Machu Picchu: The Engineering of a Civilization

To this day it still amazes me how the empires of yonder past accomplished jaw-dropping feats that we can only hope to achieve with the help of modern technology. They moved mountains and erected monumental structures that have withstood the test of time, despite their civilizations having faded into obscurity. 

The Incan Empire is no different. There were signs and remains of their ingenuity dispersed all throughout Machu Picchu, and Freddy, our guide, took the time to point these subtle clues out to our group. 

Our first stop was at a water bath. Baths are something that were abundantly found along the Inca Trail as all visitors, including the emperor, were expected to arrive at the sanctuary pure of soul and mind. Ritual cleansing of the body was very common; the upper class would us the higher levels of the baths and, as ranking decreased, the lower class would use tiers of the baths that were at a lower level (basically they washed in the water run-off). 

The bath had a carved channel with grooves  to divert and control the flow of water to the lower baths. Additionally, the edges of the stone had a sloped incline that served as a weir to reduce the rate of flow to the lower levels, allowing each individual in a bath module to enjoy a sufficient amount of water depth before it moved on to the next person. 

We then sat inside one of the four temples on-site. The stonework was so incredibly intricate! In the beginning of our hike we were told that stones pieced together with mortal were always essential buildings such as houses or forts, whereas stones puzzle-constructed with no invisible joints were generally palaces or temples.

It was sad, however, to see that the temple was starting to crumble at its edges. The white lines you see were drawn by archaeologists in order to document the rate of decline of certain at-risk structures in the sanctuary. 

We were told that when UNESCO first certified the complex, they recommended limiting the number of visitors to nor more than 1,000 at a time. However, the Peruvian president, in his greed, set the actual limit at 4,000, 4X the recommended limit! As a result, since Machu Picchu was never originally designed for this amount of human loading, parts of the citadel are starting to sink at a rate of about 2 cm per year. To combat this, timed-entry tickets were introduced this year in July, with only two visits allowed per ticket between the hours of 6-12 and 12-5:30. 

The Incans would cut each stone with precision. They would carve a nook into each large stone and hammer a piece of wood into the opening. Water would then be poured in to saturate the wood, which would expand upon freezing introducing stresses into the adjacent stone gradually forcing the segments apart. See the full split of the rock just right of the fern? We could see clear through it.

The stones were moved into place with a combination of rollers and handles chipped into the face of the rock. The handles would then be left in place, or sheared off after the piece reached its final position. 

You may recall the solar eclipse that crossed the entire continental US on August 21; solar eclipse sunglasses were flying off the shelves!

Since it was so important to their survival, and the agricultural season, the Incans very meticulously tracked the sun. Knowing that they could not look directly at it, they designed “reflecting bowls,” so that they could monitor the sun’s position in the sky without fear of harming their eyes. 

They also needed to be aware of geographical locations and the appearance / disappearance of certain constellations in the sky (in order to track the wet and dry seasons). 

To accomplish this, they carved a kite-shaped rock with the tip of it pointed toward true North. Many visitors, including our group, couldn’t help but use our smartphone compasses to test the accuracy of the stone.

 Compass North and Kite-North were 100% consistent!

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Inca Trail: The Reward

Last night was our final evening with the Porters. Freddy and Emerson invited a few of them into the food tent throughout the evening to share Hot Toddies with us. Unfortunately there was still a language barrier, so the most we could do was smile, salute them in cheers, and shout Macháremos! 

After, we gathered in a circle to present them with their tips. 2 individuals had backed out of the trek last minute, so the porters only received an average tip of 83 soles when the average tends to be 100. 😦 After finding this out, we all felt a little bad, but it wasn’t our responsibility to make up for being a group of 14 instead of a group of 16.

We then went around in a circle shaking hands in thanks. One of the older porters came up to me afterwards to give me a hug and a quick cheek kiss! It was very sweet of him and I was touched by his gesture. He was one of the porters that passed me a few times while on the trail, and I’d always say hello and ask him how he was doing. “Como Estas?” We certainly up to the porters in the past few days of hiking, which is a far cry from day one when they seemed to have a disdain for us gringos. I think Freddy was correct with his observation that they were just very shy and got used to us as we spent more time together.

This morning, we had to wake up at 3:30 AM, although I actually ended up waking up at 3 AM since I could hear the porters chatting softly and shuffling around outside our tent. Tom was also up so we took our bathroom breaks and then packed up our gear for the day. Once we were done, we put all of our bags on a laid out tarp and headed into the food tent for a filling breakfast of porridge and pancakes.  

At 4:30 AM, after topping off the water in our Camelbaks, we took a short 200 meter (650 ft) stroll to find the end of the line to the Sun Gate, where we got comfortable and waited. We spread out the rain ponchos on the ground and sat on them at first, but it started drizzling, so a few of us put them on and formed a poncho-tent with our bags. I decided to just cover my bag with the poncho and use my rain jacket instead since it’d be more comfortable. 

About an hour later, everyone started standing up and shouldering on their packs on as the gatekeeper walked past each group. It was almost time for us to make the final push! Once the gates were open and we passed the final checkpoint of the trek, we began our last few hours of hiking on the Inca Trail. For awhile the path undulated until we started reaching intervals of climbing stairs. We kept asking if we had reached the infamous “Gringo Killer” yet, but kept being told by our guides that it was still farther ahead.

When we finally reached the “Gringo Killer,” it was no where near as intimidating as we had built it up in our heads! While the stair case was very steep, it was also very short, so after some systematic, methodical steps and trekking pole placements, we quickly conquered this last challenge. (Tom was at the top and shot a very unattractive video of my climb as I am not graceful in any way, shape or form).

We had made it! We were at the Intipunku, the primary control point used for the Machu Picchu sanctuary. The rising sun passes through this doorway during every summer solstice; This is particularly appropriate since Inti was the sun god and also the patron deity for the Incan civilization.


Unfortunately the sky was cloudy so we couldn’t actually see Machu Picchu from its vantage point. 😦  It was a little anti-climactic and disappointing.

Inca Trail: The Long Day

It rained again last night. We were also sleeping at the highest elevation of the hike at an elevation of 3,600 meters (11,800 ft). Surprisingly, at breakfast everyone complained about being too cold overnight, while once again, I complained about being too hot. It must be that my quilt is rated for 20 F and the temperature couldn’t have gotten below 40 F. Pretty much everyone else was renting sleeping bags from SAS Travels which were synthetic and weighed about 3 Kg, when my quilt was 850 duck down and only weighted 1.5 lbs! Tom’s sleeping bag weighed more than mine around 2.5 lbs. 

Our guide Freddy striking a pose.

Today, we had one more major peak to summit, but thankfully we passed more Incan ruins which helped spread out the climb and descent. It took us just over an hour of steep climbing to reach the Runcuracay, a circular structure which served as a fort (or guard post) along the Inca Trail, and allowed chaskis to rest in between their messenger routes. 

A small algae-covered lake.

Just below the guard post was a rentangular structure where the Incan Emperor once passed his nights on his twice-a-year visit to Machu Picchu.  Each fort along the trail had an increasing number of baths (I can’t quite remember the numbers, but it may have been 3, 6, 9, and 18) so that the emperor could cleanse himself on his sacred journey. It was believed that he needed to enter the Sun Gate pure of spirit and soul. 


Another hour past Runcuracay, we finally reached the top of Runcuracay Mountain which stands at an elevation of 3,950 meters (~13,000 ft). The views of the snow-capped peaks surrounding us were breathtaking! 

We climbed to to the top of one of the big mounds at the peak and made a tribute to Pachamama, Mother Earth, with a Biscuit, Coca Leaves, Agua de Flor, and some form of confetti before covering up our offering with rocks. 

After some rest, we started our downhill descent which began with a short tunnel cut into rock before a series of tight switchbacks.It didn’t take too long until we reached Sayaqmarka

At Sayaqmarka we learned that the Incas did not typically sacrifice humans; the standard sacrifice was a llama. The only instances in which a female was sacrificed were during times of extreme hardship in the empire; this occurred during periods of drought, famine, and after natural disasters such at earthquakes, volcanic eruptions etc. because they believed that that the gods were angry. 

For the chosen ones it was a great honor, they were dressed in the finest garments threaded with gold and jewels. They would then be given a hot tea made from the extract of a hallucinogenic flower after which they would be brought high into the mountains and left to freeze. It is believed that due to the “trip” they were on, they experienced no pain as they passed. The condor, a vulture, would then come to consume their flesh and carry away their soul / spirit to the afterlife.  

After a brief stop for lunch, and a friendly visit from some local llamas, we continued our descent. I’ve included pictures of some local vegetation we passed along the way today below.

 

Our guide told us that today’s trek was going to be predominantly on original Incan stonework, something I was really relieved about because this meant smaller steps. Little did I know that these steps would both be steeper, and consist of undulating waves carved into rock. 

First we passed a beautiful vista of Phuyupatamarca, “The City Above The Clouds,” before having to descend a steep spiral staircase with no handrail. It really reminded me of some scene ever from Hao Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky,” as it looked like a pathway that was somehow lost in time.

Maybe about an hour later, we finally reached Intipata after enjoying some dramatic views of the Aobamba Valley. We think that Freddy overestimated our speed, because at this point dusk was starting to settle, and from here it took us another 20-minutes of descending more steep Incan steps with the use of our headlamps  to make our way deep into Wiñaywayna, our campsite for the night.

The most frustrating part is that Emerson, our second guide was leading the group, but he was with the speedsters. Therefore Tom found himself having to run ahead to track their headlamps in the dark, and then having to run back to let me know which way I had to go. It was a confusing mess in the dark and I was pretty frazzled by the time we reached camp. All-in-all it took us about 9 hours to hike 16 Km (10 miles).

Inca Trail: Dead Woman’s Pass

Last night it rained. While it was a light drizzle and therapeutic in the early evening, it got harder overnight and I woke up around 1 AM because it was too loud and I was too hot in my quilt. Thankfully without too much effort, and without losing too many articles of clothing I was able to fall back asleep relatively easily. When dawn broke in the morning, the skies had cleared and we were greeted with bright skies when the porters woke us up at 6 AM with our morning Coca Tea. Tom and I quickly packed up our belongings, redistributed items to the Porter’s duffel, and headed out to meet our group for breakfast.

After breakfast, we relaxed for awhile in order to allow the porters to pack everything up and then gatherered for the porters presentation. Freddy, our guide, congenially discussed the plight of the porters, the communities they came from, and how, despite the looks of it, being a porter was one of the better job opportunities available for rural communities located around the Sacred Valley. Did you know that each of them carries at least 25 Kg (55 lbs)? Holy Crap!

One by one they stepped forward to introduce themselves in Quechua (or Spanish), and we discovered that they all came from Pisac, and the ages ranged from 24 to 54. (Freddy mentioned that they started hiking down to catch a bus to 82 Km at around 2 AM yesterday morning.) Likewise, we did the same with all of us attempting to respond in Spanish, even if our pronunciations were sub-par. “Me Llamo Jennifer. Soy de Texas en Estados Unidos. Tengo veintiocho  años.”

One of them, Celio, was limping. Apparently he had tripped and fallen on his way down the mountain in the dark, but had still shown up for work. His face was also scratched up. However, despite his own pain and struggle, he was still in good spirits and kept shouting out Macháremos!, which means “Let’s Drink!” In Quechua.

It was then time for us to shoulder our packs on and head out. For about 45 mins the stroll to Huayllabamba was much like the day before, soon after however, we began a gradual uphill climb to Ayapata that took about an hour. Ahead of us was the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass. Day 2 of the hike is said to be the most challenging, all of us knew it was coming, but we couldn’t help but be apprehensive about the struggles we would face. Thankfully it was split up into two parts.

Tom looking exhausted.

As our climb up the old Inca Stone steps became steeper, our pace became slower. I tended to be at the back of the pack because I had learned that I didn’t want to push myself too fast, and I’m not exactly the most steady-footed individual. (Not to mention, that one of our trek-mates, Harry, had pushed himself the day before to keep up with his twin brother, and ended up feeling really lightheaded at last night’s dinner and needed to take a dose of oxygen including all the miscellaneous coca leaves and altitude medications we tossed his way). It was much wiser, and better, to take it slow and steady like the tortoise and pause for breathing breaks and water as needed. I gave myself plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and look around, while Tom forged on ahead.

Seeing all the snow-capped peaks (incl. Apu Huayanay Mountain) around us was breathtaking! The views on the way up were spectacular, and I couldn’t stop myself from snapping pictures of flowers left and right. We also heard and saw some hummingbirds, but they flit around so fast it’s impossible to snap them!

After about 3 hours, we reached the Llulluchapampa Valley for our lunch break.  It also started drizzling while we ate and we were all worried that we would be hiking in the rain! Fortunately, the time we took for lunch, including the typical siesta “break” was just enough for the rain to stop and the skies to clear. (This also meant that it wasn’t dry enough for us to lay out and close our eyes for a rest)

It was then time for Leg 2 of our ascent. The higher we climbed, the less sun we saw because we were literally climbing into a forest of clouds! The tree line fell away and we began to be surrounded by Polylepis Woodlands overflowing with grasslands speckled with small Andean bushes. It also began to get colder, and more demanding on our cardiovascular systems, so the rate of our pauses increased. Since a large portion of the steps were reconstructed, they were deeper than the older Incan steps, and I found myself occasionally having to haul my body and pack up steps that were almost 2X the modern tread depth! I acquired a newfound appreciation for my hiking poles.

After roughly 3 hours we reached the peak, the “belly” of Dead Woman’s Pass! We had somehow managed to ascend 1,200 meters (~ 4,000 ft) within a span of 5-6 hours, and were standing at an elevation of 4,200 meters (~13,000 ft). We were so thrilled with our accomplishment, and the tenacity with which we pushed through the climb. Unfortunately, since I was at the back of the pack the clouds had moved in just before I summitted so I was not able to enjoy the scenic view of the valleys below us.

I enjoyed the descent into the Pacaymayo Valley significantly less, namely not at all. At that point my knees were starting to hurt, so I was going slower, and the combination of clouds and fog made visibility difficult. At one point I couldn’t see anyone in front of me or behind me and I was so scared that no one would be nearby if I slipped and fell. :(. When I finally found Tom I was obviously not happy with him. I had told him to forge on ahead on the uphill, but I felt that he should have known that the downhill would be my weakness. I wanted him by me for support and company, even if it required him to slow down his pace. After a burst of anger and tears, we continued on our way and made it to camp and settled down for the night. It took awhile for my steam to wear off….

Tom ended up having a splitting headache as well, and despite his generous dosage of pain medication, the guides made him take a few doses of oxygen as well.

Inca Trail: The Warm-Up

We started our morning by waking up at 5 AM as we had to meet with our trekking group by 6 AM to begin Day 1 of our 4-Day trek. After hopping on a bus for a 1-2 hour ride, we paused in Urubamba to pick up last-minute essentials such as ponchos, Cocoa leaves/candy, and water, before grabbing a quick breakfast and heading on our way. (Side-note: The breakfast was essentially a croissant filled with scrambled eggs and tomatoes, it didn’t particularly wow me or Tom and I had expected something more filling for our first day of trekking)

We then continued on our way for another hour to Km 82, the start of the trail. It took some time for us to sunscreen up, SAS to divy out any rented sleeping bags, hiking poles, and air pads, and weigh the porter duffels.

Thankfully, thanks to my overzealous excel spreadsheet and Tom’s weight-estimating skills, we did not exceed our 8 Kg limit and therefore did not have to pay extra unlike some of my peers. 

With the porter carrying most of my clothing and some joint items like sneakers and cliff bars, Tom’s pack ended up being around 15 lbs (excl. water) with him carrying all of his own clothes and sleeping gear, and mine ended up being around 10 lbs (excl. water) with me carrying my sleeping gear and some of our joint daily items in addition to my camera gear.

With the sun high, we put our packs on and headed onwards to the official checkpoint. 

From the checkpoint, we had a brief climb before the terrain leveled off. For about 3 hrs we enjoyed a casual stroll along the Urubamba River with plenty of time for scenic photographs of the nearby Mount Veronica (5,750 Meters) and the local vegetation of cactus and bushes.

We then started a gradual climb up to Willkaraccay, where we encountered the first Incan Fort, a control point for the Cusichaka Valley. Our guide, Freddy, gave us a tour of the fort explaining the significance of the structure during Incan times in addition to the circular terraces that we could see far below us before we continued on our way.

Lunch was only about 20 minutes down the path and boy did it exceed our expectations! Somehow the chef managed to pull off 3-course meals which were extremely filling and plentiful, almost to the point that we all felt bad not being able to finish it all.

After a nap, we continued on our way for another 3-hrs deeper into the forest passing flowers and bromeliads on our left and mountains on our right. Eventually we reached Hatun Chaka Camp, our stopping point for the night.

Each pair of us claimed our tents and started setting up our sleeping areas for the night. SAS provided us with hot Macho Tea and clean water to wind down and de-grime with in the one-hour break before happy hour and dinner. 

Maras: Salt Terraces and Agricultural Science

Today, Tom and I headed out on a half-day tour around the town of Maras located in the Sacred Valley. Maras is 40 Km (25 Miles) north of Cusco and it took roughly 1-hr to get there since we had to weave through cobblestone streets to first work our way out of central Cusco. 

Our first stop was the Salinas de Maras, salt evaporation ponds that have been used since pre-Incan times. An underground stream with an extremely high salt content emerges as a small spring whose flow is directed through a series of tiny channels. This intricate membrane of channels allows the water to gradually fill hundreds of ancient terraces whose maximum depth rarely exceeds 10 cm (4 in). 

The sun gradually warms each pond resulting in evaporation that supersaturates the water and allows the salt to precipitate forming crystals of various sizes. Our guide told us that harvesting takes place about once every 30 days and produces about $30 USD of supplemental income for the local family that owns it. 

 

A cooperative that was established during the time of the Incas, and remains in place to this day, allows local residents and pond workers to properly maintain the feeder channels, control the rate of water-entry, and systematically remove the salt deposits, among other things.

Our second, and last, stop of the tour was to the Maras Moray, round circular depressions located on a high plateau at 3,500 meters (11,500 ft) located just west of Maras. The archeological site had three terraces in total, with the largest and deepest one being 30 meters (98 ft deep). The series of depressions in conjunction with their depth, design, and orientation relative to the sun and wind seem to indicate that this area was a testing ground for agricultural crops. Temperature variances of up to 15 C (27 F) have been recorded between the top and the bottom, resulting in a a wide range of climactic differences.

Our guide mentioned that it is at sites such as these that the Incans genetically engineered new types of corn and potatoes resulting in the large diversity of local crops that modern Peru maintains to this day; there are now over 55 varieties of corn and 4,000 varieties of potato that can be found in Peru!

Tom looking old-school cool while waiting for me to take pictures.

We then headed back to Cusco arriving around 1:30 PM, and relaxed for the rest of the day before rendezvousing with SAS Travel and our fellow Inca Trail Trekkers for our 7:00 PM pre-trek meeting.  

Cusco: Temple of the Sun

This morning I let Tom sleep in a bit while I worked to catch up on my blogging. Our hostel only gives us free breakfast until 10:30 AM, so when he didn’t show up by 10:10 I started worrying that he was still cocooned in bed. Just after I packed up my gear and got up to wake the sleepyhead, he emerged up the stairs. Pushing it a little close don’t you think babe? Whew!

After a late start, our first stop was Qorikancha, which means gold enclosure (quri kancha) in Quechua. Quechua is an ancient Incan language that is still the most widely spoken language by the indigenous peoples of the Americas. There are about 8-10 million speakers worldwide and 13% of Peruvians speak Quechua. While our guide the previous day mentioned that it is not a formally taught language in school, it is commonly used at home and parents teach their children who continue to keep the language alive with their children. 

On the foundations of the original Qorikancha now rests the Church of Santo Domingo as the Spanish conquistadores demolished the original Incan building to make way for, you guessed it, more Catholic structures. Interestingly enough some of the original Incan masonry remains intact inside, which allows you to see how artful and intricate their stone working skills were.

The walls of the original temple of the sun were once covered in golden sheets, and the courtyard filled with statues. Unfortunately, the Incans themselves were forced to harvest from this richness when the Spanish demanded a gold ransom for the life of the 13th Incan emperor Atahualpa.

After leaving Qorikancha, we stopped by to visit the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC) right next door. An organization established in 1996 by Andean weavers, it provides a free museum to the public to educate visitors on how the coat of an alpaca, lama, or sheep etc., is made into yarn and than transformed into a final product in the form of bags, clothing, and accessories. It’s main mission is to preserve cusuqueñan textile traditions and support the indigenous artisans. 


We then roamed through the local San Pedro Market before heading back to the Plaza de Armas to visit the Church of the Society of Jesus, once again a religious church (this time Jesuit) built on the remains of a former Incan temple. It is best known for a painting depicting the wedding of Martín García de Loyola, the nephew of Ignatius Loyola to Beatriz, the great-niece of the Inca ruler Tupac Amaru. (Tom was very grateful that no pictures were allowed).

After a brief reprieve in the hostel, we went to Kion, just off the main square to try some Chaufa, the Peruvian version of fried rice. It was very tasty and filling and we were both happy pandas. 🙂
 

We then took an evening stroll through San Blas and were able to successfully locate the infamous twelve angle stone. The stone is carved from diorite and it is the precision and finishing of the fit that make this rock a national heritage object. A passerby mentioned that it was 2 meters deep (about 6.5 ft) and that the 12 angles actually refer to the 12 Royal Incan families, 6 of which lived on the north side of the wall and 6 which lived on the south side. 

P.S. The Qorikancha had a fourteen angle stone! It was cut such that 3 sides of the stone served as the different faces of a door jamb. 

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