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The Glory of Machu Picchu

May 23, 2015

3:45 in the morning is an ungodly time to get up, but it’s essential if one is to see Machu Picchu at first light.  We were blessed with a clear and sunny day on Tuesday, and excitement built as we found prime high spots to await the sun’s appearance over the mountains.

When it finally came, I nearly cried. We had arrived the previous afternoon, so had had the opportunity to explore for several hours and know just where to capture the classic views. Seeing it in the golden hour of dawn, the sun gilding the carved stones, created a wholly different perspective.

First Light

I’ve been struggling to find the words to share this experience. Experts posit that Pachacutec, whose dynasty has been compared to that of Alexander the Great, designed Machu Picchu as a retreat or the end of a pilgrimage — sort of an ancient Camp David, according to one writer. Houses are perched on the hillside to the west of the recognizable peak Huayna Picchu, which marks the north end of the site. Several hardy (and young) members of our group made the challenging hike to the top for incomparable views, but that trek was beyond my physical limits.

I have a profound respect for the Incas’ engineering capabilities. According to our guide, Elvira, the foundations of the walls extend further into the ground than the walls are high. I spent a lot of time poking through the various buildings, marveling in the knowledge that MP has withstood a number of earthquakes. Add a thatched roof to one of these buildings and one could set up housekeeping.


Houses      Guard House

The notable exception is the temple, which was the last structure built as the Spanish conquistadores were closing in in 1536. In their haste, the Incas didn’t take their usual care in constructing deep foundations; as a result, the temple is collapsing today.


MP is oriented so that at the summer and winter solstices, the sun blazes through perfectly positioned windows in one building. A carved sundial marks the four points of the compass; atop the highest mountains due north, south and west, they built temples. Their intent to build a similar temple on the mountain due east is marked by an ancient trail leading straight up the mountainside; the Spaniards arrived before they could complete it. In one section, called the granary, a huge granite sculpture pays tribute to the condor, sacred to the Incas and an integral part of Peruvian iconography. And in another courtyard, a large boulder is carved to mirror the small mountain behind it. Symbolism is everywhere.

Condor        Rock Carving

Exploring the site is exhausting, but exhilarating, requiring climbing, climbing, climbing. My phone counted over 13,000 steps taken during the four hours we were there on Monday, and another 11,000 on Tuesday. Efraín, our photographer guide, and Hugo, our destination manager, remarked that two nearly perfect sunny days were a rare occurrence. More often than not, especially in the early morning, the site is socked in with clouds.

Shrouded Mountain

Although everyone has seen the classic shot at the top of this post dozens of times, being there is another thing. Maybe it’s the physical challenge of conquering the steep trails and steps, or the surprises revealed around every corner, or the remarkable engineering abilities of these noble people — in any case, visiting Machu Picchu was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

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