“If you love your child, send him out into the world.”
─ Japanese Proverb
I inherited my love for travel from my father, who had joined the Navy when he was eighteen to see the world (and to avoid going to college). While I was in college, I made a vow to myself that, at a minimum, I would someday visit the following world heritage sites:
- The pyramids of Giza in Egypt
- Angkor Wat in Cambodia
- Machu Picchu in Peru
In my 20s, when I was still single, I checked the pyramids off my list. In my 30s, I married Ptarmi, who is as adventurous as I am. Early in the spring of 2000, we decided to check another site off my list: Machu Picchu, the so-called “Lost City of the Incas”.
After a couple months of preparation, we arrived in Lima, the Peruvian capital. Following two days of sight-seeing, we packed up our bags and flew to Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Incas. Our arrival coincided with a political rally that brought dozens of flag-waving, banner-carrying Peruvians onto the streets, shouting slogans against then-President Fujimori. Fortunately, the demonstrations were peaceful and the staff of our 5-star hotel discretely and professionally ensured our security.
There are several options for traveling to Machu Picchu. Ptarmi & I felt the hybrid train – short Inca trail route suited us best since we didn’t have the time or the camping equipment for the four day trek on the Inca trail. We boarded a train departing from Cuzco and got off 6 miles from Machu Picchu. At the time, hikers could strike out on the trail themselves as we did, but must be accompanied by tour guides now.
We arrived at Intipunku—the Sun Gate—by late afternoon. This gate marks the end of the Inca trail and is the doorway to Machu Picchu, which lies below. After hiking on the narrow, moderately strenuous trail for hours, the first view of the city through the gate is breathtaking. Exploring the ruins had to wait till the next day since the site was ready to close when we arrived. We stayed at a 3-star hotel in Aguas Calientes, the town in the valley below Machu Picchu.
Early morning the next day, a bus took us from Aguas Calientes up the steep, winding road to Machu Picchu. The city was shrouded by a blanket of clouds that drifted slowly by, allowing glimpses of the ruins bit by bit. It reminded me of a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Castle in the Sky, when obscuring clouds part to reveal the fabled floating fortress for the first time.
Machu Picchu is full of marvels: astronomical, technological, agricultural, archaeological, cultural, natural. But I expected these. What I didn’t expect was the city’s stunning beauty—not just the beauty of the site, but the city itself. The ancient inhabitants had devoted considerable time and effort to civic beautification projects.
For example, outdoor public squares are connected to other areas by long stretches of broad stone steps. In one such span of stairs, I noticed a narrow channel through which water trickled, cut into the stone flanking the steps. I followed the flow of water down the steps and noticed that the channel split sharply into two separate arms, then converged a short way down, forming the shape of a four-sided diamond. The rejoined channel ended abruptly at the end of the stairs, causing the water to fall in an artistically pleasing arc into a shallow stone basin below. A fountain!
Lacking iron tools, Inca artisans used sand as grit and relatively soft bronze and copper tools to grind the channels into the stone. This painstaking work took years, probably decades, just to produce a water fountain with no other purpose than for the public to enjoy. Incredibly, the fountain still works, and it continues to delight.
I came across another example in one of the residential ruins. The lodging looked typical, rectangular and not very big. The stacked-stone walls were pierced by several characteristic trapezoid-shaped windows. Standing inside the room and peering out through a window, I was struck by the magnificent view outside. I realized then that the builder must have consciously placed the window there to frame the view perfectly, to create a wall mural of such jaw-dropping beauty that it reaches across centuries, cultures and languages to connect me aesthetically to the Inca builder. At that moment and place, I shared a human appreciation for the world’s splendors with someone who had lived and died six hundred years ago. That is travel–time travel–of the best kind!