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).