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"Above all, there is the fascination of finding here and there under swaying vines, or perched on top of a beetling crag, the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who, ages ago, sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently give expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty." -Hiram Bingham III July 24, 1911.


A light rain falls and the Andean rainforest is lost in a gray haze, the dazzling green of the vegetation blurred amid the thick fog. Two men and a boy climb an ancient trail through the dense trees, heavy vines and twisted roots of an ageless jungle. Off in the distance, a bird calls. One of the men turns and looks: it is obvious from his garb that he is a stranger here. The young boy leads the way, and does not pause: the birds are part of his world.


The path opens up onto a terrace where a few local families have reclaimed farm land from the eternal jungle: beneath their meager crops the stranger can see evidence of an ancient stone wall. His heart, already racing from the climb, begins to beat even faster. He is searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba, a mighty Inca fortress spoken of in the Spanish chronicles but since lost to time and the timeless jungle. He follows the boy even higher, onto a high plateau dotted with small hills.


The boy says something and the stranger waits for the other man to translate: this is the place. The boy walks to one of the hills and brushes away the accumulated dirt and vegetation of centuries to reveal intricate stonework: this is no hill, but a building, reclaimed by the forest many years before. The stranger, Hiram Bingham III, Yale archaeologist, explorer and adventurer, looks around and for the first time sees not natural hills on a plateau but a city, swallowed by the jungle and lost to time. Excitedly, he asks his translator again what the locals call this place.


“Machu Picchu,” the man replies. “It means ‘Old Mountain.’”


You’ve seen the photographs.


You’ve jealously listened to your friends tell you about their trips there.


You’ve seen the National Geographic special.


That’s all well and good, but understand one thing: there is no photograph, slide show or story that can capture the sensation you feel when you first cast your gaze upon Machu Picchu. Not even the National Geographic Channel can do it justice.


As dawn breaks on the summer solstice, the mountain peaks that surround Machu Picchu are the first to light up in the pure sunlight of the breaking day. Slowly creeping down into the valleys, the light hits the lost city of the Incas, passing precisely through one of the windows of the Temple of the Sun and illuminating the ceremonial area. Six months later, on the winter solstice, the sunlight will pass directly through a different window. Years ago, Inca stonemasons and holy men designed the space of the windows down to the centimeter.


The Sacred Plaza, which includes the Temple of the Sun, is part of a larger holy area, which many experts believe was the ceremonial and spiritual heart of the city. Uphill from the Sacred Plaza sits an enormous stone structure which has a shape roughly similar to Huayna Picchu, a nearby peak with a rounded top which is easily visible from the ruins on a clear day. The name of the stone is Intihuatana, which means “hitching post of the sun.” It is believed that the most important ceremonies of all—the ones meant to ensure the continued blessing of the Sun—took place there. Many Inca cities and temples contained such a structure, according to records, but these were destroyed by the Spanish who wished to extirpate Inca idolatry.


The Condor Temple was constructed to resemble, of course, a condor in flight. Many experts believe that the Condor Temple was used as a sort of religious dungeon: prisoners may have been held and tortured there. Funerary Rock, which was supposedly where members of the Inca royal family were mummified, sits uphill from the rest of the complex and is one of the best places for a photo.


Hiram Bingham III came and left, taking thousands of priceless artifacts with him (it’s still a sore subject in Peru: ask anyone), but he could not take the timeless soul of the majestic city. Today, many believe that Machu Picchu is a central point of natural energies as old as the earth itself. You may choose to believe them or not: but do not pass judgment until you visit it for yourself and open your mind to the soothing harmony of the Lost City of the Incas.

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