The Andes are a wrinkled mass of earth that if ironed out nice and flat would cover thousands of square miles. As they are currently laid out it is nearly impossible to simply wander around. A visit into these mountains requires planning and an understanding that you will touch ground in only a tiny percentage of the land you see. It is rarely level, mostly vertical, and heavily vegetated unless managed by human hands. The Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary (hereafter simply Machu Picchu) is but one of many Inca sites from six or seven hundred years ago. It is the most exquisite and most complete of the sites yet uncovered from centuries of vegetation, but it is by no means the only site of grandeur.
The biodiversity of these mountains is very rich. There are slopes, huge elevation changes, east and west facing aspects (as well as north and south), thin air and thicker air, and micro-climates that afford organisms a diverse array of habitable niches. Thus there are plants and animals of all sorts adapted to rather specific aspects of this convoluted and corrugated landscape. The overall climate at Machu Picchu is quite mild. Only 13 degrees off the equator it is well below the snow line and agriculture involved a great deal of the Incan life here. The agriculture was carried out on terraces held in place by retaining walls. The rocks were cleaved from the quarry sites on the mountain top. As you look at the pictures think about not how lovely it is but how difficult is was to make. Each stone was hand cut and shaped and then placed and finally polished. Celestial bearings were studied and eventually understood and finally carved in stone. Each aspect is remarkable and in totality it is nearly unbelievable.
This is a picture (above) from the web that shows the subduction (diving) of the Nazca Plate under the South American Plate (a floating continental land mass). The edge of South America as we know it is a long range created by the Nazca and and Antarctic Plates as they scrape under and lift and bulldoze debris. The region is not just cold stone mountains but is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and is studded with volcanoes. These volcanoes and fault collisions continue north along our Pacific coast and around the Alaskan archipelago (the Aleutian Islands) and then southward down the western side of the Pacific Ocean; passing Kamchatka, Japan, Southeast Asia, and terminating just north of western Australia. In the area where Peru, Bolivia, and Chile meet the land mass is moving about 2 inches a year.
Though the elevation in the area of Machu Picchu is around 8000′ and people lived here for generations, it is not really level. The entrance at the Sun Gate is a hearty climb from the public gates onto the site which are at the level of many of the terraces. The nearby peak, called Huayna Picchu, is another 1000′ or so above Machu Picchu. That is 1000′ of vertical, loose, damp, mountainside. Huayna Picchu is shown in the image below. Notice that there are terraces very near the top of Huayna Picchu.
From the elevation leading to the Sun Gate, where this picture was taken, much of the landscape of the ruins can be seen. There are work shops, residences, religious sites, agricultural terraces, courtyards, and storage areas. Though the buildings, at least the walls, are in rather good condition or have been restored, there are no writings and no Rosetta Stone to allow a real understanding of why the Inca were here and what the city meant to them. Megalithic societies provide quite a conundrum for the archeologists and historians. So much of what they did is obvious and solid but much more of what they were doing is simply guesswork and deduction.
I often wonder if our culture were to disappear and in 1000 years the ruins of Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium were discovered under a layer of oaks and pines would the 22nd century discoverers assume they were sites of religious activities and perhaps even sacrifice? Perhaps that is the wrong analogy because those two sites may well be sites of religious fervor and sacrifice. Damn Bucky Dent and thank god for the four game sweep – but I digress.
From various angles the complexity of the site opens up. The terraces, plazas, stairways (109 stairways with 3,000 steps), and walls remain in stark display of what was a thriving and active center. However, most researchers feel that Machu Picchu was created as a planned city in the mid-1400’s and lived in for about 80 years; then abandoned. Again, there are no written records with explanations to back this up but also none to dispute it. The Spanish wrote nothing about this area at this elevation though there are records which probably deal with the lower land in this valley of the Urubamba River.
Retaining walls held everything in place not just the agricultural terraces. The agricultural terraces are located throughout the complex with varying compass aspects. The microclimates that are produced by the various terraces seem to point to a year-round growing season on this mountain ridge.
The harvested crops were stored in granaries located along the edge of the garden terraces. There were other storage facilities located throughout the mountains. (See previous blog page.) The need for food was paramount when undertaking a mountain lifestyle. The storage of food was more important than storing gold. It was essential to have food for workers, slaves, and all people who were not agrarian themselves. This was a city with skilled and unskilled workers, religious and political people, as well as families and farmers.
The two images above are of the Sun Temple or Torreon. This city seems to have been rich in celestial and religious significance; though no one knows where one begins and the other ends. The window/door in the upper picture, that looks out over the river valley, lines up the rays of a rising sun on the summer equinox with a carved line in the natural rock rising in the floor of the room. The picture immediately above shows how the Inca used the natural stone where they could and added hand worked stone to create the additional form and space needed. The Urubamba River is down a very precipitous slope of about 1500′ Machu Picchu.
I might mention how one does access this location. The city of Cusco is about 1000 meters (3300′ or so) higher than Machu Picchu and is the starting point for getting to the 70,000 acre Historical Sanctuary. The most direct route is by noisy and intrusive helicopters – don’t use them. The best way is by train from Cusco or from the Sacred Valley at Ollantaytambo. This ride is rich in vistas and provides a nice transition from the city to the remote mountain vastness. Once in the town of Aguas Calientes and established in your lodging you proceed to the main corner in town and hop a bus up a switch-back filled road (at least 16 hairpin turns) which deposits you at the main entrance to the sanctuary. You can do the trip in one day from Cusco but for better vistas, mountain birding, and a chance to drink in the area’s majesty and overnight stay is the better option. The staff aboard the train will provide snacks and drinks and then a fashion show with a chance to purchase local garments made from llama, vicuna, and alpaca yarn.
The next page will add to the Inca story with more images from Machu Picchu and other sites near Cusco.