Conjuring Peru's Lost Empire

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A llama above Machu Picchu. Bob Krist / Corbis

This July will be exactly 100 years since the discovery of Machu Picchu. The man who discovered it, Hiram Bingham, would go on to write books, to have children. He would go on to be a governor and a senator. But what he will be remembered for is the fact that he came up a hill one afternoon and saw walls, foundations, stairways, all buried in grass.

For those outside of Peru, it is hard to understand the emotional significance of Machu Picchu to the Peruvians. What it means has a lot to do with shame.

When the Spaniards made contact with the Incas in the early 1500s, what they found was a civilization that was tottering, partially from the smallpox that the Spaniards had also brought and which had swept ahead of them. It didn’t take much for the Incan civilization to be conquered. And once this happened, the Spaniards behaved like the thugs they were—or perhaps like the thugs that most soldiers of that period were. They conscripted vast numbers of people and employed them as slave labor for mines. They melted the conquered people’s religious icons for gold. They pulled down their temples, their schools, and their convents to use the stones.

The hurt from this is still present. Get into a conversation with a Peruvian who happens to identify with indigenous ancestors instead of European ones and very soon anger wells up: The Incan king offered to provide the gold that the Spaniards wanted and still they killed him? É Often the anger feels so alive that it is almost as if the conquest had occurred yesterday.

Along with the anger of being conquered comes shame. Why did we get conquered so easily? Were we stupid? Were we lazy? Were we squabbling? Did we deserve it?

Machu Picchu is a way of refuting these doubts. It is a way of saying: We didn’t deserve it. We were good. We were admirable.

Machu Picchu lies on a sort of saddle jutting out from a mountain. Here is a little-known fact about these world-famous ruins: almost half of the structures that make up Machu Picchu are below ground. These structures are the retaining walls that keep Machu Picchu from sliding off the mountain. Machu Picchu was not shaped to match the mountain that it rests on. Instead, the mountain was broken up to suit what the Incans wanted.

Feral dogs roam Cuzco, my guidebook warns. Carry sticks and stones.

Cuzco is the city that, for most tourists, serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. It is 86 kilometers south of the ruins and used to be the capital of the Incas. One goes there to begin developing a context for Machu Picchu.

Most people go to Cuzco and see what the tourism authorities would have them see. The grand plazas with their beautifully lit churches look ready for luxury-car commercials. The Orient Express chain’s Hotel Monasterio is such a gorgeous building, such a wonderful redoing of a sacred space, that one feels hushed sitting in its fountained courtyard.

Experiencing the living Cuzco requires leaving the plazas. Cuzco is spread over hills, and often what one sees is people moving slowly, arduously uphill. Many of the homes along the streets appear to be a foot or so below the steeply sloping sidewalk. There is the sense therefore that these people are living below ground. And because the doors to these homes are frequently open to let in air, when one walks by and sees entire families lying in bed watching TV, there is the sense that these people are close to homeless.

Still, also, what one sees is people living rich emotional lives, lives that do not require pity or condescension. There is a street of stores specializing in candles, the candles are used for churches and religious processions and events. Here one can sometimes see women standing side by side, examining candles, green ones, red ones, gold, and ornate. The women chatter with each other, looking at the candles with as much fascination as if they were examining bolts of cloth for a possible dress.

Before one goes to Machu Picchu, one is told to go to the Sacred Valley and look at the ruins. This is a tenet of Peruvian tourism.

Very few people have an archeological imagination. Very few people can look at stones on the ground and conjure up the buildings that used to exist or a sense of the lives of those who lived there. Mostly what people do is look at ruins and ooh and aah and then get back on their tour bus.

If one needs further discouragement from going to the Sacred Valley, the valley lying between Cuzco and Machu Picchu, consider only that the proper name for this area is the Urubamba Valley which, when translated from the local Quechua, means “flat land of spiders.”

Ollantaytambo is the main archeological site of the valley. Terraced hills, the terraces maintained by stacked stones, rise up from the sides of the road. On top of the hills are granaries, located there because the wind dried the grain and kept mold from forming. Also on top of the hills are open spaces that look like small plazas with walls of enormous fitted stones. The craftsmanship of these walls, how snugly the enormous stones fit, suggests to archeologists that there was an aesthetic and perhaps religious purpose to these constructions.

There are other ruins in the valley, of course. The valley was one of the breadbaskets of the Incan empire and so there are lots and lots of ruins. But the primary reason to come to the valley is not so much the ruins, though they do lend a lovely melancholy air, as it is to see the valley itself and the vast scale of landscape reshaping that the Incans achieved.

I drove from hill to hill, stopping regularly, looking down at the green valley and blue river. From many vantage points I could see that the hills had been cut and shaped into steps. This landscape of miles of terraced land made me think of how much labor and organization and time must have been involved in making farmable what nature would have rather left fallow. The Incan civilization is lost, only fragments remain. When one sees the vast project of remaking landscape, though, suddenly one feels the palpable ambition, the palpable intelligence of the Incas.

Despite the buildup Machu Picchu receives before one arrives there, and despite however many tourists might happen to be there on a given day, the ruins do not disappoint.

The hotel I was staying in, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, is perhaps 100 yards from the entrance to the archeological park. I came out of it one morning and there was a line of buses and a mob of mostly young people waiting near the gates. Many of them were stuffing sandwiches into their windbreakers because carrying food into the park isn’t allowed and they didn’t want to buy food from the canteen inside the park.

Often people who arrive early in the morning enter the park and immediately begin racing forward, as if they were taking part in a post-Thanksgiving “door buster” sale. The reasoning behind this, a desire to feel alone in the site, doesn’t take into account how large Machu Picchu is, almost five square miles. It also doesn’t account for the effect of the quickly moving clouds. The weather above Machu Picchu can be tempestuous and the drama of this makes the sky feel almost private, as if your little bit of sky is different from all other bits and so somehow you are removed from the world.

Machu Picchu is divided into an upper half and a lower one, with the latter considered by archeologists to be primarily secular and the former sacred. Many parts of these ruins are relatively uncrowded, with tourists focusing on a few main sites.

For me, the grandest experience of being in Machu Picchu was standing on a hill, with the sun behind me when clouds suddenly drifted beneath me and my shadow, 30 or 40 feet long, suddenly became projected on their silver backs. I began to mime marching, and it looked like my shadow was walking on the clouds.

A moment later, the clouds drifted away and beneath me were the famous ancient ruins, as beautiful and mysterious as when Hiram Bingham first discovered them.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

The Ruins

FOR information on the Hotel Monasterio, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, and the Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu, go to orient-express.com.

Peru

The travel company Abercrombie & Kent offers a number of trips to the Empire of the Sun. See abercrombiekent.com.

Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father. His new novel, Stars From Another Sky, will be published in 2011.

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