Peru Trip, Part 3: The Lost City of the Incas
Following the execution of the Inca emperor Atahualpa and the sacking of Cuzco, Francisco Pizarro refused to give his old partner, Diego de Almagro, an equal share of Atahualpa's ransom, as their agreement stipulated.
Stung by the betrayal, Almagro amassed a new army and marched south in search of treasure, crossing the Andes Mountains in the bitter cold of winter, at elevations as high as 15,000 feet. Thousands of Indian slaves and hundreds of soldiers and horses froze to death.
Though he became the first European to "discover" and claim what is now Chile, Almagro found no gold there, and skirmishes with the local Mapuche Indians convinced him that the land was not worth colonizing.
Meanwhile, Pizarro journeyed to the coast and founded a capital city for his new dominion, Ciudad de los Reyes, or City of the Kings. Today that city is called Lima.
In 1537, an exhausted Almagro returned from the south to Cuzco, determined to claim the city for himself. He confronted soldiers loyal to Pizarro and forced their surrender, but a year later, a new army sent by Pizarro defeated Almagro near Cuzco.
Pizarro's brother mocked Almagro as he begged for mercy, and then had him strangled and decapitated.
Almagro's son, nicknamed "El Mozo" (the lad), was stripped of all his possessions and saw his father's body put on display in Cuzco's plaza. With nothing left to lose, El Mozo set his sights on the most powerful man in South America.
The Hiram Bingham luxury train rolled to a stop in the small town of Aguas Calientes, beside the Urubamba River, early yesterday afternoon. In our scenic, three-and-a-half-hour ride through the Andes from Cuzco, we had dined well, listened to live entertainment and, most importantly, descended more than 5,000 feet, to an elevation of 6,000 feet.
There by the headwaters of the Amazon, the vegetation was lush and green. After two fitful nights in the thin air of Cuzco, I noticed the air seemed rich and full of oxygen, but the sensation would not last long.
On the far side of the river, a rock wall rose almost straight up from the valley floor, curving out of sight far above our heads. We boarded a bus and climbed that mountain on narrow and precipitous switchbacks so close to thousand-foot drops that I could not see the ground beside our bus from the window.
At the top of the climb, we found the gates to Machu Picchu and the entrance to the only hotel by the park, the Orient-Express Sanctuary Lodge. There are several hotels down in Aguas Calientes, but we had booked a night in the Sanctuary to give us earlier and later access to the ruins.
Machu Picchu was constructed by the Incas around 1400 and used until the time of the Spanish conquest. Despite its location only 50 rugged miles from Cuzco, it was never discovered by the Spanish.
After the Incas abandoned the site, Machu Picchu was overgrown by the jungle, lost and forgotten by the outside world for more than 350 years until Yale University historian Hiram Bingham was led there in 1911 by local farmers who did not realize the site's significance.
When the Incas ruled this land they were led by an emperor, and next in social order were the nobles, consisting of priests and relatives of the emperor. Then came the architects and craftsmen, and below them the working class (mostly farmers), followed by peasants and slaves.
The Incas believed in reincarnation and worshipped the god of creation, as well as gods of the sun, rain, lightning and more. They had no written language but supposedly recorded information using knotted strings, which cannot be interpreted today.
Following a quick check-in at the Sanctuary, we entered the gates of the park and climbed the winding path to the ruins of Machu Picchu, emerging on one end of the ancient city. It is said that Machu Picchu sits in the "saddle" of the mountain, flanked on either side by peaks that tower over the ruins.
The Incas' greatest achievements were their building prowess and architecture, and there are about 140 structures here -- temples, residences, watchtowers and guardhouses -- built on many levels. Their mountainside foundations and drainage systems have withstood earthquakes and floods for hundreds of years.
There are irrigation canals that carried fresh springwater to one house after another, and agricultural terraces built on slopes using retaining walls and topsoil hauled from the valleys below to create level, high-altitude growing areas.
Inca-built walls stand strong here today as they do in ruins throughout South America. Builders lowered one rock on another and carved away the lower rock until the two fit snugly, the concavity of the lower stone providing extraordinary stability without mortar.
In the three hours we had before the park closed, we visited all the highlights, including what is believed to have been the emperor's residence and a great stone called the Intihuatana, an Inca clock or calendar.
The view from the site was mesmerizing, spectacular mountains in every direction, some with peaks shrouded in clouds. I believe the site and the setting combined are the reason Machu Picchu was recently named among the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.
Last night, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Sanctuary, and I slept well for the first time since landing in Cuzco, a result of Machu Picchu's tolerable 8,000-foot elevation and three days of acclimation.
This morning, we were up before sunrise, beating the crowds into the park to enjoy a moment of solitude before turning to the day's main activity. There are trails to the top of the two mountains flanking Machu Picchu, and many climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain seen beyond the ruins in the classic Machu Picchu photos.
Our group had decided to take the recommendation of our splendid guide, Javier, and climb Montaña Machu Picchu, on the opposite side of the ruins, which is equally steep but twice as tall and hosts, not surprisingly, far fewer hikers.
I had consumed Diamox, coca tea and coca candy before leaving the Sanctuary, but in one final bow to the altitude and local tradition, I stuffed some coca leaves in my mouth to chew as we hiked. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to gasp around a mouthful of leaves, so they only lasted about 15 minutes.
Javier took the lead, and as the sun rose over the Andes, we climbed to the summit in about an hour and a half, with frequent stops to slow our pounding hearts. From there, we could see snow-covered peaks and, far below, the Inca trail that still brings hikers to Machu Picchu on foot.
This afternoon, we will take the train back to Cuzco, and tomorrow we fly to Lima and then home, to Houston. We have enjoyed our time in Peru and the kind people we have met. I would like to return someday to visit the Peruvian Amazon, Lake Titicaca, the Nazca Lines and the other highlights of the country.
It's been 100 years since Hiram Bingham introduced Machu Picchu to the outside world, and in this anniversary year, the site will be visited by an all-time record number of tourists.
If you come, plan to stay as late as you can, until the crowds have gone and the fog and the peace have descended upon the ruins. For it is only then that you may hear the ghosts of a dying empire, struck down by smallpox and the cunning and treachery and greed of the conquistadors.
After the execution of Almagro, Francisco Pizarro set about empire-building, and his cruelty toward the native people became legendary. He turned conquered tribes against the Incas with false promises, and frequently left them worse off under Spanish rule.
He oversaw the looting of the Inca's gold, silver, diamonds and emeralds, shipped a great deal back to Spain but kept enough to make his family fabulously wealthy.
Still, this was not the end of Pizarro's story. As is so often the case, violence begets violence and time has a way of evening the scores.
And so one fateful day in 1541, as Pizarro entertained guests in his grand palace, El Mozo's followers came calling, and put a dagger through his throat.
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Galapagos Cruise, Part 1: Quito & North Seymour Island
Galapagos Cruise, Part 2: Sea Lions, Albatross and More
Galapagos Cruise, Part 3: Santa Cruz, Bartolome, Isabela and Fernandina
Peru Trip, Part 1: En Route to Machu Picchu
Peru Trip, Part 2: Cuzco, Gateway to Machu Picchu