Machu Picchu: A Spiritual Journey

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Ecotravel. It’s about honoring local peoples and places. It’s about walking lightly on the land. It’s a far cry from the packaged cruises or theme-park experiences of the past decade, and it’s catching on with adventurers of all ages.

One of the most compelling destinations for ecotravelers today is the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. Nothing prepares you for your first view of this magnificent silent metropolis high in the cloud forests of central Peru. Not the guide books, not the National Geo­graphic specials. There’s a sense of power, of other-worldliness, of timeless mystery that transcends description. You simply must be there. Here’s one way to go.

Fly to Cuzco. It’s a lovely little city–quiet, picturesque, colonial, with red tile roofs and massive stone buildings, many of them rising from Inca-built foundations. Check into your hotel, where you’ll be offered a steaming cup of herbal tea, brewed from the dried leaves of the coca plant. It has a bitter, “green” taste, but it soothes the altitude head­aches many suffer here at 12,000 feet, and it provides a real energy boost. Stroll around the historic square, marvel at the massive seventeenth-century cathedral, take snapshots of grinning children holding baby llamas. Promise yourself that you’ll come back with plenty of time to visit the museums, the galleries of colonial art, the shops whose shelves are stacked high with lovely alpaca knitwear. But for now, make it a quiet afternoon and evening–no more than one pisco sour, the local festive drink–for the altitude must be respected. You’ll want to be well rested for tomorrow.

An hour out of Cuzco, you’ll find the train heading east along the Urubamba River valley, the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The landscape begins a subtle shift as you lose altitude. The river is narrow and swift, the bottomlands scant but fertile. The mountainsides, terraced all the way to the top with Inca stonework, boast fertile plots of land, some of which are still used for farming. An ancient stone viaduct stretching for six miles high on the mountain spills twin waterfalls for irrigation. You’ll see fields of corn and potatoes–native farmers grow more than 150 kinds–tilled by teams of oxen or cultivated by hand. You’ll see teams of villagers making adobe brick for the small farmsteads that dot the countryside.

As the train descends to a lower altitude, the landscape changes from dry altiplano to verdant cloud forest. The mountainside is lush with ferns, bromeliads, fuchsias. Just before the village of Aguas Calientes, the train stops to let you off below the Hotel Machu Picchu Pueblo, a lovely compound with fabulous gardens and views. It’s perched on a steep hillside, and the climb up its stone steps is a challenge, but you’ll pause along the way to marvel at the orchids–more than 500 varieties are tucked into the landscaping.

You’ll stay in a colonial-style adobe cottage furnished with hand-hewn furniture and hand-woven textiles. Perhaps you’ll stroll into the village to enjoy the public hot springs. Bathers are mostly local people, a few tourists. The pools are not elegant, but the water feels wonderful, and you have a choice of three temperatures. Here you can lean back and watch the Southern Cross appear as night falls.

Early next morning, hike to the village to catch the bus for Machu Picchu. Sev­eral miles of switchbacks and a great ­vertical climb, and there it is–an ageless stone city whose buildings cascade down impossibly steep slopes. You’ll see remnants of public buildings–the Sun Temple, the Royal Tomb, the Observa­tory with windows opening onto the summer and winter solstices–rising ­massively out of native granite. The stonework alone is worth the trip. Great boulders shaped to such precision that you can’t slide a knife blade between their interfaces. Stone troughs fashioned into intricate waterways that feed a series of ritual baths, still in working order. Stone rings projecting from stone gables, used for lashing down roof beams. A vast and inscrutable stone altar thought to serve as the gateway between three worlds. Circular vessels carved in a stone floor. Could these have been filled with water to reflect certain planetary patterns through the small windows placed precisely above them?

It’s thought that this astounding metropolis was constructed in only a hundred years or so without the benefit of metal tools–except, perhaps, for a few forged from meteorites, and without wheeled vehicles. How was it built? Why was it abandoned? A visit to Machu Picchu poses a host of questions, and skilled guides can offer both history and intriguing speculation. But there’s another thing you must do here.

Find a quiet place away from the schoolchildren and tour groups. Settle in against a stone wall and gaze across the chasm to one of the sacred peaks. Take your time, just be. You’ll feel the power of this place, its terrain, its history. Machu Picchu is a living relic; there are surviving Inca priests who still come here at special times to practice their ancient rituals. Ageless continuity reverberates here among the stones. This time spent alone is your last, best destination.

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