Machu Picchu: Finding Myself in the Lost City of the Incas

I just came back from the gym and surprised myself by running non-stop for 35 minutes — I usually am out of breath by 15. I owe this new athletic “prowess” to the residual effect of my Lares adventure, which is the perfect time to segue into stories about our final destination, Machu Picchu (the first on my “7 New Wonders of the World” checklist).

[Check the bottom of this post for Machu Picchu tips!]

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“Family” portrait: Alan, Simon and me amidst the ruins

Machu Picchu was breathtaking, in spite of the persistent fog that lingered for most of the day. In fact, the rain and mist lent the city an ethereal, hidden quality, as if to hint that the city chose to reveal itself to Hiram Bingham in 1911, while cloaking itself for the previous five hundred years, avoiding discovery and Spaniards.

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For the first two hours we were there, the fog would lift for two minutes, then sink back down; we were grateful for the short window in which we snapped this photo

I don’t know many places where we can inspect ruins in such close proximity — though I suspect it’s just a matter of time before the authorities restrict more paths and further limit the number of people allowed onto the grounds (currently, the first 2,500 of the day get to pass through the city’s gates).

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Our guide, Hever (in red), pointing out the straight line maintained by Incan structures in spite of their uneven, interlocking edges: apparently it helped buildings stabilize during earthquakes

Anyhow, the stonework was gorgeous: a merger of art and technology, amplified by the fact that this happened hundreds of years ago. I lamented to Alan that we don’t really see buildings of such scale and effort today, and he said that back then, humans expected buildings to stand for eternity. These days a century is the average length we envision a building to stand, probably less for those of us in Singapore. To expect your civilization to last forever, was that hope or hubris? #thoughtoftheday

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Terraces on the Upper Agricultural Sector; depending on their location, terraces offered various microclimates and thus the choice to grow different crops, prompting the theory that Machu Picchu was an exercise in agricultural experimentation

I think humankind as a race is equally skilled and intelligent in each epoch or era or whatever you call it, it’s just a matter of how we manifest it. But there’s something about the distant past, especially with its attendant lack of things and technology, that leaves me gobsmacked about what the human mind and body can do in spite of our limitations. I felt that way in 2007 when I saw the pyramids in Giza, and was glad to have that feeling resurface in Machu Picchu (the absence of touts certainly let me take in the ingenius of human machinations properly).

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The complex’s central plaza

There’s also the air of mystery that ancient things have about them. Another theory is that Machu Picchu was the “House of Chosen Women,” the most beautiful and virtuous of the Incans to be wives of the Sun; 80% of the mummies Hiram Bingham found were women. Looks like we’ll never know for sure.

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Speaking of things we’ll never know, Hever took us to the Temple of the Condor, a granite labyrinth featuring a prominent “sculpture” (if that’s the right word) of a condor, one of the sacred animals in Incan society — the other two being the puma and snake. Hever told us it was a religious temple, meant for prayer and worship, something echoed on a lot of the online literature. Well, except Wikipedia, which writes that it’s a prison complex in reality, installed with its own drain to let the blood of its shackled, whipped prisoners drain. We asked Hever this, and he insisted, “No torture here. Only one example out of a thousand bodies was human sacrifice.”

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The “valley” is the arch of the condor’s wings; its beak is on the floor

No such salacious stories — not that I know of — for the Main Temple in the Sacred Plaza. The temple was believed to be a house of worship for Wiracocha, the Andean invisible superior god. Close to the temple is a sacrificial altar, where we learned that the heart of a black llama was considered the purest offering possible. I was quite taken by the somewhat crumbling edge of its back wall, supposedly caused by yet another earthquake according to Hever, though some literature I’ve read attributed it to “rain filtering.”

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Impressively, the temple still largely retains its shape despite the stone displacement

Near the Main Temple is the Temple of Three Windows. No prizes for guessing why, but apparently it was intended to have five.

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The column on the left supported the structure’s roof, something that many of the Machu Picchu buildings had — wish I could see what all these roofed structures looked like

We didn’t climb out to see the Intiwatana, an Incan sundial located on the top of 78 steps. Perhaps “sundial” is a misnomer; the Incans did not measure time through hours or days, but rather used the “dial” to figure out when the Winter Solstice would take place. The solstice was the most important — it would fix the date of the “Inti Raymi” (Sun Festivity), a giant celebration to beg the Sun not to go any further from the earth than it already was.

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Tourists climbing up to see the Intiwatana

Alan was a little disdainful that the Incans did not have a written language. Instead, they used the khipu, an elaborate system of knots and colored ropes. They also had an extensive network of runners to pass messages and, say, fresh produce (or fish from the coastal areas in five hours!). I don’t know — the absence of a written language makes it hard to figure out what a lost civilization was thinking, but I suppose that just adds to the mystery.

machu picchu (2 of 51)While we were there, we saw a couple of maintenance guys at work in the rain, brushing stones, cleaning out moss. Glad to see our relatively pricey admission tickets being put to good use (adult tickets are $50 USD and tourists’ inelastic demand means you have no choice but to pay the $17 bus ride to get you from Aguas Calientes to the city via the Hiram Bingham Highway).

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Anyway I have “saved” what is possibly one of the most painful experiences of my life (I will regret this statement when I’m popping a baby probably) for the end of this post: our hike up to the redundantly named Machu Picchu Mountain (since Machu Picchu means, well, Old Mountain).

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We climbed Machu Picchu Mountain, and all we have to show for it is a picture of clouds

We were told that it would be a beautiful place to see the Machu Picchu complex as a whole from a distance. When we got to the top, Alan was like, “What’s wrong with the view? It’s like the screen hasn’t finished loading.” But the disappointing lack of a view wasn’t what hurt. It was my entire body. If I had in any point of time thought that the Lares trek was hard, I was wrong.

For starters, we began the hike with the wrong expectations.

  1. We thought we’d get beautiful views (at least, that’s what we told ourselves after we found out that tickets to the much shorter Huayna Picchu were sold out
  2. We were told a round-trip hike would take 2 hours 20 minutes, tops. Hever said that. A billion people we passed on the trail told us “10 minutes more.” Well. Altogether, we took 4 hours 30 minutes to get up and down. To see white clouds.
  3. I read that kids hiked the mountain so I assumed it’d be manageable. Well, thinking about how steep and precarious the “steps” (or rather, jagged, eroded stones) were, I think these so-called kids must have been the offspring of Superman and Batman or something.
Julia smiling while she still could

Julia smiling while she still could

After we passed the fifth person who told us “you guys are almost there, 10 minutes more,” I thought I was going to punch somebody. With no idea where the end was (we couldn’t see how much further we had to go, and every time we thought we were reaching the summit, there’d be another bend or curve revealing more slope and steps), I began to swear. A lot. Loudly. I’d stop just to yell one gigantic “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK” into the air. After the third instance, my vulgarity-avoiding friend Jo started to walk so fast just to avoid me.

To cut a long story short, I am proud of myself for having reached the summit, but I think the life lesson is that sometimes, you can work really hard for no apparent reward. We waited an hour in vain for the fog to clear, until the park ranger told us to leave. (I suppose there are people whose lives are worse than mine, like the ranger who climbs up the same trek every day, chases people out, and then come down again.)

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Fine. Halfway through our climb down Alan managed to capture the view of the city from where we were. Not bad, I admit grudgingly.

That said, when we finally did reach the bottom, the sun started to shine. Mind you, this was around 3pm, and we’d been there since 7am. I was so grateful that the sun had come out, where we could admire Machu Picchu in all its glory, finally.

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Urubamba River

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Caretaker of the Funerary Rock Hut

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This is less a picture of ruins, and more an appreciation of well-defined back muscles :p

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BAMFs illegally stepping on the stones — mind you don’t get yelled at by rangers

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I wished we had more time to roam the park grounds before they closed at 4pm and for that reason I would have skipped out on Machu Picchu Mountain if I could do everything again. The views from the Funerary Rock Hut area are beautiful — it’s the go-to place for your typical Machu Picchu photo shot, and it’s where the sheer beauty of this ancient city hit me.

Anyway, this is the first time I ever shot in RAW and I do think it makes a huge difference in what info is retained in each file. Yay for milestones!

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  • While planning: Buy your Machu Picchu tickets in advance. Especially if you want to do the Inca Trail (a hike which brings you through the Andean range and then into Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate) — it only allows 500 people a day, 300 allocated for porters.
  • When to get there: Assuming you start out from Aguas Calientes, and you don’t have to get the so-called “magic hour” sunrise shots, getting the 6.30am bus should be fine. It’s late enough to get a decent night of sleep without clamoring for the very first buses.
  • What to do there: Hire a guide if you don’t already have one to tell you secrets and stories about the complex. We were told that some guides embellish the truth with all kinds of sensationalist info; Hever (from Peruvian company Llama Path) didn’t, or at least according to what I cross-referred to online.
  • Photo spots: Funerary Rock Hut, terraces at the Upper Agricultural Sector. I would totally avoid Machu Picchu Mountain unless you have a telephoto lens, and even then, check the weather. If it’s foggy I wouldn’t bother. Huayna Picchu is apparently a good place to catch the overview of the complex from the rear, but tickets for that need to be reserved in advanced.
  • What to wear: Rainproof clothes, light layers for the rainy season. When it’s rainy, it’s cold. When it’s sunny, it’s HOOOOOOOT.
  • Where to stay in Aguas Calientes: Certainly not Plaza Andina. I don’t think it’s worth the price ($95 USD; it came part of the package). We saw a very swanky looking El MaPi, but it doesn’t fit into everyone’s budget.
  • How to get to Aguas Calientes: Train from Ollaytaytambo — it’s unique and fun, and if you’re lucky like we were, you’d get all sorts of characters in your carriage.


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