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Mystical Machu

For 100 years, the Incan city has attracted travelers
to Peru’s Sacred Valley.
Story and photos By Carolyn Thornton

A living heritage is woven throughout the fabric of everyday 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 and is not just for tourists who stop here before journeying on to Machu Picchu.


Ruins of homes, palaces, temples and storehouses have fascinated historians, archaeologists and travelers for a century. All seem to be searching for answers to questions concerning the engineering of this impressive site. Perhaps the answers are locked within these ancient stones.


Ancient Incas put a great deal of value on cloth. An elaborate tunic tapestry could have 400 threads per inch, and the yarn, which is never cut, could stretch for 10 miles. Today, even the humblest of farmers use the wool of alpacas, llamas or vicuñas (a relative of the llama) 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 Písac Market road

The intricacy of their hand-woven 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 at inexpensive prices.

Farther along, about 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) from Cusco, the Písac Market is a clash of color and goods, including dolls, dresses, blankets, jewelry, pottery, multicolored maize, wheels of cheeses, finger puppets, panpipes and potatoes. A wood-fired clay oven whips out hot rolls filled with onion, basil and tomato, or charred cuy (guinea pig), a Peruvian specialty.

On Sundays, the highlanders attend a Quechua language Mass 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 tip beside the ruins on the northern outskirts of Cusco. Sacsayhuamán is the largest walled complex, and much like Machu Picchu, it remains 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 in the wall without mortar so tightly it’s as if they had once been clay blocks squashed together.

The Spanish 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, Sacsayhuamán 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 of Santo Domingo are Biblical scenes illustrated with indigenous animals, llamas and macaws. Marcos Zapata painted the Last Supper depicting Jesus and his disciples with a platter of cuy. The faithful believe another relic at the cathedral, a darkened 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 Picchu is lower in altitude (approximately 8,000 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 train to Machu Picchu 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 tethered to graze 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. 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 make a beeline to the train when it stops at Ollantaytambo, a town with an impressive Inca stone fortress.

The train winds through a eucalyptus forest then a tropical jungle. Coaches brush plants, such as 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. Two thousand feet above the rushing Urubamba, Bingham and his team met a Peruvian family whose 10-year-old son led Bingham up the 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, workshops and the palace 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 doorjambs marked a place of prominence. Trapezoidal doorways and windows helped stabilize 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.

Archaeologists continually unearth answers about the site, yet many mysteries remain, including how was Machu Picchu engineered? Only time will tell.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

Jul/Aug 2011 Issue

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