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 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. 

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. 

Cusco: Historic Capital of Peru

I apologize for skipping a write-up about yesterday, but since it was predominantly a travel day there really isn’t much to tell. I’ll try to circle back to it later…

Today, as we typically try to do, we started off in our new city with a walking tour. (After picking up some Latte’s and Mocha’s to go of course!) Our first stop was the Plaza De Armas. As I had previously written, pretty much any major South American  city has a main square due to a Spanish doctrine and Cusco is no different.



The Plaza de Armas, also known as the “Square of the Warrior,” was once the location of many former Incan Palaces. It seems that each ruler chose to build his own rather than matriculating into the house of his predecessor. Unfortunately, these palaces were plundered and demolished by the Spanish around 1535, only to have Catholic Churches built on the same foundations. It is in this manner that the Spanish sought to systematically illegitimize the indigenous religion and force their own beliefs on the locals.

After leaving the Plaza de Armas, we stopped by an open plaza in order to listen to some music that was being played by a man trying very diligently to keep the music of the indigenous people alive and thriving. (I wish I had video privileges with WordPress, but since I don’t I’ll have to circle back and post a video when I get the chance.) The accoustic experience was incredibly moving and I love how vibrantly music can represent the ‘color’ of the people.

 

There were also some very cute Alpacas. A local also brought a baby alpaca to roam, but when I tried to take a picture she angrily snatched up the kid and yelled at me saying that photos were not free (even though another lady had freely snapped some shots just before me). I had heard that this happens often in Cusco, but I was definitely put off that she hadn’t calmly mentioned it earlier when she was just sitting silently nearby. 

We then moved on to explore the old Incan Walls (which I will write about more later), and roam the streets of San Blas, one of the oldest and most artistic/picturesque neighborhoods of the city, before ascending some steps to wrap up our tour with a Pisco Sour and Ceviche demonstration. The view from this bar of Cusco city was just phenomenal!

On our way we also stopped in front of a store with a life-sized figurine of Eneko. I’m having difficulty finding online sources about this superstition, but apparently most local households have a 6-12″ figure of him in their home. If you have any troubles finding jobs, or love, or buying a house etc., apparently you simply tape a small model of the dilemma in question to his back and it will soon be resolved!

After the tour ended, Tom and I grabbed nachos for some minor sustenance (they were sub-par as a expected), before we decided to head the rest of the way up the hill to visit Saksaywaman (“Sexy Women” LoL). It was about a 30-min walk/hike through San Blas and upward. Thankfully we took stops as needed, and even accidentally stumbled upon the shop of Sabino Huaynan, a famous luthier that is only one of two in the whole of Peru!


Saksaywaman,p (spelled in a variety of different ways depending on who you ask), had its first sections built by the Kilke Culture around 1100 AD, and was expanded upon by the Incas in the 13th century. The stone walls were constructed of large stones cut and ground precisely to allow them to fit together without the need for mortar.

Cristo Bianco

I really enjoyed the site, but my only gripe is that a 1-Day entree fee to see 4 sites, 3 of which are not easily accessible by foot was a whomping 70 soles and they didn’t accept card! After we paid, Tom and I had a mere 10 soles between the two of us. 😦 We found out later that the Tourist Ticket, at 130 soles, gave you a total of 10-days to see all the major sites; not that either of us had enough cash on us at the time. Farewell $22! Lima was not expensive at all compared to this, the highest we ever paid for one site was 30 soles. 

Near the end of our visit, it started drizzling, and than raining, and then pelting us with hail. I knew that the weather in the mountains can be precarious, but neither Tom or I had packed our rain jackets, so not only did we get wet, but Tom received some battle wounds as well. Thankfully we were able to find temporary shelter until the worst of it passed and then made a precarious, slippery descent down the stone steps. 

We finally returned to the hostel around 6 PM, and after a brief reprieve headed out to try Papachos, a burger joint founded by the owner of Astrid Y Gaston. I chose it as an option because they had an Alpaca Burger that I simply HAD to try. Unfortunately Tom did not enjoy his meal as much as the temperature was more medium-rare, the meat not tender, and the flavor lacking.

Lima: Spanish Colonialism

Casa Aliaga

Apologies for the delay in my posts. Unfortunately the hostel wifi has been down for two days so I find that I am now having to write some more catch-up articles than usual. Alas!

We slept in a bit today then headed back to the Plaza de Armas downtown so that we could catch the interiors of all the buildings that we were only able to walk past a few days ago. (Although some of them required special reservations and therefore we had to forgoe them)

Torre Tagle Palace

Thankfully Tom is more than happy to go along with my efficiently planned walking routes! Part of our exploring involved walking past the Parliament Building, admiring the exteriors of both Casa Aliaga and the Torre Tagle Palace, and wandering through the stalls of the Central Market throughout the day. Frankly I would have loved to visit both Casa Aliaga and the Torre Tagle Palace as the interior decor and detailing is said to be phenomenal but it seems that they can only be visited if you arrange to be in an official tour group which is just not our cup of tea. 

Amid all these random stops we also visited the San Francisco Catacombs (No pictures allowed boo-hoo!) Interesting fact: they mixed eggshells into the mortar they used to bind the bricks together and somehow, despite a multitude of earthquakes, the catacombs have still managed to escape unscathed.

After a very brief lunch break for pizza and and Inca Kola, the only soda that Coca-Cola could not successfully best (at least until a joint venture was established in 1999), we managed to fit in the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Lima Cathedral, the final resting place of Francisco Pizzaro. It still amazes me how much time and investment that the clergy seem to have made in the adornments of the various altars and religious iconography.

We then sat on the steps for a little bit of sun and relaxation before rendezvousing for our afternoon Barranco neighborhood tour.

Lima: Before The Incas

Before the Inca Civilization became so pervasive in the 16th century, with origins dating from the 13th century, a multitude of ancient civilizations preceded it. We explored the history behind a number of these societies with our first stop of the day, Huaca Pullcana.

Huacca Pullcana is a great adobe and clay pyramid in the Miraflores district of Lima. It is built of seven staggered platforms and served as the ceremonial and administrative center of the Lima Culture. The complex, now diminished from its original extents due to urbanized construction and disrespect for the value of history, is surrounded by a plaza with a large structured wall dividing the sections. 

The Lima’s main source of sustenance came from the sea and the land. This is exemplified by excavated deep pits that show evidence of fish and marine life being used as offerings. Young girls between the ages of 15-25 were also used as sacrifices to the gods (thankfully I have already passed the age cut-off). The pyramid provided a location for these offerings, and once space became scarce or a new generation arose, a new terrace was built directly above the former one.

As the layers were built-up over a long period of time, roughly every 15-20 years, the evolution of brick design is easily seen. Interestingly, instead of being stacked horizontally, they were stacked vertically with an air gap between each brick. It is believed that these air gaps were left in order to allow the pyramid to “rock” when an earthquake hit. As a structural engineer I thought that this was pretty cool! The Lima Culture had essentially designed their very own basic, but assumedly effective , earthquake proof building. (Essentially a fixed base with a very flexible structure)

After visiting the archeological site, we returned to our hotel to check out and switch over to a nearby hostel. We then grabbed lunch at La Lucha Sangucheria (Again!) before heading for a stroll along the cliffs to see the beach and visit El Parque de Amor, Love Park. The park is said to have been inspired by Park Guell in Barcelona. It features a sculpture called “El Beso,” which is said to depict the artist, Víctor Delfín, and his wife kissing. 

I tried to get Tom to kiss me in front of the sculpture and selfie it. Unfortunately he refused on the grounds that it was too cliche. :(. Honestly I was happy that I was able to get him to agree to a selfie at all! I blame him for why most photos I post contain no traces of him or even myself. I swear that it is like pulling teeth.

After walking along the cliffs for a few hours, with a stop to watch the paragliders lift off and land high into the sky and one to roam the Larcomer Shopping center (including a pit stop), we returned back to our hostel for a brief reprieve. 

Our feet somewhat rested after an hour or so, we caught the bus to visit the Park of the Reserve and the Magic Water Circuit. The park is the current world record holder for the largest fountain complex in the world and is home to 13 distinct and interactive fountains with ever changing color schemes. 

We arrived just in time to watch the main show at the Fountain of Fantasy which included projections onto the misting water, moving animals and shapes made by 3-dimensional layers, and of course, synchronized streams of water shooting left and right to synchronized music. After that, we visited the other 12 fountains and stopped at a vendor to try some Picarones, a squash and sweet potato donut covered in molasses syrup. 

After a long day, with over 28,0000 FitBit steps, we returned to our hostel to grab dinner, after which Tom promptly passed out while I stayed up to diligently write my blog. 🙂 

 

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