But it has. So pack your bags and get ready to travel to Peru, where I spent the week between Christmas 2010 and New Years and the first week in January 2011. One of the highlights of the trip was visiting Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas.
toughest trip I’ve ever taken
Don’t get me wrong. Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca site, should be on everyone’s bucket list. You have to go there before you die. It’s awesome! The trick is to go while you’re still in relatively good shape. But, then, if I could make it, anyone can.
where, exactly, is Machu Picchu?
While nearly everyone has heard of Machu Picchu, not everyone knows what or where it is. Let’s start with location. Everyone agrees on that part.
Machu Picchu is located in the Andes Mountains on a high mountain ridge above the Urumba Valley, about fifty miles northwest of the City of Cuzco. The altitude is approximately 8,000 feet above sea level. That’s high. High enough to get altitude sickness and have difficulty breathing (which I did), but not the highest inhabited point in Peru. Cuzco is 11,000 feet above sea level, and Puno is 13,000 feet—not quite as high as Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states.
I always thought the Incan civilization was ancient, but I was thinking of a pre-Incan culture which dates back thousands of years. The Inca civilization and empire lasted only three hundred years, from the 13th to the 16th century. It began as a tribe of the Killke culture and remained a small group for the first 200 years. Around 1438, Emperor Pachacutec's aggressive military expansion turned them into the most powerful nation in South America. For a while.
Historians don’t have a lot of information about the Incas because they had no written language as we know it and passed their history down orally from one generation to the next. What we know is pieced together from archaeological evidence and the oral history still present in Peru.
I didn’t find this in my research, but traveling in Peru, the locals insisted there was a written language which consisted of knots tied in ropes and cords. This form of written language was used to send messages and keep certain records.
the Incas Build Machu Picchu?
It is generally believed Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Incan Emperor Pachacutec, 1438–1472. It’s the most famous of the Incan archeological sites, but there are other Incan ruins all over Peru and elsewhere in South America.
Built on steep cliffs above the Sacred Valley (Tampu), its location was a military secret (according to some) and very inaccessible (agreed upon by all). Because the city was not visible from anywhere and had limited access, it was never discovered or looted by the Spaniards. At some point after the Spanish conquest, it was abandoned and lost to the collective memory.
Wow! How could you lose a city built to accommodate several thousand inhabitants? Just take a look at the road up to the site in the photo. Today, it’s a forty-five minute ride in a bus, twisting and winding on a narrow one-lane road. Think about it reaching it without a motorized vehicle.
it like up there in the clouds?
For me, the outstanding feature of Machu Picchu, other than incredible location, is the architecture, considered by many to be among the finest prehistoric architecture in the world. Please note that prehistoric isn’t my word. I don’t consider the 1400s to be prehistoric, but what do I know?
The structures were built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls shaped so perfectly and set so tightly without mortar you can’t fit a knife blade in between them. You can see in the photos, some of the stonework is very refined and finished while other walls and buildings are constructed in a rougher style. This has led to some rather bizarre theories about extraterrestrials. The tour guides explained the difference as this: The palaces and temples and places used by the aristocracy were refined and finished. The servants and less elite of the society had to be satisfied with more rough-cut walls. Makes more sense than being built by aliens.
rediscovery of Machu Picchu
The forgotten city of Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, a Yale University historian. In 1908, he served as a delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chili. On his return home, via Peru, he became convinced by locals that an unexplored Incan city still existed. Fascinated by the possibility, Bingham returned in 1911 with the Yale Peruvian Expedition. He was led by Melchor Arteaga to Machu Picchu, which had been largely forgotten by everybody except the small number of people living in the immediate valley.
Bingham returned to Peru in 1912 and 1915 with the support of Yale and the National Geographic Society. Each time he went, the expeditions took crates of artifacts and skeletons back to Yale to be studied. Those artifacts have resided there for a hundred years. In fact, at that time, the Peruvian Civil Code of 1852 was in effect and permitted finders of artifacts to keep them.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Peruvian government decided, for a variety of reasons, it wanted the Machu Picchu artifacts back. Yale and Peru have recently reached an agreement which will return to Peru thousands of Incan artifacts to Peru this year, 2011, the hundredth anniversary of Bingham’s discovery.
If you ever get the chance to visit Machu Picchu, don’t miss it. But do some reading about health consideration.