The Heights of Machu Picchu, by J.M. White

A miraculous visit to Machu Picchu

Photograph by J.M. White

Machu Picchu is one of the most spectacularly beautiful sites on earth. It is an ancient Inca ceremonial center perched on top of a narrow ridge surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The flat part of the ridge where they built Machu Picchu is only fourteen acres wide, but the space is filled with some of the most incredible Inca stonework ever created. It had been deserted after the Spanish conquest, but the Spanish had either not known it was there or, if they did, they never made a concerted effort to destroy it, so it remained hidden, overgrown by the jungle until an enterprising young archaeologist named Hiram Bingham managed to happen upon it in 1911.  Like the discovery of Troy or the excavations in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the discovery of Machu Picchu is one of the extraordinary stories in the annals of archaeology. It is the premier Inca ceremonial center hidden on a high mountain ridge deep in the Andes jungle, unknown to anyone except the Indians who lived in the area. They, however, were very aware of it and when Bingham came looking for ancient ruins, there were farmers cultivating the main plaza and the terraces at Machu Picchu.

Much like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is a city of temples made of exquisite stonework buried in the jungle for hundreds of years. The Incas built it on the narrow ridge between two high mountain peaks in a giant horseshoe bend of the Urubamba River. The city is divided into two principal areas: the temples and the palaces. There are two main palaces: one for the Emperor and the other for the women of the court and the High Priests. These are located across the plaza from each other. There are seven temples in the city: the greatest is the Temple of the Sun; past that are the Temple of the Hitching Post, the Temple of Three Windows, the Temple of the Condor, the Temple of the Moon, and the Temple of the Pachamama Stone. The temples are made of Inca stonework of the highest order.

The train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu is one of the most beautiful in the world. As the train approaches Machu Picchu, the Urubamba valley gets narrower and narrower until it is little more than a rushing river gorge with luxurious jungle growth draped from the trees over the railway. Orchids and bromeliads hang from the trees. The mountains are incredibly steep and sheer. But, from time to time, the view opens up and there are snow-capped mountains in the distance with glaciers nestled in their folds like streams of ice moving down the high mountain valleys. The Urubamba River roars down from the mountains with great force and in some places the water hits boulders to create fountains that erupt geyser-like into the air. Every few miles there are Inca terraces along the mountainsides and ancient ruins perched on the mountains. There is amazing beauty in every direction. In about three hours the train arrives in Agua Calientes, the little town at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu sits.

Ruben Orrellano had agreed to be our guide for the day in Machu Picchu. Ruben is a Ph.D. archaeologist, born and raised in Cusco. He had been the head archaeologist at Machu Picchu for three years and discovered over forty outlying sites in the surrounding terrain, as well as being an expert in the religious practices of the Inca tradition. There could not be a better person to show us around. We had met on a previous trip and I stayed in touch and asked if he would join Susan and I for this visit to Machu Picchu.

Rueben took us up the mountain and along a narrow path around a mountain ledge and suddenly Machu Picchu came into view. It is a stunning sight, an awesome vista of heart-stopping beauty. This is the vantage point where you can overlook the entire city, where the iconic photos you see of Machu Picchu are taken. The city is laid out in front of you with mountain peaks on all sides. The main part of the city has a large stone wall protecting it. Rueben lead us up to the wall and stopped. As we were standing in the shade of the wall, ready to enter the city, I looked up into the clear blue cloudless noon-day sky and saw a complete rainbow around the sun. I had never seen anything like it, and pointed it out as we all gazed at it in amazement.

Once inside the city walls, Ruben took us across the plaza through a complex of buildings into a large room that has two stone cylinders carved out of the bedrock of the floor. They are about four inches tall and fifteen inches wide with a lip about a quarter inch tall around the top-edge. They were full of rain water when we first came upon them. Bingham thought they were mortars where the women ground corn and he took a famous picture of a young boy holding a pestle in one of them, but Ruben pointed out that mortars were hollowed out in a concave manner and these have perfectly flat bottoms. He said these were used as reflective mirrors for watching the sky, that the room was an observatory where, by comparing the images in the two cylinders, the ancient astronomers made calculations charting the movement of the stars, planets, sun and moon.

Then he instructed us to stand where we could see the sun reflected in the shallow pool of water. I shifted around until I had the gleaming light of the sun reflected in the center of the pool. As I stared at the reflection, I noticed there was a perfect circle of smaller suns reflected over and over around the outer lip in a radiant parhelion of gem-like points of light. After a moment of concentration Ruben told us to close our eyes, as I closed my eyes my vision filled with a deep bright red color field. He then asked what colors we were seeing and we each reported a different color. He said that in the Andean traditions there is a color spectrum that runs through the body and each part of the body is associated with a color. He asked us each a few questions and then diagnosed us based on the colors we experienced. He said the color we saw indicated the part of our body where we might experience health issues. It was a marvelous room with an esoteric technology uniting the above and the below, reflecting outward to the distant stars and inward to the inner state of the body.

Then Reuben took us to an enclosed plaza at the far end of the city where the Pachamama stone stands. It is a magnificent slab of stone over fifteen feet tall and is the most striking example of the many mirror stones that are found all around Machu Picchu. They are special stones erected by the Inca in such a way that they stand out against the horizon, reproducing in silhouette the outline of the mountain peaks in the distance, echoing an eidetic contour of the distant horizon. They served as shrines to the mountain gods. The mountains were considered living beings and the echo stones were a part of their worship. Ruben had us stand across the plaza and told us to focus on the top edge of the stone; I looked at it and traced the outline with my eyes, concentrated my attention, and watched as the mountains in the background went out of focus. Ruben went over to the stone and at one end of it–where it slopes down to meet the ground–he rubbed his hand along the top edge and said, “Look here, look here.” As he said that I saw a blue line appear along the top of the stone like a deep blue neon light. Then I squinted my eyes and the blue light ran the entire length of the stone, a beautiful deep blue, not the blue of the sky but a more psychedelic neon blue like an aura radiating from the stone, a visionary moment, produced by nothing more than a shaman saying, “Look here, look here.”

Photograph by J.M. White

From there we worked our way back along the plaza and climbed a steep little hill to a place called The Hitching Post of the Sun. It is a little temple complex on a knoll that overlooks the plaza. The top of the knoll has been carved down into the bedrock and there is one of the most unusual ancient monuments I have seen. It is a nearly square pillar of stone about two feet tall carved out of a table or altar that forms its base, which itself is carved from the bedrock. Rueben approaches the stone with a bottle of water scented with flower essences. He held the bottle with his thumb over the top and then slung the bottle out, releasing the pressure on his thumb so a fine mist of the scented water sprayed out from the bottle. He circled the pillar of stone and sprayed a mist of the water on all sides of it. I asked what it represents or how it was used and he said that the pillar isn’t really a gnomon in the sense of casting a shadow that marks the time of day like on a sundial, but rather is a marker stone that was used to sight alignments of the sun, moon, and planets as they appear above the horizon and to track their movements as a calendric device. Using the sighting stone, the Incas could follow the cycles of movement of the sun and moon and planets as they moved along the horizon. In this way they created their calendars and measured time.

Then we came down from the knoll and into another temple complex called the Temple of the Three Windows. It is in a building made with monumental stones, each stone in the wall raising questions about how they moved stones that large and how they worked them to fit together seamlessly. On the west side of the temple there is a wall with three large windows, each identical in shape and size, looking out across the plaza toward the palace of the consorts. Rueben says the windows are a cosmogram and that the cosmology of the Inca had an upper world, a lower world and a middle world and these three windows are designed to look out into each of these worlds. Outside the third window, which is the window on the upper world, Bingham discovered a huge pile of pottery shards as if they had been throwing pottery out that window for some reason. I discussed with Rueben the idea that this room was used for funerary rituals and that the soul of the deceased was ritually placed in a piece of pottery and then, by breaking the pot out the window on the upper world, the priests were releasing the person’s soul and sending that person along the pathway to the upper world. There is a magnificent view out of these windows onto the plaza and I have seen it many times in books about Machu Picchu. Rueben says there was never a roof on this building and in the center of the main room by the windows is a stone that is carved into a set of steps coming up from either side to meet in the center. He shows us how the stone creates a shadow so that the image of the stone and its shadow form an Andean cross.

He led us out of the temple along a path and up a set of steps that are cut out of the bedrock. Machu Picchu requires a lot of walking up and down steps. At the top of the steps he takes us into the palace of the Emperor. The doorway into the palace complex is setback in a series of recesses that lead to the door. It is made of beautiful carved stones that are identical in shape and size except for the door mantles, which are solid stone stretching across the top of the magnificent doorway. He quickly shows us around a few of the rooms and then into a small enclosure, which he says never had a roof and was a golden garden like the one by the Temple of the Sun at Cusco.

Then he led us back out the main door and we emerge at the top of the ridge. The old Inca waterway enters the city at this point. I had read that Bingham had it cleaned out and repaired and that it immediately started carrying water to the city. This is the first place that the water fills a basin where it can be caught in a pot or bowl. The water then flows out of the basin and through a beautifully carved channel in the stone down the hill to another basin, and from there on it goes downward into a series of basins where the people could catch their water as the spouts at each basin create ideal places to hold a pot to gather water. The first channel is between the Temple of the Sun and the Emperor’s palace, so it is obvious that the Emperor gets the first use of the water. The priests used it to wash the offering made at the temple and the Emperor used it for his household needs.

Later that afternoon a light rain started to fall. Reuben said that it would make the fountains run so we went back to the fountains and traced the sixteen fountains as they progress down the hillside from the Sun Temple to the Temple of the Condor. Sure enough with the drizzle of rain the channel that carries the water into the city filled and as we stood at the first of the fountains the water was spouting out and filling the stone basin carved out of the bedrock, almost like a kitchen sink. We followed the flow of the water as it progressed down the hillside through the sixteen fountains, each with its own spout and its own basin where the people could get water. I imagined that each fountain was designated for a separate purpose lost to us in the haze of time. The rain began to soften and fade. I was conscious of a mysterious past, of all the years that had soaked into these stones. I could sense the arid scent of time itself, the slow fluttering of calendar pages in the wind, this place a montage of time’s flight. I felt almost intrusive, as if I was kicking through the ill-gotten gains of an ancient empire.

The Temple of the Sun is made of stone blocks that are gleaming white and all carved into the same size and shape. There is something like mica in the stone so that each stone glimmers with points of light in the sunlight. The temple is built on top of a large boulder and the walls of the temple come up from the edges of the exposed stone and wrap around the rock so that the main wall is curved, closing back in on itself where it leaves enough room for a doorway. The inside of the temple is exposed stone and it is marked with a rope and a sign that says “No Trespassing” so we are not allowed inside the room. It is the only place that has been off limits so far in our tour. Bingham reported that the stone of the floor of the temple was covered in a layer of ashes and there were marks on the stone which he attributed to years of fires being built on that spot. So it appears that offerings to the sun were burned in the temple in olden times.

Then Ruben leads us across the outside of the building and down a set of steps to the base of the large boulder that is the foundation of the temple and, as we round the boulder, we come to the entrance of a small cave that is directly under the floor of the temple. At the entrance to the cave there is a white stone that has been carved into a stair step design and next to that is some of the most beautiful Inca stonework I have seen. It is laid into the natural stone face and assumes the organic shape of the mountainside. Reuben says this cave was used to keep the mummies of the previous Emperors and that the Incas would bring them out on important occasions to join the reigning Emperor to observe the ceremonies. He says elaborate food would be prepared and placed in front of them and that the priest would talk to them, tell them the state of affairs of the empire, and ask them for guidance. The food given to them was then burned in the temple to send to the upper realm.

Reuben then walked us through an area of narrow streets and small rooms lined up one beside the other with several rows of them cascading down the mountainside. Some of the walls sagged and buckled, in danger of imminent collapse. The houses tenanted only by whatever ghosts still dreamed here.  He said this was the housing for the laborers who were required to be here. He explained that everyone was required to give ninety days of labor each year to the Emperor. Each village was organized into groups of ten and each group had to do the farm labor for the village; on top of that you had to give your ninety days to the Emperor, which could be in the form of road building, working in a quarry cutting stone, serving in a construction crew building a temple or a palace, or working in an agricultural crew cultivating food for the Emperor. He said the people who lived in these buildings used them only to sleep and have sex. He said all other activity took place in the plazas in common with everyone else and they basically lived outside.

Then he led us around a steep hillside and past some areas where archaeologists were currently excavating new parts of the complex. I asked how much of what we could see at Machu Picchu was reconstructed and he said over fifty percent. He said it wasn’t hard to reconstruct because for the most part the stones were all there and could be reassembled to rebuild the walls. He took us along a path around the lower edge of the ridge and we were well below the level of the plaza when we came to a little cave. The Incas had carved a little window from inside the cave to look out at the mountain peaks along the horizon. He had us look through the window from a certain spot in the cave and said the window was designed to cast a beam of light whose movement on the wall was used as a calendar to measure the time it took for the sun to move from north to south along the horizon.

Photograph by J.M. White

Reuben was catching the last train back to Cusco so it was time for him to leave. After we bid him farewell we planned to climb the peak of Huayna Picchu where we could look down over Machu Picchu. It is described in the guide books as one of the most spectacular views in the Western Hemisphere. Huayna Picchu shoots up at the far end of the complex and looms above the city. At the far end of the plaza, just past the Pachamama stone, there is a gate and a little building where you have to sign in to take the trail to the top. It is amazing to look up at the peak and think there is a trail that leads to the top. The mountain looks like a sheer rock face jutting up to the peak although parts of it are covered with jungle. Near the top there are terraces and a building that looks to be hanging on the side of the mountain. The trail leads nearly straight up the mountainside with occasional twists and switchbacks, and from time to time you could look down and see the city of Machu Picchu down below. From this perspective we could see that the little knoll where the Hitching Post to the Sun is located has been terraced so that it is a pyramid of terraces that lead up to the Intiwayan stone. The pyramid is formed out of the natural contour of the land and looked incredibly dramatic. From the ground level in the main plaza it is impossible to recognize the pyramid and it just looks like a couple of terraces below the temple area.

We stopped frequently to rest; not only was Machu Picchu laid out in stunning detail below us, but in places you could see straight down to the Urubamba River valley. The entire mountainside on both sides of Machu Picchu had been terraced for agricultural purposes and from this height we could see the terraces falling away on both sides. They have analyzed soil samples to figure out what the Inca were growing in the terraces and it turned out to be flowers; it must have been an beautiful sight when the terraces were filled with brightly-colored flowers, all in bloom.

It is well over a thousand feet from the river to the ridge where Machu Picchu sits and another thousand feet from Machu Picchu to the top of Huayna Picchu. The Inca steps go straight up like a ladder. After over an hour of climbing we came to an area where the mountainside had been terraced with stone walls retaining narrow terraces. There are ancient stone steps beside the terraces and they seemed to go for hundreds of feet before we finally came to what we thought was the top. The trail leads right to the door of a stone building made with beautiful Inca stonework, two stories high, with no roof on it now.

When we passed through the building we could see on the other side that we weren’t quite at the top and had to scramble up a bunch of boulders and up a rock face with a rope to help climb. After a few more boulders, we were finally at the very top. On the uppermost boulder there is a small flat seat carved out of the rock. From here you can look down over the entire complex of Machu Picchu, down into the river valley which circles the peak and out over an amazing array of mountain peaks running off into the distance in every direction. We were amazed to find other people already there; we found a seat on one of the boulders and stayed about an hour. The view is spectacular in every direction. There wasn’t a lot of chatter among the people; the setting and the view are so awe-inspiring that it is breathtaking, frightening in a way, and the common chatter of daily conversation just doesn’t seem relevant. I took out my little bag of coca leaves and tossed a few of them into the wind as an offering to the surrounding mountains. The wind immediately caught them and took them away.

Coming down off the mountain was by far the most frightening, even terrifying, climbing experience of my life. As we went down the narrow stone steps I had to look down to see where to place my foot for the next step and, at certain places, as I was looking down two thousand feet to the river valley. It was unnerving and difficult to keep my focus on the steps and not look down into the depths of the valley. I moved very slowly and we gradually worked our way down the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountain the trail led into the plaza of the Pachamama stone. We found a stone wall with a great view of the plaza and sat down to take a break. I pulled out my notebook and while we rested for a few minutes I wrote:

sitting among the heights of Machu Picchu, the muddy Urubamba roars below, Machu Picchu, a city of temples, where seven roads converge into the gateway of the sun to the city of light with architectural designs of nearly crystalline perfection, with a technology of stonework unparalleled in the ancient world, the stones shaped and fitted, cut with bronze chisels and pecked into the perfect form to fit unmortared, so tightly that each stone seamlessly joins the next; Machu Picchu, the city blossomed and then hid itself under the cloud jungle, a mysterious city of vast structures of geometric precision, a cloud shrouded cathedral, a city shrine to gods nearly forgotten, surviving disguised as Christian saints in the high communities of the Quechua. Machu Picchu, what is it that speaks through these stones? From these elevated heights the surface of life, so pointless and chaotic, comes into unseen perspectives, the life of the city, the life of its people, the life of its religion, go through birth, growth, decay and death, wheels inside of wheels turning in the never ending effort to impose order on the cycles of nature. The edifice of this city stands as a futile tribute to the impossible attempt to halt the ravages of time, and even this will give way when the jungle and the mountain once again reclaim their stones. ♦

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By J.M. White

J.M.White’s newest book, Ports of Entry, covers travels to Tibet, Peru and Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected]