The morning began early in the predawn light as we followed the trickling flow of people down the steep streets of Aguas Callientes towards the river and the bus stop. Though the buses only began transporting people up the mountain at 5:30, at 5:45 there was already a line three blocks long. We waited.
The buses hurtle along the narrow switchbacks up the mountainside, sometimes breaking to avoid collisions with buses heading the other way, sometimes one or the other needing to back up to a stretch of road wide enough for both to scrape past each other, just inches apart.
The city comes into view about two thirds of the way up, just sitting there on top of the mountain side, glimpsed through the trees, like a jigsaw puzzle assembled of gray-brown stones.
It was clear when we arrived that the sun, not due to rise for another twenty minutes, had ideas of its own, slanting rays of brilliance streaking up from behind a particular dip in the eastern peaks as the air grew ever lighter. Our legs itched to be moving as we stood in the line to enter.
Stamp. “Gracias.” We were in.
We hurried along the path, heads continually craning backwards to scan the horizon. Is it up yet? Not yet.
We followed our advice and turned left, up the mountain to the point known as the guardhouse where we have been told the sunrise is beautiful. We watched our feet on the rocky trail, then looked up to see the city, one angle of it, but we keep going. Then the sun was clearly up but too bright to look at, so we kept going. We found level ground, walked out of the trees, and got our first full view.
I said, “Woah,” out loud. I hadn’t meant to. I am not the sort of person who does that.
The city is beautiful. We stood amidst the tourists, looking between it and the sunrise, the mountains all around us with light streaking between them and clouds tangling around their peaks. Machu Picchu sits between the Amazon jungle and the Andes, which once made it an important trade center and today makes it beautiful.
We snapped our pictures, then followed the trail to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. The day was heating up quickly. It was hard to remember that it was winter still in the Southern Hemisphere. We were sweating and surrounded by bird song and just kept on. We passed groups heading the other direction, coming from the Inca Trail, the four day hike up to Machu Picchu. They all looked tired but happy.
We reached a look out point and checked our watches and knew we should turn around if we wanted to make our tour, but we spent a few moments appreciating the city at a distance before being swarmed by a large and bubbly hiking group, all taking pictures and talking loudly. We headed back and waited at the guardhouse, looking out at the spectacular view.
We met our tour and for two hours climbed up and down stairs and ran our hands along stone walls and marveled.
The Inca believed the world was made of three elements, our guide told us. Earth, Water, and Fire. They had a temple to each on Machu Picchu, the Pachamama or earth mother temple nestled under a slanted boulder even the Inca thought was huge enough to be left in place, the water temple to the side and up a level, the sun temple directly above, a curved wall with only two windows. On the winter solstice the sun as it rises will shine directly through one, and on the summer solstice through the other. On both days, they will strike the back wall in exactly the same spot.
The Inca knew the Earth was curved, long before Christopher Columbus ever sailed the Atlantic to try to prove it and instead ushered in the destruction of this very civilization. This civilization which carved a compass stone which lines up perfectly with the cardinal directions. Balance an iPhone with a compass app on top. See for yourself. This civilization that was able to split granite and shape it according to their will. At some point, we looked up at Wayanu Picchu, the adjacent mountain, and realize that high atop it are more buildings. You can climb the path up to them if you want. The slope is 80 degrees for most of the way.
It is easy to think that anything left alone for four hundred years will stay preserved, but the more you learn about this city, the more you realize how foolish that idea is. The Andes are on a tectonic fault. Earthquakes happen. Rain falls all summer long. Mud slides and avalanches are common. It’s why the city was built on a peak in the first place. By all rights, it should have slid down the steep slope into the Urubamba River below centuries ago.
And yet. And yet, Incan buildings all over South America survive earthquakes so well that Japanese engineers have studied their techniques. The walls of each building slant ever so slightly inwards as they rise, and sink over a meter into the ground at their base, all this even before the foundations. To counteract the rain, drainage canals run underground all throughout the city, underneath a meter of gravel buried beneath the dirt that allows rain water to sink down and run off. Most of them are still fully functional. And all along the lower levels of the city, level upon level of stone retaining walls still keep the city from sliding down.
About 800 to 1000 people lived here. The city’s farming terraces weren’t enough to support that population, but Machu Picchu was along the trade routes. They supported themselves by the commerce between the Incan sacred valley and the Amazon jungle. And so they lived, surrounded by mountain peaks, nestled against the sky.
We wandered around the city, getting lost in its many passage. Alpacas grazed in the plaza. Birds flitted overhead. Tourists were everywhere. Everyone is free to spend as much time as they want in Machu Picchu, at least for now. The site is more crowded every year, especially in the winter, the dry season, the best time of year to come. We wound through their numbers, scrambling up and down the steps until our legs began to feel shaky and our stomachs began to growl. We’d planned to have lunch in the town, but we don’t want to leave.
Once, 800 to 1,000 people lived here. The entire city was abandoned, however, some twenty or so years after the Spaniards first began their conquest in the Incan Empire. They left their city with its temples, its storehouses and fields and perfectly cut stones, their city which was aligned with the mountains to allow for both maximum sunlight and harmony with the peaks that they believed to have the power to protect them. They left their city, and for four hundred years, it stood, empty, silent, known only to the local farmers who never dreamed anyone would be interested in it. Four hundred years, it waited for them to come back. But they never did.