Destinations, Landscape Architecture, Musings, Peru, Photography, South America

Climbing Huayna Picchu & Constructing Life in the Scheme of Things

February 1, 2012

We arrived at Machu Picchu via Inca Trail, explored the ruins on foot, then returned for a second day to climb Huayna Picchu and examine the site from an alternate perspective. Like many humbling places on the planet, the entire setting cannot be justly captured on film or photo; the three dimensional relationships are too difficult to represent in 2D. After visiting the ancient site in person, I’m still truly in awe. The following are images and thoughts from day two…(and then I’ll get off my Machu Picchu kick, I promise!)

Yes, we watched documentaries, read books, flipped through photographers’ collections, and fantasized about wandering the ancient terraces in person, but nothing truly prepared us to see Machu Picchu in the flesh (or in the stone and land, as it were).

After trekking for days and viewing other once-alive-and-now-as-shadow shelters and outposts along the way, I wondered: What makes this ancient site beat with energy all these centuries later?

As a landscape architect, I am called to consider relationships between natural systems, material elements, and humans who dwell in artfully crafted spaces.

While the layout and planning and masonry walls and terraces are masterfully executed, the deeply responsive situation within the natural setting elevates the ruins from impressive to profound.

Imagine: without Huayna Picchu looming in the background, would the world so quickly recognize the iconic image of the ancient city?

It is not simply the marvel of the stones, it is the glorious context of the design that makes Machu Picchu shine.

The harmony of mankind’s work formed in response to and enveloped by natural elements speaks a language of uncommon grandeur, especially in days where our civilization all too often disregards the land in favor of cheap and easy development.

(As a side note: developers and engineers proposed dynamiting through the land standing in the way of a shiny new cable car that promised to make the visitor experience more swift and lucrative. Thankfully, impassioned caretakers of the site shot the idea down.)

The city is not simply perched on a convenient mountainside, it is structurally conformed to the natural surroundings in a way that simultaneously functions as a sophisticated outpost of civilization while bringing honor to geological and celestial beauty.

The three peaks of Machu Picchu (“The Ancient Mountain” to the south), Huayna Picchu (“The Young Mountain” to the north), and Putucusi (“Belly of the World” to the east)  tower majestically above the terraced city, and the winding Urubamba River snakes its way between the deep mountain channels.

With astounding precision, the city’s high places are aligned according to the mountaintops and the rising sun: at solstice, the first ray of light peaks over the top of the saddle on Machu Picchu mountain and shines through the Sun Gate to the Temple of the Sun.

Such design is no accident.

And such beauty in the land cannot be, either.

Ted remarked about the simplicity of materials on the site: stone, grass, trees, earth, and water.

In all of our whiz-bang efforts to impress, how often do we clutter up the canvas with too many extras?

The profound and the mysterious are often in the very simple.

Photos from our march (slash, clamber) to the top of Huayna Picchu…

As a seeker of wisdom, I am called to consider relationships between God, the world, and humanity that dwells on the earth.

Where and how are we living?

To what (to Whom) do we respond when we build our lives?

Is the order and structure of my life a reflection and a response to something beyond my own bounds?

I am called to live an examined life.
I am called to participate in an examined civilization.

Fighting against the land.
Fighting against a Context so much larger than ourselves.
This route will leave us with unremarkable ruins. Testimonies to once-lived-and-now-as-memory lives of short term thinking and self-service.

On the other hand:
Situating our constructs in harmony with surroundings (be they literal, physical places or spiritual), in harmony with other life (family, neighbors, friends…endangered species, water cycles, and soil microbes), and in harmony with something bigger than ourselves (a Creator and His masterful art of Love as gifted to the world), will bring a deep and rich existence and will someday leave memorial stones speaking to a story even grander than our own.

May the constructs of our lives be beautiful, and may the stories live long after we depart…

This is the last in a series on our trekking adventure in Peru. For more photos and stories, see:


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  • Reply Heather W February 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Beautiful thoughts, friend. Did you know you are positively glowing in the pictures? You truly are in your element and living your dream

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      Heather!! You are so wonderful. Thank you! Normally, I don’t even like being in pictures, but getting to stand in such amazing places really helps change that. : ) Love you, friend xx

  • Reply Andrew Buck February 2, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    The stone steps jutting out the side of the foundations are phenomenal. (2nd to last picture)
    Sad to see this adventure end, it was fun riding in the digital side car. Can’t wait to see what you’re up to in your next adventure. : )

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:23 pm

      It reminded me of Sonic the Hedgehog and you, actually. Not joking. : )

  • Reply Charlotte Smith February 2, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you for bringing these beautiful descriptions and images to those of us who may never see these places in person. As usual, your words coming from a place of such wisdom make me think and question…

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks, Charlotte. Sometimes it’s really just thinking out loud…and it’s good to know friends are thinking along with us.

  • Reply Paul February 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Beautiful shots, and beautiful thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm

      Thanks for saying so! : ) To, thanks for sharing the recent pictures – can’t believe how much the kids are growing. Miss you guys.

  • Reply Cindy Buck February 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Stunning photography and thought provoking words . . . I am honored to be, as Drew put it, in your digital side car. Love Always, Aunt Cindy

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      Now, if we could just get Drew to start a blog… : )

  • Reply Joel February 2, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I read this: “at solstice, the first ray of light peaks over the top of the saddle on Machu Picchu mountain and shines through the Sun Gate to the Temple of the Sun.”

    And I see this:

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      and I LOVE it.

  • Reply Ursula February 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    I’ve loved seeing your photos! What a beautiful place. By the way, I can’t believe that Ted camped! In a place that has tarantulas, even. No more excuses…

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      I know, can you believe it?!?! AND…a few weeks later he camped in even more rugged circumstances in Patagonia. It’s downright amazing. I’m hoping for some good Pacific Northwest Camping in the future ; ) Can’t wait to hear updates on you and that sweet baby girl!

  • Reply Emily February 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Beautiful photos and thoughts. Everything looks so inspiring…can’t wait to see/hear more.

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      Can’t wait to share more! Such a backlog of amazing sights… We just settled into the Buenos Aires apartment yesterday, so hopefully I’ll be able to dedicate some time to uploading more pictures over the improved internet connection. Wait til you see pictures from the wilderness of Bolivia! Hugs xx

  • Reply Kim February 3, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Beautiful thoughts. I love that you are always looking for a deeper experience and understanding in all that you see and do. I hope to travel the same way. Love from Oregon!

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      Aw, thank you for the love from Oregon! Can’t wait to see the world through your eyes, too. : )

  • Reply Thomas Dembie February 15, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Great photos! Looks like you had excellent weather. On my recent visit we could hardly see Machu Picchu and hence the photos didn’t turn out at all. Highly recommended to add in some buffer time to the trip if you want to get the most out of this part of the trip. Good luck on the remainder of your journey!

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm

      Thomas, thank you for stopping by! We were so blessed with weather, it wasn’t even funny. Mid-January, the time when rainy season storms should be blowing in hour by hour, and we had blue skies and clear views almost all the time… Much to be thankful for. You’re so right about adding in buffer time. I’m glad we added the second day, and honestly, we could’ve stayed even longer in Aguas Calientes to recuperate and maybe enjoy some of the rumored hikes in the surrounding areas… Thanks for the well wishes!

  • Reply Lauren, Ephemerratic June 6, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Todd and I had some similar thoughts in our time in Peru, especially after Machu Picchu when we hiked around the runs at Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and Cusco. Some of those sites, architecturally, seemed more or at least as magnificent as Machu Picchu, but are much less famous and visited. It is as much due to the myth of Machu Picchu as the landscape. How Machu Picchu sunk in almost makes me believe in an earth god of the ancient variety.

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