My absolute favorite of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World was by far the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. All the wonders are phenomenal in their own right, but I think it was the journey and build up to the actual site of Machu Picchu that made it heads and shoulders above the rest for me.
We left Cusco the day before and spent the day traveling through the Sacred Valley, feeding llamas and alpacas, visiting the Pisac market and archeological site of Ollyantambo before retiring to a secluded lodge deep in the Andes where the stars illuminated the evening sky. The following morning, we boarded the train onboard Peru Rail at the Ollantaytambo station (you can leave from Cusco but it is a much longer journey). It is still an hour and a half ride to go the remaining 32 miles!!! Even though you are moving at a snail’s pace, you don’t mind since each twist and turn unveils a striking view either hanging from the side of the Andean mountains or following along the Urubamba river. The river acts as a great point of reference to determine the distance traveled as you climb up the mountains. Once you arrive at Machu Picchu station the only thing left is the dodgy bus ride to the top. The road up is literally a single paved path with no guardrails! You board a school bus and head to the top – at many points passing buses coming the other direction, and somehow they manage to maneuver around each other – my only piece of advice is don’t sit by the window if you are afraid of heights!
Once you have checked in and cleared the gate, the no longer lost city opens up and reveals the iconic image of Machu Picchu directly beneath you. Photos will never do this place justice. After trekking for two days through the Andes and being completely engulfed between their snow and cloud capped peaks you are stood in a city atop a hill with nothing but sheer drops to every side of you. It truly is a spectacle – how they built it, how long it must have taken, and how hard it must have been to get in and out of this magnificent city…we will never truly know.
Machu Picchu is not just visually appealing, it is steeped in history and Incan innovation. The Incas understood and mastered the science behind brain surgery, genetically altered food, incredible engineering marvels, sophisticated astronomical wisdom and colossal geo-glyphs visible only from the sky that leave even the modern day traveler in awe and amazement – Machu Picchu is only one example.
Most archaeologists believe Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained lost to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of what the structures originally looked like. By 1976, thirty percent of Machu Picchu had been restored. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred (religious) District of Machu Picchu.
The Inti Watana is at the top of the site and was possibly used as a sundial. As mentioned, the Incas were into astronomy and to this day you can lay a compass on this stone and it points to perfect north. The temple of the Sun was semi-circular construction adapted to the natural environment. On the temple of the Sun there’s a tower with a trapezoidal window, built over a rock of pure granite, in this place only the persons who were in charge of the cult of the INTI (The principal god, the Sun) were allowed. They keep several mummies here to be worshiped, in what they called royal tombs, given that the mummies were an important part of the cult to the Sun. The Temple of the three windows also known as the windows of the universe, is a marvelous example of Incan engineering. How these structures were made to fit together with no mortar is perfection and they have lasted all this time. This is one of the most beautiful places to visit, and is also a very important place due to its closeness to the main square. These 3 windows represent each part of the Incan world: The underground (Uku-Pacha), the heaven (Hanan-Pacha) and the present (Kay-Pacha). These windows also represent the rise of the sun, an important event in the everyday life of the Inca population.
The Incas were also exceptional horticulturalists. Their ingenious stone terraces tamed the steep Andean slopes, transforming precipitous terrain into fertile farmland. In many cases, entire mountains were terraced, including the 8,000 foot slopes of Machu Picchu! Terracing technology, along with a permanent system of irrigation, the selection of seeds, and the invention of a calendar for planting and harvesting, provided ideal conditions for the genetic manipulation of food – another marvel created by this primitive society.
After our guided tour of Machu Picchu we had some extra time to hike part of the Inca Trail that leads into the city. We choose the path to the Inca Bridge, which was about 40 minute hike each way. It is not for the faint of heart, some of the paths are very narrow with dramatic drops off the side of the mountain down to the Urubamba River. The actual Inca Bridge is less than up to code and makes you feel like you are in the film “the Last of the Mohicans!”
Machu Picchu and Peru captivated my heart. Its not just about this extraordinary city, built in an almost impossible location by an extremely intelligent civilization, it was the entire journey. The Peruvians are truly happy to share their heritage with you, as many outside of Lima still live quite simple lives maybe not all too different from their Incan Ancestors. As you enter the Sun gate to Machu Picchu, the city simply takes your breath away, opening its arms to greet you just like the people with their heart-felt smiles.