Thursday, August 07, 2008

Machu Picchu

Someone just reminded me that I never finished my Peru posts, and--more egregiously--left out Machu Picchu so far.

For some reason, Blogger doesn't let me copy images from my gallery right now, so click here for some pictures

So, Machu Picchu...I'm still sorting out my feelings about that one, but all in all, I didn't quite get the kick out of it that everyone I've talked to before and after seems to have gotten. Part of it is that it's so overwhelming, another probably that after almost two weeks in Peru I was a bit worn out, part was a Chicha and "whatever was in that bucket" hangover, but most of it was that there was no there there. I love history and archeology, and while Machu Picchu is spectacularly situated and impeccably built, there is only very little tangible history here. Unlike Pisac, or Greek ruins, or the Anastazi sites, it was probably abandoned shortly after it was built, and maybe never fully inhabited, so it is lacking all these very little clues and imprints of the people who lived there.

One example of what I mean is this building in Mesa Verde.
Nowhere near as impressive as Incan buildings, but it tells a story, and might help to unlock a mystery. On the left side, the masonry is of better quality and the balcony is held up by double wood braces. On the right, it's held up by single braces. One possible interpretation, supported by carbon dating and placing the trees further away than ones on the left, is that the right side was build during the decline of Mesa Verde after they cut down all the easily accessible trees. It supports the theory that the rapid vanishing of the entire culture was caused by overpopulation, overuse of natural resources, and apparently a devastating drought in what was marginally arable land in the first place.

Anyway, Machu Picchu. Since there is no road leading to Machu Picchu the train ride from Ollyantaytambo, the only access is by train through an unbelievably scenic, narrow, and steep river valley. The trains are fairly new, but move slowly because the drivers have to get off every few miles to set and reset the switches by hand. Aguas Calientes (freshly renamed to Machu Picchu Pueblo) is the only town within miles and consists of the hotels, hostels, and backpacker haunts north of the river, and the houses of the guides, maids and cooks on the other side. For Peruvian standards it's very affluent, and has a reputation as the most expensive part of the country. If you've been to a mid-range Mexican or Italian resort town, you know what it looks like.

Accordingly, I dropped my stuff in the hotel, hooked one guy up with Neosporin and a first aid kit, and went back south to buy some water and snacks for the next day. They turned out to be cheaper than in Ollyantaytambo, which shows what guidebook writers know.
Fortunately, I ran into the preparations for a parade in honor of the anniversary of the World Heritage Site status. So I watched the an amazing display of Peruvian organization and efficiency during the two hours it took them to set up the marching order while getting steadily drunk on homemade corn beer (chicha) and moonshine--both served for pennies by some nice kids in front of the stadium. I didn't bring my camera, but it seemed wrong to take pictures anyway. It was a wonderful show nevertheless with everyone outfitted in local costumes, or Incan fakery. After that, it was dinner, a few more beers, Excedrin, a few hours of sleep, more Excedrin, breakfast, a 30 minute bus ride up dozens of switchbacks and a 5AM schlepp up to the highest point in Machu Picchu for an incredible sunrise over the Andean mountains.

Our local guide did a great job explaining and showing the place to tired and giddy tourists, and then we had many hours to explore and take hundreds of pictures (I clocked about 450 and wasn't even close to the crown). Architecturally, and from the 'how the heck did they get this up here', it's unbelievable. Another strong impression was the organization and the clear social differences: you can tell with one look at the masonry if workers, artisans, or members of the priest and ruling class lived in a building or area. Even after almost 600 years, the stones still fit tight, the stairs are still in place, and if you'd put up a few roofs, you could move right in. What makes the widespread lack of signs on habitation even more eerie.

Anyway, pictures tell the story better than words can.

(Side note: for all their wonderful architectural accomplishments, building consistent stairs was not one of the Inca's stronger points. They range from uneven to rockfall everywhere except in Sacsaywaman.)

I spent close to eight hours exploring in and around, interrupted only by a 45 minute nap on one of the big grass covered terraces to catch up on sleep and metabolize the rest of the moonshine.

Wrap up in a few days.

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