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The View from Huayna Picchu

From: Southeastern Geographer
Volume 53, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 243-247 | 10.1353/sgo.2013.0021

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Every Easter, my wife, her three sisters, and all of the associated families, make a pilgrimage to Franklin, Louisiana to visit my in-laws. The weekend is the typical "four-alarm family fiasco," loaded with food and fun in an overfilled house complete with a handful of screaming children, ages 1 through 6. Fortunately, my two children are by far the loudest, thus easier to locate within the fray.

One of my favorite parts of the visit though, is getting to catch up with my brothers-in-law, with whom I have a pretty good relationship. On the most recent, 2013 edition of this sojourn, I fell into a conversation about travel with my youngest brother-in-law, Craig Brentlinger. Craig is a traveler at heart, but hasn't been afforded much opportunity to do so yet. During the exchange we both discussed the top five destinations we wanted to visit before we died, and right at the top of Craig's list was Machu Picchu. Having been to Machu Picchu myself and being a geographer, I was interested in his perception of the site and knowing exactly why he wanted to visit the ruins. Craig's answers were very similar to my own pre-visit perceptions, as well as thousands of other wouldbe travelers, I assume, who have nothing more to go on than the classic, National Geographic-style photograph of the ruins usually taken from the Sun Gate, Intip-unku (Figure 1, photo by Martin St-Amant 2009). During the questioning, a few of the adjectives that Craig used to describe his perception of the ruins were remote, isolated, and mountaintop. Though the classic photos of Machu Picchu can certainly lead one to believe that this is the case (as it did me), none of these are true today, and most likely were not true even back in the 1400's.

My own trip to Machu Picchu was in late December of 2000. I had spent the previous few weeks with a fellow graduate student from Louisiana State University, Jason Blackburn, collecting surface soil samples from various locations throughout Peru and Bolivia. This preliminary work became a major part of my dissertation, studying the modern pollen rain in the central Andes region of South America (Reese 2003; Reese and Liu 2005). Though we were originally scheduled to be home by Christmas, the fieldwork ran long, and we ended up spending Christmas day in Cusco, Peru with our rescheduled flights not departing until after New Years. With a few days to kill, my friend and I decided to do one of the hikes to Machu Picchu. In Cusco, dozens of companies offer guided tours along the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. These hikes out of Cusco are of varying length, from a short two days to a full 8-day trek, which begins and ends in Cusco. Given our short window of time, and limited budget, we opted for the two-day hike.


Click for larger view
Figure 1. 

Machu Picchu. Photo by Martin St-Amant, 2009.

Our journey started at the Cusco train station where we caught the train to Machu Picchu. From what I can remember, the ticket was fairly expensive, but the ride itself was well worth the price. Stunning vistas lay around every corner as the train snaked its way along the Urubamba River valley. At kilometer 104, we disembarked the train and walked a few hundred yards to the trailhead where our guide was waiting. Once all of the members of our group arrived (about ten), we set off. At this point, we were not actually on the Inca Trail, but rather cutting across country to join the main trail at the ruins of Wiñay Wayna about five hours away. One of my previous misconceptions about Machu Picchu was that it was isolated, located far from any other settlements in the Inca Empire. The Inca Trail between Cusco and Machu Picchu, however, is dotted with the ruins of small villages and outposts. Giulio Magli (2010) recently interpreted this as a pilgrimage route, with Machu Picchu as the final destination. It should be pointed out that these other ruins are not limited to the...



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