Tuesday, March 3, 2009

PERU: MACHU PICCHU (Gesundheit!)

The main income generator in Peru is tourism, and the biggest tourist attraction (90% of all tourists go there) is Machu Picchu. It was definitely the draw for our group, and it exceeded our expectations. I was surprised to learn that Machu Picchu was built around 1460 A.D. I thought it was a lot older than that! It was abandoned about 100 years later at the time of the Spanish conquest, then largely forgotten and completely covered over by jungle. It was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham, a historian from Yale University, in 1911. Our guide noted that it takes a lot of work every day to keep the jungle from taking over the site. He thinks it would take only about four years of no maintenance for the place to be unrecognizable. Declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World by National Geographic in 2007, 800,000 tourists visited Machu Picchu that year, and the numbers continue to grow. It IS pretty amazing. Luckily, February is not tourist season, so MP was relatively uncrowded. For now, you can still walk through the ruins themselves, touch the walls, climb the stairs, and sit on the Incan stone benches. It's hard to imagine that with the exploding tourism in Peru, that kind of intimate contact can continue.
We were unbelievably fortunate in regards to the weather. It was rather ominous, even menacing, all morning, but that only added to what our guide called "the magical, spiritual feeling" of the site.

As soon as we went inside for lunch (at a lodge-type restaurant just outside the area where the ruins are), the skies broke open and it poured all afternoon.

It was one of those places where you have to keep pinching yourself to convince yourself it's not all a dream. Even now, it's hard to believe we were actually THERE. We're glad we have the pictures to remind us!

"The Firm"

NEXT: Machu Picchu Revisited and Climbing the Stairs to Heaven

A must-read for anyone who has been to Peru is Mark Adams's Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time. I just finished listening to the Audible version. (I'm adding this review in 2016, seven years after we took this trip.) The book was so much fun that I'm ready to hop back on a plane so that I can re-experience Peru a la Adams. Adams had written for several outdoor adventure magazines when he decided that it was time to experience some adventure for himself. He planned a trip to Peru in honor of the 100th anniversary of the "discovery" of Machu Picchu by Harold Bingham. Adams hired a tough-as-nails Australian guide to lead him in Bingham's footsteps from Cusco to the iconic, mysterious Inca city of Machu Picchu perched among the spires of the Andes. 

Along the way, Adams learned that Machu Picchu is only one jewel in the Inca crown. (He also learned that it would have been much easier to walk the Inca Trail rather than the treacherous Bingham Trail.) His missteps and misadventures make for hilarious reading, but at the same time he masterfully weaves together Bingham's journey and his own, separated by 100 years but still remarkably similar.

Adams discusses many of the places and things we saw on our trip, including Cusco, Saqsaywaman, Huayna Picchu, and of course Machu Picchu itself. But he also visits a dozen or more other spectacular ruins that aren't on the main trail and that most tourists will never see. Read the book and you'll want to see it all yourself, and if you have already traveled to Machu Picchu, you'll realize how much you missed.

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