The Secret of the Incas – Reflections on Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was not a secret to its people. Scholars for decades felt Hiriam Bingham had rediscovered a lost city of the Incans. Books were written, digs were dug, and artifacts displayed worldwide. Charleton Heston shot on location there, donning a fedora and a leather jacket to swashbuckle his way through a 1954 technicolor jungle noir adventure called Secret of the Incas; the movie served as a stylistic progenitor to Indiana Jones. And the marketing boys and girls of Peruvian tourism played up the lost Incan city angle for all it was worth to add a bit more mystery and sheen to the experience.

The truth is, though there are strategic elements to Machu Picchu’s location, it doesn’t appear to have been a secret. There are newly discovered entrances to the city on the mountain, roadways to the center that indicate it was accessible for trade and life. Our guide said “they” don’t like to talk about it too much as it undermines the books, the research papers, the mystery. While the politics of such a reassessment of the “lost” element of the city makes some sense, I do not think it alters my experience in visiting.

I had long wanted to go to Machu Picchu. This trip afforded me to cross off two top tier bucket list items — Rapa Nui and the maybe not so Lost City of the Incas. I hope I’ve conveyed in previous posts my excitement at seeing the Moais of Easter Island. But I know I left this piece on Machu Picchu for a later date; I wanted time to process and reflect on what the place meant to me and how it still means the same thing to me.

Machu Picchu was a great city that was left unfinished. The arrival of the Spanish was the culmination of the decline of the Incas… Whose name we don’t even know. The indigenous people had a name for themselves that we simply haven’t discovered. “Inca” in fact means “King” and we’ve extrapolated it out to describe the empire as a whole. In the 16th century, after 90+ years of their civilization. two brothers fought for the Inca throne. A bloody civil war broke out, with each side taking drastic measures to eliminate any and all other royal claims… And punishing enemies who might side with the other brother. During this conflict, Machu Picchu was under construction. In the end, one brother did emerge victorious, and all levels of government rushed to Cusco to aver their allegiance, that they always knew he was the one true Inca, and to denounce the loser. From the highest ranks to the lowest city official — everyone came running to curry favor. At the same time, news of the arrival of the Spanish poured in and the newly crowned God-King sought to meet these 167 Spanish men. With an army of 60,000 and all of his government toadies who had come to pledge allegiance in tow, the Inca marched to meet Pizarro and his crew. And when Pizarro gazed upon the mass of people, he was terrified, rushing back to fortify his meager outpost to withstand a horde. The king asked to meet the Spanish and they said he would have to come to them as they’d be slaughtered otherwise. The king shrugged and marched with his smaller ceremonial greeting party — something to the effect of 6,000 people, men, women, children and bureaucrats (because bureaucrats are a thing onto themselves). In meeting, the Spanish were again terrified but read out their Pope’s proclamation that if the natives pledged to be good Catholics, their lives would be spared. The Incas didn’t speak Spanish per se but were amenable to adding another God to their pantheistic views. So as they met the Spanish, Pizarro rushed in, kidnapped the king and killed him before his people’s eyes. The horses and gunshots lead to the slaughter of scores of Inca government officials, plus countless innocent men, women, and children. It was a bloodbath wherein 167 men wiped out an organizational structure in one fell swoop. Shock and awe followed… Combined with European diseases that devastated the civilization’s population.

And so finishing up a city out at Machu Picchu wasn’t exactly a top priority for the Incas. The Spanish heard told of the riches of the people and plundered their gold and history, destroying anything that perpetuated the glories of the Inca. What knowledge and insights were lost to the arrogant, evil machinations of greedy, zealot invaders can only be imagined; when viewed in parallel to the current day destructive actions of ISIS in the Middle East, the scope and scale takes on new depth, breadth, and meaning.

But because Machu Picchu was farther afield, was incomplete, and perhaps “secret,” the Spanish never got there. They never plundered and destroyed the place. Time and the jungle took their toll, no doubt. And while it sat for 400 years or so, with only minimal locals and the odd treasure hunter making their way there, at least some of this lost civilization’s heritage and legacy endured.

Seeing the ruins of the city in person is only part of it. It’s the journey there that contextualizes the experience. I’ve often found the details matter and sometimes go into excruciating detail in these travel posts, several times to the point of missing the forest for the trees. But the details of HOW one gets to Machu Picchu matter. For me, it was a detour from Easter Island to Lima, Peru. A quick one hour flight to Cusco followed by a 90 minute car ride (if one did it straight and didn’t stop to sightsee along the way) to Ollantaytambo. There one could hike the 44km+ to the Sun Gate entrance or do as I did — take a train to the small town of Machu Picchu Pueblo. A 30 minute bus ride along 14 switchbacks (or a long walk up the mountain) takes one to the entrance to Machu Picchu. The journey is as much the adventure as the destination.

I’m still not sure how to verbalize or document my feelings and visceral responses at seeing the place. I may never be able to. For now, what I can say is that I felt an insight into time immemorial, to the continuum of humanity and this world that branches off, double backs, ends and yet can live on afterward. A tour guide or two often spoke of Rapa Nui culture’s belief in life after life… A phrase I so much prefer to the notion of life after death. It’s a minor detail but has major significance. I could go into the human sacrifices of the Incan religions, or the brutality of the regimes to conquer other people’s in order to both grow their numbers and to instill fear and loyalty to the crown. But I could just as easily describe that about the Europeans… Or the Americans… Or any civilization. We have done terrible things in this world. We have also done amazing things. If we could somehow focus on the good, if we could perhaps view others as worthy equals who may have knowledge and viewpoints we do not yet possess; if we could give and take ideas for the betterment of all, I think of how much further our world might be along in peace, harmony, and development.

The Incas didn’t have a word for hunger or famine or starvation. They had stores of food that could feed their people. They used the greenhouse laboratory of concentric terraced circles in Moray to test crops for various locations in the empire to ensure sustainable, successful agriculture nation-wide. That’s an achievement we haven’t mastered even today with all of our “modern” ways. We still have hunger, famine, and starvation.

As I stood amidst the ruins, with the setting sun illuminating the carved rock of sprawling Machu Picchu, I thought about life… And life after life. I reflected on what it takes to get anywhere, on what sacrifices one makes, what choices lead to outcomes both good and ill. I felt small and yet part of a grand cosmos. I felt old and winded climbing the stairs at altitude, and young and foolish for having grandiose thoughts and ponderings. I felt lucky to be there.

I felt therefore the contradictions of life and living.

I felt, most of all, human.