Machu Picchu: Comparing a visit in 1975 to a visit today

Kt good light

Tuesday and Wednesday, September 25 and 26, 2018 — Since returning from our trip to Machu Picchu, I have been comparing our visit there to one that my friend Jeff made in 1975. His experience there seems almost impossible for the Peruvian ruins now.

He took the train up the Sacred Valley to a very deserted place, as he remembers it, which today is probably the busy town of Aguas Calientes. There was only a miniature school bus run by the rather dilapidated hotel at the top of the mountain next to the ruins. So Jeff hiked the switchbacks up to the ruins, planning to camp up there.

He toured the ruins, remembers that there were a couple of Peruvian students there to hire as guides. There were not more than maybe 30 or 35 people in the entire site. The hotel held a few people, mostly older. But Jeff bedded down in one of the enclosed stone structures. The next day he hiked up to the Sun Gate and then headed down to the train to continue on his journey through South America.

Now the buses run from 6 a.m. until closing time when guards (attendants) chase everyone away. The max they allow at the ruins each day is 2,500, but word has it that anyone willing to buy a ticket is let in.

I’m glad Peru has developed a tourist industry, and Machu Picchu deserves to be the star of the show. Foreign cash welcomed there, and it’s better than visitors scared away by the Sendero Luminoso. But it does make me wish I would have continued on with Jeff from Central America in 1975, although grad school paid off in the end.

Not sure how good the student guides were, but the modern day ones are excellent – at least Yakelin was. Our two-day tour was filled with facts, observations and numbers.

It probably took 40,000 people to build Machu Picchu, most of them doing their “mita,” two years of labor as a tax to the Inca Empire. It was built there because of water sources, a quarry of stones to build with and perhaps some idea of defense because of the cliffs surrounding it. But with eight ancient trails leading into it, defense may not have been the highest priority. It may have been an advance post for the Incas move into the Amazon region to take over supply of coca leaves (a mild stimulant that helps with altitude sickness, not cocaine, which came later).

The terraces were used for agriculture with drainage built into them, and the place could support a population of 500 to 700 residents. The stone temples and houses, once covered with thatch roofs, were built between 10,000-foot Machu Picchu – the Old Mountain – and Wayna Picchu – the Young Mountain.

Wayna Picchu
Ruins on Wayna Picchu

There are ruins and a Moon Temple up on Wayna Picchu, but we did not have time to climb it. You need a permit, and we had a schedule to keep. We were up at 5 a.m. on our second day to get to the front entrance before the buses started to arrive. My second cup of coffee put us behind two early-arriving buses. So we joined the crowd of about 200 people who all had the same idea we had: Hike to the Sun Gate, a thousand feet above the main ruins. Four-hour hike up and back for us, and too cloudy to get much of a sunrise. However, the view up there is worth the climb.

From Sun Gate
At the Sun Gate with the ruins behinds us.

The best way to avoid the really big crowds is to stay late in the afternoon (maybe walk down to Aguas Calientes or dig deep into your wallet to stay at the post-1975 hotel next to the entrance) or go early, getting in line for the first buses climbing the switchbacks up to the site. Your best shot at getting off by yourself is to climb Wayna Picchu. A climb Jeff and guidebooks say can be tricky with the last 20 meters on steep rocks with a ladder and rope to help out. Only 400 are allowed up there each day – 200 at 7 a.m. and 200 at 10 a.m.

The authors who wrote the guidebooks we used have a longing for the past – fewer crowds, fewer people “reconstructed” the ruins. Peter Frost in “Exploring Cusco” says that when the anthropologists arrive, the gods depart. Too much work to get everything down to bare stones with no vegetation, no lichens, no wilderness to entrance the imagination into picturing what it once was. Too many government departments with some control over the site. Too much intervention “where entire walls and even buildings have been assembled upon little more than a vestige of the foundations. Visitors are presumed to be insufficiently intelligent to imagine how an unreconstructed site might have looked.” He says that having seen the ruins before and after reconstruction and he “immoderately begs to disagree.”

Yakelin pointed out that there some terraces that have not been dug up yet, but they are far down the mountain and not easy to see.KT with llama

Ben Westwood in the Moon Handbook “Machu Picchu” notes that the millions visiting there each year has the site, built on a man-made mound of earth, actually sinking, “albeit very slowly.” So get there before it slips away. It’s right up there with my other favorite pre-Columbian archeological site, Tikal in Guatemala, which has unreconstructed temples that allow your imagination to run wild.

When you do visit Machu Picchu, do as Peter Frost asks: Don’t litter, don’t remove stones, plants or animals. “Remember, the Machu Picchu park is a sanctuary: for ruins, for wildlife, for trees and flowers – and for you. Please treat it that way.”

Kt up high

 

 

 

 

 

Cuzco and Not the Best Damn Band in the Land

PachacuteqCuzco, Peru, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 – We arrived in Cuzco, Peru, today, a city of 500,000 in the Cuzco state of about one million residents. This was once the capital of the Inca Empire of about 12 million people that covered from present-day Ecuador down to about half of Chile.

In the center of the main square now is a statue of Pachacutec, the Inca ruler responsible for binding that empire together from the different groups of people who lived there in the mid-fifteenth century.

Opposite Pachacutec’s statue on the “Plaza de Armas” is, of course, a church, this one built on top of an Inca palace. When we arrived there, the Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús (built by Jesuits) was celebrating. My devout Catholic wife says one of those statues they were carting around was maybe Saint Francis.

However, on the day we were there, the saint calendar held out many saints, martyrs from the Spanish Civil Wars and numerous other people that could have been celebrated. There was a band, a procession and statues. Pachacutec did not participate.

 

The band above may not be The Best Damn Band in the Land, but I had to keep shooting to see how the sousaphone player was doing. Did not dot the i in Francis.

From there, we went to the Museo Machu Picchu, home to the largest collection of Machu Picchu artifacts in the world. Housed in a colonial home, the Casa Concha, the museum includes the artifacts dug up by Hiram Bingham, generally described as the man who discovered this ancient Inca ruin. Bingham sent what he found there in 1911, 1912 and 1915 back to Yale University with the promise that they would be returned to Peru when the research was done. About 100 years later, they found their way to Peru.

Yakelin
Yakelin explains Machu Picchu in a model at the Museo Machu Picchu in Cuzco

Our newest Alexander + Roberts guide, Yakelin, explained that Bingham had no archeologists with him and no plan on how to go about the dig.

“He paid the people working for him one sol (Peru currency now worth three to a dollar) for every skeleton they could find,” she said. “so the farmers dug everywhere.”

The 174 skeletons they did find apparently came from important people in the Inca society – no broken bones, little evidence of hard work.

Some of the bodies discovered were probably mummies, important to the Incas. The mummies of rulers were brought out for festivals, had servants and were “sustained by offerings of food and drink,” according to John Hemming’s book, “The Conquest of the Incas.”

The Spaniards burned mummies, used them to lure Incas from the highlands to the new capital at Lima, where the mummies were never found, said Yakelin. The conquerors hoped the mummies could be replaced by images of the Virgin Mary.

Yakelin said that many of the bodies found at Machu Picchu were buried or in caves, opening to the underground world.

Which led to the subject of human sacrifice. Yes, Yakelin said, the Incas did sacrifice humans, mostly children in the worst of times – quakes, eruptions and natural disasters. The children were raised separately, fed only corn and families considered it an honor to have a child sacrificed. None of our group offered up any children.

The unfinished city was ordered to be built by Pachacutec about 100 years before it was abandoned. Five different groups of people were discovered to have lived there, representing the way Pachacutec brought together his empire, gathering knowledge from other districts and then incorporating them.

There was some metal work done at Machu Picchu, but no gold was found there. Was it a religious site without riches? Or, did the Incas take it with them when they abandoned the city in the face of the Spanish conquest?

No need for that as the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu.