We have been most fortunate to have lived in Europe and Southeast Asia, which afforded us many opportunities for travel. As a result, there aren’t many things that remain on our “bucket list” of sights to see in the world. However, one of those things has long been Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is probably the most amazing site of the Inca Empire at its height, justifiably famous for its beauty and inaccessibility. Its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. At just under 8,000 feet above sea-level, the site is in the middle of a tropical mountain rainforest, surrounded by even higher peaks in an extraordinarily beautiful and breathtaking setting.

There are approximately 200 structures each with religious, ceremonial, astronomical, agricultural and residential purposes built on the side of a steep mountain and reinforced by stone terraces. The city is divided into lower and upper areas, separating the farming from residential areas, with a large open square between the two. The massive architecture of Machu Picchu blends exceptionally well with the stunning natural environment, which is intricately linked by an extensive road and trail system, irrigation canals and agricultural terraces bear witness to longstanding human use. The fact that the rugged topography makes some areas difficult to access has resulted in a unique mix of developed areas and diverse natural habitats.

Adding to its aura and charm are the legends surrounding both its building and its abandonment. Hiram Bingham, who discovered the site in 1911, wasn’t even looking for it, and when he came across it he quickly moved on, thinking it to be of particular significance. Local farmers has known about it for years are we happily working its ancient terraces exercising squatter’s rights and avoiding government notice and taxes. Having failed to find the fabled El Dorado of legend, Bingham returned to the site and began excavations. It was only then that the true genius of the site began to emerge from the overgrown ruins.

The site is now almost completed restored and well preserved by the Peruvian government who recognize its worth not only for its historical significance, but for the powerful draw on tourists. We woke early and were up in time to catch the 7:00 a.m. train for the 90 minute journey to Agua Calientes. There we were met by a guide who ushered on to a bus for the 20 minute, death defying trip on mountain switch-backs to the gates of the fabled site. Our guide explained that he had been required to take a four year certificate course in the geography, history, and agriculture of Peru in order to be certified for Machu Picchu. He knew everything about the site, and was an excellent guide for our tour.

Built without the use of mortar, or even metal tools, Machu Picchu remains one of the world’s engineering marvels. Adding to its mystery is the fact that it was abandoned, most likely around 1570, for no apparent reason. There is no damage to indicate that it was invaded, and indeed it had no strategic value to the invading Spanish. The most likely explanation is that the residents of Machu Picchu left their secluded enclave to assist a neighbouring village to ward off an attack by the Spanish and were all slaughtered in the effort, leaving Machu Picchu undefended except for its inaccessibility until it was rediscovered 100 years ago.

 

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