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Friday, 10 August 2007

The Spiritual Experience of Machu Picchu

Written by Thomas Lera and Sandra Fitzgerald
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At the end of the 15th century, the secluded Inca citadel of Machu Picchu was a vibrant city still being carved into the Andean peaks flanking the Urubamba River canyon. Over 200 buildings already provided housing, temples and storage facilities for the city's 1,200 residents. Vast tracts of land had been terraced for farming. Within just 27 years, more than half of Machu Picchu’s Incan population became infected with small pox and died. The citadel fell into disuse, and, quickly enveloped in dense vegetation, became motionless, frozen in time.

machu picchu

Luckily, this religious center was not discovered by the Spaniards, so was spared the pillaging that befell so many other of its conquests. Machu Picchu’s remote location – at the end of an insignificant road cut through treacherous mountainous terrain, high above the Urubamba River canyon - helped guarantee that it would have no significant commercial, military, or administrative use. The site remained largely untouched for more than four centuries until 1912, when it was discovered by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham.

Machu Picchu drapes across the top, and spills down the sides of a vast mountain area strung between two distinct Andean peaks: the now famous Inca Trail begins high on the mountain’s south side at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, and Huayna Picchu soars above the site’s northernmost extremity like a silent guardian. If you can muster the strength, a hike to the top of either should not be missed as it provides an outstanding view of the ruins and surrounding valley.

machu picchu

The site itself can be broken down into agricultural and residential areas. From both the trail entrance and the main ticket gate you enter through the agricultural zone. The contours of these slopes are hugged tightly by layers of stone walls several feet high, built to reduce erosion and increase the square footage available for agriculture. The Inca employed advanced terracing and irrigation methods to assure a high yield of the maize and potatoes they grew.

We were fortunate enough to visit with an excellent guide two hours before the general public was admitted, and strolled quietly along the dormant settlement’s streets. As we walked toward the center of the complex, the most important temples and structures revealed the Incans’ incredible craftsmanship. Enormous granite blocks had been cut by hand with bronze or stone tools, then smoothed with sand. The mortarless blocks still rest so solidly together it is impossible to insert a knife blade or even a credit card between them – we tried.

Many of the structures were also built to utilize existing stone formations. A few temples clutch the edge of steep precipices, displaying a oneness with nature. What is now known as Machu Picchu’s astrological center was built upon the outcropping of an existing megalith. On both the summer and winter solstices, the sun's first rays shine through its windows as they peek slowly over the adjacent mountain.

Another of Machu Picchu’s important structures is the Intihuatana, a stone column rising defiantly from a box-shaped slate platform. Intihuatana literally translates to “for tying the sun” but normally is translated as “hitching post of the sun.” As the winter solstice approached and the sun began to shine fewer hours each day, a priest would hold a ceremony to tether the sun to the stone, to prevent it from vanishing entirely. Technically known as gnomons, such columns existed at many other Incan sites but were almost always destroyed by the Spanish. Thankfully, this one remains, illustrating the meaning and significance surrounding its conception.

machu picchu



Such surprises abound around every corner at Machu Picchu, including three-dimensional sculptures carved into the rock in odd places, and water still flowing through ancient cisterns and stone channels. After hours of exploring we sat on a wall high along the edge of the city. Gazing down at this astounding group of residences and temples, we were awestruck by Machu Picchu’s magic. Speech was superfluous. Even the many tour groups which had trooped in and out during the day had done nothing to spoil the place for us. For a few precious moments, meandering down ancient trails, forgetting about the existence of buses, trains, cars and the world outside, we could feel the deep pride, reverence and spiritual devotion of the ancient Incans – and it had nothing to do with altitude!

machu picchu


Just before sunset, we boarded the bus back to our hotel, in silence. A young boy raced us to the tourist village of Agua Calientes, swiftly moving down ancient stone steps and unseen trails. He taunted us at various turns and switchbacks by waving, then ducking back into the bush, only to appear again at another turn. He won the “race” as the switchback road was much longer than the steep trail he had navigated.

The next morning rain drenched the village, washing away all evidence of our visit. The mountain top cradling the ruins was shrouded in impenetrable clouds, and Machu Picchu was once again hidden as if it never existed. Its impact on us, however, would never be lost.

How To Get There:

From Cusco, the 3 ½ hour journey on PeruRail is highlighted by wonderful mountain vistas and the beautiful Urubamba River. which runs through the Sacred Valley of the Andes. On arrival in the town of Aguas Calientes, hop on a bus to traverse the last two kilometers up the mountain to the entrance. Trains leave at 6:00 AM and 3:30 PM; fare for a round trip ticket is $73 per person.

Where To Stay:

Aguas Calientes offers a wide range of lodgings, from the low-budget to the luxurious. We stayed at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, now the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Hotel. Located in the cloud forest in the heart of the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, its 85-bungalow style cottage rooms are designed to give you the feeling of an Andean village woven throughout miles of trails. The “village” is complete with waterfalls and a cloud forest garden with over 375 different orchids, 175 species of birds and 125 varieties of butterflies.


The hotel was an eco-traveler’s paradise, complementing the spiritual experience of Machu Picchu. There are a variety of rooms available, from the simple to the sumptuous, with corresponding costs. Our room was a welcome oasis, with its large natural stone shower area and large working fireplace – both of which took the slight chill off the night an relaxed our tired muscle into a blissful nights’ sleep. Visit for information.

© Thomas Lera and Sandra Fitzgerald

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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