KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 28 — I have always been a big fan of the Indiana Jones films. As a kid growing up in the 80s, I was always in awe of the scholarly professor of archaeology turned Fedora-wearing and bullwhip-carrying adventurer played by Harrison Ford.
Little did I know that Indiana Jones was actually inspired by a real person, the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham III who was most famous for discovering the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in 1911.
I have seen the mist-shrouded images of these iconic ruins on postcards and in magazines, but the thought of ever visiting Machu Picchu seemed like a dream… until now.
At 7,970 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu’s dramatic location not only justifies its status as one of the New Seven Wonders Of The World but it also means visitors are likely to have problems adapting to the high altitude.
Even before we land in Cusco, one of the Peruvian cities with a serviceable airport close to the Inca ruins, we were warned about soroche or altitude sickness. Common symptoms range from mild nausea to vertigo.
We had gotten some Diamox tablets (acetazolamide), more commonly known as altitude sickness pills, from the pharmacy. However, be prepared for some dizziness and slight discomfort from the thin air when you first arrive in Peru. Our hotel concierge offers us some coca tea, made from native coca leaves, which are a natural alternative to help with soroche.
One option to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site is to hike the Inca Trail, which is a five-day trek from Cusco on the Urubamba River. We decide that this is best left for those more physically fit than us. Do book in advance if you’d like to hit the Inca trail (especially during the peak tourist season of July and August) as you will need a guide.
Also, the Inca Trail is closed during the entire month of February. This is the worst period of the rainy season and the trail can become hazardous due to landslides and flooding.
We take the train from Cuzco and stay a night at the closest town, Aguas Calientes. This means we will be able to visit Machu Picchu early the next day before the worst of the crowds arrive.
Our alarm clock goes off at 4:30am. It is still pitch dark outside but we hurry to get ready. Less than an hour later we are at the bus station, joining a long queue of other tourists, most looking half asleep too. After a 20-minute ride up the winding mountain road, we reach our destination -– the Lost
City of the Incas -– with considerably less effort than Bingham did more than a century earlier.
Mist-shrouded Machu Picchu
As it turns out, our sacrifice of sleep is well worth it. This early in the morning (it is barely 7am), there aren’t many other visitors at the ruins so you get to enjoy an undisturbed view of everything without busloads of tourists elbowing you.
Once the morning fog clears, the fine stone walls of the Inca temples gleam in the dawn light against a spectacular background of jagged peaks and the snaking Urubamba River below. Don’t forget the sunscreen.
We apply copious amounts of the stuff and reapply throughout the day. Despite the deceptive mists, skin damage is highly likely if you go without protection at this altitude.
Researchers believe that the Incas started building Machu Picchu around 1430 as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. By the time of the Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire in 1572, the site was abandoned by the Inca rulers.
Well hidden in the mountains of Peru, the Spanish conquistadors miraculously did not uncover Machu Picchu’s location. So while locals had knowledge of its existence, it wasn’t until Bingham’s “rediscovery” of the site that it became known to the world at large.
The world at large is now well represented in the nationalities of our fellow visitors. Only about 2,500 visitors are allowed to enter Machu Picchu daily to prevent damage to the grounds. Mostly everyone is reverential of the sacred site and walk slowly, taking pictures and gasping in amazement. (Perhaps the early hours and altitude are a better explanation for the gasping though; more for oxygen than anything else.)
Everywhere we see the classic stone architecture of the Incas. Without mortar or modern machinery, the Incas managed to construct massive structures that can withstand even earthquakes yet you cannot even slide a thin knife between any of these close-fitting stone blocks! This remains both a mystery and a feat of the ancient civilisation.
We walk from building to building, marvelling at the orderly structures. While the eastern section is supposed to be residential, the western portion was used for religious and ceremonial purposes. Here we find the Torreón, the Temple of the Sun, which is a massive tower used as an observatory.
Another impressive structure is the Intihuatana (or “The Hitching Post of the Sun”). This is a ritual stone carved by the Incas to work as an astronomic clock or calendar. The way the sun makes a shadow on the stone enabled the Incas to use it as a sundial to celebrate important days such as the winter solstice. Similarly the Temple of the Three Windows nearby is also dedicated to Inti, the Inca sun god.
Hiking up Huayna Picchu
The next leg of our exploration would require quite a bit of legwork, if you’d pardon the pun. Most postcard pictures of Machu Picchu would set it against a pyramid-shaped peak. This mountain is Huayna Picchu (“young peak” in the local Quechua language), which is about 1,180 feet higher than Machu Picchu.
Arriving early pays off yet again for us: only 400 visitors are allowed up the mountain every day, and the first group of 200 enters between 7am to 8am. Some trekkers scamper up to the peak like an alpaca (albeit very few of them) while for others it’s literally a breath-taking slog.
The Incas may have laid down stone steps up the side of the Huayna Picchu and modern steel cables have been added as handrails in the recent years but the trail is still daunting. No amount of exercise or training beforehand had quite prepared us for the altitude. We stop every 10 minutes, if only to catch our breath and rest our aching leg muscles.
Once you reach the peak though, it’s well worth the hike. From the summit of Huayna Picchu (also spelled Wayna Picchu), we look down at the ruins, the surrounding mountains and valleys. This is a different sort of breath-taking, honestly. This is why we have flown half way across the globe to reach here.
If we squint, we can spot the hordes of late-arriving tourists swarming like ants all over the ruins.
This is the third time that Machu Picchu has rewarded us for being early risers.
This truly is another world, a magical union of sacred history and natural beauty. We say a silent prayer of thanks that Bingham rediscovered the Lost City of the Incas... and that the hike down Huayna Picchu will be a lot easier than the climb up.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on February 27, 2014.