Awesome. Breathtaking. Spectacular. Those words and others came immediately to mind as I caught my first glimpse of Machu Picchu, right before my very eyes.
But after two days of visiting the site, those words seem small and contrived. I still don’t know how to describe the feeling of standing among the glorious ruins of this lost Inca city. Located at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet on the side of a mountain in the middle of the cloud forest, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to live in such a place 550 years ago.
Would any of my children have been selected to serve as noble priests or priestesses, living apart from me and eventually “offered” (that less violent-sounding euphemism for sacrificed) to the gods – poison being the preferred method in order to send the gods an intact and pure body – if lesser offerings like crops, guinea pigs or llamas failed to appease them? Or would my kin and I have been simple common folk or farmers working the agricultural terraces? The population of the city at its height was estimated to be 1,000 people and 20,000-30,000 non-resident day workers. What an enormous amount of effort to build and maintain a town in such an isolated place, especially when it was abandoned for some unknown reason (theories include illness or war) after less than 100 years.
As I contemplated the site, which was shrouded in clouds, I also started to think about the religious architecture in Europe at the same time, when the mid-15th century signified the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. Across the Atlantic Ocean, master builders perfected the construction of towering Gothic cathedrals in reverence of their Catholic god, while the Incas used a much different kind of engineering, to build temples in reverence of their gods. Yet the stark differences in the two civilizations’ architectural styles belie the complexity inherent in each.
The European style arguably was more visibly sophisticated. Flying buttresses to support roofs made of stone, stained glass windows, pointed arches, ribbed vaults…the list goes on. But other than the sunlight pouring through the windows, which provided the cathedrals an other-worldly glow, nature really played no role in the architectural choices that were made.
On the other hand, there’s a primitivism to the Inca architecture that I find incredibly fascinating. Their construction methods were deceptively simple – a lot of really heavy stones that miraculously fit together to construct agricultural terraces, and buildings like houses, palaces, temples and storage rooms. But when you think about how, being an illiterate people, books could not have guided them, how gigantic stones were transported across valleys and mountains without any wheeled vehicles (although at Machu Picchu, unlike other sites like Ollantaytambo, they were fortunately able to quarry on-site), and how they integrated their knowledge of nature, such as the position of the sun and moon, altitude and the flow of water, into their architectural designs so that they could properly worship and pay homage to their gods, you can’t help but look at Machu Picchu and other Inca sites and feel like they really should have been able to defeat the Spaniards and rule for centuries more.
As I climbed the Inca Trail (they built over 20,000 miles of roads throughout their short-lived empire, which were actually paved with stone) up to Inti Punku (the Sun Gate), which served as the main entrance to the city of Machu Picchu for travelers arriving from Cusco, I also wondered what people living then would have thought when their eyes settled on the site for the first time. Would they have been as impressed as we are today with the effort it must have taken to build this city into the side of a mountain or would they have taken the incredible feat for granted?
This is all to say that Machu Picchu requires more than a few overused adjectives to appreciate in full. At one point during our tour, our excellent guide, Jaime, asked us to stop taking pictures and pause for a couple of minutes to contemplate the uniqueness of our surroundings. As I drowned out the background noise of other tourists, listened to the birds chirping in the trees and the Urubamba River coursing 2,000 feet below, and admired the lush landscape of the mountains cradling the site, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of peace, tranquility and happiness. And an enormous sense of gratitude that I was able to experience first-hand the majesty of this place.