Machu Picchu is a World Wonder, whose stone walls impress every visitor. But its biggest wonders are hidden from view, deep in the mountain on which it stands.
From Aquas Calientes, it is a hair-raising bus ride up the mountain to Machu Picchu itself. The slow, steep climb reinforces the ambition that built a city at such a height and brings a necessary sense of awe to the view familiar from so many photographs. However, nothing has prepared me for the feeling of actually seeing this remarkable monument, a breathtaking and somehow spiritual experience, like walking into a great Gothic cathedral.
I look around some of the buildings believed to have been royal palaces and others, less ambitious, where the commoners lived. I am most struck by the Temple of the Sun, whose walls are made of stone blocks between which it is impossible to fit a credit card. How the Incas managed to cut and move such masonry with only stone tools and no wheels is hard to imagine.
The walls of the city are also perhaps the least of its wonders. “This was an impossible site to build a city on,” says my guide, Alberto. “The Incas had to start right at the foot of the mountain, building up a stepladder of terraces that have withstood earthquakes and flooding for centuries. More than 60 percent of the construction work is underground, in drainage channels lined with crushed granite to cope with the heavy rainy season and rock foundations allowing the stone blocks they support above ground to ‘dance’ in an earthquake. It is an incredible engineering feat – and most of it is hidden from view.”
Built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish, and the Incas had no writing, so its secrets may well never be fully revealed.
As I turn toward home, I have a last look at Machu Picchu, lit by the fantastic evening light. As the sun falls, a dark clock of mystery falls once more over this mountain refuge of the Incas that still holds so many secrets. Now I have traveled there, I remain even more astonished by its wonders.