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Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (4)
The fourth day -- last stop Machu Picchu
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-13 12:52 (KST)   
Machu Picchu - at last!
©2005 D.Weber
"One wonders how the Incas could move [such enormous stones] without wheels or draft animals.... It would have required a healthy dose of naivety - and a small army of workers - to move these enormous rocks" -- Hiram Bingham on Machu Picchu's construction.

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Early the next morning, we arose and made our way to the Intipunku, "Sun Gate" to see the sunrise. The last day's hike was only a little over an hour but we were rushing along at a breakneck pace in order to get to the Sun Gate before sunrise. I was gasping for my breath. Some of the hikers simply gave up and walked along at their leisure. We kept stumbling as our hike was mainly in the dark.

We reached our destination at last right before dawn and of course we had one more steep staircase to surmount before the end. From the ruins of the small watchtower of Intipunku, we watched the morning light dip into the valley before us and slowly uncover Machu Picchu. Exhaustion melted away leaving us with a sense of accomplishment and awe.

Sunrise uncovers Machu Picchu
©2005 D.Weber
Surrounded by mountains with a river churning in the chasm beneath it, Machu Picchu stood in stark testament to the wonder and skill of Inca craftsmanship. The ruins we had seen on the Inca Trail prior to Machu Pichu had only been a taste of things to come. The city was a mass of buildings and terraces composed of intricate stonework. In the dim light of the sunrise, Machu Pichu faintly resembled a discarded Hollywood set.

Seeing Machu Picchu there in the early morning light represented for us the culmination of four days and three nights of hiking up and down the mountains along the Inca Trail. We could scarcely believe it was over. "What? No more steps?" some of us thought.

For me seeing Machu Picchu at long last also represented the fulfillment of year-old promise I had made to myself when I was standing atop a Meso-American pyramid in Mexico a year earlier. Prior to my Mexico trip, I never had much interest in Latin America. My literary and historical studies were all based in Europe and the ancient Middle East and that was where my traveling compass was pointed. But a chance opportunity to bike through Mexico with a college friend came along and I took it.

Despite the hardships and mugging I encountered, I discovered the wealth of wonders the world beyond the southern border offers. And when I had climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and gazed about the incredible ruins of Teotihuacan, memories echoed in my mind of my uncle's stories of his trek along the Inca Trail many years ago. I decided I had to see Machu Picchu and hike the Inca Trail. One year later there I stood at the Intipunku staring down at one of the greatest man-made wonders of the world.

We could have stayed for hours just gazing at it from Intipunku but we knew we had to get down into the valley before the bus tourists started arriving.

Weary but sastisfied hikers at the end of the journey
©2005 D.Weber
We went straight into the ruins and the Brazilian brothers went straight into the visitor's center to watch Brazil play. Apparently, Machu Pichu could wait, the World Cup could not. We entered the ruins at the a building known as the Caretaker's Hut, a restored building complete with a new thatch roof where it is believed the dead were placed to be mummified

Except for a few llamas lounging about the place, we few hikers had the ruins to ourselves. We walked about the ruined city admiring the craftsmanship that reared Machu Pichu so many centuries ago without modern tools. With great precision, Inca engineers fitted a mass of stones together in a jigsaw-like pattern. Some buildings contained immense stones twice the size of a person and weighing several tons.

The Caretaker's hut perched on top a mound of terraces
©2005 D.Weber
The stones of the buildings differed. There were small stones of irregular size often used on smaller buildings and the top portions of walls. Then there were smaller square-shaped stones that made up of most of the buildings. Lastly were the gigantic massive stones that are the trademarks of superb Inca engineering. I sometimes wonder if the Incas put those huge stones up just to impress people or if the engineers just couldn't be bothered with trying to move the huge things out of the way so they incorporated them into their buildings instead.

We made our way to the visitor's center to check in and get our tickets. It was here that we were supposed to meet with an arranged tour guide for Machu Picchu itself. We waited and waited and waited. We eventually learned that another group of hikers had bribed the person who was supposed to be our guide and so he abandoned us. Willy tried to arrange for us another guide but it was then that I saw the first bus from Aguas Calientes make its slow and winding ascent up the mountain. I knew it was full of tourists. And behind that bus more buses were bound to come. It was now or never so we decided to just wander around on our own. Since I had studied a little about the Incas before and had a guidebook with me, I became the unofficial tour guide.

Origins and Purpose of Machu Picchu: Earlier Theories vs. Modern Evidence

Hiram Bingham, a Yale history professor, found Machu Picchu by accident. He was looking for Vilcabamba, the last capital and refuge of the Inca dynasty. What he found was a city that no one since the Spanish Conquest had ever known about - save for some recent local farmers who used Machu Picchu's terraces for the growing of their crops.

Bingham had several theories as to the origins and purpose of Machu Picchu. He thought it was the first capital of the Incas and one of their last sacred cities. Taken his cues from the texts of Spanish chroniclers, Bingham believed that a pre-Inca dynasty was driven out of their capital of Cuzco to a hidden refuge -- Tampu-Tocco. Bingham felt Machu Picchu fit this description because of its remote and hidden location. In addition, some of the architectural features at Machu Picchu matched ancient accounts of Tampu-Tocco. The chronicles stated that from their hidden refuge the pre-Inca dynasty continued to survive until one of their kings decided to retake their old capital of Cuzco. This was Manco Capac, the first Inca ruler. However, other legends say Manco Capac came from Isla del Sol ("Island of the Sun") on Lake Titicaca.

Inca Emperor
"The" Inca

Colonial-era Painting of Manco Capac the legendary first Emperor of the Incas
Florida International Museum
The word Inca actually refers to the ruling clan of nobles related to the emperor. The emperor was known as Sapa Inca (the Inca). One of the legends of Manco Capac, known as the first Inca, is that he descended from the sun to Lake Titicaca and then went on to establish a dynasty in Cuzco.

Inca means "son of the sun" and it was believed the emperor was descended from Inti, the sun god.

Though a benevolent despotism, the Inca Empire was reciprocal in nature unlike the Spanish system that followed in which the Spaniards did not return benefits to the lower classes. / D.Weber

After Manco, there were seven Inca emperors though there wasn't an empire. The Inca Empire only extended in a small circuit around Cuzco. It wasn't until the ninth emperor, Pachacuti, that the Incas began to expand their territory. Some historians dub Pachacuti the "Alexander the Great of South America." During his father's reign, the Incas were almost wiped out by a rival group, the Chankas. In 1438, Pachacuti defeated them and took over their territory. From there he began a series of conquests expanding his territory far beyond Cuzco.

By 1532, the Inca Empire covered some 2,500 square miles. Then the Spaniards came. The Spaniards had the most amazing streak of luck to have arrived at a time when the Inca Empire had just concluded a devastating civil war between two half-brothers, Atahualpa and Huascar. Also by that time the disease small pox introduced unwittingly by the Spaniards was beginning to ravage Peru. The father of the two contenders for the throne died some years earlier from a strain of small pox that worked its way south from Panama.

Map of the extent of the Inca Empire
©2005 Times art:
Shortly after defeating his half-brother, Atahualpa was captured in a surprise attack by the Spanish leader Pizarro and later executed. One of his brothers, Manco Inca, was set up as a puppet ruler but he fled and led a guerrilla resistance movement against the Spanish. His last place of refuge was known as Vilcabamba. Bingham thought that Manco had sent the sacred virgins of the Inca Temple of the Sun to Machu Picchu where they would be safe and hidden from the Spanish.

Early investigations showed that many of the bones found at Machu Picchu were women thus seeming to confirm Bingham's theory. For decades Bingham's theory that Machu Picchu was a refuge for the virgins of the sun was the most popular interpretation of the site.

Recent evidence was uncovered due to archaeological discoveries made in the most unlikely places -- a basement. Bingham shipped a number of artifacts off to Yale where they laid in a basement scarcely researched until recently (one wonders how many other amazing archaeological discoveries await in the basements of museums around the world). Based on new evidence, researchers believe Machu Picchu was built during the reign of Pachacuti sometime around 1450. The bones were re-examined and they showed an equal number of men and women were buried there. Machu Picchu was a retreat for the Inca Ruler and his family. A small number of people lived there such as artisans and farmers to take care of the emperor and his family's needs. Some scholars are now calling Machu Picchu the Camp David (the U.S. president's famous retreat) of the Incas. It is believed Machu Picchu was abandoned shortly after the Spanish Conquest.

Terraces that were once used to grow food for the visiting Inca Emperor and his family
©2005 D. Weber
The Hitching Post of the Sun and the Swarms of Tourists

I led my small group to the Intihuanta -- the hitching post of the sun -- a short slender monolithic piece of stone that juts upward from a large flat rock. Intihuanta structures were especially revered throughout the Inca Empire. They marked the seasonal passage of the sun. The one at Machu Picchu marked the equinoxes of fall and spring when the sun would shine directly above the Intihaunta stone. Pious Spaniards smashed nearly all of these Intihuanta stones they considered idols.

A half-crazed guard there remarked that I looked like Bingham with my cowboy/Indiana Jones hat on. Then he went on to pull at the hairs on my arms and said I had hairy arms like a gorilla. We beat a hasty retreat and lost ourselves in the maze of ruins.

A small jagged peak near Machu Picchu
©2005 D.Weber
By that time it was mid-morning and several tourist buses had already wound their way up the mountain road to unload their hordes. In a few short hours, the ruins were swarming with visitors. In 2003, over 400,000 people visited Machu Picchu prompting UNESCO officials to worry about potential damage to the site due to the volume of traffic. Peruvian authorities dismissed the concerns, feeling the remoteness of the site would keep the number of visitors to manageable levels. However, now Machu Picchu is far easier to reach than in Bingham's day. Visitors can easily take the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, then reach the site by bus. Some pay extra for helicopter rides to Machu Picchu.

As we watched bus tourists swallow Machu Picchu, we hikers felt a small sense of pride that we took the hard way to get here. We felt that because of the long journey we had made and the hardships we suffered. Thus, we gained a deeper appreciation for the ruins. We also felt fortunate over these new arrivals that we had had the chance to see Machu Picchu standing empty in the sunrise as a faint reminder of a vanished age. We would have stayed longer but we were exhausted.

With great reluctance, we bid farewell to Manchu Pichu and the Inca Trail that we traveled for so long and returned to the modern world.

©2005 D.Weber
©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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