Machu Picchu

There are two plaques at the entrance to the Machu Picchu sanctuary. The first reads, in part, Hiram Bingham, scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu in 1911. The association of the word discoverer with Bingham is stretching it. After all, when Bingham reached Aquas Calientes, he asked a local farmer if there were any ruins nearby. The farmer or perhaps his son took him straight to Machu Picchu. Bingham is reported to have paid him un sol for the trouble of making him the discoverer of Machu Picchu. He may have discovered it for himself, but the Peruvians knew it was there for hundreds of years. They just didn’t know what a golden egg they were sitting on. There is even one Peruvian woman who is suing the government claiming her ancestors were given the land. She has filed papers to prove it. Fat lot of good it will do her now.

Bingham was not so much a discoverer as a publicist and this he did very well. Thanks to him the Peruvians suddenly woke up to the goldmine that the jungle was hiding. They began conservation, restoration and exploitation efforts that are still going on.

The current operation is very impressive; several well-built, well-maintained and well-run Perurail trains ply the tracks between Cusco and Machu Picchu bringing in hordes of visitors every day. A shuttle bus system runs efficient Mercedes Benz busses up the mountain from Aquas Calientes to the sanctuary.

When Bingham paid that guide one sole, he set in motion the exploitation that seems to continue today. Machu Picchu is a money making machine. It has been thus for half a century at least. But look around Aguas Calientes and ask yourself where the money has gone. Into train tracks, spiffy trains that run on time and fancy restaurants. Where are the sidewalks, the paved roads, the libraries, the modern schools, the state of the art hospitals?

Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. He got that right. Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is Peru’s Machu Picchu and Siem Riep its Aguas Calientes. If you drive through Siem Riep, you pass through a town with virtually no infrastructure at all, poor people everywhere, unpaved roads, virtually no public amenities, to world class hotels built by the Japanese who split their take with the government of Cambodia. The people in Siem Riep, worse off, I think than the Peruvians of Aguas Calientes, wear rubber sands made from old tires.

There is a second plaque at the entrance to Macho Picchu.

“Considered a masterpiece of location, urban planning, design and construction of footpaths, buildings, sidewalks, canals with many fountains, the infrastructure of Machu Picchu illustrates the advances in civil, hydraulic and geo-technical engineering of an Incan town. Their drinking fountains, solid stone walls, surface and subterranean drains and the tapping of springs are all excellent examples of Incan civil engineering.” (my translation from the Spanish)

The plaque is heavy on engineering and light on location. Not surprising I suppose since the American Society of Engineers put it up by way of recognizing Inca engineering genius. But the fact is that were it not for the mountains, Machu Picchu would be one more tourist attraction in South America instead of the number one tourist attraction of the continent and a worldwide tourist target. Location is all.

The guidebooks describe Machu Picchu almost universally as a magical place that engenders a feeling of calm, a sense of soothing serenity. It is as if they were describing Machu Picchu after taking a Valium. I think the guidebooks are right. And I also think I know why. Machu Picchu illustrates the taming of the wild. Here the Andes are threatening. The shaman propitiates them. Machu Picchu tames them. It says we can, after all, live in the midst of danger.

There is controversy over why Machu Picchu was built. Was it a royal residence? Was it a summer resort for the Inca? Was it a religious site? Was it all of the above? I don’t think any of that matters. What matters is the aftereffect of the city. Once it was built it made a violent and vicious world seem safer. And indeed the builders were right. The Spanish never sacked Machu Picchu. They never found it.

One of the biggest mysteries of all is that, aside from a tiny cemetery near the Inca trail, there are no remains at Machu Picchu; certainly nothing to match the 1,000 people who inhabited the town in the clouds. It is as if at one point everybody simply picked up and abandoned their talisman against the wilderness. Perhaps it was because some calamity taught them that Machu Picchu was an illusion after all.

Wallace Steven’s wrote a poem called Anecdote of the Jar:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

He could easily have been thinking of Machu Picchu when he wrote it.