You don’t need me to tell you that Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest tourist puller. So forget I said that; this blog is about things you don’t know. From its desertion, to its discovery – and a contentious theory to dispute orthodox teachings thrown in to boot – it’s not just the scenery at Machu Picchu that holds you spellbound.
Andean cultures had a profound understanding of cosmic concepts and believed Nature and Time was alive. Mainstream historians don´t tell you that, but the clues left in ancient architecture do!
In short, the idea the ancients had is the same message that is repeated by the so-called New Age Movement, but without the bullshit. For example, the expression, “law of attraction,” whereby if you long for something and believe in it, your dreams will come true.
It is also where we get the expression, “Be careful what you wish for!” Except, it´s not quite as simple as many so-called spiritual “gurus,” of modern times will have you believe. But we will discuss that in more detail at a later date! For now, let´s concentrate on Machu Picchu.
Getting to Machu Picchu
If you’re planning to make your way to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, you’ll probably stay in Cusco; though Pisac is also a good option. It’s quieter than Cusco, less touristy and offers amazing scenery. I would recommend you do both. Either way, you will have to make your way to Ollantaytambo to get the train to Machu Picchu. I would also recommend you spend a couple of days in Ollantaytambo.
To get to Machu Picchu I travelled with Inca Express, a luxury executive train with plush leather seats, finely crafted folding tables and excellent hospitality. Drinks, snacks and a traditional Peruvian chocolate sweet are included in the $55 fare and they give you a little goody bag with some handkerchiefs and mosquito repellent.
The train leaves from Ollantaytambo at 6.40am, 11.35am or 4.36pm and drops you off in Aguas Calientes from where you catch a bus up to the Machu Picchu ruins. To get the most from your visit to Machu Picchu I would also recommend you stay the night in Aguas Calientes. It’s a quaint little town and if you are prepared to get up early enough you will see the sun rise in Machu Picchu.
Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes you will need to purchase a ticket from Centro Cultural. It’s not difficult to find. From the train station go through the market, veer left at the far end, down a ramp and over the bridge. (Just down the hill from there is where you catch the bus). From the bridge go straight on passed some cafes and shops and turn left. Centro Cultural is on your right hand side about 200 yards further down. If you come to a statue of an Inca warrior you’ve gone passed it.
The entrance ticket to Machu Picchu is 126 soles, about 35GBP and also includes access to Wayna Picchu – the tall mountain peak in the background you will recognise from the postcard shot. If you want to climb Waynu Picchu and see the stunning views from up there, you need to be there early – hence why you will need to stay over in Aguas Calientes.
The snag is, you need a permit to climb Waynu Picchu and only 400 are issued on any one day. The first 200 people go between 7am-8am and the second 200 go between 10am-11am. If you’ve not got your ticket before 8am at the latest they will all be gone. And tha´s another good reason to stay in Agua Calientes.
Busses up to Machu Picchu leave from the main road as you exit the market by the train station. Just follow the sound of the raging Urubamba River and you’ll see a queue of busses. It’s a dead give away! The current in the river is so strong, water explodes violently like spontaneous detonations in a sewer, which is fascinating to watch but you wouldn’t want to go for a swim. The busses leave every 5 to 10 minutes before making the winding journey up the mountainside. The scenery is so stunning I was getting aroused.
To get the most out of your Machu Picchu experience it is recommended you get a guide otherwise you just roam around aimlessly taking pictures of old bricks and mountains. You can easily find a guide outside the entrance wearing a beige jacket with “Guia” written on the back. If you want a private guide for a full 4-hour tour you’re looking at paying 100-150 soles, about 30GBP, though you can go in a group for a superficial chat for about 20 soles £5. Once inside the settlement you can ink your passport with the official Machu Picchu stamp of admission.
Machu Picchu is on the fringes of the Sacred Valley, the divine home of what used to be the Inca Empire. Some commentators say it was built as a fortress, though there is evidence to prove it was much more than a hangout for Inca warriors. In fact, the soldiers spent most of their time in the guard posts way up in the rocks of Wayna Picchu.
Contrary to its popularity and importance today, Machu Picchu was not as important to the builders as many other settlements in the Sacred Valley, though still took them 100 years to build the city. However, much of the later building work was expanding the boundaries of the original foundations.
As with most Inca cities, evidence of agriculture is prominent here and great importance was placed on the cultivation of crops. Built into the mountain side visitors will see stepped terraces, lush green grass and thick tropical foliage packed into small round stones that circle the city. The number of agricultural terraces is immense and tumble right down to the river below alongside a staircase of 1000 steps.
The Discovery of Machu Picchu
The discovery of Machu Picchu is accredited to Hiram Bingham in 1911. Everybody knows this, and it’s true that whilst the privileged professor from Yale University unveiled the ruins to the world, the ancient city had already been discovered by locals much earlier.
The first documented discovery is by a local mestizo who stumbled across the ruins in 1850, although the most talked-about discovery among the locals is the two peasants that came across the site 44 years later. They moved their families into the lower parts of the ruins and lived there quite happily until the arrival of Bingham and his crew. A hundred years on and the ancestors of the two men still live at the foot of the complex.
Bingham, a Yale professor, not trained in archaeology is said to have accidentally discovered Machu Picchu, but he was in fact taken there by the sons of the local peasants. He was exploring in the mountains of Peru in search of the fabled City of Gold, thought to be Villabamba, the city where it is believed Tupac Amaru, the last king of the Inca retreated to avoid capture from the Spanish. Tupac however, was lured out of his hiding place and betrayed by his brother who handed him over to the Spanish. He was executed in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco.
Bingham didn’t find his treasures of gold, but instead unearthed a wealth of ancient artefacts that belonged to a lost civilisation. He looted these instead and Yale University have only very recently agreed to return the property to the Peruvian Government – and then only because they were ordered to by a high court injunction.
The Desertion of Machu Picchu
It is known that Machu Picchu was suddenly abandoned; though nobody knows the reason why. Some historians put this down to the invasion of the Spanish, but realistically that can’t have been the reason as the desertion of the city occurred 100 years before their arrival.
Other historians speculate it was due to in-fighting amongst the indigenous tribes which is a more likely theory. In 1471, Cusco was attacked by the Chanca warriors and Inca Pachacuti fled Cusco in terror. His second son, however, Tupac Yupanqui stayed behind to defend the city and its people. He secured victory and was named Inca king. So, if that is the case why would Machu Picchu, an Inca “fortress” (but with rooms for royalty) have been deserted?
There’s no doubt that the disruption weakened the Inca Empire, but in my mind it is doubtful this would have prevented the Inca from abandoning the settlement and leaving it unfinished. The alleged “facts” don’t add up.
Before I went to Machu Picchu this was an interesting point that had fascinated me. Nothing I had read about it had concluded with a satisfactory explanation. But at the site, it was my guide, Adriel, that opened the door to a potential reality
“During the time of the Inca the area was rife with yellow fever,” he told me. “176 skeletons were found here.”
“Where were they found?” I asked.
“All over. They had not been buried.”
Nor had they been prepared for burial, and mummification was, as I had learnt on several occasions, something the Inca were very focussed on as this was an important ritual to prepare the soul for its passage into the next life.
“Do you think it is possible that Machu Picchu was deserted because of an outbreak of yellow fever,” I asked Ariel. He looked at me for a moment, slightly taken aback by the question.
“Nobody knows why the Inca left here.”
I had become familiar with this type of standard answer. Guides have a script and tend to falter if you step outside their realm of knowledge and understanding. I didn’t question anymore, but it seemed to me that a debilitating disease the Inca had no cure for could have been the reason for them to leave the city. It would be interesting to know if there was an outbreak anywhere else.
But of course, this is just a theory, and like so many other theories about our ancient past cannot and will not be proven. However, it is not the only theory that has some shred of plausibility, and more than a slither than the morsels offered by orthodox scholars. And there´s a lot more to know about these ancient Inca ruins.
Find out what else in Machu Picchu Part 2.
You can learn more about Machu Picchu and the mysteries of Ancient Andeans in my book available now on Amazon!