Sunday, July 24, 2011

Machu Picchu Turns 100! (Sort Of)

By Hilary Davidson

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the modern age's rediscovery of Machu Picchu. What does that have to do with this week's panel question on Criminal Minds? Absolutely nothing, but this has been a particularly sad week in the world. Between the tragic events in Norway and the famine in the Horn of Africa, I don't feel like discussing how hard it would be to kill people. So I'm talking about Machu Picchu instead.

Peru has been on my mind a lot in the past year. It's where my second novel, The Next One to Fall, is set, and Machu Picchu is where that story begins. I visited Peru for three weeks over October and November of 2007, and it remains at the top of my list of favorite places I've had the good luck to visit. Machu Picchu is a major reason why.

I dreamed about visiting the Lost City of the Incas long before I got there. What drew me in were equal parts history, scenery, and mythology. I loved the story of how Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham was led to the site by a Quechua-speaking farmer on July 24, 1911. (Historians today often avoid calling it the "discovery" of Machu Picchu, given that local farmers were obviously aware, at least to some extent, of the significance of that mountaintop settlement). It makes me think of Bingham as a real-life Indiana Jones, one who couldn't have had a fear of snakes. (Machu Picchu, even today, is teeming with wildlife, including llamas that wander freely around the site, chinchilla cousins called viscachas, birds, and reptiles. A local blessing wishes you the agility of snake.)
Part of the wonder of visiting Machu Picchu is realizing that you're standing right in an earthquake zone, and yet the settlement's perfectly placed walls and pathways have stood rock-steady for 500 years. The view is spectacular in every direction: look down and you'll see the winding Urubamba River. To the side, you see terraces carved into the side of the mountain — allowing the Incas to farm there — and steep staircases. Look up, and you see other Andean mountaintops all around you, most notably the sacred peak of Huayna Picchu (that's the one you see in the famous photos of the site). It's not uncommon for a shroud of mist to cover the mountaintops, giving you the heady sensation of standing in the clouds. When it clears, the incredible setting comes into focus with a speed that rivals the lifting of a magician's cape.
Machu Picchu wasn't the greatest settlement or fortress built by the Incas, not by a long shot. There are dozens of theories about how the site was used and who lived there, with one of the most prevalent being that it was a royal retreat — kind of a summer escape for Emperor Pachacutec (if there could be said to be an Inca equivalent to Alexander the Great, that would be Pachacutec, though he lived a lot longer). As such, it's appropriately grand — and its setting atop an Andean peak guarantees that the view will make you gasp — but the spectacular thing about Machu Picchu is that it was discovered intact. The Spanish conquistadors knew about its existence, and they were even aware that it sat somewhere in an area known as the Sacred Valley, but they never found it. It's a huge blessing because the conquistadors would have ripped it apart, just as they did with the Inca capital of Cusco and countless other settlements. The conquistadors tore down Inca buildings and walls to create their own structures, and they had a firm policy of razing palaces and temples. Some of the Spanish colonial buildings are stunning in their own right, but none of them have fared terribly well in the earthquake zone.

To celebrate Machu Picchu's rediscovery centennial, here are some incredible National Geographic photos of what the site looked like in 1911, and what it looks like today. Its beauty is evident in every one.

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For a fictional take on how hard it can be to kill a person, take a look at my flash-fiction piece "Sorry Bastard," which was published on A Twist of Noir on Friday. That's as close as I'll get to answering this week's question right now!


Gabi said...

It has been a hard week in the world and reading your blog this week reminds me that there is also great beauty and magic. Thanks.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Machu Pichu sounds like just the place to go and remember that the travails in the news are not the whole world.

How hard is the hike up there? My husband really wants to go and I keep wondering if it's only accessible to Ironmen and llamas.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for stopping by with such lovely comments, Gabi & Becky. There's something magical and timeless about Machu Picchu that shifts your perspective on the world, at least for a little while. And there's something about llamas that always makes me smile!

Becky, the Inca Trail hike is something that most able-bodied people can manage (I know a woman who was 4-1/2 months pregnant when she did it). The toughest part is dealing with altitude sickness; people have very different responses to that, and it's entirely possible that an Ironman would have a tougher time with breathing at 13,000 feet than someone who's tired out by *watching* a marathon! (You can acclimate by staying in Cusco for a few days first — it's at 11,000 feet, so that really helps you adjust!)

Elizabeth said...

Nice. Visiting there is on my list of "Things To Do Before I Die."

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! One of the best things about visiting Machu Picchu is meeting other people there who say, "I've wanted to see this place my whole life."