Saturday, February 26, 2011

Once-in-a-Lifetime Twice

Our EMI team arrived to Machu Picchu Saturday morning after an early pickup from the seminary where we were staying and a two hour train ride through the Sacred Valley of the Incas from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. There was a light drizzle as we entered the park, and a white mist shrouded the tops of the mountains all around us. As we followed the pathway around the edge of the mountain and into the ancient city, the rain passed, and the clouds started to move away as the ruins of the last great city of the Incas was revealed to us.

When I saw this same sight for the first time a number of years ago—the morning mist lifting from Machu Picchu—I never thought I have any reasonable chance of seeing it again. In 2005, Kim and I visited Machu Picchu together when we went to Peru on vacation (it was the farthest south we could get on the Delta SkyMiles I had accrued flying back and forth from Atlanta to Pennsylvania when I was an undergrad at Georgia Tech!). Back then, I could not have expected that I would ever return. It is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I feel extremely blessed to have that once-in-a-lifetime experience twice in my life. And let me tell you that the majestic site, sitting impossibly on the top of a mountain, surrounded by towering green peaks and tropical vegetation, was just as awe-inspiring the second time as the first. It is truly one of the most amazing places I have ever been, both for the stunning natural beautiful of the location and for the absolute precision of the ancient stone architecture.

Although photos can never do a site like Machu Picchu trues justice, here are some images from our trip.

The whole team standing on the overlook to Machu Picchu. This is the postcard view of the city, with the peak of Wayna Picchu behind.

Me at the main gate to the city.

Ten of us in the group decided to climb to the peak of Wayna Picchu, a trek that Kim and I made in 2005 when we went. The trail is trecherous, dangerous, not for the faint of heart, and not at all designed for easy accessibility. But the view was worth it! Here we are sweaty, tired, and aching, with the city of Machu Picchu appearing as a clearing in the distance. The whole round-trip took us about two-and-a-half hours.

What goes up must come down! Going up is tiring, but going down really hurts the legs! At times, the steps are so shallow you have to crawl on your backside, or turn around and climb facing the steps like a ladder. Yes, these are my feet; no there are no railings; yes, if you miss the bottom step you would plummet thousands of feet to your death.

The ancient city of Machu Picchu is characterized by stone buildings with steep roofs and small windows situated impossibly on terraces which cascade down the side of a mountain.

Machu Picchu has a pretty sophisticated system of aqueducts. Seeing the playful waterfalls, tunnels, and watercourses carved out of the stone, I couldn't help but think that the Inca were not just concerned with function, but also with beautiful design. Some of the lyrical shapes they used throughout the site appear to be designed and crafted for the sake of beauty, not just function.

Some of the rocks on site appear to mimic the form of the mountains beyond.

A beautiful example of an Inca doorway, with sloped sides for seismic stability. Archeologists surmise that the handle-looking stones to each side of the door and the donut-like stone above used to lock a door in this opening.

Inca stonework and stone carving is amazing. One of the other EMI team members saw this and said, "it looks like they just poured the stone in." Truly, the stonework at Machu Picchu (and other Inca ruins in Peru) is so precise you would be hard-pressed to fit a knife edge into most of the joints.

A view of some of the stone terracing that is prevalent at Machu Picchu.

Both times that I visited Machu Picchu I was struck by the unity of the forms of the architecture with the forms of the landscape. Just look at the shape of the building gables superimposed over the mountain in the distance!

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