I am standing in the Sun Gate high above Machu Picchu, but all I see is fog. I got here by climbing an hour at 8,500 feet elevation, so my knees are both rubber, I am sweating profusely, and I am certainly glad I paid for the emergency Medevac insurance. Slowly, the fog lifts, and the ancient city mystically appears in the distance. I hurry off a few shots, not knowing when it will disappear again.
I started out this morning taking a bus ride at 6:00AM, as in 0600 hours, as in stupid early. That is so that I can be there in time for that magic moment when the city is illuminated by the sun’s rays, just like the picture you’ve all seen. After about 30 minutes of driving up a narrow, yet somehow treacherous mountain road, my guide, Victor Hugo (really!) takes me through a dismaying throng of other eager tourists to get to the best vantage point for photos. But when we get there, all we have is fog.
As he stands there explaining to me all about Machu Picchu and the theories surrounding its short existence, the curtain lifts, and the tableau is revealed in all its glory, and I must say the size and scope of these exotic ruins, set as they are high up in the verdant green of the Andes, should impress even the most jaded traveler. I know it does me.
I will skip all of the history of the place, since you can find better information elsewhere, but what I found interesting is that they built this place without domestic beasts of burden or even wheels! And, as in all of the important Incan sites, they laid out their buildings in such a way that they doubled as astronomical observatories or giant sundials. Pretty clever.
After browsing through the main city, I climb alone up to the Sun Gate, where this story began, and so I actually got to see the city unveiled twice in a single day. Nor was there much rain, unusual for this time of year.
I only have to share my spot way up here with a few other travelers. I admit that I am put off by the huge numbers (capped at 2,500 a day by the government) of people that are climbing all over the city below. Yes, it’s a silly sentiment in some respects, because I admit part of it is fueled by my own hubris…the idea that I will (selfishly) have an adventure shared by few. But more depressing is the sadness that comes from the certain knowledge that there is no spot left on earth that hasn’t been thoroughly mapped out and commercialized; that the excitement and thrill of real exploration is gone. All we have to do now is have enough cash to go where tens of thousands have gone before…and in relative luxury. Sure, man may find a few smaller archaeological digs in the years to come of some importance, or a few new species, but let’s face it-the Golden Age is behind us. Maybe we should look to the stars for that, as the Incas did.
My impression of these people is positive. They carved a civilization out of the rain and cloud forests at altitudes Europeans barely inhabited. They built a network of canals to feed water to terraces so steep that they’re only a few feet wide. There herbal remedies sometimes surpassed what the Spaniards had available to them. Yet, with only a couple of hundred men, Pizarro conquered the entire nation of 14 million people because, as advanced as the Incans were, they were interested in warring more among themselves than keeping an alien invasion at bay.
And they were backward in many ways. Compared to the Conquistadores, they had inferior weaponry and no ships to speak of. They had no written alphabet, no steel, no currency, and human sacrifice was commonplace among them. And though I marvel at the quality of Incan stonemasonry, it doesn’t compare to the great cathedrals of that age in Europe. Nor was an elaborate road system or canal network uncommon throughout much of the rest of the world, and far earlier. European knowledge of astronomy was fairly advanced by that time as well. So what impresses me about them is not so much the how advanced they were, but how they were able to do so much in such a difficult environment compared to other parts of the world.
Peruvians are rightfully proud of that culture. Today, they are a handsome, spirited, and hard-working people. They are quick with a smile and seem to value family and friends more than possessions. They gave the world corn, the potato, and many medicinal plants, including coca, and the gold and silver mined from rich Peruvian veins financed the Spanish Empire for 250 years. Look into their dark eyes, and you can see a quiet pride that comes from the knowledge that they once built an empire in the Andes that spread over half a continent only to lose it in the blink of an eye. Now I am told that their economy is improving, and the poverty I see today may be alleviated soon. I hope it’s true. They’ve had a long, hard road.