Machu Picchu is of course world famous, but in ten years of working in Peru very close to the site I have never been there (though I went as a backpacker in the 1990s). This time I have my family here as a wonderful excuse to slow down explore more rather than work intensely in the forest then rush back home. So we take the “vistadome” train to Aguas Calientes as visit this famous ruin.
The most startling, memorable thing about Machu Picchu is not the ruins themselves (which are spectacular), but the location. The mountain on which the lost city was located is incredibly steep-sided and thickly clad in lush mid-elevation cloud forest (around 2400 m above sea-level), as are the surrounding peaks. In typically Inca style, the design and layout of the city mirrors the surrounding natural landscape, with rocks and sacred points within the ruins designed to mimic surrounding peaks. Hundreds of metres below, the sacred Vilcanota river casts a wide meander around the mountain peninsular, literately a sacred snake in Inca mythology signifying the potency of the underworld. The combination of mountains, clouds, lush forest, stonework and raging sacred river is mesmerising and unforgettable.
The wider geography is also startling, and after years working on the Andean slope I appreciate its context in a way I did not before. Machu Picchu sits north of Cusco, at the end of the Sacred Valley which was a central ceremonial centre of the Incas. The various archaeological complexes along the Sacred Valley take the shape of constellations, which mirror constellations in the sky. The valley itself mythologically extends into the sky to become the Milky Way. This concept of geoarchitecture, of shaping cities like sacred creatures and altering landscapes to look like mythological beings, is something that amazes me about the Andes. I have never come across it at this scale anywhere else in the world (though that may reflect my or our collective ignorance).
Machu Picchu sits perched in the zone where the fairly dry uplands transition into the lush Andean slopes and lowlands, and hence was probably a critical waypoint in accessing supplies from the lowland frontiers of the empire (such as coca, feathers), much like the Kosnipata Valley north-east of Cusco where my work has been focussed. But the city seems too carefully constructed (and in such an spectacularly inaccessible location) to be a way station. It seems like a special ceremonial and sacred centre, perched on the each of the vast Amazon lowlands, which appears dangerous and impenetrable even to the mighty Incas at their peak. It seems like a citadel from which to respect and worship the mystery and power of the blending of peaks, sun, clouds and endless, magnificent and mysterious forests.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University