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Machu Picchu

by sue n 

Posted: 29 May 2005
Word Count: 1202
Summary: Like the Taj, describing such an iconic place as Machu Picchu is a challenge. How to not sound gushing, how to personalise the experience, how to descibe somewhere that everyone has seen pictures of? It's hard!

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The big day arrived - we were going to Machu Picchu, not on foot but in a bright yellow and red steam engine that was besieged by colourful vendors of rainbow-coloured clothes and trinkets. We sat back to enjoy the three and a half hour journey leaving the steep slopes out of Cusco in a series of zig-zags at times going backwards. After a gentle descent to Ollantambo we wound our way through a narrow gorge where the water of the Urubamba River frothed over rapids and the hills rose sheer and wild on either side. The anticipation of the trekers grew as we neared Km 88, the start of the Inca trail and they heaved their packs onto their backs when the train stopped at a crossing. Looking at the start of the trail, I felt both relief as the slope from the crossing looked very steep and also regret that I wasn’t younger and fitter.

The end of the line was at Aguas Calientes, where the railway line served as the high street dissecting the bustling market where we had to fight our way through the stalls weighed down with Peruvian fabrics and the hawkers with their strips of postcards of Machu Picchu. A steep walk out of the station led us to the bus, where we were driven up and amongst the tall pointed mountains in a series of sharp hairpin bends more like W’s than S’s. After a few miles amongst these dramatic mountains you could begin to understand why the Spanish conquerors never found this Inca city and how it remained undiscovered until 1911. How could a city have been built in such a high and inaccessible place?
Walking to the entrance, I felt nervous, wondering if I would be as impressed as with the Taj Mahal or as disappointed as at Ayres Rock. That’s the trouble with iconic places, they have such a lot to live up to. As I walked through the entrance gate, 100 yards in front the steep hillside was full, every inch used either for cultivated terraces or buildings and plazas that cascaded down the hillside. In contrast, empty, pointed craggy mountains, dark grey apart from braids of greenery that clung to their slopes, surrounded it, their tops hidden in the clouds. I breathed a sigh of relief—it was spectacular. Our Peruvian guide, Gekko, with obvious pride at this achievement of her ancestors, led us round the maze of green plazas, and the shells of a multitude of buildings connected by walled alleys and over a hundred stairways.
“Chose your bath tub,” she joked as we climbed the flight of stairs beside a series of sixteen ceremonial baths, where small waterfalls filled carved stone basins. To the left was El Torreón, the round Temple of the Sun, built on a huge rock, the walls as smooth as glass with few joints between the enormous blocks of granite. In a cave underneath was an alter, the Royal Tomb where mummies were discovered. Next door was El Palacio de la Òusta, the Palace of the Princesses.
“About 80% of the skeletons found in Machu Picchu were of women,” explained Gekko, “so it might have been home to priestesses.”

I tried to imagine living up here in a predominantly female commune. There was water and well-cultivated land but at 2,400m asl it must have been bitterly cold in winter. To get here had been an arduous enough journey by train and bus, so in Inca times, once here it would have been virtually impossible to leave if you decided the priestesshood wasn’t for you after all.
Walking upward we came to the Sacred Plaza, where on the far side there was a stone platform that looked out to the Cordilla Vilcabamba mountain range ahead and the sheer drop to the Rio Urubamba below. Surveying the inaccessible land above, below and all around, I was again stuck by the incomprehensibility of this place ever being built.
On the other three sides of the Plaza were important temples, the most striking being the Temple of the Three Windows, where you looked through the trio of identical windows onto the city below. The stones of the wall of the Principal Temple were taller than me but running my hands over the smooth cold stone I couldn’t feel the joins.
Up another steep path was the Intihuatana, the ‘hitching post of the sun’, a rock pillar used to tell the time of year from the solstices. Sculpted out of the rock itself, a rectangular post sticks out of a smooth slab used by Inca astronomers to predict the solstices.

Left to wander alone, I crossed the grassy central plaza to make my way through the more mundane living quarters and Artisan’s Quarter, where there was a large rock carved into the head of a condor, sacred to the Incas, the boulders around forming its body. Sitting on the grass for a rest, as I watched the cloud begin to descend, I had another of my ‘what a lucky sod I am’ moments. The weather was good, as the whole site can often be covered in low cloud, and there were relatively few visitors as it was a month before the tourist season began in earnest, but most of all I felt grateful for the opportunity to be here at all, as far-away Peru had been several notches down my wish-list.

With impeccable timing it began to rain as I met up with the others for lunch and stopped just as we were deciding what to do with the remaining couple of hours. Barry wanted to climb Huayna Picchu, the impossibly steep-sided mountain facing Macchu Picchu, which looked to me like it could only be tackled with a team of sherpas and about five miles of abseiling rope. Dave, whose face had gone a shade paler as he looked at the mountain, gallantly offered to keep me company as I decided to walk to the Sun Gate, an hour away along a narrow path snaking round the side of the mountain.
At the Gate, a group of walkers was resting after completing the Inca Trail, looking as if they had just spent four days having their legs and feet flagellated whilst being simultaneously rained on and starved -- yet you knew from their faces that this had been an experience that they would remember fondly for the rest of their lives. Looking back over the distant view of Machu Picchu tucked in amongst the towering mountains, I felt a pang of regret that this wasn’t the way I’d arrived at Machu Picchu.

As the last bus back to Aguas Calientes zigzagged its way back down the mountain, a young boy in Inca dress ran the quick route - straight down, stopping whenever he crossed the road to wave and shout goodbye. Each time we completed half an W I looked for him, and he didn't miss one, arriving at the bottom hardly out of breath, to hop on the bus and claim his reward. May an Inca curse strike the miserable skinflints who didn't tip him.

Machu Picchu leapt to the top of my ever growing list of memorable places.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 10:30 on 30 May 2005  Report this post
I liked this piece and found it very easy to follow and relate to, entertaining as well as educational.

Well, I for one have never heard of Machu Picchu so I am quite happy to read a detailed account for armchair travellers like myself, and catch something of what makes it attractive as well the kind of people who want to go there. I thought you brought out very well the importance of physical challenge as incentive and reward. The mention of Ayres Rock and Taj Mahal was instructive, to place its iconic status, so I can in future recognise references in travel articles and books. I wasn't even sure which country I was in until I got to the market and the Peruvian goods - Ollantambo and Urubamba sounded African and I am so ignorant that even the mention of Incas didn't clue me in. I expect the preamble to this piece makes it clearer, or it would benefit from a more informed reader. After I realised it was Peru I could begin to link some of the description to an exhibition called 'The Aztecs' that I saw at the RA last year. I expect that many non-travellers like myself like to try to empathise with a travel piece in this way. The use of the condor, for instance, reminded me of the bird and beast iconography of the Aztecs.

This was easy reading, although there was, as always, the thought: 'Rather her than me'.

I suppose one way to make it fresh would be to avoid cliches, of which I spotted a few, but, then again, it depends on the intended audience. I have just been reading the Sunday Times Travel Section and there seems to be no objection to cliches as a form of shorthand.

I don't know if its a good idea, either, to wonder about how you will feel and whether it will be as inspiring as other places you have visited. I suspect much depends on factors which have nothing to do with the place itself. I wonder if you need to show some other motivation for wanting to go there, too? I thought at times it sounded, in fact you stated, that these places were ones that you cross off your 'too see' list. I think if you could change the last line you could avoid this.

I particularly liked the paragraph about the trekkers wondering what to do next.

Thanks for a detailed and interesting piece.


Richard Brown at 09:31 on 31 May 2005  Report this post
A hard task, as you say in your preamble, but one very skilfully accomplished in my view. I thought that you got the balance of the personal and the objective just about right. I've not been to Machu Picchu but the place certainly came alive for me through your description and you increased my determination to go there before very long.

One little typo caught my eye - there are two 'to walk's together towards the end of the fourth para from the end but, pedant though I be, this little glitch did nothing to detract from the enjoyment of this warmly human piece.


sue n at 19:38 on 01 June 2005  Report this post
Thankyou Sheila and Richard for your comments.
Sheila, I was comparing places as this was part of a RTW trip but I must learn to keep other references out when offering single pieces.
Do go, Richard, but not in the tourist season!

scoops at 11:05 on 06 June 2005  Report this post
Sue, Yet another amazing stop off on your journey to the world's most extraordinary sights - I am deeply jealous:-o You clearly had a brilliant time in Peru, and as ever that comes across in your sense of wonder and appreciation. As a reader, my problem with this is the usual, which is that there's too much of you in the piece. I think it would work better if you evaluated the culture and terrain through your writing and not by recording your responses to it. For example:

This is your paragraph:

I tried to imagine living up here in a predominantly female commune. There was water and well-cultivated land but at 2,400m asl it must have been bitterly cold in winter. To get here had been an arduous enough journey by train and bus, so in Inca times, once here it would have been virtually impossible to leave if you decided the priestesshood wasn’t for you after all. Walking upward we came to the Sacred Plaza, where on the far side there was a stone platform that looked out to the Cordilla Vilcabamba mountain range ahead and the sheer drop to the Rio Urubamba below. Surveying the inaccessible land above, below and all around, I was again stuck by the incomprehensibility of this place ever being built.

How about something along the lines of:

The priestesses were clearly hardy if they could make their home 2400 metres up in bitterly cold conditions. The fertile plains would have been virtually impossible to leave once the decision had been made to celebrate God as close to the heavens as was allowed. Further up at the Sacred Plaza was a stone platform overlooking the Cordilla Vilcabamba mountain range. Below is a sheer drop to Rio Urubamba: it seems unbelievable that the Incas built this place by hand.

What I'm trying to show in two-minute fashion, is that if you take yourself out of the piece, it allows your reader to think about the place itself, and to experience the emotions instead of reading about them. Hope that helps. Shyama

sue n at 18:56 on 06 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks Shyama
The trouble is that most of the travel pieces I have uploaded are from my one-day,-you-never-know,-it-might-get-published book, where I am continuously told to put more of myself in it. These extracts are possible articles that, I agree with you, need less of me. Having got so used to recounting my personal reactions to people and places, I'm finding it difficult to adjust to taking myself out.
I like your rewrite, it does the job without me. I'll try another one soon where I am but the humble unobtrusive conduit.

scoops at 15:31 on 09 June 2005  Report this post
I'm sure it'll get published when it's done:-) I think an important point to remember, Sue, is that you're not taking yourself out of your travelogues when you write iwithout self-reference - the fact that you are sorting the information and then choosing how to present it in terms of style and context IS putting yourself in it. Your point about the hardy priestesses is a very female view, and we get a sense of how you think and feel through information like that. The more you develop it, the more we'll pick up. A man might have concentrated more on the terrain or the knee-trembling drops and would present it quite differently. Now in all of this, a personal question - I'm off to Laos in a month's time - any advice:-)? Shyama.

sue n at 21:00 on 09 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks Shyama
Good point.

I envy you off to Laos, I didn't make it that far - got sidetracked by Borneo rainforest.
I am torn between Laos and Guatemala for my next holiday (out-of-work-actress/financial-disaster daughter permitting)
Have a great time

Alegria at 21:40 on 14 June 2005  Report this post
Sue, I really enjoyed reading this piece. You've managed to weave so much information into the story quite painlessly, and that plus your precise descriptions add colour and bring it to life.

I personally would have been thrilled to read more about the priestesses and Inca civilization, how they shaped the landscape and how it shaped them...

Love the image of the boy flying down the mountainside; that kind of personal experience brings this new-to-me place alive.


sue n at 21:23 on 15 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks Arpi for your comment.
The Incas were amazing - one day I will do some proper research on them.

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