Machu Picchu’s Story in Stone

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Sitting in the Vilcabamba mountain range of Peru, perched high above the Vilcanota River, is a sacred place. They call it Machu Picchu. Viewed from above it looks like a great bird – like a condor –  turning in full flight. Up close, it is a key to a past life. Machu Picchu’s story is shared in the carefully considered placement of rock.

The Story of a Name

The original name of Machu Picchu is unknown. Archaeologist and explorer Dr. Hiram Bingham gave the city its current name in 1911. It is the same name of the mountain that rises above it. Machu means “old” in the Quechua language. Picchu means “mountain” or “peak.”

The namesake old mountain itself towers at a height of 3,050 meters (10,004 feet) to the south. Waynapicchu (young peak) rises 2,750 m (8,965 ft) to the north. The buildings and terraces of Machu Picchu sprawls out on the col between the two peaks, sitting at around 2,400 m (7,824 ft) above sea level.

Building Machu Picchu’s Story

According to archaeologists, building Machu Picchu’s story began during the reign of Inca Pachakuteq in 1438. It took about 30 years to complete the initial phases of construction. An exclusive group of priests and priestesses and important members of the Inca government lived here.

Machu Picchu’s terraces as viewed from the urban section of the site. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu is divided into two sections: agricultural and urban. The agricultural section contains more than 100 terraces. It covers over half of the built area within the site. Experts estimate that the terraces were capable of producing nearly 9,000 kilograms (19,840 pounds) of corn each year. The urban section holds the main temples, residences and storehouses.

The stony enclave became an educational center for future leaders until 1537 when war broke out. As a result of the conflict, Machu Picchu was slowly and systematically abandoned over the next eight years. It soon became a distant memory, its presence known only to locals.

Machu Picchu’s Story of Rediscovery & Restoration

1895 – Peruvian government restores the old Inca trail from Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba (passing below Machu Picchu, alongside the Vilcanota river)

1907 – Two local families move into Machu Picchu and farm the terraces

1911 – Dr. Hiram Bingham (Yale University) is guided to Machu Picchu for the first time

1912 – National Geographic and Yale University lead an expedition to open tombs, uncover buildings, photograph buildings and complete topographical research

1914 – Third expedition by Bingham; explores trails leading to Macchu Picchu

late 1914 to early 1934 – Machu Picchu is left alone again

1934 – Spanish government and Patronato de Arqueologia (archaeological sponsorship) take over, start to remove growth and begin restoration

1941 – Machu Picchu is declared a National Archaeolgical Park

1946 – Construction on a road to connect the archaeological site from the begins

1948 –  Road opens and a tourist hotel is built near ruins

1981 – The site is declared a Historical Sanctuary by Peruvian government

1983 – Machu Picchu becomes a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site

Hidden Stories Seen Today

Half of the Inca cross, placed in front of the Temple of Three Windows. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Dig a little deeper, look a little closer and Machu Picchu’s story starts to emerge. The Sacred Plaza includes the Main Temple, the Temple of Three Windows and the Priest’s House. There is half of an Incan Cross placed in front of the Temple of the Three Windows.

Why only half of a cross? Because the trio of open windows face west. When the sun come in the windows, the light hits the cross and the shadow that is cast completes the cross. Circumstance? While it may seem like it, this was a result of careful consideration and planning.

Paying Attention to Detail

Precision stone work and fine quality granite are signs of important buildings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Compare and contrast the granite stones used in the buildings. Notice the range of quality. A finer grade of stone was used to build royal residences and temples. The stone placement is precise. Primitive stonework can be found in the terraces, storehouses and other less important buildings. Read the stones, learn a little more of Machu Picchu’s story.

Part of the Inca Royal Residence. Notice the round rock on the patio, hold water. Another stone, another purpose – as a mirror for astronomical observations! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Look at the doorways. Some entrances have a double-jamb doorway. This means that it the entrance to a sacred place, such as the priest’s quarters and areas used for ceremonies.

Double-jamb doorway in Machu Picchu. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Many doorways are quite tall. There is a reason. Inca rulers were carried everywhere. The extra height was necessary to facilitate movement of the Inca.

Entrance doors are almost always trapezoidal in shape. They look cool, but there is more to it. Earthquakes are common in the region. Trapezoidal shapes are strong. They resist movement.

Now, check out the roofs. Cylindrical stones were stacked in the gables. Decorative? No, they had a purpose. These stones were used to tie down wooden roof beams to keep the roof from blowing off in strong winds.

Note the less precise stone construction of the guardhouse and the tie down rocks for the roof. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu’s Story of Random Stones

This carved granite altar was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Funeral Rock next to the Guardhouse is a granite block delicately carved into an altar. It was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices, healings and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Most people see the large funeral rock, few see the smaller stones.

Machu Picchu’s story includes these miscellaneous stones found around the funeral rock are called the Apacheta. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Apacheta is a collection of medium-sized volcanic, limestone, sandstone, and other stones not native to the area. They are now found littered around the funeral rock. It is thought that these stones were brought by pilgrims as offerings during Inca times. When a pilgrim crosses a mountain pass (abra) or visits a sacred place for the first time, carry a stone to make an offering to gain protection from mountain spirits.

Each stone in Machu Picchu holds a story – a story of purpose, a story of vision, a story of belief. Machu Picchu’s story is written in stone.

Read more about the Historic Sanctuary at Machu Picchu on the UNESCO WHC website.

What stories did you uncover in your visit to this storied place?

Planning to Go?

A wide selection of accommodation options can be found in nearby Agua Calientes, also known as Machupicchu.

The Wild Side of Machu Picchu

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Machu Picchu – architectural wonder, Inca monument, historic gem. All are fitting descriptions for this fortress carved of stone, but I’m going to detour for a moment and take you along for a walk on Machu Picchu’s wild side.

Discovering Machu Picchu’s Wild Things

Thousands of visitors flock to Peru’s Andes on a quest to tick off Machu Picchu on their bucket lists – and for good reason. Machu Picchu is a stunning example of Incan engineering prowess.

We finally made it! (Credit: Megan Kopp)

Stone temples and carefully placed sacred rocks perch on a pass between 2,750-metre high Waynapicchu and the 3,050-metre high Machupicchu mountains. The sheer majesty of the view and the architecture make everything else irrelevant…

… until a bear walks by.

Bears? In Machu Picchu?

Apparently.

I wish we’d been one of the fortunate ones to have witnessed the spectacle of the Andean bear sauntering through Plaza Principal or scaling the terraces in the Agricultural sector, but just the fact that they are here is captivating.

Lucky visitors have videoed Andean bears – also known as spectacled bear – at Machu Picchu.

A Little Llama Love

While we didn’t personally see any bears during our visit – next time! –  we did find a wild side to Machu Picchu, starting with the llamas.

Photo star of Machu Picchu! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Llamas are not exactly wild. They were brought to the site as workers. Yup, they are the lawnmowers that keep the terraces cropped. We saw four and one sweet baby still wobbly on its feet. The llamas are free to wander, but why would they want to  go anywhere else when they can get free food with little competition and get to pose for the paparazzi whenever they want?

Chillin’ Cinchillas

Technically, the large, bushy-tailed rodents that scamper around the boulders – often overlooked by visitors – are called viscachas. But they are members of the chinchilla family. Their fur matches the colours of the stones for perfect camouflage.

Looking like a cross between a rabbit and squirrel, the southern viscacha is a Machu Picchu original! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

 

Taking Flight

Using spiders as hosts to feed their young, this wasp is a killer! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

While the spider wasp looks threatening – and indeed probably are to spiders – this curious insect is worth a closer look.

Birds abound in Machu Picchu, but finding the right opportunity to take a pic can be a bit of a challenge.

This rufous-collared sparrow serenaded us from the treetops while standing below the guardhouse. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

We don’t always photograph birds as the camera we carry is not meant for that level of photography, but the avian life at Machu Picchu demands an attempt.

Sugar buzz! Come a little closer and sit still for a moment would you! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary spans across 32,590 hectares. It lies on the eastern slope of the Andes. Humid montane forests drop down towards the Amazon basin. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in this prime habitat.

Temple of the Condor

Birds held high court in the world of the Inca as well. The Temple of the Condor was named for its appearance, stretched out like the wings of the condor.

The rock outcrops of the Temple of the Condor look like the wings of its namesake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Take Time to Smell the Flowers

Machu Picchu may be on the bucket list for its impressive architecture and cultural legacy, but don’t pass up the opportunity to take a moment to stop and smell the flowers – or listen to the birds or watch the insects or enjoy a chillin’ chinchilla – along the way.


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Tortoise Time in the Galapagos

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Time on land and in the water plus a small ship to call home equals the perfect combination for exploring the Galapagos Islands. Today, it’s tortoise time on Isla Santa Cruz!

Ready, Set, Go Galapagos

We started our tortoise tour by visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, arriving early before the crowds. It was the final day of the land portion of our Galapagos adventure.


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The Charles Darwin Research Station is the perfect place to learn about giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises have long been the focus of attention in Galapagos. These prehistoric wonders were once viewed as nothing more than a source of food and fuel.

Tortoises can last for up to a year without food or water. As a result, hundreds of thousands of tortoises were taken by sailors as fresh food for long trips. Tortoise oil was also burned in lamps. The fragile population of giant tortoise also suffered due to predation by rats brought in on ships.

Because of all of this unwanted attention, four tortoise species are now extinct in the Galapagos.

Smaller than a leaf! Baby tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Centre (Photo: Brad Kopp)

One of the goals of the Charles Darwin Research Station is to provide a rearing facility for endangered species.

Pens of young tortoises from several months to several years old give us our first glimpses of one of the keystone species of the Galapagos Islands’ unique fauna.

Hard to believe these little guys will grow into adults weighing upwards of 215 kilograms (475 pounds).

Click, click, click – too many photos, but these tortoise tots are so darn cute!

Cute as a button, this teeny tiny tortoise is! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A Tortoise by Any Other Name

The buzz at the research station was all about Lonesome George. He is finally home again. Well, at least the preserved version of Lonesome George is home again.

It all started in 1971 when Lonesome George was found. This Pinta Island giant tortoise was the last of his kind. Each island has a distinct species of giant tortoise. George was it on Pinta Island. He became the poster-boy for giant tortoises throughout the Galapagos.

In 1972, George was brought to the rearing centre in Puerta Ayora for protection. It was hoped that researchers would also be able to find a mate for the lonely fellow to preserve his genetic heritage.

No such luck.

Lonesome George died in 2012 without reproducing. His body was sent to the United States for preservation. His remains recently came back to the Galapagos and are now on display in a specially-lit, climate-controlled room.

Lonesome George – on display. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Way to go, Diego!

Personally, I think George is overshadowed by Diego.

He is an endangered giant tortoise from Isla Española.

By 1960, only 14 adult tortoises remained on Española – 12 females and 2 males. Researchers took them into captivity to start a rearing program.

Diego was a captive Española tortoise brought back from the San Diego Zoo in 1975. As a result, he became the third male for the tiny group teetering on extinction.

Now over 100 years old, Diego has fathered an estimated 800 offspring. Way to go, Diego!

Living Large and Free

Meeting up with rest of our boat gang in the afternoon, we headed up to the highlands and El Chato Ranch. El Chato is a private ecological reserve where giant tortoises have free reign.

Giant tortoise strolling the path at El Chato on Isla Santa Cruz (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The reserve is actually a working farm. Tortoises come and go as they please. Tourists flock to the ranch to see these giants munching on fallen guava fruit and grazing next to livestock. It can be difficult to stay the required 2 metres (6 feet) away when these giants cut a straight path through the crowd!

Guava face! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Giant tortoises migrate seasonally from highlands to lowlands. You can follow their movements at www.movebank.org.

Far too soon, our tortoise time is done for the day. The Monserrat is calling our names.

‘Til next time, tortoises!
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Next up: All Aboard for Lizard Land in the Galapagos

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Gearing Up for the Galapagos Islands: Finally!

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Thirty years ago I dreamed of going to the Galapagos Islands to snorkel with sea lions, walk past nesting blue-footed boobies and trip alongside giant tortoises.

You know what?

Dreams do come true.

Making a Plan and Checking It Twice

Boat or land tour?

That was the first big hurdle we had to cross when we finally decided the time had come to walk in Charles Darwin’s footsteps.

One of Darwin’s finches – it’s all in the bill! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

There were pros and cons to each. Boat tours are expensive. Sea sickness is a concern.

Land tours are limited in scope. They require extra travel time between islands.

After hours poring over guidebooks, scouring the internet and checking potential trip options with TripAdvisor – we decided a cruise was the way to go. Not ultra-budget, not luxury – somewhere cruising comfortably in the lower middle.

But which boat?

Which islands?

How many days?

The budget was set. We had a month of travel through Ecuador and Peru. We couldn’t afford more than a small sample of the Galapagos.

After days of deliberation and countless hours on the computer, we settled on G Adventures 7-day (Quito to Quito) Land and Sea option.

Galapagos – Ready or Not!

We met our G Adventure representative in Quito, at the Hilton – no less! We reviewed the trip itinerary and learned that everyone else was already travelling on an extended tour, so we would join them in the Galapagos.

Our room was overlooking the green expanse of Parque El Ejido. We could see the Basilica in the distance. Sorting through a month’s worth of gear, we downsized to one bag, storing the extra bag with the hotel before crashing for a few hours.

The 4:00 a.m. breakfast and 4:30 a.m. departure would come far too soon.

On the morning flight, we saw signs of heavy rains and flooding of lowlands near Ecuador’s west coast from the plane window.

Flooded lowlands near Guayaquil (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A quick refuelling stop in Guayaquil, a short hop across a thousand or so kilometres of Pacific Ocean and we were wheels down on Baltra – a tiny island that was once a USA military base.

Boat ride from Baltra to Santa Cruz (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A short 10-minute bus ride to the dock, another short 10-minute boat ride, and into the van with our G Adventure guide for the 45-minute drive up over the highlands and down into Puerto Ayora.

The fog and drizzle lifts.

Floral scents fill the air.

Deep green, grassy fields hide ancient tortoises.

Lava Lizard (Photo: Brad Kopp)

After 30 years of waiting, we are finally here. Feet firmly planted in the land of Charles Darwin. We spent the afternoon hiking to the powder-fine white sands of Playa Brava – mockingbirds, lava lizards and finches!

Lava Heron on the hunt! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Another short walk past sunning marine iguanas to kayaks waiting in Tortuga Bay, paddling past red mangroves to view dozens of mating green sea turtles, young black-tipped reef sharks, and squawking lava herons.

The land and sea are alive.

I revel in its wildness.

And I can’t seem to get this smile off my face; some things are worth waiting for!

If you have been (or are you planning to go) to the Galapagos, what tips do you have for selecting the perfect adventure to fit your budget?

Next up: Tortoise Time in the Galapagos