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A century after rediscovery, Machu Picchu still dazzles, which may be its downfall

MACHU PICCHU, Peru ― At the top of the mountain, where an attendant will take your $46 ticket, foot traffic is steady and cellphone reception is excellent.

At the bottom of the same mountain, the town teems with pizzerias, tourists chatter in half a dozen languages and a school band director is herding his traditionally costumed students into formation.

“Roki! Roki!” he seems to be hollering. And then, as darkness falls, his young trumpeters and drummers launch into the rousing theme from Sylvester Stallone’s first hit movie.

Yes, plenty has changed in this corner of the Andes since July 24, 1911, when Yale University professor Hiram Bingham III climbed these slopes with a local farmer and beheld the ruins we know as Machu Picchu.

In the last dozen years, visitor traffic here has boomed, been halted by flooding, then surged again. The citadel’s most famous stone has been chipped by a beer commercial crew. Peru’s president has prevailed in a tug of war with Yale over artifacts Bingham had collected. Even the name of the town below Machu Picchu’s ruins has been in flux: Though most locals and travelers have long known it as Aguas Calientes, a growing number of businesses and government agencies are calling it El Pueblo de Machu Picchu.
Sheltered by a parasol, these travelers take in the classic Machu Picchu view from just below the site’s ancient guardhouse. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Sheltered by a parasol, these travelers take in the classic Machu Picchu view from just below the site’s ancient guardhouse. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Yet the stacked stones and eerie timelessness of the mountaintop endure. To see and feel this wonder at its best, all you need to do is take a series of planes, trains and automobiles, bring bug juice and sunblock, accept the thin air and some high prices, and get up early. The ruins open daily at 6 a.m., and that’s when you want to be there.

If you’re lucky, the morning will begin with thick mist and fleeting glimpses of neighboring peaks, which hang in the clouds like brushstrokes in a Chinese landscape painting. As the sun rises, the scale of the place will bloom and unfold ― the orderly boulders, wild orchids, temples and terraces. The llamas nibbling wet grass. The viscachas (cousins of the chinchilla) skittering past the Temple of the Three Windows.

It’s mesmerizing. I’ve made three trips to Machu Picchu ― in 1988, 1995 and this year ― and each time I’ve wound up gasping for air and groping for words.

You start with a climb to the old guardhouse for its commanding view ― the postcard panorama, now deepened to three dimensions. You enter the citadel through the stone main gate, pass the western crop terraces, and look down, down, down to the rushing Urubamba River as it wraps around the mountain’s base.

Later you’ll reach the royal enclosure, the Temple of the Condor and the round tower that Bingham spotted early on. But first you’ll likely gather around a sculpted rock known as Intihuatana, “the hitching post of the sun.” Chances are you’ll find visitors holding their hands out to it, as if to warm themselves by a fire.

This is where the film crew went wrong in 2000. Making an ad for Cusquena beer, workers somehow hit the Intihuatana stone with a piece of heavy equipment. Fortunately, only a small bit was chipped off. Most travelers notice nothing amiss, and many guides leave the incident unmentioned. (But I wonder: What would happen if Budweiser went to Mt. Rushmore and broke Thomas Jefferson’s nose?)

Some experts have warned that foot traffic will destabilize the ruins, and some guides speculate that one day tourists may be restricted from direct access to the stones, as most Stonehenge visitors in England have been since 1978. But for now, if you grant yourself the time, you can roam.

Most of Machu Picchu’s international visitors fly to the Peruvian capital, Lima, then to Cuzco, advance by car or bus to Ollantaytambo, then take a train to Aguas Calientes (about 70 miles from Cuzco), then take the 20-minute, 18-switchback bus ride to the ruins. But all buy their Machu Picchu entrance tickets ahead of time in Aguas Calientes or in Cuzco, or even earlier through a tour operator, because the keepers of Machu Picchu, the staff of Peru’s National Institute of Culture, don’t sell tickets on the mountaintop ― they only collect them.

Given all the trouble it takes to get here, you’d think people might stay longer. But legions arrive at the ruins around 10 or 11 a.m., circle the complex for two or three hours, then head back to the train.

If you are staying longer, 10 a.m. is your cue to step away for a few hours. Flop on the grass and nap. Join the buffet line in the cafeteria. You could make the two-hour round-trip hike to the Sun Gate, where Inca Trail hikers get their first good view of the mountaintop ruins. Or you could take the trail to the Inca Bridge, a mostly flat path that takes only half an hour each way but will surely get your attention.

Much of the trail is cut into a granite cliff face, and at points it narrows to 3 feet wide or so. There’s a rope along the wall to grab. But as with the rest of the mountaintop, there is only mist between you and the long drop to the smashing rapids.

“It’s really cool to climb mountains and look down 6,000 feet to your death,” said Alex Schell, 13, of Cleveland, when we met on that trail.

Strictly speaking, Alex stood about 1,500 feet above the valley floor. But who could argue with his point? If you look at Andean natives and the landmarks their ancestors left behind, said Alex’s father, Scott Schell, it’s astonishing to think about “the ability of these very small people to make incredibly durable works of engineering. By hand. With carried stones.”

Really, the whole Machu Picchu story is implausible. Working with neither the wheel nor a written language, the Incas built a 15th century empire that dominated South America, with masonry skilled enough to survive centuries of strong and frequent earthquakes. When the Spanish conquistadors showed up hungry for gold in the 1530s, there were fewer than 200 of them, but they had guns and horses and the luck to arrive during an Incan civil war. In short order, they seized and plundered the Incan empire ― but somehow, it seems, they never found Machu Picchu.

Flash forward 4 1/2 centuries to Hiram Bingham, a swashbuckling 36-year-old academic on his way to eventually representing Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. There he stands by his guide atop the mountain, checking out the fitted stones, wondering whether anybody will believe him.

“Fortunately,” he wrote later, “in this land where accuracy in reporting what one has seen is not a prevailing characteristic of travelers, I had a good camera and the sun was shining.”

Bingham went back to the U.S., enlisted Yale and the National Geographic Society as sponsors, made an exploration and research deal with the Peruvian government, undertook a series of return trips and shipped to Yale dozens of crates holding thousands of artifacts, including pottery, stone tools and bones. By Bingham’s theory, Machu Picchu was where the Incas hid after the Spanish took power.

These days, many experts think Bingham was wrong about that, and some say his book “Lost City of the Incas” has its own problems with accuracy. Yale archeologists Richard L. Burger and Lucy C. Salazar say Machu Picchu may have been built as a summer retreat for Pachacutec, the first ruler of the Incan empire.

But Bingham is the one who put Peru on the cover of National Geographic. Once the government built a rail route to the base of the mountain (in the 1930s) and added a bus route to the mountaintop (in about 1948), Machu Picchu was in business.

By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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