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.
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.
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.
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.”