Our first stop in the journey to Machu Picchu was the town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of the mountain on which the city was built. It has the facade of a frontier town but the character of one large tourist trap.
Machu Picchu (elevation 8,000 ft) was believed to be constructed sometime around 1430 for the Incan Emperor Pachacuti. Archaeologists are still at a loss as to the purpose of the site. The current theory is that it was a retreat for the nobility and priests as well as a site of extreme religious importance due to its location in the mountains. The numerous terraces also prove that the city sustained itself through agriculture, enough to support almost 1,000 people. It was abandoned less than 100 years after it was built, perhaps due to smallpox which was brought by Spanish Conquistadors and introduced to the city by travelers.
The fact that the Spanish never found Machu Picchu means that many of the buildings and temples were left un-plundered (and makes the site unique among the Incan ruins). American historian Hiram Bingham "rediscovered" the site with the help of a 11-year old Quechua boy in 1911. Another interesting note: the original name of the city is unknown; the ruins are named for the mountain that overlooks it.
The views as we took our bus up 12 switchbacks were stunning. Machu Picchu is saddled between two mountains, Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, but several other mountains tower over the ruins, each one a sacred deity for the Inca people.
When we arrived early in the morning, Machu Picchu was shrouded in a dense mist, typical for this time of year. The fog swirling around the stones gave the site a dream-like appearance. We felt like we had been elevated to the world of the Incan gods.
The structure of the Temple of the Sun (seen below) was amazingly constructed and archaeologists still marvel at its symmetry and design.
As you can see, all these houses need are a roof and they are ready to be lived in again!
The stones used in areas of religious importance were very large and fit tightly together without mortar. This has proved highly resistant to earthquakes.
The double jamb below marks the entrance to a sacred space.
Behind Kevin is an altar inside of a cave nestled underneath the Temple of the Sun.
Rock protuberances with holes were used as the hinges for doors.
The Room of the Three Windows was another sacred place. The views of the valley were incredible from this vantage point.
This immense stone has 32 sides, a unique stone the likes of which is not found in any other Incan ruin.
It was at this point that a rainbow appeared from within the mist! Watch here.
We reached the Intihuatana stone, which was used to chronical the summer and winter solstice as a kind of sun dial. Guides tell us that you can feel the energy of Inti, the Sun God, emanating from the stone. It was actually at this point that the mists began to dissolve and the layout of Machu Picchu was revealed. See it here.
Below is another sacred stone which looks like Huayna Picchu, the mountain it stands in front of. The immense stone was left in place where it was found by the city's builders.
Some clowning around from a nice view of the Intihuana stone area on the right and the industrial zone on the left.
The switchbacks up to Machu Picchu are seen in the distance.
Some of the sacred mountains surrounding Machu Picchu.
This massive piece of granite was formed into a condor. Here in this picture you can see one wing. It is believed the Incans, after mummifying their dead royalty, would place the bodies onto the wing so that they would be carried up to the gods. See the video: here.
A view of the city from the top of the agricultural terraces.
Kevin made a friend.
We followed an Incan Trail to the Inca Bridge. This was once used by runners who carried messages between all of the Incan cities and spans a gorge that is 2,000 ft deep.
Views from mid-way up the mountain of Machu Picchu, with Huanyna Picchu seen in the background. Videos can be seen here.
We ended the day on Machu Picchu mountain, watching the clouds swirl around the mountains, listening to the roar of the distant Urubamba river, and reflecting on the marvel that lay at our feet.
In total, we spent 6 hours winding our way through the ruins and surrounding mountains. We could have spent weeks.