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A Day Among The Llamas.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Fascinating though it is, you could never make a whole vacation of a visit to Machu Picchu, but going there is an experience that will stay with you forever.

Machu Picchu Overview Getting to the ancient city of the Incas is a pretty adventurous business in itself. Most vacationers visit the ruins as part of a larger tour of Peru or even the whole of South America. Although you can stay over at Machu Picchu – at the very pleasant Sanctuary Lodge Hotel – most people make the round trip in a day from the nearest town, Cuzco. That’s a four hour trip by train, so if you want to get the most out of a visit it’s a good idea to steel yourself to get up early in the morning and make a full day of it.

The train journey from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, the modern town in the valley below Machu Picchu, is pretty spectacular in itself. But nothing can prepare you for the wondrous site of the abandoned city.

Machu Picchu Machu Picchu hangs on a narrow ridge between two sharp, slender mountains – Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Peak. The main access route to the ruins is just about the only practicable way up and down from Aguas Calientes, for on either side of the city ridge vertical cliffs drop away hundreds of feet to the loop of the Urubamba River below. The grassy terraces and weather-beaten stones of the ruined city are testament to the sheer engineering skill of the people who built it. The stones were quarried close by, and, presumably to save on the effort of lugging lime up the mountain, made to fit together without mortar. You wouldn’t notice this unless you looked at the buildings with an expert eye: the individual blocks have been carefully carved and smoothed so that they fit together perfectly. What makes this feat even more amazing is that the most advanced tools the Incas had at their disposal were made of bronze. Because the builders incorporated existing rock features and outcrops into the buildings it appears, in many places, that Machu Picchu has grown out of the stone of the ridge itself, rather than being built by human hands.

Mist over Machu Picchu Machu Picchu was built around seven hundred years ago, and occupied for around two hundred years. In the sixteenth century it appears to have been abandoned, though there is no direct evidence for why this may have happened. For four hundred years the jungle and the mists of the high Andes concealed it (the city is 2500m above sea level) until it was rediscovered by US explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Since then it has been a focus of intense archaeological activity, and is the motor that drives Peru’s tourist economy.

The other great mystery of Machu Picchu is why it was built at all. The seemingly obvious explanation is defense, and its true that any would-be attacker would have a very hard time indeed scaling the heavily vegetated cliffs to reach the summit of the ridge. But the Incas were the dominant political and military force in the region at the time, with no apparent need for a last-stand citadel. Add to that the fact that Machu Picchu is in a rather remote and probably militarily unimportant position and the defensive argument begins to crumble.

Machu Picchu Bridge Much more likely is that it served a religious or ceremonial function, or it was some kind of retreat for the Inca aristocracy. Certainly one of the most impressive sites within the ruins is the Temple of the Sun. The Incan religion focused around the sun and the stars. One of the most interesting of the remaining religious artifacts is Intihuatana, ‘the tying post of the sun’. It appears to have been the focus of a religious ceremony that, judging by the stone’s position, seems to have taken place every year shortly before the winter solstice.

Llamas The mass of terraced fields and water channels suggest that Machu Picchu was far more than just an overgrown temple or a holiday resort for Incan high society. It was clearly a self-sufficient community, and probably numbered in excess of a thousand individuals. One commodity it is a little short of is water: the inhabitants would have been dependent on the (admittedly abundant) rainfall. One possible reason for the city’s ultimate abandonment is that a fluctuation in the climate reduced the water supply to a level at which the settlement could not support itself.

History and archaeology aside, Machu Picchu is a wondrous, breathtaking sight all by itself. If you can, be on the site at sunrise or sunset to appreciate at its best and to try to recapture, just for an instant, what it was like to live in such an otherworldly place.

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