling step of the way along the Inca Trail. Finally, there it was, spread below me in all its ancient glory, wisps of clouds clinging to the peak of Huayna Picchu, tendrils of mist reaching out and curling around the walls and buildings beneath me. I sat on a terrace wall, with my legs dangling over the side, Machu Picchu hugging the contours in front of me and grazing llamas behind me. I smiled. I just sat and I smiled. This is what I came for.
As I sat, I started to imagine what life must have been like when the city was in its full Incan glory. It was built around 1460, and was designed as a religious retreat for the rich and famous of the Incan Empire. It contains everything a priest could want – temples, sanctuaries, parks and residences. There are the all important sacrifice stones for those yearly child sacrifices. Apparently, llamas were the normal sacrificial victims but, every-so-often, it was deemed necessary to step it up a notch and offer up a virgin female to the Gods. A stock of suitable young girls were kept handy, chosen for their good looks and exceptional talents and skills. It was a great honour to be sacrificed to the gods and the lucky girl’s family was greatly rewarded. Oh well, that is alright then, although I am not sure what the poor girl got out of it. A few years of pampering and then.........Still, let’s look on the bright side, at least they had the decency to slip her a few drugs before the deed was done so that she didn’t scream or make a scene or anything. As a child, I was ugly and not particularly talented at anything, so I would have been alright, but if I had been pretty, I think that I would have been particularly useless at everything or poked my eye out with a sharp stick – they wouldn’t want a one-eyed beauty for the slab, would they?
As the sun continued to rise over the ruins and the mist and clouds began their daily retreat, Mr. DBM and I headed down to explore the narrow alleyways, buildings and terraces that make up Machu Picchu. As we wandered in and out of buildings and down the quieter, less visited corridors and alleys, I could almost hear children’s laughter echoing between the walls , I could almost see them running through doorways and down staircases, the past flitting before my eyes and teasing my ears, so near and yet so long ago. The spell was broken when a rather large tourist came barreling around the corner, telling his wife that he was planning to visit the hot springs of Aqua Calientes that afternoon. Great, now the only image burning itself onto my retina was large rolls of white flesh concealing a barely present Speedo.......shudder........
One of the things that has impressed me about the Incas is their skill with stone. Now, I know that I have complained, grumbled, moaned, whined and generally objected quite strenuously to all the stone steps that I have had to climb and descend on my way to Machu Picchu, but that does not alter the fact that I have been impressed with every single one of them. OK, so I didn’t want to have to tread on every single one of them, but one cannot help but be amazed by a trail that has lasted for over 500 years with very little maintenance. You can also see evidence of their stone masonry skills when looking at the walls of the more important buildings of the city. These are built with blocks of stone that have been cleverly cut so that they lock together like a jigsaw, without the need for mortar or cement. The walls all tilt in slightly and doors and windows are trapezoid in shape. Since no mortar is used, all the stones can move slightly relative to each other and then resettle without the wall collapsing. Such subtleties in design make these buildings very resistant to earthquakes – there are walls in Machu Picchu and other Incan cities, such as Cusco, that have been standing for centuries, while modern buildings collapse around them.
The most intriguing mystery surrounding Machu Picchu and one of the things that makes it so fascinating and enigmatic is the reason behind its abandonment only 100 years after its construction. There are, of course, many eminently sensible suggestions as to what led the Incas to abandon their most holy of cities. The most likely one is a combination of diseases, such as small pox, that were introduced by European invaders and wars, both with the Spanish and within the Incan Empire. Both led to a decrease in population, resulting in diminished manual labour and increases in costs of maintenance. In essence, Machu Picchu became a luxury that the Incans could no longer afford. My own pet theory is that there were just too many damn stairs that everything had to be lugged up and down and, one day, some bright spark suggested that they all go and live down by the river instead. Thus ended an era of pure mountain air, views to die for, llamas grazing contently on the terraces and calf muscles bigger than any Olympic athlete.