Adventures in Peru 2014 Part 8: Machu Picchu

Friday, August 1, 2014 (afternoon)

There was not much leisure in today’s operation. We got into our room at 1:00 PM at Sanctuary Lodge and had 30 minutes to gather ourselves for the tour. Entrance to Machu Picchu is strictly controlled, and our tickets were for today and today only. I decided to pack as light as possible as far as camera gear goes. I got my city Blackrapid strap, loaded it with spare batteries and memory cards, and shouldered the Nikon with the 18-300 lens. I’ve never really done a lot of hunting, in spite of it being a favorite Arkansas pasttime. When I gear up with the camera, I feel a bit like a hunter. The camera is my gun. The batteries and cards are my ammo, and today I was loading for bear. Greg packed a day pack with water, sunscreen, snacks–anything we might need inside Machu Picchu. Genene went light, though she made us pack Andrea the stuffed alpaca. Since Senior can’t see Machu Picchu, Andrea will do it and tell him all about it.

We met Antonieta, our guide, at the door to Sanctuary Lodge. The lodge is less than 100 yards to the entrance to Machu Picchu, and there was no line. We showed our passports and tickets and in we went.

Antonieta suggested that we do the hard part first. She asked us to climb up to one of the terraces so that we could have a stunning vista of the entire complex. We started up. I felt so sorry for Greg. He was much improved but still not fully recovered from his altitude sickness. He was huffing and puffing like a smoking asthmatic. Antonieta was very kind. She listened carefully to his breathing and stopped often. She told us there was no hurry and that it would be worth it. I took Greg’s daypack to lighten his load. He did not like having to let me take the pack, but I prevailed upon him not to be a hero. I have felt good here. I don’t know whether I just don’t react to the altitude or whether I have just been lucky. I am alllergic to sulfa drugs and therefore cannot take the gold standard for altitude sickness, diamox. Greg and Genene have been taking the diamox religiously. Genene has done fine. I have taken dexamethosone, which I think is a steroid. Maybe that has helped me. Maybe I was an Inca princess in a past life.

Anyway, back to the story of Machu Picchu. American Hiram Bingham III gets the credit for “rediscovering” Machu Picchu in 1911. Of course, the people of Peru knew this ruin was here, but they did not tell the world. Some say that a Peruvian explorer came to the site for exploration purposes some 10 years earlier than Bingham, but this expedition was not publicized. The Peruvian may been searching for artifacts to sell on the black market. We do not know what may have been hauled out. In any event, Bingham is the scientist who gets the credit for the discovery of this awe-inspiring place.

Bingham was the son and grandson of Pacific island missionaries. He attended Punahou school in Hawaii. I know at least two other important alumni of that exclusive private school–Herman Little and Barack Obama. Bingham went off to college and there knew he was never going to be a missionary. He married a Tiffany (the little blue box jewelry Tiffany family), so his money worries were at an end. He became a professor at Yale University and became fascinated with Peruvian culture and finding the lost city of Vilcabamba. The movie character Indiana Jones is loosely based on Hiram Bingham. Can you imagine the adventures he must have had?

Here’s a couple of old photos of BIngham (Harrison Ford looks better in the hat…. and in a space suit…and in a business suit….and he would look really good eating crackers in…well, never mind.)

Bingham arranged an expedition in 1911. Here he is with his local guides:

He went in bars and villages along the way, asking people if they knew where ruins were. He found a guide to take him to the countryside. There was also a young boy named Pablito. Our guide told us that Pablito showed Machu Picchu to BIngham for the price of a sole. Why can’t I ever get a bargain like that?

Genene was intrigued by the story of Pablito, seen here:

Bingham came back with another expedition in 1912. He brought scientists, archaeologists, professionals of all sorts. Their work was memorialized in “National Geographic,” and Machu Picchu belonged to the world.


Machu Picchu was a holy place. It probably took 20,000 people to carve it into the mountainside, but only 600 people would have lived here. It was built over a period of about 70 years beginning at around 1450 but was abandoned before it was completed. There was civil unrest in the Inca Empire, and then the Spaniards came to finish the job. Because the place was sacred, the Inca destroyed portions of the trails leading to the site. The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, so it was never destroyed. The jungle slowly reclaimed it, where it lay under vines waiting for Hiram and his fedora to show up. Over 80 percent of the ruins are original.

I apologize for the photo overload that is about to occur. The place is simply beautiful.

The sun gate:
The sun gate is on the left, at the first “notch”:
Did our friend from Singapore make it to the top of this in 29 minutes?
Aguas Calientes sits in the valley floor below:
Genene and Antonieta:
An aquaduct:
An original roller stone, which was used to move the heavy stones into place:
The Inca used existing stones in the construction of Machu Picchu. Genene is here with a big rock that rises out of the earth :
We step inside the gate and into the city:
Flora in the ruins:


Greg was intrigued by the fact that the archaeologists found only a single gold bracelet in the ruins. Since the Spanish did not get it, who did? Over the hundreds of years, perhaps the local people got the artifacts piece by piece.

There were regular animal sacrifices in Inca culture, and in extraordinary situations, there were human sacrifices as well. Girls were chosen for their beauty and would be taken from her family between the ages of 2 to 5. The girl was groomed, like a vestal virgin. She was given the best foods and taught the ways of the upper class. Human sacrifices were only made during times of hardship–earthquake, drought, bad crops. Those events were interpreted as displeasure of the gods, and the finest sacrifice must be made. The girl was drugged with cheecha (corn beer) and native hallucingenic plants. She was bundled warmly while sleeping and carried up the mountain and buried alive in the glacier. Mummified remains of these girls have been found in the glaciers, lovingly placed in the fetal position to be born again in one of the three worlds.

One of the most fascinating buildings was the Temple of the Condor. The Inca took advantage of natural shape and color in the rock to emulate the condor’s wings. The head of the condor and its left wing are visible below:


There was a rock called the Southern Cross Rock. The four points of the stone align perfectly with the cardinal points on the compass. Our guide demonstrated with an iPhone.

In this photo, you can see another original roller stone. These were used to move the large stones into place:

We saw chinchilla in the rocks.

There are many llama roaming the grounds. They cut the grass and keep it out of the cracks and stones. Natural lawn mowers:


Bingham did many good things by bringing scientists and professionals. He also made some critical mistakes. He only had four years to clear the site, and so he burned the jungle vegetation. Some of the vegetation was intertwined in the rocks, and the burning caused some walls to collapse. That said, over 80 percent of the site is original. Only 20 percent was reconstructed.

In the Inca times, the roofs would have been thatched. A recreation is below:


There was a royal house. We know this because there was a royal bathroom:

Take a look at this corner stone, found in the royal house:

As the day wore on, the light changed. I know I am showing some of the same scenes over and over, but I love the way the afternoon light makes for a totally different mood:

There was an aqueduct that brought water from the other side of the mountain into Machu Picchu. It still brings water today to Machu Picchu and to Sanctuary Lodge.


We saw another Temple of the Sun. Again, many of the windows align with solstice events. Harmony with nature.

Very important sacrifices would have been made inside the Temple of the Sun:


Our guide delivered a lot of information as we walked through the city. The city was divided into three areas: agricultural/storage, religious, and living quarters. We strolled through all of them as Antonieta explained their significance in Inca culture.

As the day wore on, my stomach rumbled a bit. They serve a lot of quinoa around here, and I enjoy it. It does, however, have a particular effect on me. It makes me rather “airy.” Somewhere between the Temple of the Condor and the Royal House, I decided to try to sneak a little relief. We were walking along in a nice little single file row–Antonieta, Genene, me and Greg following up the rear. What could go wrong? So in the words of Idina Menzel (or if you are John Travolta, Adele Dazeem), I “let it go.” Holy cow! It was a sonorous blast, like a trumpet. I think condors took flight, and there may have been a llama stampede. Without missing a beat, Greg said, “Goodness, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!” In that single act of unselfish quick-thinking gallantry, he repaid me for carrying that pack and took the blame (or maybe I should say credit; it was a good one) for my bad act. Genene rushed back to admonish him for his crudeness. Antonieta, ever gracious, pretended to hear nothing. You can take the girl out of Arkansas….


Our tour was complete at around 4 PM, and Machu Picchu closes at 5. Antonieta took her leave of us and left us to wander around. We were down in the temple and housing structures, and it was like a maze. We were trying to leave, but we kept hitting dead ends. My inclination was to climb up and so we went up, up, up. Periodically the guides would whistle at us and gesture with their hands to try to get us pointed in the right direction. It became frustrating and a little unnerving. Finally one guide took a bit more pity and told us exactly how we needed to go, straight back down. We hit the door at straight up 5:00 PM. We were among the last to leave.

Back at Sanctuary Lodge, safe and sound:

Finally, we could relax for a few minutes. We scheduled dinner for 7, washed up and put on dress clothes. I am not one to dress up a lot, but it was so enjoyable tonight. I’ve been living in convertible hiking pants and boots, and the skirt made a nice change of pace.

Our meal at Sanctuary Lodge was divine. Tenderloin, suckling pork, traditional Peruvian appetizers, and I had the best Pisco Sour I have tasted. Now I understand what the fuss is about. We were entertained by musicians. I swear I have heard “I’d Rather Be a Hammer than a Nail” every night. It’s a good thing I like that song. Greg went to the bathroom, and our waiter approached me, his eyes alight. He wanted to know exactly what we had done today, and I began to wax on about Machu Picchu. He agreed, and he asked if we had seen the Temple of the Sun in Cusco. I told him that we had. He began to talk about the stones, the light, the construction. His eyes glowed with passion and fire. I asked him if he was from this area, and he told me that he was from Lima but had gotten here as soon as he could. He told me that he goes to Machu Picchu whenever he can and just wanders. Machu Picchu claims another victim.

Our dinner complete, we took a short walk in the dark. Outside the glare of the few streetlights, it became very dark. The sky was cloudy, so there was no chance to stargaze. I took the opportunity to walk a few steps into the darkness and then rush forward, scarying the crap out of Genene and Greg. It was hilarious. We saw the last workers leave Machu Picchu at 9:00, climbing aboard the last bus.

I always like to do one really indulgent thing on my vacations, and we are staying in the Presidential Suite at Sanctuary Lodge. It’s a Belmond property (Orient Express). The suite is not the fanciest room. I’ve stayed in nicer hotels, as far as the facilities. The place has a gentle shopworn look about it. However, the service is out of this world. We are greeted by name everywhere we go. We are Mr. Gordon and Mrs. or Madam Gordon and Genene is “Miss.” Every very single person–concierge, waiter, housekeeper, doorman–greets us in this way. The towels are the size of magic carpets, and we could get used to lounging around in fluffy white robes. Everything is included. Minibar, food, drink, as much bottled water as we can drink. It is the high life. We thought this would be a treat after the Inca Trail. I think we earned it anyway in the endoscopy room.

Machu Picchu is one of the most phenomenal things I have ever seen. The sheer magnitude of effort it took to build it boggles the mind. Shirley MacLaine helped to popularize this place when she wrote a book about her life in the 1980’s. I think it was called “Out on a Limb.” (That’s appropriate.) In it she claimed to have been an Inca princess in a past life and she also claimed to know that aliens helped to build Machu Picchu. Antonieta says that this sort of talk is a bit insulting to the Peruvian people, as if their ancestors could not have done such a thing without help from beyond. I get that, but I must confess: it is difficult to wrap your mind around the idea that a people– any people–could carve a citadel out of solid rock without the wheel, horses or steel. This human achievement is simply staggering and must be seen to be believed. I’m still not sure I believe it.

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