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. 

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.  

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. 🙂 

 

Copenhagen: A Perplexing Start

 

Tom had a perplexing start to his day. While we were waiting for our lattes at a table, we noticed a giant Rubik’s Cube right next to us. Obviously, being the engineers we are, we started solving it piece by piece. Ironically, neither one of us could remember how to solve the last layer, so we had to leave it behind with only 2 out of 3 of the rows solved. I also learned that my boyfriend is a nerd; Apparently he attended Rubik’s Cube club meetings while he was in college. 

 Our first stop was the National Museum of Denmark. Housed in the Prince’s Mansion, one of the earliest Roccoco buildings in Copenhagen, the National Museum has the largest collection of Danish cultural history in all of Denmark. Its  exhibition covers 14,000 years from prehistoric times to present-day lives. It would have been easy to spend our entire day there, but Tom and I had a lot more to see (not to mention, we’ve pretty much had our fill of museums for this trip). My favorite part was their collection of dollhouses, I always wanted one as a little girl. The scaling of each piece of furniture and the detail associated with it has always fascinated me. Tom couldn’t share my enthusiasm, because well, I’m pretty certain that he has never been a little girl. 😀

 We grabbed some Smørrebrød for lunch, a traditional open-faced sandwich of meat, fish, cheese, or spread, on a buttered piece of rye bread, before heading over to the Parliament building. Officially, the building is called Christiansborg Palace,  a metonym meaning, “Castle of the Realm.” It is the only one in the world the houses all three branches of the government, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial powers. We took two elevators to the top of the tower, the tallest tower in Copenhagen, and were greeted with some scenic views of the city.
 After returning to ground level, we took a closer look at the Børsen, the old stock exchange. We passed by it yesterday during the walking tour, but I wanted a closer look at its spire. Built by Christian IV between 1619-1614, the building is known for its  the Dragon Spire which consists of four dragon tails wounded together reaching a height of 56 meters. I really admire the expressive artistry that older buildings have. It’s a tradition that has been lost and overtaken by a desire for modern, sleek shapes. At the same time, it would be unrealistic to build elaborately carved or scuplted details into structures these days since I’m sure the cost would be astronomical.

 We stopped by a few historical churches and then took a stroll along Nyhavn. Nyhavn is a man-made port dug between 1670 to 1673 by Swedish prisoners of the Dano-Swedish War. It was constructed by Christian V and served as a gateway from the sea to the old inner city, Kongens Nytorv the “King’s Square.” The harbor area was notorious for beer, sailors, and prostitution. On our walk yesterday, Benjamin mentioned that the first tattoo parlor in the city was opened here, and the artist had a two sided machine. Back in those days it was common for sailors to put their names on their lady-friends, but it was also bad business for the woman. So if the woman handed the artist a few extra bucks, a wink, the tattoo artist would us the semi-permanent needle on his machine, allowing the name to wash away a few days later rather than being permanent. The famous fairytale author, Hans Christian Anderson also lived along this street for 18 years. 

 Our last stop today was to the Rundetaarn, or “Round Tower.” Originally built by Christian IV in the 17th century, the cylindrical tower is made of masonry with alternating yellow and red bricks, the colors of the Oldenburgs. It also has has an equestrian ramp rather than a staircase; this design was chosen to allow a horse and carriage to reach the library and for heavy and sensitive equipment to be transported to the astronomical observatory on top. Tom and I walked up the 7.5 turn helical corridor, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Are we there yet?”

Stockholm: Ticking Hands of Time

 We woke up first thing this morning and grabbed breakfast to-go during our walk to City Hall. Stockholm City Hall is the center of governance for the municipality, and also the location of the Nobel Prize banquet every year on December 10th. You may recall my previous post from Oslo concerning the Peace Prize. However, it is the only Nobel Prize that is presented in Oslo rather than in Stockholm. This is because Alfred Nobel specifically wrote this request into his will. Originally there were only 5 awards, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Medicine, and Peace to award individuals who had made significant contributions to the progress and welfare of humanity. The Economics award was added by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968.

Interestingly enough, City Hall is not an old building. It’s celebrating only its 93rd birthday this year. Designed by the architect After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact Ragner Östberg in 1923, he desired for the building’s structure and facade to look old without actually being old. Ragnar drew inspiration for the interior rooms from a variety of historical eras, but also made major design changes as the building progressed and his whims of fancy changed. 

 

The Blue Room (although not actually blue) recalls the elegance of a wide open Italian piazza, an assembly space for various events and banquets. Knowing that patrons would be making their entrance via the grand staircase, Ragnar included a star on the far-opposite wall. It is said that if a person focuses on that star as they descend, they will maintain proper posture while all eyes are focused on them; and so far, no Nobel Prize winner has ever tripped or fallen as they enter a banquet in their honor. 

 The Gold Room is opulently decorated in colorful gold mosaic, bringing to mind the glitz and glamour of the Byzantine Empire. The artist and his assistants only had two years to complete the room’s walls prior to a certain event that had to take place on a specific date for historical reasons. As a result, some mistakes were made with no time to correct them. The depicted castle is missing one of the three crowns (this was supposed to depict Tre Kronos, the Castle of Three Crowns), and the king riding the horse is without a head due to scaling errors (although it is historically accurate since the king was eventually beheaded). 

After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact (98% original) 17th century ship to ever be recovered. The ship was built on the orders of King Gustavus Aldophus in due part because of a military expansion campaign he initiated with Poland-Lithuania and his desire to enter the Thirty Years War. At the time, Sweden’s political and military power was an afterthought and neighboring nations barely acknowledged its presence. Gustavus is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. He was progressive in his governance, innovative in his military weaponry, raised Sweden to be a Great Power.

 The Vasa would have been the first double-decker war ship of the time, and one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. She was constructed under contract by private Dutch entrepreneurs between 1626 and 1627. The ship was richly decorated in symbolic carvings illustrating his ambition for Sweden. However, due to severe time constraints, and a lack of expertise (as no one in the country had ever built a double-decker), the Vasa’s final design proved too unstable and top-heavy. 

 On her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, she was only 1300 meters out of port when a wind caused her to keel and ultimately sink. Fortunately for us, the ship-channel she sank in has a low salt content. This allowed her to lay relatively undisturbed and remarkably well-preserved for over 300 years. The Vasa did not sail again until her hull was lifted from the harbor floor in 1961.

 

I was personally astounded by the size of the ship. She is the first thing you see when you enter the museum, and she simply dominates the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of her intricate carvings and exquisite detail.

Our take-away from the day is that time is a double-edged sword. For some, time is a luxury, while for others, time is a looming specter. In both the cases of the Gold Room and the Vasa, had the designers had sufficient time to complete the tasks at hand, we believe that the inherent flaws could have been avoided. 

 Speaking of time, Tom and I spent the rest of our afternoon enjoy the Swedish tradition of Fika. Fika is equivalent to the British Tradition of tea-time, where people take a break from their day to savor some coffee and sweets. We went to Vette-Kaffen a traditional Fika institution. It was both tasty and relaxing. 🙂

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