The Inca Road to Machu Picchu

The Payoff
By Ted Rose
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Room with a terrace: The steps helped the Incas grow mountain crops

Our goal: to reach Intipunku, or Gateway to the Sun, and see the day's first light hit the lost city. But our nemesis turns up, more ethereal than the Conquistadors but just as persistent: a bank of clouds. As we walk down to the ruins, the visibility gets worse, but our leader gamely leads us through the city on a tour, and we wander through white stuff, observing one stone structure appear out of the blank space in front of us, while one behind us inevitably slips away. Still, it's a taste of the ruins, and what we see is impressive. The heart of the city contains an array of buildings made of granite cut from a quarry on the mountain, and its edge is ringed with numerous farming terraces. The Incas famously developed the mountainsides for agriculture as well, using the steep slopes to create microclimates that supported a wider variety of agricultural products.

Our trekking companions leave around noon, taking the 30-minute bus ride to the train station with the line directly to Cusco. Thankfully, we had arranged accommodations at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only place to sleep near the ruins. Accommodations are hardly luxurious (think Motel 6), but the $300-a-night charge isn't for pampering—it's for off-peak access to Machu Picchu.

After taking turns showering off four days of dirt, we ready ourselves for a quieter return visit to the ruins. We head in at five that afternoon; other travelers are disappearing fast—along with the clouds. With the improved visibility, I can appreciate how often the Inca buildings are framed by the natural surroundings. I also notice a few small rocks jutting out of the terraces. They look ill-considered until I realize each is a dead-on representation of the collection of peaks behind it.

We do know that the Incas worshipped the sun, and a tremendous sun dial dominates a raised platform in the middle of the ruins. Early the next morning, I examine a mark the Incas made to record the point where the sun hits on the solstice. Today, the sun falls two feet from the mark. Something about this respect for the sun speaks to me; warmed with the day's first light, I feel an unmistakable connection to the ancient builders.

The sun rises and the inevitable crowds gather. I decide to climb back to the Gateway to the Sun, to see the view that the clouds had denied the day before. The steep climb along the ridge takes about an hour. When I turn back, I realize the effort's been worth it. From on high, Machu Picchu is reduced to a neat pattern of boulders, surrounded by those tremendous mountains. The natural and the man-made seem to blend effortlessly. The Incas may not have discovered writing, but this view speaks volumes.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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