Tri-City Herald, Sunday, May 16, 1999

Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Incas

©1999 Valerie Kreutzer

Machu Picchu

For most of us boarding the train for Machu Picchu this is a pilgrimage of a lifetime.

I was in high school when I first learned about South America’s Incas and their vast and sophisticated empire that was crushed in 1533 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

For about forty years I carried with me the image of green but bare mountains and the gray-stoned remnants of a city clinging to a hillside.  Pizarro and his hordes had easily conquered Cuzco, the Inca capital, but Machu Picchu and its riches, only 60 miles away, had eluded his greed.

For more than 300 years, Machu Picchu seemed lost to the world, until the American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled over its ruins in 1911.  Since then, tourists and pilgrims to Peru have been making their spiritual journey to this special place and time.

At 6:30 in the morning, the train pulls out of the station in Cuzco for its four-hour journey.   The woman from Paris next to me confides that she spent the last two days in the hospital, hooked to an oxygen tank, because Cuzco’s altitude of 10,000 ft had made her violently ill.  “I have already spent an awful lot of money for nothing,” she laments.  “And now we are going backwards!” she adds with alarm.

Indeed, we are.  As the train slowly zigzags up the mountain, it sometimes reverses as if to catch its breath for the next steep zag.  Soon Cuzco’s red-tiled roofs are spread below us in the morning sun.  We can decipher the contour of the city, built by the Incas in the shape of a puma.  The ragged stone wall of the temple fortress Sacsayhuaman outlines the puma’s fangs; the avenida El Sol, the main artery, follows the curve of the beast’s spine.  Next to the fortress with its perfectly fitting stones of incredible size and weight, rises a white Christ figure with out-stretched arms—symbolizing that another culture has superceded the Inca ways.  Most of Cuzco’s colonial churches and cloisters are built on Inca foundations.

We descend rapidly into the Sacred Valley, the former royal garden of the Incas, which still provides the fruits and vegetables sold in Cuzco’s markets today.  The train stops in Ollantaytambo, the last outpost in the valley, and hundreds of Indians offer us alpaca sweaters and blankets, yellow Inca Cola, coca leaves in little plastic bags, sandwiches and Indian dolls.  A young couple from Philadelphia buys purple and red rain ponchos, handing three dollars through the window.  They plan to walk up the last part of the Inca trail, those uneven and steep stone steps that lead to the hidden city.  On this February day we are in the midst of the rainy season and showers are likely.

The virulent rapids and high level of the Vilcanota River are evidence that it has rained a lot.  The train parallels the river through the narrow canon, and at one point it slows down to a snail’s pace.  A few weeks earlier, a landslide had covered the tracks and a chunk of a mountain had been dynamited to make room for new connections.  We hold our breath as we inch forward.

On arrival at the Machu Picchu station, the Philadelphians head for the stone steps for their final ascend, while minibuses bring us along a serpentine track to South America’s most important archeological site.

I pay my entrance fee and as I turn around the bend, I gasp at the stunning vista that lies before me.  Surely, this lost and almost forgotten city must rank among the world’s wonders.  How could anyone build a whole city on a barren mountain, strategically positioned to overlook the river canyon while it cannot be seen from the valley below?

To my left, agricultural terraces, covering a whole mountainside, supplied food for a population of 1,000.  They lived in 200 homes that were connected by an elaborate system of aqueducts that brought water for the many ritual baths.

There is the section where the nobles lived around the military tower. There is the palace of the Inca, the sacred plaza, the temple, and at the highest point the sun dial, cut out of one huge granite rock, aligned with the window to point to the rising sun on the morning of the summer solstice.  This is the point where the sun kissed the earth.

Without written documentation from the Inca’s golden age, speculation and mystery abound.  Machu Picchu was probably a religious center and the home of the last Incas who had escaped the massacres of the Spanish.  As they fled Cuzco, they built fortresses and temples along the cliffs of the river valley, until they settled in the city of Machu Picchu, probably built a century earlier as an Inca country estate.

Tupac Amaru, the third son of the Inca king who had been appointed by Pizarro, was probably the last Inca who stayed in Machu Picchu.  The Spaniards lured him and his family from his hiding and put him on a mock trial.  His wife was mangled to death and he was beheaded.

The Spanish had made many attempts but never succeeded in penetrating the valley.  Machu Picchu became “the Lost City of the Incas,” until Bingham whacked his way through the thick underbrush and rediscovered its ruins at the beginning of this century.  “What is this,” he asked his Indian guides.  “Machu Picchu,” he was told, meaning ‘old peak’ in Quechua, the native language.   

Ever since the area has been cleared and somewhat restored, people have come for their private reasons, and no one seems disappointed by what she or he has found.  I notice the woman from Paris sitting on a giant stone, quietly contemplating the beauty of the place.  No, she tells her tour guide, she’d rather skip the late lunch at the hotel and sit here a while longer.

Machu Picchu means different things to different people.  Perhaps we come here out of yearning for a time when everyone, from the mightiest ruler to the lowliest farmer, believed in obtaining knowledge of the unknown by studying the universe around them.  For all decisions, no matter how small, flora and fauna, the stars and weather were carefully consulted to determine whether it was the right time to plant potatoes or go to war. 

I don’t know what brought the group of young priests from Chile to spend a day here.  In their ankle-length cassocks they skip down the mountain, almost colliding with women marching single-file, all dressed in white.  Reminiscent of the “chosen women” who prepared food and offerings at Inca ceremonies, these modern sisters head for a grassy spot next to the temple, form a circle around a tree and begin their chants to the earth goddess in a foreign language.

Near the entrance under a thatched outlook an artist from Rio de Janeiro mixes watercolors for a rendition of the vista set before her.  Her brush mixes ever-darker shades of green and slate gray, leaving some room for the white mists that are wafting in during the late afternoon.  Her work remains unfinished, because it is time to descend and catch the train.

As our minibus makes its first hairpin turn a boy in Inca tunic and headband stands by the road, shouting “Adios!”  We wave back.  As we come round the second bend, there he is again, shouting and waving.  He must be racing down the steep trail, always ready for our meandering bus.  “Adios,” we shout back, soon matching his enthusiasm for the ritual.  At the base of the mountain he hops on the bus, earning applause and some coins for his purse.  His name is David, pronounced Dah-VEED, and he is nine.

At the station a final farewell for the little Inca with a biblical name, and an old peak that has seen it all.

Adios, David!  Adios, Machu Picchu!