Peru’s Machu Picchu Comes Alive and Blows My Mind

Jackie Steves is guest-hosting her Dad’s blog with 17 posts in 17 days. Follow the adventures of Andy and Jackie Steves as they — the first Steves to venture into South America — report on their experience.

Jackie, Wilfredo, and Andy At Machu Picchu.Enlarge photo

Wilfredo, a guide we found through the Seattle travel company, Wildland Adventure (with whom our family did a Costa Rica tour two years ago) picked us up early from our hostel in Ollantaytambo. He took us to one of the World Wonders, Machu Picchu, via train to Aguas Calientes, and then by bus up precarious switchbacks to the “lost city.”

 We shared a train car with 32 women who appeared to be worshipping crystals. Their leader came around saying in a hokey Zen voice, “We will now seek to reach a higher level of consciousness by focusing the positive energy on our bellies.” I struggled to stifle a laugh. Andy was pretty uncomfortable when the women began taking turns giving each other sensuous head massages. I nearly cringed at the clash of their tones — half spoken in hokey Zen tones, the other half spoken in raucous Southern twang.

We were careful to reassure our guide that not all Americans were this bizarre in spiritual practice, nor this obnoxiously loud. He said with a smile that he knew that, but that these kinds of spiritual groups do have substantial presence in the tourist industry here.

I was sad to hear that the Peruvians were swindled out of a huge portion of the money coming in from the booming Machu Picchu tourist industry because PeruRail (the train everyone must ride to get there) is actually owned half by Britain and half by Chile.

Such money swindling away from the Peruvians is a tragic theme running throughout their history. There was all the exploitation by the Spanish, especially in the taking of gold, silver, and other precious exports. Recently there have been strikes against the selling of Peru’s oil to other countries, where it can be priced higher such that Peruvians cannot afford even their own oil. Protesters are urging the government to nationalize the oil industry so that private companies would have to stop this practice.

I have never had a better guide than Wilfredo (and I’ve taken a lot of tours in my 20 years of travel to Europe and elsewhere.) Not until this trip have ancient ruins intrigued me because for me that history seems so distant. Wilfredo succeeded at bridging that gap of time so that I could actually appreciate the building techniques, spirituality, and lifestyles of these ancient peoples.

The impeccable stonework used to construct Machu Picchu’s temples.Enlarge photo
Andy and I beside condor rock sculpture.Enlarge photo

The site upon which Machu Picchu was built was chosen very specially and intentionally. It lies between four soaring mountains, each perfectly positioned in the four directions — north, east, south, and west. As a people whose God is the sun, one can imagine they were very in tune with the sun’s path from East to West. They built four small temples at the summits of each of these surrounding mountains. They also worshipped water, and it helped that the site’s location made it possible for them to capture water flow from glaciers above them and direct it through their clever viaduct system.

Wilfredo pointed out evidence of the difference between various groups’ handwork. Some walls were made of rectangular stones while others were composed of stones to fit together more like puzzle pieces. The stonework varied from uneven (the houses of the commoners) to absolutely perfect (the temples).

Wilfredo also showed us stone representations of the three worlds: the upper, the middle, and the underworlds. The underworld has to do with the wisdom from which we are born. The middle world is our existence on Earth. And the upper world is when one dies and goes to live with the Gods.

The condor bird is worshipped as well for being the carrier of souls to the upper world when humans die. My favorite single feature of Machu Picchu was this large natural bedrock formation shaped as soaring wings. The Incans built off of this by carving a bedrock beneath it into the bird’s head.

The ruins of Machu Picchu, this incredible man-made construction, evoke in me ambivalent feelings. I am half overwhelmingly impressed with the awesomeness of their creation. Yet, I am half overwhelmingly depressed at all the back-breaking work these small ancient people endured. They must have had faith as strong as a diamond to be compelled to devote such a colossal effort to erecting these perfectly neat stone temples on the peak of this towering mountain. While they had impressive stone masonry techniques, it was still incredibly intensive to cut stones with the straight-line accuracy they did and haul mounds of bedrock. I have scarcely seen a modern-day Peruvian as tall as my own five feet and seven inches. And according to evolution the temple-builders were probably even smaller! All I can say is Machu Picchu is a mind-blowing accomplishment.

Wilfredo provided the most perfect cherry on top as the finale to our Machu Picchu tour. “I would like to play you a tune.” He pulled out a recorder made of amber wood and from it he produced the most beautiful melody I have ever heard come from a wind instrument. Perhaps it was my majestic surroundings that made it all the sweeter. Wilfredo’s traditional tune was like a condor via which I was transcended to a higher serendipity — it was that utterly beautiful.

After reluctantly bidding adios to Wilfredo, we ate our sack lunches in the ultimate picnic setting, on a grassy plain just above and overlooking the ruins. Nearby llamas, kept as natural lawnmowers, trimmed the grass.