By Mitch Vandell
When anyone sees Machu Picchu for the first time, the question that begs to be asked is: ‘what’s the big deal?’
At first glance, Machu Picchu is no more impressive than many European churches or universities built around the same time. However, most people refrain from verbalizing this observation and instead join the choir of tourists who say it’s the most amazing thing they have ever seen.
When taking a closer look at the great achievement of Machu Picchu, its urban planning, civil engineering, architecture, and stonemasonry, its title as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World is well-deserved. Add on the layers of mystique as well as the empire and culture of the Inca people, and one can easily understand the reasons for people’s unending fascination.
Machu Picchu has long been on my ‘bucket list’ of travel destinations. So when I found a deal on budget airline Jet Blue for a mere $480, I didn’t hesitate to book my ticket. I then discovered that Machu Picchu was in Cusco, which would require an additional $300 flight or an 18-hour bus ride with no toilet.
The last leg of travel for making it to Machu Picchu is a two-hour bus ride to the town of Sun Valley to catch a three-hour train ride to the town of Aguas Calientes. After spending the night there, I took a shuttle bus that leaves every 15 minutes starting at 5:30 in the morning up to Machu Picchu.
I lined up alongside what I estimated to be approximately one thousand other people for a short and steep ride of breathtaking landscape of surrounding mountains.
I had arrived.
The mystery of the Incas
The story of Machu Picchu begins in 1448 when the Incas were attacked. The emperor’s son, Pachacutti, audaciously defeated an attacking army, seized power from his father, and began to expand the Incan Empire. He came to hold a god-like status and continued to expand the Incan empire.
Remarkably, the Incas neither invented the wheel nor developed any written language, yet they had sophisticated agriculture and infrastructure in an empire of more than 12 million subjects. Stretching from modern day Columbia to Chile, the Incan Empire was the largest empire in the history of the Americas.
The absence of a written language has made it challenging for historians to piece together what they think they know about the Incas. Adding to the allure is how relatively recently this history occurred when compared to, for instance, the University of Oxford (1096). Yet, almost nothing is known with any certainty about the Incas.
No clear answer even exists as to what purpose or function Machu Picchu held. While it was not the lost Incan capital as had once been believed, it may have been built for ceremonial purposes. Some have theorized that the Intihuatana Stone was the end of a pilgrimage. Other theories suggest it had been a kind of royal retreat. Still others believe it was a religious capital and a solar observatory as a temple of the sun.
With a fair amount of certainty, human sacriﬁces are believed to have occurred at Machu Picchu. However, the more bizarre and unique events that happened at Machu Picchu were various skull deformation practices. In one example, a child’s head was tightly bound from birth with boards for many years in order to elongate it in an extreme way for aesthetic purposes.
The construction of Machu Picchu
The most striking realisation when reflecting on Machu Picchu is how the construction was at all possible. As part of the death-defying terrain, moving rocks stare down at people below from hundreds of meters on all sides. Adding to the danger, heavy rain often causes mudslides in the backdrop of cliffs. To have built this achievement in such a dangerous environment is unequivocally unthinkable.
Despite not having wheels at their disposal, the Incas also did not have any draught animals such as bulls or buffalos to help pull the stones weighing several tons. As for carving the hard granite, they never discovered how to make iron tools despite their skills with gold, silver, copper, and bronze.
No artifacts with sufficient durability to perform work such as unyielding stones have ever been found. Humorously, many people see this as evidence that aliens must have helped Incas perform such feats. However, even serious researchers and media outlets supposedly continue to propagate such theories as well.
The terraces surrounding Machu Picchu filled the function of soil leaning towards the mountain slopes to reinforce and support the structures. Worked into the structure are storm drains that lead away the rainwater that would otherwise erode the land underneath the structures. Strong winds necessitate equally intricate craftsmanship. The windows and doorframes are carved in shapes, and the stones fit together so precisely that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. A characteristic of Inca masonry is the absence of mortar. This feat is made possible by a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle in which stones are carved with many edges to lock together in order to increase the stability of the wall.
The end of Machu Picchu
There is a seeming consensus that the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu. Every place they came was stripped bare from everything worth taking, but they did so only after first documenting in detail what they had discovered. Yet, no reference to Machu Picchu has been found in the chronicles of the Spaniards. One theory is that the city was abandoned before the Spaniards even arrived. The reason could have been a plague or epidemic that killed the city’s population or had the authorities completely quarantine it. Or, one faction within the Incas could have completely annihilated another as had occurred in some extreme cases.
What must have been surprising, if not shocking, to the tiny force of Spanish cavalry of just a few hundred men as they came to Peru was how effortlessly they conquered the empire country of tens of thousands. Beyond their tactical battle skills and advanced weaponry, much of the conquering was the work of circumstance where the Incas fell prey to their smallpox.
A few years after the Spanish arrived, the Inca ruler Manco Cápac was defeated in 1536. He then ﬂed to establish the city of Vilcabamba; this hidden city became the last refuge from where the Inca dynasty survived for another 36 years. After having been abandoned and largely forgotten for nearly 400 years, Vilcabamba is the city that Hiram Bingham of Yale University thought he discovered as recently as 1911. In fact, Bingham died still believing in his achievement. However, just a few years after his death, researchers confirmed that Vilcabamba was in another location and remains undiscovered to this day.
So, what’s the big deal?
Though the Incas had over 12 billion dollars’ worth of gold robbed from them (at modern values), no one can take away their rich history. The real big deal of Machu Picchu is not in the vast vistas that meet the eye. It is in the myriad of legends and mysteries that surround it. The legacy of the Incas will never be fully answered and will never fade away. If you get the chance, go see the architectural genius of this ancient culture, as well as their descendants who still keep many of their cultural values alive today.