Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Machu Picchu – the Lost City of Inca Civilization

When indigenous peoples of the Americas migrated from Eurasia over 10 thousand years ago, they settled and evolved at various parts of the continent. While Maya civilization and Aztec Empire thrived in Mesoamerica or today’s Mexico and Central America, Inca Empire emerged in early 13th century from a tribe in Cusco area of the Andes in today’s Peru, South America. Under the lead of the 9th Inca (that simply means “king” in Inca language Quechua) Pachacuti (1438-1471) and his successors, Inca Empire expanded and eventually became the largest empire in per-Columbia Americas that ruled much of the Andes mountain region including today’s Peru, Bolivia, most of Ecuador and Chile, and a part of Columbia and Argentina.

We just returned from a visit of Peru to appreciate the remnants of Inca civilization around Cusco, the ancient capital of Inca Empire. The highlight of the trip is the must-see magnificent Machu Picchu, one of the newly elected 7 wonders of the world. It was built around 1450 for the elites (a recent new theory suggests that it is the “Camp David” of the Inca) and abandoned 100 years later with unknown reasons (or, there is no consensus or overwhelming evidence). As colonial Spanish conquerors never reached Machu Picchu, the city was untouched and unknown to outside world until 1911 when a nearby villager Melchor Arteaga took the young Yale University South American History Lecturer Hiram Bingham III to it. The rest is history (except Peruvian government continues to seek the return of all artifacts taken by the Yale University expedition).

What made Machu Picchu truly unique and wonderful is that it embodies and epitomizes the Inca civilization with its astonishing architecture, engineering and not the least, placement of the site and structures integrated with its advanced astrological knowledge, religious beliefs and philosophical concepts. I just can’t think of any other single archaeological site in the world that captures so much in such a small open space. At first sights, one striking feature of the structures, like in other Inca cities and towns, is massive stone works. It is amazing how they were able to handle the cutting and moving of these stones with no obvious efficient tools. After a while, a puzzle surfaced: unlike Mayan, Inca people did not appear to have written record and language. One can't stop wondering how did they manage to pass down and pass on their knowledge and discoveries?

Typical guided tours or picture books can't do justice to Machu Picchu. Tours usually take only about 2 hours to walk you through many parts, but not all, of the city, with colorful histories and anecdotal stories and legends. We are sure glad that we decided early on that we would return to it the next day and take our time to digest slowly every part of the city that took easily another 4 hours without hiking up the impressive adjacent Waynapicchu (also called Huaynapicchu) that is another 300+ meters over Machupicchu. I also wish I had bought and read the wonderful introductory book Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas (that we picked up later in a Cusco book store for less than $20) before I went.

The city is divided into two adjacent areas: the agriculture part with the signature Inca terraced cultivation (more about the advanced Inca agriculture later) and the residential part to the west, separated by short windbreaker walls. Guard house at the high point of the east sits in between near and above a stone gate and the famous Inca Trail surely made the residents feel secure that they would have sufficient time to react to any threat from outside. To make the agricultural area a little more lively for tourists, a few beautiful Llamas with their babies were wondering around and grazed on the terraces that provide us plenty of opportunities to get close and take photos.

The importance of legends, rituals and religion cannot be understated for any earlier civilizations. The myth suggests that the king or Inca is son of the Sun god. Not surprisingly, Temples of Sun is the most important temple that is present everywhere in any of the significant ruins in Inca Empire. Yet at the same time, Inca people developed early the concept of duality similar to Yin and Yang in Chinese. Sun and Moon (and they use both calendars for distinct purposes and built temples for each that sometimes are next to each other), male and female, old and young, … What is also illustrative is the Intihuatana, an astronomical observatory, at the 2nd highest point in Macchu Picchu. There stood the mostly in-tact giant stone sun dial that hitches the sun on solstices (some argue should be equinoxes) and is as accurately done as at the Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza by Maya civilization (also one of the new 7 wonders) more than 2,000 miles north of equator.

In many temples of Inca Empire including at Machu Picchu, one finds stones carved into three steps that symbolizes the three tiers of life that is central to the belief and concept of Inca people: Hanan Pacha, the world of above (representing the gods of the sun, moon and stars); Kay Pacha, this world (representing this life); and Uqhu Pacha, the world of below (representing death). When you take the three step staircase-like symbol and rotate it in 90 degree three times, you would have completed a Inca Cross, a popular symbol found in many souvenirs that represents the circle of life as Inca people do believe in reincarnation or rebirth (into human). Correspondingly, sacred animals - the condor, the puma, and the snake symbolize the three tiers of the world. With a little help and imagination, you will see these mystic powers manifested themselves in nature landscapes and designed into stone works in Machu Picchu and Cusco.

One plaza in Machu Picchu with three temples illustrate the best different building techniques of Inca people in progression of sophistication and cost: pre-Inca, Inca classic and Inca Royal. The last was built with laser-cut precision of interlocking stones that no mortar was needed and even water and air do not seem to be able to pass through it! These stone buildings with trapezoidal doors/windows and inward-slanted walls are so strong that they survived centuries over all major earthquakes which is not uncommon in the region.

For those who are interested in our trip itinerary, here are a quick summary and highlights that may be useful in constructing your own itinerary when you travel there.

Sunday, May 18: flew nonstop (that takes about 8 hours) from Newark to the capital city Lima on the pacific coast. Stayed overnight near the airport to catch a morning flight to Cusco next day.

Monday, May 19: Fly from Lima to Cusco at 3,400 meters above sea level. Picked up by the local travel agent who took us by van to a secluded beautiful hotel one hour away north of Cusco in Sacred Valley. The elevation is 2,900 meters above sea level that made the acclimation easier. The hotel is right outside a small village and next to the Urubamba river that eventually goes into Amazon river at the north.

Tues, May 20: we first visited Moray, a fascinating ancient Inca agricultural experimentation lab in up to 150 meters deep natural depressions. Inca Empire built this lab for the purpose of advancing their agricultural development and transplantations.

Concentric terraced lots were carefully laid out to simulate various micro-climates with different temperature, humidity etc. It has been reported that the temperature difference between the top and the bottom of the terraces can be as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit! Plants from different regions and climates were brought here, including the tropical coca trees, to be studied and adapted to the highlands (Moray is at 3,500 meters above sea level).

We then visited the Maras solar evaporation salt mine that has been operational since the Inca days. Natural underground spring about 10 times more saltier than ocean water was channeled through few thousands of terraced shallow pools, evaporated, crystallized and harvested in about one month time. Two photos below give yhou some idea of these two sites that you should be able to tell which is which.

Weds, May 21: driven to Ullantaytambo to catch a morning train to Aquas Caliente, the foothill hub to Macchu Picchu. Aquas Caliente is a tiny hilly town that reminds us of the scenic mountain town Jeo-Fen 九份 north of Taipei city overlooking the sea near a former large gold mine (see the contrasting photos). After lunch, we took a 20 minutes bus rides though 14 zig-zag turns to MachuPicchu at 2,400 meters above sea level. A guide met us and took us through parts of it and told us brief Inca history, concepts and symbols before we called it the day and returned to Aquas Caliente for the evening.

Thurs, May 22: walked to the bus station in the morning to take a bus for Machu Picchu and visit it again. This time we wondered around every spot of the tiny city, took a lot of pictures and regurgitated the stories what we had heard the day earlier and learned in the trip. A panoramic view is seen here that hopefully conveys a little bit the unique sancturial isolation and tranquility (when few tourists are around) of this magic place.

Fri., May 23: strolled around the Cusco main plaza (Plaza de Armas) in the morning. Ran into a group of lovely young students who was heading somewhere through the plaza. To our surprise, their teacher told the students to sing a song for us on the spot when we request for permission to take a picture of them. Throughout our trips, be it in the city or dirt ridden poor villages, parents and kids take schooling seriously; students all dressed neatly in school uniforms with sometimes parents (more fathers than mothers!) escorting them. Did a standard half day Cusco city tour. I will omit the exciting details here, else I will never finish this blog.

Sat., May 24: Strolling ups and downs in hilly streets of Cusco city, visited museums and shops. Practiced bargaining skills and bought some local collections. Went for an evening dinner show with traditional music and dances.

Sun., May 25: did a “standard” full-day Sacred Valley tour that covers a Llama and Alpaca farm and workshop, the big and popular Pisaq Sunday market with fresh local fruits, cooked-to-eat local corns (regrettably we missed the popular local roast guinea pigs that were not yet ready, see photo). The last stop was Ullantaytambo that has one of the most impressive ruins and incomplete Temple of Sun on the hill, guarding Machu Picchu that is 40 km to the west down the river. The highlight visit to a 74 years old women living in an original Inca house and drank her freshly brewed Chicha from a large jar, the popular traditional Inca corn beer, is certainly memorable.

Mon., May 26: we flew to Lima in the morning, did a half-day Lima city tour, had dinner in a restaurant of this most scenic shopping mall - Lacomar I have ever seen; it is on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We then went to the airport and flew back to Newark in red eye.

When we returned to the sprawling Lima, the capital and colonial Spanish city of Peru, and fast-forwarded 4+ centuries, we were met with a young, dynamic guide of our last day in Peru who is to leave soon for Georgetown University to get his Ph.D. degree in Peruvian history. Through our conversations, we learned a bit in short hours through his eyes about recent history and social, economic and political issues of the country. We heard the disappointment with the former president Alberto Fujimori who ruled Peru from 1990 through 2000 and is currently waiting for trial for corruption and human right violations, although he is still popular among many Peruvians because of his contribution in rescuing the country’s economy from bankruptcy. We heard the reluctant choice of the lesser of the two evils of the current president Alan Garcia who was the president of Peru from 1985-1990 before Fujimori and brought the country to 7000% of inflation and near collapse. We heard the worries of increasing economic gap of wealthy and poor, and increased hurdle in democratization due to politicizing of military by civilian government in last two decades.

We saw streets of Lima city center filled with past glory of Spanish houses and buildings, many of which are not at all well-maintained. We saw the highly publicized on-going efforts and investments by the government to revive the city center and the contrast across the almost-dried Rimac river where over 80% of the 9 millions Lima residents live; it reminded me of pictures of Texas/Arizona and Mexico border separated by the Rio Grande but this is one city. With a good telephoto lens, one can capture emotionless pictures safely of the Lima shanty town on the hill afar, just like in Rio de Janiero two thousand miles away on the other side of the continent. As we were finishing the walking tour, the guide drew our attention to an interesting looking big scary looking solider on horse statue hidden in the trees of the park. It is Herman Cortez! so said the tour guide, the notorious Spanish conqueror and governor of Mexico. What is he doing in Peru??? Supposedly the sculptor Ramsey MacDonald did the statue that was first offered to Mexico government in 1930s who refused the “kind” gesture of Spanish government. Somehow Peruvian government ended up picking it up in 1934 thinking it was representing Francisco Pizzaro, the Spanish conqueror of Peru in 1532 and founder of Lima city. How much more insensitive and silly can one get?

Before I go, I want to share with you the most popular and beautiful Andean Peruvian Song El Condor Pasa. It is the title song of the Peruvian music play El Condor Pasa composed by Daniel Alomia Robles and libretto by Julio Baudouin in 1913. I am sure you will recognize the melody but just like me, probably thought it was written by Simon and Garfunkel who should surely be credited for making it popular world-wide in 1970. The lyrics was in Quechua but I could not find any online performance of it. Below is the text and an English translation (found on http://www.andes.org/songs.html), along with a nice music video of El Condor Pasa created by Espíritu Andino. You will get to see the unforgettable scenery of Inca!

As suggested by the original Quechua lyrics of El Condor Pasa, I wish to call on the mighty condor of the Andes to take me back to the old Inca kingdom of Machu Picchu. Talk to you soon!

El Condor Pasa (in Quechua)

Yau kuntur llaqtay orgopy tiyaq
Maymantam gawamuhuakchianqui, kuntur kuntur
Apayllahuay llaqtanchikman, wasinchikman chay chiri orgupy,
Kutiytam munany kuntur kuntur.

Kuzco llaqtapyn plazachallampyn suyaykamullaway,
Machupicchupy Huaynapicchupy purikunanchiqpaq.

The Majestic Bird Passes Overhead (English translation)

Oh mighty condor owner of the skies, take me home, up into the Andes
Oh mighty condor.
I want go back to my native place to be with my Inca brothers,
that's what I miss the most, Oh mighty Condor.

Wait for me in Cusco, in the main plaza,
so we can take a walk in Machupicchu and Huayna-picchu.

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