We stand on the ‘Inca Trail’ looking down on a small city clinging to rocky slopes entirely surrounded by magnificent mountains. It’s the mountain behind us that is named Machu Picchu (old Mountain) as Angela points out and we have no idea what this settlement was called. The absence of written records leaves us on the impressions of early Spanish chroniclers and modern forensic investigation to speculate on what might have been. What we now refer to as Machu Picchu, we think, was started around 1450 and evidence suggests that it was some kind of university for studying the movement of the Sun, Moon and stars.
At a particular day of the year, the sun rises over a V shaped dent in the surrounding mountains, giving it the name of Sun Gate by later explorers.
It is certain that the Spanish never found it as it remained undisturbed and overgrown until it’s ‘rediscovery’ by the European Explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. He was actually looking for the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ and stumbled on this by mistake with the help of a local guide – the locals knew it was there all along. It wasn’t until the 1940 that access became easier and the way was opened up to tourists. In the 1950’s a road was made and a start was made clearing the site revealing what is now considered one of the modern wonders of the world.
We continue our descent, past the food storage buildings and then the high-class buildings, typified by the perfectly fitting stone walls which could be the house of an Inca or priest. The upper-class people also had superior dwellings and the slaves made do with more basic masonry. The view down to the Urubamba River, far below is vertiginous.
No need for battlements or fortified walls. Nothing could approach from below without wings. Huayna Picchi is the instantly recognisable and picturesque back drop to this settlement around which the mist swirls, clears then regroups. A clear meadow between buildings might have been a games area for young people to exercise or maybe a forum.
There are temples; to the Sun and to the Condor. Some of the areas are cordoned off for today in an attempt to reduce the wear and tear on the pathways and walls, touched by four thousand people a day at the height of the season.
We travel back through the lower levels looking at ordinary housing and the water supply which comes from a spring in the mountains then onwards along the agricultural terraces where Llamas now graze. Once they grew corn and potatoes for the settlement.
There is no doubt that this is an extraordinary site and even though there is a stone quarry right in the middle of the town, moving and shaping the building stones remains impressive – on a par with the Egyptians over three-thousand years earlier – using rollers to transport huge blocks of stone – and yet no written language – no pictures, just gold and silver for decoration. Gold, it seems was sacred, going back to the first man and woman and ordinary people were forbidden to have it. It also had no monetary or economic value. A subject to be explored further in relation to the Spaniards.
A different train takes us down the mountain and to the town of Ollantaytambo. After settling into our hotel, Angela wants to show us the spectacular Inca site which overlooks the town. The afternoon is fading and there is a chilly wind blowing. Only a few of us are up for this extra excursion. Agricultural terraces tower up the steep slope and on the left Angela points out pre-inca stone walls. The steps are steep and it is hard work. Ann and Ingo (who made it back to join us before Machu Picchu) are the only ones joining us.
At the top, we get a magnificent view of the valley and the hillside opposite is lit by the late afternoon sun to reveal more terraces, clinging to the steep slopes.
The big surprise, however, is the size of the rocks used to build the temple right at the top. Once again, they are perfectly fitted. The quarry, Angela points out, is half way up a mountain on the other side of the river. Rolled down the slope to the river edge. The river may have been diverted around the rocks then the painstaking task of rolling them up a path to the top of the hillside. This temple was never finished and cut stones remain abandoned on the pathway. It is probable that the arrival of the Spanish was the reason. The primitive Inca weapons were no match for the Spanish guns, they had no immunity to Smallpox which killed thousands and those who survived had little defence against Spanish Catholicism.
We ask Angela what Peru’s relationship with Spain is like now. ‘We have no relationship with Spain,’ she says. ‘It was a long time ago.’ Peru became independent from Spain in 1821. Angela clearly does not have any animosity towards Spain. There is no point. The descendants of the Inca people, however do have problems and try to deny their origins. Many go to Lima for work and find themselves isolated. The people here have long memories and it is clearly complicated.
By now it is almost dark, but I get to inspect a terrace of thriving potatoes near the bottom of the hillside. An event is being prepared where the whole hillside will be lit up later in the evening.