Machu Picchu: Ancient City Hidden In the Clouds

Peru's Inca civilization opens a world of earthly treasures

The Incas called it Qosqo, the center of the world. Today, Cuzco is a center of world tourism, drawing more than 300,000 visitors a year to the former imperial capital, a unique blend of unparalleled pre-Colombian stonemasonry and colonial architecture.

Although Peru has made more headlines recently for coup d'tats and a drawn-out guerrilla war, Cuzco and the nearby Inca citadel of Machu Picchu have never ceased to be one of South America's premier attractions.

Peru gave rise to many highly advanced civilizations stretching back well before 2000 B.C., but none was quite as innovative as the Incas'.

Within a century, the Incas conquered a territory that stretched for 3,000 miles from southern Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina, and linked the four corners of what they called the Tahuantinsuyo with thousands of miles of superb roads.

Based on a system of benevolent despotism whereby all served the Inca ruler but none ever went cold or hungry, the Incas built a complex, unified regime that imposed sun worship and the Quechua language on dozens of tribes who had been warring among one other for centuries. The domination was such that more than 8 million highland Indians speak Quechua today in seven South American countries.

The Tahuantinsuyo came to an abrupt end in 1532, when Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro and a handful of soldiers burst on the scene, captured Inca emperor Atahualpa, and toppled one of the richest and most highly organized empires ever to have existed in the Western Hemisphere. Atahualpa's ransom - his followers filled a room with gold and silver treasures - was not enough to save him from death at the hands of Pizarro and his followers, a treacherous execution that together with the superior weapons brought from Spain marked the end of the dynasty of 12 Incas.

The city of Cuzco, an hour's flight from Lima,Peru's capital, is a showcase of Inca architecture. Ever a pragmatic race, the Incas drew on the experience of many of the tribes they conquered, and thus the finest stonemasons, potters, weavers, and civil engineers were pressed into service - all for the greater glory of the empire.

The perfect fit of the dove-tailed stonework in Cuzco (Hatunrumiyoq Street features a 12-angled stone that has been worked perfectly into the wall without mortar) is similar to the work at Inca sites ranging from southern Ecuador to cities all over Peru. Many of the constructions, like the massive fortress of Sacsayhuamn above Cuzco, feature beveled granite blocks weighing more than 300 tons, a baffling feat for a race that knew neither the art of writing nor the use of the wheel.

What stands out about Cuzco, which was built in the mid-15th century by emperor Pachacuti, is that it represents the fusion of Spanish colonial and Inca architecture. Temples like the Qoricancha (the Temple of the Sun) and Aclla Wasi (the House of the Sun Virgins) were partially destroyed in the Spaniards' zeal to raze heathen idols and to make room for building Roman Catholic churches on top.

The Cuzco Cathedral on the main square houses one of the finest collections of hand-carved pulpits, colonial oil paintings, and jewel-encrusted ornaments, which testify to centuries of devotion.

But most visitors lose little time heading for a greater attraction, the citadel of Machu Picchu.

The four-hour train ride up to Machu Picchu is a spectacle in itself. Climbing out of Cuzco up a series of switchbacks, the train shuttles through sun-dappled eucalyptus groves before leveling out on a tundra-like plain and then descending 3,000 feet to the jungle-clad eastern slopes of the Andes, where the track follows the tumbling Vilcanota River down the fertile valley.

While the train-and-bus shuttle package is an easy way to get there, more spectacular routes include a four-day hike down the Inca Trail and a 25-minute helicopter ride from Cuzco.

The citadel, which survived fairly intact because the Spaniards never found it, is believed to have been the last refuge of the Incas who fled the Spanish invasion. It lay hidden by thick jungle for centuries until a US professor, Hiram Bingham, stumbled upon it in 1911.

Machu Picchu, a collection of scores of houses, palaces, and temples nestling at the foot of Huaynu Picchu (meaning "young peak," as opposed to Machu Picchu, "old peak") is believed to have been a flourishing ceremonial and agricultural experimentation center.

Even today, water flows through stone canals and fountains, while the entire ridge on which Machu Picchu was built still preserves the agricultural terracing that runs down more than three-dozen levels.

The citadel is a classic example of the Incas' genius for harmonious landscape architecture and their deep respect for nature. Machu Picchu and many other Inca cities were carefully designed to blend in with their natural surroundings.

Sadly, a recent trip to Machu Picchu showed that the citadel has clearly been heavily damaged in the past few years. Some of the finest examples of stonework in the temples and palaces are on the verge of collapse due to landslides and erosion caused by thousands of shuffling feet and school parties clambering over the 500-year-old walls.

Efforts to rope off areas and prop up leaning walls with tree trunks have failed to mitigate the destruction. And unfortunately for visitors, Cuzco and environs have become extremely expensive, while service remains relatively poor. Plans are under way to build some new hotels.

English is rarely spoken and credit cards are not widely accepted, while travelers should be wary of drug dealers and unreliable local tour operators. Pick-pocketing is common, especially in the markets, while the city teems with dozens of begging children and pestering street sellers. Cuzco's inhabitants appear to have forgotten the three pillars of Inca law: Ama sua, ama q'ella, ama llulla.(Don't be a thief, don't be lazy, and don't be a liar.)

"They're going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," mourned George Majluf, a Harvard-trained economist who left his job at US investment bank J.P. Morgan to run the 25-room Incatambo Hacienda Hotel. It is a 50-hectare plantation neighboring Sacsayhuaman that was once Pizarro's country home.

Another "must" trip is the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Urubamba. The entire valley is riddled with archaeological sites, but the most impressive is Ollantaytambo, a temple built on top of a hillside sculpted into terracing, 45 miles from Cuzco. And the town of Pisaq is worth visiting for its colorful Indian market on Sundays, where traditionally dressed sellers of arts, crafts, fruits, and vegetables haggle in Quechua.

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