image: The ancient Inca structure of  Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911.
The ancient Inca structure of Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911.

Photograph © Jim Zuckerman/CORBIS

Machu Picchu
By Johan Reinhard

The sight before me seemed like something from an idyllic dream—an ancient city suspended above the clouds. After four days of trekking the Inca Trail, I had just reached a pass where I had my first view of Machu Picchu. I thought I knew what to expect, but Machu Picchu is one of the few places in the world where reality often surpasses a person's imagination. The light reflecting off the Urubamba River a distant 2,000 feet below made the green mound topped by miniature ruins appear tied with a silver ribbon. As the clouds cleared, the day turned beautiful; in the distance, snow-capped peaks glinted in the sun.

To my surprise, I later found that it didn't matter whether the weather was perfect or Machu Picchu was shrouded in mist. In perfect weather you see clearly how its well-planned architecture blends with the spectacular scenery of the surrounding peaks and gorges. Misty conditions wrap the stone engineering in a soft cloak of magic and mystery.

Peace is essential for a meaningful visit here— and it won't be present at midday, when most tourists come. That's why I traditionally climb to the top of a nearby peak with a pack lunch and wait till the crowds are gone. Each time I return to Machu Picchu I notice something new: an alignment of structures, a natural feature, a detail that reveals a little more about life here 500 years ago.

Built by the Inca in a rugged, isolated, area of Peru, Machu Picchu was discovered by the scientific world when geographer Hiram Bingham reached it in 1911. (Though some local people knew of it, Spanish colonists never did because the site was abandoned soon after they took over the land in A.D. 1532.) There is no record of why Machu Picchu was built since the Inca had no writing. This is no small puzzle: The Inca went to extraordinary lengths to construct a city in a area in which only a few had managed to live before. Even today the ruins perched high on a ridge look like they could slide into the precipitous gorge below.

To better understand the Inca's choice of this site I examined Machu Picchu's relation to the area's sacred mountains, and noticed that these spiritual landmarks converged with astronomical alignments (such as the setting of the solstice sun). This made it a perfect religious center dedicated to the vital forces of the Earth and sky. I also found Inca ruins and trials in the mountains near Machu Picchu. These discoveries, and others recently made closer to the site, indicated that Machu Picchu was the hub of trails and sites. Still, just as we find answers to the enigma that is Machu Picchu, new questions arise. Machu Picchu will be a place of mystery for years to come—and it will always draw me back.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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