Thursday, 19 December 2013

32. Wonder: Machu Picchu

(For the Machu Picchu preview, please click here.)

In Arthur C. Clarke's science-fiction classic, "Rendezvous With Rama", a colossal and mysterious spacecraft passes close by Earth before using the power of the sun to leave the solar system. It allows just enough time for a team of astronauts and scientists to get inside and explore. They find no signs of life, just a series of alien structures and artefacts that they can only make educated but still necessarily wild guesses as to their function. Nothing is explained, nothing is made clear, the alien ship is almost entirely enigmatic, leaving many more questions than answers to those studying it.

Wandering around the lost Inca settlement of Machu Picchu conjures up a very similar sense of mystery. Abandoned by the Incas, never discovered by the Spanish invaders, it doesn't reveal its secrets easily. The Incas didn't leave any written records; unlike places such as Angkor Wat, no helpful inscriptions can be found. All we have are rocks. Very well cut and positioned rocks - some extraordinarily so - forming what are probably houses, probably temples, probably storerooms, and probably various other things. Probably. Because like the astronauts in Arthur C. Clarke's giant spaceship, archaeologists can only gather the available evidence to form likely theories. To make guesses, in other words. In truth, Machu Picchu's precise and definite function will likely never be known. Its secret died when the Spanish conquistadors took one look at the Inca civilisation, realised it had rather a lot of gold, and swept it out of history.

By reputation, it is fair to say, Machu Picchu is one of the heavyweight candidates of my Wonder quest. Its qualities are near mythical. Lost in the mountains for centuries, discovered only a hundred years ago hidden under thick undergrowth, belonging to a vanished civilisation, unrecorded in any historical records, it is oozing in mystery. The surrounding scenery of high mountains and low clouds adds a visual quality to the mystery. Ruined, evocative, majestic, there's no question that it's one of the big boys of world landmarks. So you can imagine my feelings, arriving after days of tough trekking at the Sun Gate for the first famous view of it, upon seeing this:

Yes, on the morning of the fourth day of trekking, the weather was not onside. The view from the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu in the near distance, with the famous peak of Huayna Picchu immediately behind it, is supposed to be a moment of triumph. Days following the Inca Trail rewarded with sunrise over the celebrated ruins. But that morning, the sun did not appear to rise. We'd woken at 3.30am, eaten hastily, braved the appalling toilets, and then - queued. Along with a few hundred other trekkers, we queued in the darkness at a checkpoint for about 90 minutes. Danielle was grumpy as she'd been rushed to get ready by the porters, and I was grumpy because I felt penned in like an animal, and forced to hear the inane banter of some Australians behind me. The gate opened at 5.30am, and our group passed through - and with an uncanny sense of timing, the rain began to pour. It never let up.

So two hours later, I was so wet and cold that my arrival at the Sun Gate was couldn't even be described as underwhelming. It just wasn't anything. I peered into the cloud and checked with my guide that, yes, Machu Picchu was supposed to be there. He advised waiting for a while, as the clouds very often clear suddenly, allowing the big reveal. On cue, the rain became even more torrential. None of the group felt like hanging around.

An hour or so later we arrived at Machu Picchu itself. Here's the group photo.

The smiles are a lie.

This was my first introduction to Machu Picchu. A fog and rain covered smudge, identifiable as the postcard-friendly ruins but with none of the splendour. I stood, for ages, looking at it. This is Machu Picchu, I thought to myself, and felt absolutely nothing. I was so cold, wet, and tired that I couldn't feel even a tingle of excitement. All the group went for a hot drink, which cheered us a little, and the sun even made a brief attempt to push through the cloud and give us some warmth, but then the rain returned yet again. Flavio, our guide, tried very valiantly to give us a tour, but after almost an hour even he realised it was a lost cause. We were in the magnificent Machu Picchu and nobody wanted to be there. The tour was quickly abandoned, and a group of us found shelter, any shelter, to hide in as the rain poured. During a brief respite, Danielle and I escaped the hell of Machu Picchu for the heaven of a lukewarm shower in the nearby tourist town, Aguas Calienties.

So my introduction to Machu Picchu was, you could say, inauspicious. But fortunately, my golden rule with any potential World Wonder is to visit it (at least) twice. That first morning, soaked and chilled, I would have been miserable anywhere. The Taj Mahal would have been dingy, the Great Wall dull, the Eiffel Tower a grey pylon. Standing, looking at the Inca ruins, feeling nothing, I knew that this was not a fair assessment of Machu Picchu. But the next morning, Danielle and I awoke and looked outside. And the sun was shining.

The sun would have been shining on July 24th 1911, when Hiram Bingham III made his famous discovery. With more than just a shade of the Indiana Jones about him, the Yale university lecturer and historian (although not archaeologist) was more sensible than Danielle and I and chose the dry season in Peru to do his exploring. In fact, he was looking for the lost city of Vilcabamba, the final stronghold of the Inca empire, and at first believed that was what he had discovered. Hidden by centuries of vegetation, his discovery was not as clean and disernable as the Machu Picchu we see today - it was more less a thick tangle of weeds with some rubble visible beneath. And although it turned out not to be Vilcabamba, National Geographic championed Bingham's discovery, giving the two the beginning of lasting fame.

As with many famed discoveries, Bingham wasn't really the first person to rediscover Machu Picchu, he was more the first person to bring it to popular attention Local people knew all about it, and some were even living there when Bingham appeared. It's them who give it the name: "Old Peak", in the Quechua language. Likely, several Westerners had also stumbled upon the site; as far back as 1867, a German businessman is recorded as having purchased land nearby, and with the permission of the Peruvian government seems to have plundered numerous Inca sites. He seemed keen on mining the area for gold and silver, although fortunately this never came to anything. You can only imagine that if gold had been discovered under Machu Picchu in the 19th Century, we wouldn't have much to look at today. Other foreigners appear to have spotted the ruins also. But let's not take too much credit away from Bingham - he may not have been the actual discoverer, but he did clear the weeds away and reveal it to the world.

So, over the last century, archaeologists have explored and theorised. Some things can be pinned down with certainty. There's no doubt it is Inca, and carbon dating can pin a start date to around the 1450s. This ties in very nicely with the reign of the 9th Inca ruler, Pachacuti, the man who turned the Incas into a powerful force and empire. The main man of the Incas, in other words. Machu Picchu was therefore likely built by him, although its precise function remains elusive.

To describe it as a city is perhaps misleading - at best, around 750 people might have lived there. A settlement is more accurate, and due to the small size and hidden location and lack of historical mention, it's unlikely it was a significant settlement in terms of power or influence. One appealing theory has it as a royal estate for Pachacuti and his successors, kind of a holiday home for them to get away to and hide from the stress of the city. But this probably downplays the significance a little. It's unlikely Machu Picchu was a mere chalet. Statues found on-site (now in museums) and various structures within the complex strongly hint at a religious function too. Machu Picchu, famously, is in the mountains, and for the Incas the mountains were worshipped as deities. Pachacuti didn't choose the location of Machu Picchu just because it was pretty, he would have chosen it because it was sacred. The first great king of his civilisation, Machu Picchu was a symbol of his divine power and although a country estate, was a focal point for worship. Here's the Intihuatana, a ritual stone related to the sun and the calendar.

Or perhaps. Like the scientists exploring the alien ship in Rendezvous with Rama, the lack of definitive information makes everything educated guesswork. But to be fair to the archaeologists over the last century, they have had a little more time and surrounding context than a few days in a fictional spaceship. And there are plenty of clues within Machu Picchu was to what it was all was for.

After a shower, some drinks, and a good sleep, Danielle and I had a chance to decide for ourselves for our second visit to the site. And this time, the weather was on our side. The rain and cloud of yesterday had vanished: now there was sun. No more misery, just brightness. This was Machu Picchu at its best. And it was glorious.

I don't think, in my Wonder travels so far, I have ever experienced such a contrast in impressions as much as I did with Machu Picchu. From the total lack of feeling of the first visit, to the pure and simple "wow" of the second. With the mountain deities on my side second time around, Machu Picchu was revealed. Far more sprawling than the famous stock photos suggest, Machu Picchu is a lot more than just the ruins running along a mountain spine, and has countless stone terraces and other buildings clinging to both sides of the ridge. Sure, it may have housed no more than 750 people, but it also fed all these people (although it is suggested that Machu Picchu wasn't a self-sufficient entity). The ruins are never uniform. Some dwellings are humble and some are elaborate, some are carefully restored and others are rubble, some are built from huge and perfectly-cut blocks and some have had less devoted attention paid to them.

There's a surprising amount of open green space right in the middle, and one part, right in the midst of the ruins, seems entirely untouched by the Incas with natural rock scattered everywhere. It's almost as if the Incas deliberately left it there, thinking "let's show them how the mountain used to look before we started building."

On our second visit, Danielle and I had tickets for Huayna Picchu. Meaning "Young Peak", Huayna Picchu is the famous peak behind the ruins, as seen in the most famous view (the actual Machu Picchu mountain is behind). It turns out that Huayna Picchu is pretty steep.

But it gives a commanding view of the Machu Picchu ruins.

It even has some ruins of its own.

Exploring Machu Picchu is an exhilarating experience. Sure, the path may now be well trod, but it still gives the feeling of discovery. I feel just like an astronaut exploring a mysterious spaceship. As the day wore on, the number of tourists (many just day-trippers) dropped off, and this mega-famous tourist hotspot was very peaceful. Evoactive ruins are never quite the same when large tour groups block your path, but Machu Picchu is big enough to avoid these, especially if you hang around for the day. There are all kinds of different parts and sections, as suggested above, that makes for a very varied experience - far moreso than I had expected. A day wasn't enough - I could happily have spent another, and maybe another, visiting everything in the area. By the end of the day, surrounded by mountains and sun and ruins that were far from random, Danielle and I may have been entirely exhausted (Machu Picchu is a very physical tourist experience) but we were in no doubt that we were in the midst of something truly special.

As a Wonder, Machu Picchu is intrinsically linked with its surroundings. Its beauty comes from its position in the Andes, atop a peak, with other greater peaks all around. A cynic - and perhaps I would have included myself in this category previously - might say that its all about the scenery, and without the scenery then Machu Picchu is just a bunch of rubbish ruins. But it's not, and it simply takes a visit to realise this. Climb neighbouring Huayna Picchu and gaze at the panoroma around you - but it is always the ruins of Machu Picchu that draw your eye. The Great Wall is more than a wall, the Eiffel Tower is more than a big pylon, the World Cup final is more than just a game of football: Machu Picchu is more than just some ruins. Nobody would be celebrating Machu Picchu if it happened to be a modern tourist resort built on top of the peak. Why? Because it wouldn't complement the surroundings. But the Incas, as with most ancient people, were more in tune with nature than we are today, and they built something that fitted in perfectly with the mountains. They reshaped a peak to turn it into a royal estate, with key buildings aligned to the sun. They created a small town on a mountain that was part of the mountain. And what we see is only the visible part of their construction. They may never have developed a written language or even the wheel, but the Incas were extremely sophisticated engineers. And it is thought that up to 70% of Machu Picchu is unseen. It is underground, built as support and as an advanced drainage system, to prevent the settlement being washed away by rain and landslides. It worked. That's why Machu Picchu is still here, 500 years later. It's not chance.

Day 1 may have been a washout, but Day 2 was simply superb. The perfect Wonder visit involves seeing a Wonder at its very best - and still wanting more. That's how I felt leaving Machu Picchu on the second day. It came with a reputation as a heavyweight - and it delivered. Whether simply standing and gazing at it, or spending hours exploring the sprawling, varied ruins, it is an astonishing place. It is everything a Wonder should be. And already I want to see it again.

Some criteria then.

Size: The ruins are more sprawling than I'd expected, although it's fair to say that the individual constructions, while big, aren't of epic proportions. But as part of a mountain top, and surrounded by a vista of huge peaks, Machu Picchu is bit like looking at a cinema screen from the front seat.
Engineering: A lot more subtle and sophisticated than is often given credit for. It's not easy to abandon a town on top of an exposed mountain and still find it there 500 years later. But the Incas built carefully and deliberately. They didn't build as a series of buildings, they masterplanned a single whole. And that's why many of the ruins are in good shape, only missing a roof (which would have been thatched and lost a long time ago).
Artistry: Although the stonework of the individual ruins are nice, and some very precisely cut, by themselves they aren't beautiful. It's how the ruins work as a whole, and especially with their surroundings, that make them striking.
Age/Durability: 500 years old - most of that in a state of abandon - and going strong.
Fame/Iconicity: Machu Picchu is a rising star. In Peru, it's obviously massively famous, and I think that throughout the world it is getting more and more recognition. It's one of the world's premier lost cities.
Context: Perhaps Machu Picchu's strongest card. The ruined estate is part of a reshaped mountain top, surrounded by many other mountains. It's an incredible, jaw-dropping scene, and not one that Machu Picchu is intruding upon (as a modern hotel plonked in the mountains might be), rather it plays an intrinsic part.
Back Story: Machu Picchu is one of the world's lost cities, giving it an aura of the mythical. It belonged to the Incas greatest ruler, and was never discovered by the invading Spanish. It was then discovered by an Indiana Jones figure. Machu Picchu makes for great reading.
Originality: Yeah, there's not much out there like this. Well, other Inca ruins perhaps, but none on this scale.
Wow Factor: As long as you can see it through the clouds, and aren't soaking wet and cold, Machu Picchu is all wow.

I'd been wary about Machu Picchu before visiting. It came with a lot of hype, and with that a lot of expectation. Additionally, I was very concerned that the abudant natural beauty of the scene was what people were really celebrating, with a few ruined Inca buildings being given undue attention simply because of their location. But this is not the case. Machu Picchu is a huge and sprawling site, with varied and interesting architecture, and the Incas didn't just build it in the mountains, they built it as part of the mountains. Remove the constructions and you'd still have a beautiful scene, but it wouldn't be special. With the ruins, it is truly something special and one of the world's great views. For me it brings to mind the Great Wall of China, in which a structure augments its surroundings. And the Great Wall of China gives some indication as to where I'd rate the spectacular Wonder of Machu Picchu. For while I don't think it can quite match the surely untouchable heights of the Taj Mahal or Great Wall, it's still within the same range, and it towers above the nearest competition of the Eiffel Tower. Machu Picchu is truly wonderful, and I fully expect it to be one of my final Seven Wonders.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. The Eiffel Tower
5. The Millau Viaduct
6. Angkor Wat
7. Bagan.

Other Wonders
Sydney Opera House
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris


Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. Based on your description (and of course photos) it is no "wonder" that this is a major contender in your list of the final seven (you can consider that feeble pun your Christmas cracker joke, as I believe that they are very hard to come by outside of the UK; unfortunately I can't provide the paper crown or pointless object via these comments).

    Your article describes perfectly one of the things that gives this place something that many others don't have: an air of mystery. We know the backstory to the Taj Mahal, we know why the great gothic cathedrals were built, we obviously know why people would build a bridge or a palace; but with this we only have various theories (albeit by archaeologists and historians who know what they are talking about). In a way it's a shame that we don't have more information, but on the other hand a little bit of mystery also adds to it I think, in a completely different way that cold hard facts don't.

    I was quite pleased to read that despite the fact that it is a popular tourist site it is possible to experience it without being surrounded by too many people at a time.

    And on that note, Merry Christmas! What are the festivities like over there?


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