peru 2020 – two: machu picchu

nothing short of amazing ::::

It’s been awhile since my last post about our Peru trip; I interrupted it with my last post about COVID-19. Maybe a little refocused now, maybe not, I’ll finish the posts about Peru a little more efficiently. My first post for the trip is mostly about Cusco and the woes of acclimating to high altitude.

Wow, those photo watermarks are annoying, aren’t they? That’s what happens when people don’t respect my work and steal it.

Onto Day 4 of our trip in February 2020….


Día 4:

Onto Machu Picchu! We arose early, too early, for our van pickup from Hotel Agusto in Urubamba. 6:00 AM said one itinerary page, another said 7:30 AM. We started out the rainy, chilly morning cold and tired. My breathing still too fast, I took deep breaths to give my red blood cells more chance to hang on to the oxygen. The elevation is 9420 feet here.

The van drove 30 minutes through Urubamba to the Ollantaytambo train station, passing normal Tuesday goings-on with breakfasters, parents walking kids to school, motorized rickshaws whizzing down narrow lanes, the Andes hulking in the distance.

The Ollantaytambo train was equipped with large picture windows to view the landscape, as well as large curved roof windows. Cloudy skies accompanied us most of the way but the ambient light in every direction made the skies feel light and bright. In the northwest, peaks of the Andes were scraggled with green and gray, plates of cactus, rising up like a spine of the earth. The valley holds half-built homes of adobe brick, wide leaves of potatoes, hay, and towers stringing electricity across it all.

Don’t be fooled. We were $&#@% exhausted in this photo and we hadn’t even climbed Machu Picchu yet.

The kids got bored on the 100-minute train ride, understandably, and began to needle each other. There are only so many adobe homes and fields they could appreciate (and while I am writing this, they are also bored and picking on each other; par for the course). The Urubamba River rushed to the left of the train, the color of latte turning to clear broth in the calmer parts.

The Aguas Calientes train station bustled with tourists, tour guides, and trinket-sellers, where we were whisked onto a nearby bus to Machu Picchu. The elevation is around 7000 feet here, though it didn’t lessen most of my breathlessness. The ride hairpinned up steep cliffs for about 30 minutes; I hoped that any muddy road margins held tight with the woven roots of trees.

Well-rocked pathways led us into the citadel. We took breaks every few minutes to catch our breath. We will climb to almost 8000 feet. Our guide, Alicia, unspooled Machu Picchu’s history, first starting before we climbed too far, with Hiram Bingham III. This American explorer, academic, and politician (this dude had a PhD in Latin American History), brought Machu Picchu’s existence to the public in 1911.

Locals had told him about a place between Machu Picchu (“Old Mountain”) and Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), a citadel sitting between peaks. The actual name of today’s named Machu Picchu has been lost, but the “Old Mountain” name stuck. He misidentified Machu Picchu as the last capital of the Incas [Andean explorer Vince Lee later proved that Vilcabamba (“sacred plain” in Quechua) was. The Spaniards conquered Vilcabamba in 1572], but appreciated the opportunity to explore a forgotten city rich with Inca history.

Bingham returned to Peru numerous times from 1912 to 1915 with support from Yale University, the National Geographic Society, and the Peruvian president Leguia, collecting antiquities, human skeletal remains, and exotic animals. (Reports say now these have all been returned to Peru.) Alicia stopped by a plaque near the entrance of our hike praising Bingham’s publicity and raising Machu Picchu to one the most familiar icons of Incan civilization. It surprised me to hear such praise from a local, though it is through Bingham’s work that Machu Picchu moved from a disappearing citadel choked with vegetation to one of public acclaim promoting understanding and appreciation for one of the most important, innovative civilizations in the world.

Global awareness brought in more support. Ancient Incan pathways remained but many were in disrepair, a major overhaul taking place in 1995 to allow tourists to make the climb to the citadel. After abandonment in the 16th century, heavy vegetation and isolation helped preserve much of its architecture. Around 30% of Machu Picchu was reconstructed in 1973 with mortar and other modern techniques. In 1983, the UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized Machu Picchu and in 2007 designated it one of the Wonders of the World. Authenticity to the original build prevailed and the use of mortar and climbing on the structures were prohibited. (Tl;dr: Machu Picchu was built on a damn mountain by some pretty amazing people. Abandoned, discovered, excavated, re-introduced, it’s still here.)

It rained throughout the day but the clouds cleared enough for spectacular views. I call this the Hangnail:

Machu Picchu was constructed around 1450 as an estate for Pachucuti, an Incan emperor who lived between 1438-1472, a research station of sorts. Other theories consider Machu Picchu was built as a hideout, a sacred city. I think with the vibrancy and diversity of the goings ons here, all the descriptions fit. Pachucuti (1438-1471) founded the site, with the next emperor Tupac (1472-1493) continuing.

Machu Picchu is a great example of Incan engineering was accomplished without wheels, draft animals, a formal written language, or iron or steel tools. We were acquainted with Pachuchti’s history in my last post at Ollantaytambo when we visited Templo Del Sol. This is where he escaped to when the conquistadors razed Cusco. Cusco served as the capital of the Incan Empire, housing important administrative, military, and political contacts.

Approximately 750 people lived at Machu Picchu, most serving as support staff and apprentices. Some sources say that most of the population included women (because Incas knew they were better at harsh climates, problem solving, whatever, perhaps). Harsher seasons reduced the staff to around 100. There were no slaves working here, this community made for itinerant workers to learn trades and study (probably astronomy and agriculture) within Pachucuti’s royal estate. Dwellers here did not stay their whole lives. Archeological studies find most were immigrants working for short stints, chemical markers indicating diverse diets from coastal regions and bone markers showing damage from various parasites indigenous to many regions all over Peru. Machu Picchu was a place of intellect and learning.

Below is one of my favorite photos from the trip. Incas cultivated ornamental flowers on the smaller terraces, edible agriculture on the larger. To the left, the Urubamba River curls around the peaks. The Incas believed the river was a piece of starred night sky mirrored, the bend of the Milky Way above them reflecting onto the earth. Urubamba is likely from the Quechua language, meaning “the plateau of spiders.” Incas called the river Willkamayu meaning “sacred river” (willka = sacred; mayu = river). Spiders were important in due to their ability to divine rain (spiders come out before rainfall apparently). They are also associated with hunting and war.

Spanish conquest (again, here are those damn Spaniards) in 1532 forced the Incas to flee the citadel, warned by couriers ahead of time. Though the Spanish did not know of Machu Picchu, the Incas fled to save their lives. [The classic Inca Trail (Camino Inka) had extensive paths all over the region to welcome travelers (or not, if you’re Spaniard) and academics, with at least a 45 mile reach (different sources told me different numbers). Other connections went as far as Lake Titicaca 250 miles away, I believe.]

There are three specialized types of worship buildings: Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room with Three Windows.

The Intihuatana stone (or sometimes spelled Inti Wantana), literally meaning to “a place to tie up the sun,” works as a sort of calendar associated with astronomy. I imagine it’s like a sundial for months rather than a day, using the stars. On November 11 and January 30, the sun sits almost exactly over the flat pillar, without a shadow. On June 21,  there is a long southern shadow. On December 21, there is a short northern shadow. (I did not get a photo of this. Too many tourists!)

The Temple of the Sun was constructed in semi-circular form with a trapezoidal window, the only building in the citadel of a circular shape. Inti the Sun God was thought to be worshipped here and this space may have served as a royal tomb for the mummy of Pachucuti. The trapezoidal window served in the astronomical observation (I didn’t catch the details how, though it involves the peak across the valley where more precarious-looking structures were built — again, amazing!), helping determine the start of the solstices. During the summer solstice, the two windows cast shadows on the center of the temple. There are interlocking stones in the temple to ensure stability. Gold and silver were left behind and looted by conquistadors in later years.

The cloudy weather and intermittent rain prevented us from appreciating the mirror pools (also called sun mirrors), two impressions cut into the raised boulder floors of the Temple of the Sun, the impressions filled with about a centimeter of water. Bingham, the American explorer assumed these were ancient mortar stones to grind corn and for years, this interpretation held fast. In the 1970s and well after Bingham’s death, modern archeologic astronomers clarified the use: mirrors for the sky. These impressions transform into reflecting pools when filled with water, a way Incan astronomers studied the movement of stars and planets without extending their necks for long periods as well as give a safe way to watch the sun move across the sky. These observations contributed to decisions for planting crops and anticipating seasonal changes.

There are many theories on what The Room with Three Windows represents. My favorite connects with folklore: each window represents a part of the world. The underground (uku-pacha), the heavens (hanan-pacha), and the present time (kay-pacha). Figuration with animals also plays into this belief with the snake, condor, and the puma, respectively. Located near the main plaza of the citadel, these windows would also welcome the rising of the sun, important in the rhythms of everyday life for the Incas. (Again, no photo but imagine a long wall with three simple rectangular windows.)

The square-shaped buildings below served as lodging for special visitors and the other smaller areas workshops and other homes, fitted with wooden beams and thatch for roofing. Rooms with long, vertical windows built on opposite walls were designated food storage rooms. The cross drafts created by the windows kept food cool, to keep meats, quinoa, and corn from going bad. Our guide Alicia said that some products could keep for 10 to 20 years (!) without spoilage or loss of nutritive value.

Polished dry-stone walls typify Machu Picchu’s classic Inca architectural style. Look below: the Spaniards did not destroy this wall of the Principal Temple located on the Sacred Plaza. It resulted from poor engineering. The foundation settled during an earthquake. The engineers relied on bedrock for stability and this building hadn’t been placed properly over bedrock. No mortar was used in the citadel’s engineering, so the construction needed to be precise for longevity and to withstand earthquakes. Not even a knife blade could be passed between two polished rocks if they were placed correctly. Earthquake construction employed the use of slightly inclined walls for stability (along with other design of the inter-stone plates I discussed in my last post). 1663 and 1986 were Peru’s last earthquakes and Machu Picchu’s temples survived them both.

The niches and square stone pegs located high up on the wall were for sacred objects (haucas) and to hang decorations, respectively. The supreme god of the Incas Viracocha was worshipped here and likely contained royal mummies, also worshipped with the gods.

Hematite was used for most simple rock construction. The Incas broke rocks with copper or bronze tools (remember, no iron or steel) into the sizes they needed to build. Wooden posts were tapped into cracks already present in large rocks, then soaked with water. The expansion of the wood widened the crack to break the rocks apart. These smaller blocks were sanded smooth with other stones or tools.

Though the Spaniards were too late to kill or enslave the Inca people at Machu Picchu, they still looted treasures left behind and  scraped artwork and religious symbols from their temples. The Incas had no written language but communicated with tocapu. (Can you imagine their practiced ability to remember things if most of their communication was oral??) Tocapu are geometric symbols contained in small squares usually found on clothing, blankets, or wooden objects. These represented ethnic, religious, or political status of members of the Inca imperial clan or high elite people, encoding rank or privilege of the people owning the items. Interpretation changed with adjacent geometric patterns.

Below, look at how tall the Grub is, to my shoulder! I like this photo also because of the lone tree in the center, a contrast against the gray. The terraces in the background (and see the header photo) are stacked around the citadel, over 600 terraces in all, prevent the community from sliding down the cliff in heavy rains or earthquakes. Workers also had a reasonable way to move around their workspace via the terracing. These terraces are not manageable steps, mind you. They’re about 2 feet high. For the average short-statured Incan, walking up or down would have been hard unless approaching with speed. A brisk pace made movement easier. In other words, you gotta run, dude. But don’t fall off the edge.

These terraces were paramount in agriculture throughout the citadel, the terraces retaining moisture in soil for cultivation, preventing devastating runoff, and contributing to the citadel’s irrigation system. Many gutters were constructed throughout also, for water distribution throughout the ancient community for all seasons as there was no drinkable water found in the citadel naturally.

The switchback roads greeted us again as the bus made its way back down the mountain. We traipsed around Aguas Calientes before catching the train back to the Ollantaytambo train station.

First: dinner! Paititi Grill, a pizzeria, proved a memorable stop. We found our meal of guinea pig! We asked the waitress what the best guinea pig preparation was and she unequivocally replied the oven-baked guinea pig (cuy al horno). (The pizza, not so good.)

Look at its cute teeth.

This was seriously one of the best meaty meals we had on the whole trip.

The skin was crispy, the meat like dark meat chicken. The petal-like ears, yes, also tasty. I surprised friends that I ate guinea pig….since we have two pet piglets at home. Elvis and Captain do NOT approve, though their guinea pig brains may have not been able to comprehend exactly what transpired. I’d like to think their cuteness overloads any sliver of their complex thinking ability.

We arrived back to the hotel in Cusco at dark after the train and a long Speed Racer-like drive weaving around one-lane traffic (total almost three hours = train + drive). Our train seating was scrambled a bit on the way back, so I sat across the aisle from the kids and Eat. My seat mate regaled that section of the train with his almost 90 minutes of whistling Oh, Susanna! while playing a Candy Crush like game on his phone. He even changed key! The soundtrack did not help my reading ambiance or my mood.

I couldn’t let that dampen the Machu Picchu experience too much though, my head still in the cloud forest of the Andes.

Next post, we’ll take a day to drive from Raqch’i to Puno….


THE BASICS ON TODAY’S TRAVEL: Everything was planned through Condor Travel. We highly recommend them! Guides at different legs of the trip helped us navigate everything.

Peru Rail has daily train services from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The train is 1 hour and 40 minutes long, allowing small luggage only (a standard backpack is fine). The bus from the station to Machu Picchu takes about 30 minutes. Bathrooms are available at the station but not on-site at Machu Picchu. And, you must pay for the bathroom use (we found this was common in many touristy areas in Peru). Ollantaytambo is 50 miles from Cusco. Our tour company Condor Travel provided a driver from the train station back to Cusco.


One year ago: nepalese pickled potatoes (yay, potatoes!)

Two years ago: sweet peanut soup

Three years ago: scrambled eggs with croutons

Four years ago: schrödinger’s brownie.

Five years ago: tawa naan

Six years ago: broccoli-cheese soup and tea and snow in the spring

Seven years ago: crisp flatbread with za’atar

Eight years ago: dried, chewy bananas and eggs flamenco


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story of a kitchen