Machu Picchu at Last!
Thursday, May 6, 1999
This morning, we woke to the pitter-patter of rain, and our porters started tapping on the tent at 3:30am. This was fine for me, since I had gotten into my sleeping bag relatively early and felt ready for the last stage of our trek to Machu Picchu. Last night, in the cool of the early evening amongst the fireflies, Cesar, our guide, had asked us if we believed in reincarnation, "Because," he said, "the Incas believe in this." We were standing in a little stone circular tower, with windows overlooking the sculpted terraces and ceremonial baths of Winay Wana, which was rediscovered only fifty years ago. He went around the tour group, asking us how long we had been wanting to do the Inca Trail. One couple answered that they had been planning for one year, others said six or eight months. I, of course, was thinking, "last Friday," but I didn't want to admit that I was here for work, rather than a spiritual reason. Besides, the Incan presence kind of permeates the whole trail and I felt almost like I belonged in this world.
Cesar said, "I think many of you were called here, and hiking this trail is a pilgrimage for you. Porque en el mundo, nunca pasan los cosas por casualidad, como se dice en ingles?" I chimed out, "Because in the world, there's no such thing as coincidence." On that note, we slowly trailed up the intricate stone steps to the hostel where we were camping that night. At one point we stopped, facing out over a terrace, and turned off our flashlights. "Ooooooooo," everyone breathed. We could see the Rio Urubamba snaking beneath us, lit brightly by the approaching night train to Cuzco. I imagined being one of the Incas staying at Winay Wayna for an entire year, as some archaeologists thought, in preparation for visiting or studying at the sacred city of Machu Picchu.
Now it was early Thursday morning, and I was putting on my waterproof pants and poncho, chowing down on pancakes and porridge, wiping sleep out of my eyes, and trying to keep my excitement contained. We set off the trail at 4:30am, walking quickly in single file, flashlights waving wildly around the path. As an Inca, I would have probably been able to do the trail trusting only in my instinct, like some of the porters we saw carrying large loads on their backs without flashlights. The rain fell insistently, and I got the camera wet trying to take photos.
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To the side of the trail were sheer drops as well as some gentle inclines and terraces, and we had a fright when Jopie, the mother of the Dutch family, fell off the trail. She and her daughter Linda both started crying, and Trevor, who was our temporary guide, yelled at us to "Stop walking!" while he checked on them. Luckily, Jopie wasn't hurt and she scrambled back up onto the path from the soft downhill. Right then and there I realized that we had forgotten to make an offering of coca leaves for safe passage. As an Inca, you take three nicely shaped leaves and hold them in your palms over your mouth, breathing in their fragrance and praying. One leaf represents the lower world, Ukhu pacha, signified by the snake. One represents the middle world, Kay pacha, signified by the puma. The last leaf represents the upper world, Hanaq pacha, signified by the condor.
Rituals for Mother Earth
The deep respect of the Andean people for their place in the world echoes the mystical religious significance that was practiced at Machu Picchu. For example, Robert Randall, who worked in Ollantaytambo for 15 years, explains, "the earth is called Pachamama (Mother Earth). She is alive, and during most of the year is passive and receptive, feeling nothing and leaving man free to cultivate her. There are days, however, when she is actively happy or sad, giving rewards or punishment, and it is prohibited to touch her. There is also a period of time (Holy Week) when she dies."
Although simple, the rituals that the Andeans participate in signify much of their respect for the environment and Pachamama. For example, the "T'inka" custom: when drinking alcohol: one must always drop a little liquid onto the ground or soil before drinking. This way, Pachamama "drinks" first. Also, the "Ch'ura" custom, whereby one takes their fingers and dips them in any alcohol, then shakes their hands, scattering the alcohol over a particular object as a blessing, or, for example, onto the floor of a house. As another custom, one always asks permission from Pachamama before digging a hoe or tool into the earth. Though we were travelers and only came to visit, we learned much about the Inca way of life from the customs of their descendants who live in a respectful and special way with Mother Earth.
We finally arrived at Inkipunku, the Sun Gate, but got fog instead of a gorgeous sunrise. However, Johan, the Dutch son, had an important announcement to make, "It's my father's 57th birthday." So we cheered and clapped and sang "Las mañanitas," then continued with our hike another hour down.
As we arrived at the entrance gate, a cloudy Machu Picchu slowly appeared before us as Inti (the sun), started to shine through a bright blue sky. Although covered in vegetation, this was the sight that greeted Hiram Bingham, an American explorer who was searching for the city of Vilcabamba, on July 24, 1911. He met two indigenous families who were using some of the buildings for shelter but didn't know the significance of the ruins. Bingham returned in 1912 and 1915 to clear away the forest. Peruvian archaeologist Luis E. Valcarcel excavated more in 1934 and Paul Fejos did even more in 1940-1941.
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No one really knows what some of the buildings were used for, but some people have theories. Our guide, Pascual, explained that these ruins had deep religious significance, judging from the number of ceremonial objects, jewelry, and the skeletal remains of about 100 bodies found here. About 75% of the human remains were females, and the terraces can support only about 1200 to 1500 people, so we know only that many people could have lived here. The city clearly divides into an agricultural sector, with terraces for growing crops like corn, and an urban sector where the karaka (mayor) lived and the schools and temples were located. As in Cuzco, the urban sector here divides along the superior, or "hanan" section, and the inferior, or "hurin" section (see day in the life of Cuzco dispatch). At this point I really felt myself slipping back into Inca times. I wandered around, visiting some of the sites like the Sunturwasi, or Temple of the Sun, which functioned as an observatory.
During the winter and summer solstices, the rising sun shines through holes in the observatory, falling exactly on a central point. I also climbed the stairs to the Intihuatana (hitching post of the sun), which helped indicate the seasons, kind of like a solar calendar. It looks like a giant sundial, but the corners of the Intihuatana face magnetic north, south, east and west, and when you hold your hand over the stone, you can sometimes feel a tingling sensation. As an Incan, I could drink or bathe from one of the 16 fountains that circulated throughout the city. I would play on the Central Plaza, a wide rectangular patch in the middle of the urban sector. Llamas grazed on the terraces, and I could see shapes of llamas in the stones of the Temple of Three Windows, reminding me of the importance of this animal to my culture. I left some coca leaves at the Temple of the Condor, which has a condor head and body made of sculpted rock on the ground, and wings that you can imagine seeing in the natural-shaped granite faces spreading to the sides. I believed the condor would carry this offering to Hanaq pacha, on strong condor wings all the way to the upper world. The ruins are at 2450m, not too far from the heavens. "Please let us have safe travels," I whispered silently.
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This great city of stone, left unfinished when the 1200 inhabitants abandoned it, possibly in a large-scale migration for Vilcabamba, would have been carved block by block, painstakingly by workers in the quarry. People living in the hanan section had finer-cut stones than houses in the hurin section. Summoning up Incan strength and agility, I climbed up Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), which sits across from Machu Picchu (Old Mountain), cradling the city below.
It stood soft and quiet, silently below, and I dreamed of ancient days as a young Inca, walking on the ancient trail to Machu Picchu and seeing it for the first time from up high. Later that night, coming down to the city of Aguas Calientes, I took a bath in the natural hot springs, alternating with dips in a pool of cold water from the river. Baths, important ceremonially to the Inca (Treating Myself Like Royalty), were just as refreshing and purifying then as they felt now, and I slept well that night.
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The next day, with my muscles starting to recover, I still felt called to explore the site. There is another ruin, discovered in 1986 and lying unexcavated about 5km away, called "Maranpampa," but I didn't know how to get there and wanted to return to Machu Picchu. So, putting myself into my Inca imagination, I returned back to the trail to visit the Temple of the Moon, behind Huayna Picchu. This site has six carved-out niches in perfectly cut white stone walls and a hollowed-out bench to sit on and look out over the valley. During full moons, the temple shimmers and sparkles in the moonlight, hence the name. Chewing on coca leaves, I imagined living in Machu Picchu and climbing here, down a ladder, up steep steps, and through a natural cave, to meditate and to think about the snake below, the puma in the middle, and the condor high in the sky. Maybe in the end, there really is something to the belief in reincarnation and perhaps I felt at peace here because, I once was an Inca and at one point this was my home. As Cesar had told us, "There's no such thing as coincidence in the world."
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