PUBLISHED IN: Mississippi; Southern Traveler; Midwest Traveler; The Book; Where to Retire.
SPECIALTIES: Mississippi; New Orleans; Trains; U.S. South.
AWARDS: Mississippi Travel Writer Media Award 1993; SATW Central States Best Magazine Article US/Canada, 3rd place 1991, 1994; SATW Central States Self Illustrated Article, 3rd place 1994; SATW Central States Foreign Magazine Article, Honorable Mention 1992; National Press Women, Special Articles, Travel 1988.; 2004 SATW Central States photos, 2nd place.
Machu Pichu, Journey to a Marvel of the World
by Carolyn Thornton, AAA Traveler Magazine
A living heritage is woven throughout the fabric of every day life in Cusco, Peru, once the capital of the Incas. Street vendors and native residents wear vibrant dresses, shawls, and vests with bowler hats or woven caps. Such finery is typical, not just for the tourists who stop here before journeying on to Machu Pichu.
Ancient Incas revered cloth as more precious than gold. An elaborate tunic tapestry could have 400 threads per inch, and the yarn - never cut - could stretch for 10 miles. Today, even the humblest of farmers use the wool of alpacas, llamas, or vicuñas for clothing, sacks of grain, rugs or tapestries. Weaving is a way of life, taught by men and women to children at an early age.
On the Pisac Market road
The intricacy of their handwoven textiles can be seen in the Sacred Valley at Awanacancha Weaving Center. Fingers fly as children and adults work threads looped around rough-wood looms, and young girls offer hands full of grasses for visitors to feed llamas and alpacas. Demonstrations are free. Afterward visitors can purchase skeins of wool or finished products patterned with flora, fauna and geometric designs.
Farther along, about 30 kl from Cusco, the Pisac Market is a clash of colors from a sprawl of goods: dolls, dresses, blankets, jewelry, pottery, multicolored maize, wheels of cheeses, finger puppets, panpipes and potatoes - so many varieties it is believed Peru is where they originated. A wood-fired clay oven whips out hot rolls filled with onion, basil and tomato, or charred cuy, gunea pig, a Peruvian specialty. On Sundays the highlanders attend Mass, prayed in the Quechua language, at a church in the middle of the market. Families don similar outfits with delicate embroidery and bold woven diamonds, squares and stripes.
Cusco and surrounding ruins
Traditionally dressed young girls with their pet alpacas will happily pose for a small propina, tip, beside the ruins on the outskirts of Cusco. Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) is the largest, and much like Machu Pichu, a mystery. The Incas did not have carts, oxen, or level roads to move these massive stones. The largest is estimated to weigh 361 tons. Some have as many as six sides yet fit together without mortar so tightly it’s as if they had once been clay blocks squashed together.
The Spanish called the ruins “A Fortress” and garrisoned troops here before using the site as a quarry. Carved stone seats suggest Incas may have reclined here for viewing temple processions or sacred ceremonies in the grassy Esplanade below. No one knows for sure. Even without seats, Sacsayhuaman provides a vantage point for panoramic views of Cusco. It’s only a 30 minute hike down to the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral at the center of town.
Of note within the Cathedral are Biblical scenes illustrated with indigenous animals, llamas and macaws. Marcos Zapata painted The Last Supper depicting Christ and his disciples with a platter of cuy. The faithful believe the charred crucifix, Señor de los Tremblores (Lord of the Earthquakes), stopped the 1650 earthquake.
Many Inca foundations have survived quakes that crumbled Spanish structures built on top of them. The contrast of old and new stone is particularly dramatic at the Convent of Santo Domingo, where the curved foundation wall from the Inca’s Temple of the Sun can be seen. The Temple of the Sun served as an observatory. Even today sunlight on the summer solstice shines on a spot where only an Inca chieftain was allowed to sit.
Many visitors explore Cusco while acclimating to the 11,000-foot altitude. In fact, Machu Pichu is lower in altitude at only 8040 feet, and the only way to get there is to hike the ancient Inca Trail or to take the train.
Rails to the past
The Machu Pichu train offers views of rural life as it winds through the Urubamba River Valley. Each morning the self-sufficient Peruvians leave their adobe houses to walk their few cows to a patch of grazing. Since there are few fences, the animals are tether-grazed until the evening walk home. Harvest is a communal effort with even the cows cleaning up the gleanings. Youngsters pitch potatoes into piles. Hay is stacked into teepee shapes. And terraces ready for the next season’s planting climb mountainsides.
For miles the Urubamba River plays chase with the train, first on one side then the other. High above snow-crowned Andean peaks glisten in the sun. Women hauling sacks of souvenirs beeline to the train when it stops at Ollantaytambo, a town with an impressive Inca stone fortress.
The train descends switchbacks and winds through a eucalyptus forest then a tropical jungle. Coaches brush elephant ears, bird of paradise, bromeliads, and vines. It rumbles over an Indiana-Jones-style bridge and eases into Aguas Calientes. Although the town is named for its hot springs most people call it Machu Picchu Pueblo because shuttle buses depart from here.
Anticipation mounts as the bus zigzags up the mountainside. Everyone strains to catch a glimpse of the famous site, but only jungle vegetation flanks the road. Each curve invokes thoughts of Hiram Bingham and his quest to find the Lost City of the Incas.
It was a rainy July day in 1911 when the Yale history professor followed a tip from a local guide about Inca ruins on the saddle ridge. 2000 feet above the rushing Urubamba they met a Peruvian family whose ten-year-old son led Bingham up the final steeply terraced hillside. He wrote, “We...found ourselves standing in front of the ruins of two of the finest and most interesting structures in ancient America. Made of beautiful white granite, the walls contained blocks of Cyclopean size, higher than a man. The sight held me spellbound.”
Visitors will share Bingham’s breathless wonder when they climb the footpath to stand just below the guardhouse. The ruins of roofless storehouses, residences, temples, palace and workshops spread at the foot of Huayna Picchu peak. A few structures have been re-thatched for visitors to envision what this stronghold would have looked like in the 1530s at the height of Emperor Pachacuti’s Inca Empire.
Enter the site just as llama trains laden with goods would have. The Western Section is considered the hanan, or upper area, both geographically and socially. Double door jambs marked a place of prominence. Trapezoidal doorways and windows helped stabilized structures against earthquakes.
The Inca designed a remarkable water system using springs, canals, and fountains. Chips left behind from workmen using hammerstones were recycled to form a base for stability and drainage beneath the lower central plaza. Search for the lone tree where a gold bracelet was unearthed.
The answers to some mysteries lie in plain sight. A wall has an outline sketch of a bird locked in stone. Ground level niches served as hutches for guinea pigs. The Sacred Rock resembling distant Mount Yanantin makes this a “view stone,” an early version of today’s sightseeing telescopes.
Archeologists continually unearth answers about the site, yet many mysteries remain. How was Machu Picchu engineered? How did the community function? Why was it abandoned before completion? Only time will tell.