Treading in the Steps of the Incas
“AWE-INSPIRING!” “It’s so majestic!” “I feel as if I’ve been taken back in time.” These were our sentiments as we were overwhelmed by the panorama of the legendary lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, in Peru.
Although I had previously visited Machu Picchu, seeing it again with my wife, Elizabeth, and with our good friends Baltasar and Heidi proved to be a memorable experience.
Our trip to Machu Picchu began in the fascinating city of Cuzco, the former capital of the ancient Incan empire, some 11,000 feet [3,400 m] above sea level. This city, designed in the shape of a puma by the Inca ruler Pachacuti, is still replete with Incan architecture of unique beauty. Many of the buildings in the main square sit solidly on ancient Incan foundation stones. These stones, which had been set to perfection without mortar, are often five or more feet [1.6 or more m] tall and weigh several tons. As Spanish chronicler Cieza wrote: “It baffles the mind . . . how they could be brought up and set in place.” Yet, we had been told that Machu Picchu would far surpass anything we had seen so far.
We got up early that Friday morning and left the San Pedro station in Cuzco at seven, excited to be finally on the train to Machu Picchu. The train seemed to have been around for many years but executed the switchbacks with ease as we made our descent of over 4,000 feet [1,200 m] from Cuzco to the perimeter of the Amazon jungle. During the four-hour journey to Machu Picchu (which means “old peak”) along the course of the Urubamba River, the scenery changed before our eyes. As we descended from the arid mountains and altiplano, the land became more and more green with vegetation, until we were soon in the midst of mountains covered with luxuriant foliage.
On the train, we talked about what we had read about Machu Picchu and what we knew of its history. Led by a boy, in July 1911 American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered this lost city. The boy was to show Bingham “nearby ruins” in the tropical forest on the peak called Machu Picchu. But, as Bingham wrote, “suddenly, without warning, under a huge overhanging ledge the boy showed me a cave beautifully lined with the finest cut stone.” When the boy showed him a wall, “it seemed like an unbelievable dream. Dimly I began to realize,” he said, “that this wall and its adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world.” To think we were going to see that stonework also!
The purpose of this isolated citadel, probably built some 500 years ago, is still unknown. One theory holds that it was a refuge for Virgins of the Sun, perhaps because most of the chambers that Bingham uncovered contained the remains of females. Another theory is that the city served as a military outpost. Some have also suggested that it could have been an imperial retreat or a refuge to which the Incas fled from Spanish conqueror Pizarro’s hand. Or it could have been the capital of Vilcabamba, a new Inca domain established by Manco Inca in the impenetrable Amazon jungle. Whatever the truth behind the city of Machu Picchu, we were anxious to see these fascinating ruins at 6,750 feet [2,060 m] above sea level.
When we arrived at the foot of Machu Picchu, we knew that the lost city was above us, but we could see nothing as we got off the train. We hurried to get in line for the 20-minute bus ride over hairpin turns up the mountain. Yet, even as we were winding our way up the mountain and straining to catch a glimpse of the ruins, we could see nothing at all.
Endless Steps and Stones
After checking in at the hotel (the only modern building on the mountain), we finally reached the entrance gate of the ruins. What we saw as we rounded the corner took our breath away. The view was unbelievable. Elizabeth said, “I’ve seen photographs, but pictures just can’t do justice to this place.” Two thousand feet [600 m] below, the Urubamba River flowed along the bottom of the mountain range. In every direction, we saw green mountain peaks of majestic beauty, making us feel very insignificant. Against all this awe-inspiring background was the lost city itself, standing as a sanctuary, undefiled by conquerors, creating an eerie feeling of wonder.
The ruins showed a city constructed entirely of stone, a masterful combination of granite, geometry, and maximum utilization of the unusual terrain. Most of the buildings are one-story structures and, according to modern historians, of late Incan design. There is an abundance of niches in the interiors of the rooms. The doors, windows, and niches have trapezoidal patterns—narrowing at the top—an identifying feature of late Inca architecture. In the center of the city is a large open space, perhaps the main plaza, surrounded by terraces, shrines, lodgings, and steep stairways. Some of the walls reveal beautiful stone finish, the pride of Incan workmanship.
As we walked from one extremity to the other of this unique set of ruins, we began to appreciate its size. It took us over an hour to walk from one end to the other, not counting the time it takes to climb to the summit of peak Huayna Picchu. Because of the mountainous terrain, there are steps everywhere, over 3,000 of them. Even the terraces around the edge of the city, used for raising crops and grazing animals, have protruding stones that serve as steps from one level to another. It is estimated that the city covers an area of five square miles [13 sq km]!
We were impressed by the well-preserved condition of the ruins. When Bingham discovered them, no physical evidence was found that any battles were fought there. And we could see that the city looked as though it had been abandoned, not conquered. It is yet unknown how the Incas were able to move such massive stones there, since they had no knowledge of the wheel. But the stones were perfectly cut and set into place. The ruins, carefully mapped out into sections, still speak of a well-organized civilization.
Alone With the Llamas and the Stars
As the day tours departed in the early afternoon, Machu Picchu was left to the few overnight hotel guests. Our mood was contemplative as we roamed the ruins and watched the sunset in solitude. While walking around, Heidi and Elizabeth spotted a baby llama and its mother in one corner of the ruins. Llamas are burden-bearing animals used extensively in Peru, strong enough to transport loads weighing about 80 pounds [35 kg] but too frail to carry a man. At first the llamas seemed disturbed by our wives’ presence, but Heidi and Elizabeth were determined to get a close-up picture of these beautiful animals that looked so at home among the ruins. They did not want to upset them too much, since llamas protect themselves by spitting their acid saliva, so the girls slowly made friends. Heidi was even able to feed the mother llama some of the nearby grass.
Later on in the evening, we grabbed our sweaters and headed out for the starry night, away from any artificial light from the nearby hotel. Now the only discernible light came from the stars of the heavens. We thought of Jehovah’s majesty. Then we thought of the people who, four centuries earlier, had lived on this mountain and had looked up at those same stars.
The Incas and the Conquistadores
Early the next morning, before sunrise, we were back at the ruins. We heard the melancholy tones of a panpipe being played in the background. How we soaked up the beauty and the atmosphere of Machu Picchu before the day tours arrived!
As we rested among the ruins and contemplated all that we had seen, Baltasar commented on the tragic results produced by a religion that is not guided by what the Bible really teaches. (Matthew 7:15-20) The Spanish conquistadores, in the name of their Catholic religion and because of their insatiable greed, brought to ruin a complete civilization. They did this without learning how the Incas lived. Since the Incas had no written language but used quipus, long strings with knots to keep statistical records, data on harvests, weapons, births, deaths, and so forth, the Spanish conquerors’ destruction of the quipus left few records of the Incan culture.
The Incas Will Return!
Remembering Jehovah’s promise of a resurrection, Elizabeth and Heidi commented on how wonderful it is to know that people from a civilization that was totally destroyed could have the opportunity to live again. (Acts 24:15) To think that we may actually meet some of the ancient Incas and learn of their culture firsthand! We may even have the privilege of teaching some of the Incas who lived in Machu Picchu about the true God and his purpose for them.
Our two days in Machu Picchu came to an end as we began our return trip to Cuzco. We took with us beautiful memories of a unique city high atop a mountain, a city now remembered only by ruins. Although the Spanish conquered the Inca empire, they never discovered Machu Picchu. But we were happy that we had found the lost city of the Incas.—Contributed.
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Machu Picchu, ancient city of steps and terraces
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Machu Picchu (old peak), high in the Andes Mountains, with Huayna Picchu (young peak) in the background
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Without the wheel, the Incas moved massive hand-hewed stones for their buildings
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Typical Inca dwelling with trapezoidal architecture, narrowing at the top
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A lone llama in the ruins of Machu Picchu
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The Urubamba River, 2,000 feet [600 m] below Machu Picchu