I’m not particularly fond of seeing 3.59am on my alarm clock. It’s not so bad if its flashing en route to sleep after a night on tiles, or if it’s a brief glance before turning over and dozing for a few more hours. But when the digital display reading 3.59am is accompanied by the bleep of an alarm clock I’m rarely polite nor compus mentus for several hours. Our day at Machu Picchu started in the middle of the night at the ungodly hour of 3.59am, and by 4.20 we were neither awake or feeling particularly civil, but silently marching into the beams of our head torches, up steps carved over five hundred years ago to the sacred city of Machu Picchu.
Not surprisingly, Machu Picchu gets its fair share of visitors, around 1.5 million every year. The best view of the deserted city is to be had from Huayna Picchu, a pillar of jungle green flora covered granite standing next to it, as its peak is around 300m’s higher than the Andean citadel and gives a condor’s view of the surrounding valleys and the shear cliffs looming over the sacred river of Willkamayu. In a nod to conservation and safety, apparently 2 people fall off it’s narrow and slippery steps each year, the authorities limit the numbers of the foolhardy to 400, first come first served. So every morning there is a race up the 400m’s of roughly hewn and well worn steps to sign up, hence our uncharacteristically early morning call.
In the race to Huayna Picchu we had a bit of an unfair advantage over our competitors- a mixture of serious trekkers decked out in technical gear, wheezing backpackers slipping their way up in jeans and runners, and aspiring American golden oldies tripping themselves and everyone else with their walking poles and covered from head to toe in North Face logos. As, we’d spent the previous 3 months cycling in the thin air at altitude, we thus now have the respiratory systems that a Kenyan runner would be proud of. We quickly squeezed past those who had managed to tear themselves from bed even earlier than us and comfortably made queue for Huayna Picchu.
Once we’d signed on we had time to relax, eat some breakfast, and digest the significance of that amazing city, built without the aid of complex technology, or even the wheel for that matter. The Incas started building it in the 1430’s then abandoned it when the Spanish arrived 100 years later after which it was “lost” to the world until it was “discovered” by an American, Hiram Bingham in 1911.
The thing that struck me at Machu Picchu, after 3 days trekking along parts of original incan routeways- narrow stepped walkways carved into the shear valley sides with hundreds of metres of empty space below, was how comfortable they must have been with heights. The incas lived in a world of 3 dimensions, they seemed to be as comfortable building up and down as we are building left or right. They farmed terraces on the side of vertiginous cliffs, designed banks of steep stone steps that would fatally punish one mistep, and built impressive large stoned structures in apparently impossibly steep and inaccessible places when there was perfectly good flat land at close hand. Crawling like a crab down the scarily steep steps on Huayna Picchu on my arse, with my heart in my mouth, and my sweaty palms slipping on the greasy granite, I imagined nimble large calved little incas nonchalantly skipping past me with heavy loads balanced on their backs.
Although, modern man, has managed to build structures that reach beyond the clouds, most of us aren’t comfortable at height. Most of us are only really comfortable in two dimensions. The slippery narrow and exposed stairwells of Huayna Picchu, that no doubt would have been as comfortable for the Incan inhabitants as an elevator is for us, showed up the vertigo of modern visitors. The added exertion of having to propell oneself up as well as forward illustrated our physical short comings. Many times during our day out, when I passed a sweat soaked, panting and shell shocked tourist perched on a slippery step clinging to the safety wire trying to muster enough energy to go on, I was reminded of a video on YouTube which showed a platoon of british troops who had been given LSD for experimental purposes and were reduced to clinging to trees or absurdly staring wistfully into space. Incan 3D urban planning is not a comfortable for a modern man, or woman.
As the sun cleared the cloud from the jungle below, and burned off the dew from the chunky stone buildings, the structures looked less like buildings on a remote island off the west of Ireland, and we began to get a full sense of the place. The magnitude of carving a city from from hard granite on a mountain-top hit home. As the clouds rose slowly, like steam from a shower window, from the jungle below we began to understand why the Incas reveared this sacred place. The scene was enough to move this devout atheist to consider the Incan triadic cosmology. The incan cosmos was divided into three parts, represented by a trinity of sacred animals. The Serpent who signified the underworld, the Puma who embodied the living world and the Condor who represented the heavens.
Normally, I’m not one for landmarks. I find that I get more from the “in between” bits than the destinations. In the past, I’ve been sorely disapointed by places that are supposed to inspire, as usually the droves of tourists rabidly taking pictures of well known spectacles get in the way.
Machu Picchu was different. It is a trully magnificent site, inspiring moving and mind boggling even though by midday it was over-run with Canon toting tourists.