Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Exploring the Incan Wonderland - Part One (Machu Picchu, Peru)

UNESCO-listed and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the “lost city of the Incas” at Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) is simply one of the world’s greatest treasures (and my number one South American wonder). It setting of over 150 buildings constructed across a verdant Andean saddle along with a feeling of mystery and awe, it is one of the world's most uplifting and haunting travel wonders. Being able to walk into the complex at dawn via the famed Inca Trail adds to its feeling of majesty.

Machu Picchu is estimated by some scientists to have supported a population of up to 10,000 people. Its structures included temples, houses, agricultural terraces, fountains, water channels (which still work today as pictured) and open-air plazas. Not plundered by the raiding Spanish in the middle ages, it remained hidden to western explorers until early the last century.

Machu Picchu becomes much richer for having a guide explain the structures and layout. Indeed, most will make little sense without some detailed explanation which will add to the extraordinary nature of this incredible civilisation. Hopefully a photo map (taken from Huayna Picchu, the mountain that looks over the entire complex) will give a bit of an idea of its layout.
With an overall shape of the sacred condor, Machu Picchu is split into the agricultural sector (AS on the map) and the urban sector where everyone lived. The agricultural area is reputed to have been able to support up to four times the population, so it was well planned. The terracing clearly reduced erosion on the severe slopes of the mountain top. It must have been some feat to convert these sheer slopes into garden areas.

You can only get to Machu Picchu by foot (see Inca Trail story) or train. If you arrive via trekking, the path leads from the majestic Sun Gate through the agricultural sector (SG on the map), past the watchman’s hut (which probably served as a guard house in Incan times and is a great spot for a photo of the complex) and into the urban sector.

The urban sector is divided into three major areas – the sacred district, the noble district and the residential district. The first area that you walk through is the noble or royal area which provided housing for the better classes (leaders, priests and rich people). The houses are bigger and generally built with better stonework.

The structures and standards of construction are awe-inspiring. Note the huge rocks and consider how difficult it must have been to get them to Machu Picchu. The rock walls are built without mortar and are so perfect that it is impossible to slide a knife or credit card between the bricks. In some of the temples, the rocks are oddly-shaped with many sides, but still have the same perfect fit.

Beyond that, the walls are not straight but slope slightly into each room. Similarly doors and windows are built narrower at the top than the bottom creating a trapezoidal shape (for the mathematicians among us). Scientists speculate that the lack of mortar and the use of the trapezoidal walls and doors helped preserve the site from the many tremors and earthquakes that strike this geologically active area. To realise that the Incans understood all this and had the capacity to build such perfect structures is a testament to their remarkably advanced culture.

Adding to the remarkable construction is the Incans fine awareness of the stars, sun, moon and their linkage to the annual calendar. A number of the structures are precisely aligned to the equinoxes (around March 21 and September 21) and summer and winter solstices. This was highly important for the timing of planting of crops as well as having religious significance.

As soon as you enter the urban sector from the trek, you will notice the careful harnassing of water in a series of baths, fountains and channels. The water channels continue to work to this very day and are thought to have provided clean water to the entire complex including many of the individual houses.

Nearby is the only round building in the entire complex is the Temple of the Sun (TS on the map - two photos above). It was clearly significant as the stonework is superb. One of the windows aligns perfectly with the summer solstice.

Below the temple is a niche called the royal tomb (RT) though no tombs exist there (photo right).

See part two to further explore this Incan travel wonder.


Cecil said...

Great articles on the trekking exploration to the lost city of Inca civilisation, Machu Picchu! Shame to say that I haven't heard of it before.
How's the people in Peru? Is it safe to travel there?

RaysAdventures said...

Peru is safe, but in big cities like Lima stay aware. Around Machu Picchu in cities like Aguas Calientes and Cuzco I found the people friendly, honest and helpful.

Footsteps said...

What a terrific series Mark! Your descriptions always carry a great blend of the scientific and the sensory. Looking forward to more...

Mark H said...

@cecil: I found Peru very safe. Outside of Lima everything is certainly fine though Lima carried some warnings. Saying that, I felt fine wandering the streets of Lima too.

@footsteps: What a generous remark - thank you. I do like the science and history behind places, I think some understanding of that adds so much to visiting a place like Machu Picchu.

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping to go there next year. Great descriptive article. Sounds like I need to go to the gym a few times.

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