On Machu Picchu

Even if you have seen it in pictures, you really don’t understand this strange stone village tucked in between staggering mountain peaks and profound valleys. This is a landscape that is truly three dimensional, and it has little or nothing to do with the two-dimensional landscapes we are familiar with on the central plains of the United States. Standing at the top of Machu Picchu and looking out over the entire settlement gives one the feeling of profound vertigo as the mesa drops off in front you, dropping off five or six hundred feet in two or three horizontal meters. The differences between the level areas where the buildings are located and the central grassy plazas are striking, and one spends the entire visit climbing stairs in one direction or other. Just getting to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes (the small town at the bottom of the mountain where tourists begin their climb to the top) is a challenge because the road is a series of thirteen switchbacks that take you up to Machu Picchu, so you’re already a little dizzy when you make it up to the central plateau. The pictures do not prepare you for the experience: the depth of the three-dimensional reality of Machu Picchu is not really reproducible in two-dimensional photography. Yes, you can get an idea of the scale of the roughly hewn mountains that jut straight up only to plunge down insanely into a the river gorge below. One should be holding on to something while trying to take it all in. After walking around a bit, you do start to understand the majesty of the place, its grandeur as an emperor’s luxury palace, its bold statement of power and ego. The construction of Machu Picchu is an over-the-top statement by an Incan emperor, Pachacuti, who was so powerful that he could build his palace in this out-of-way high plateau and get away with it. Machu Picchu served many functions, both secular and sacred for a star-gazing emperor of Tahuantinsuyu (the Inca name for the empire) who was at his height of power when he decided to build this odd home in the clouds. One notices almost immediately that many of the clouds surrounding the site are seen from above, not below. Except for the tourists, though, the place is strangely empty. None of buildings have roofs, which have long since fallen in and disintegrated, so in some aspects, we are now looking at the desiccated skeleton of a long-since dead corpse. Abandoned before the arrival of the Spanish, the Incas, whose empire would collapse not long after the arrival of the Spanish, never came back to Machu Picchu, and it fell into disuse forever. One might study the cosmology of this enigmatic town which sits silently at about 8,000 feet, or examine the construction secrets of Incan masons, or we could marvel at their ability to cut giant blocks of stone, move them, and then to lift them into place on a temple wall. Machu Picchu is, however, inscrutable and does not give up its secrets willingly or easily. The mysteries of why this was built, or the function of some of its stranger structures will forever be unknown. One could wander about Machu Picchu for years, going up and down its endless staircases, and never really understand it as a construction. Certainly, its main message is about wealth and power, how to get it, how to keep it, but there seems a little more to it as you ponder its almost endless terraces, it narrow passages, its symbolic geometric iconography. The entire structure seems to be the unification of earth and sky via this intermediary point between two huge mountain peaks, a ridge daring both the mountains and the valleys. My point would probably be this: don’t let anyone tell how interesting Machu Picchu might be, go and experience it for yourself. Tip of the hat to Millennium Tours of Texas for breaking down all of the barriers and making this trip so easy and so possible.