University of Bristol Trans-Continental Expedition 1960 — 61

Malcolm McKernan wrote 20 feature reports for the Western Daily Press in Bristol

Report 17

  Machu Picchu and Lima, Peru,  August 1961

published 14 August 1961
Editorial note : This account was published following our visit in June 1961 then almost fifty years after the American, Hiram Bingham was led to the site by local people. Malcolm's spelling has been retained and some of the heights may be incorrect. But this is an original account before the ruins became a great tourist destination. In 2013 visitor numbers were limited to 2500 per day.

On leaving Bolivia our first stop was in Cuzco, the old capital of the Inca Empire. In Cuzco the remains of Incan and pre-Incan architecture still stand, the only destruction has been caued by man, not by time. During the 1950 earthquake many Spanish colonial buildings were demolished, but not the old wall on to which the Christian churches and palaces were often built. The church of San Domingo for example is virtually in ruins but the superb, curved outer wall of 'Inticancha' (the Sun's yard) on to which it was built still stands.
This is dry walling, the stones fitting snugly together, they are not always regular, angles are cut where necessary - one celebrated stone has twelve angles - and yet even now it is impossible to insert a knife blade into the cracks


The nearby fortress of Sacsayhuaman is a superb example of the even older monumental style. It is built on a mound with three concentric circular walls of white granite and promenades in between.The outer wall is of zig-zag design and is a good 20 ft high; some blocks have been estimated to weigh 361 tons. Legends say that during the construction a block weighing 1000 tons ran amok and killed 300 indians.

Next day we took the train to Machu Picchu, the 'Lost City' of the Incas. There was no road, the valley down which we dropped was too narrow and too steep. The loss of altitude was considerable, the atmosphere grew hotter and more humid and the vegetation more tropical - palms - bamboos and giant ferns, wild orchids, red and white roses, and masses of yellow broom.The river was wide and fast flowing, many of the rocks worn smooth by the force of the water, and the valley narrow with enormous craggy cliffs. These were snow covered, a strange sight so close to tropical vegetation.

Machu Picchu was the ultimate justification of this type of scenery, it was lost until 1911, and it is something of a wonder that it was found at all. It is perched on a densely wooded hill, 1000 feet up (the road has 14 hairpin bends), and is within an almost circular sweep of the river. From below little can be seen except some of the agricultural terraces but above are the remains of a small city, rows of houses and workshops, temples, palaces and watchtowers. It was a place for a mountain race - there are 109 different flights containing over 3000 steps.

Two of us took a tent along and camped overnight among the terraces overlooking the city. This was no place to stroll around in the dark, sheer drops of 1000 feet presenting themselves at most corners.


But the morning's view was worth it. We awoke at five and set up our cameras. The city was a hundred feet or so below and on its far side rose the sheer pinnacle of Huaynapicchu 1000 feet , higher with its lookout place. People have lived in this eyrie of a city food that made the city self-sufficient was planted on the walled terraces (from six to 15ft wide, cut out of near vertical slopes), water flowed through the 17 channels in the Fountain District and in the Temple (thought Hiram Bingham the discoverer tame snakes performed oracle according to which exit they chose from a chamber.
But this is the 20th century and today is Sunday. Many large groups of sightseers are scrambling over the ruins or sitting in shady corners eating sandwiches, drinking beer and playing guitars, many other people are staying in the fine tourist hotel just out of sight.


But the essential character cannot be changed, Machu Picchu and all it has meant is not to be destroyed by mere tourism. To get a good look at it we climbed Huaynapicchu. No mountaineering was necessary since paths and steps have been cut; but these are often very steep and moss-covered and are rarely more than 15 inches wide. Through the bushes, growing on the verge less than a foot wide we could see the river way below; by the time we reached the top the sheer drop must have been 2000 feet. The altitude ranged from nearly 9000 to 10000 ft, so the climb was somewhat onerous(particularly when carrying several cameras each), our muscles needed frequent rests. We were all the more surprised there fore to be overtaken at a gallop by 15 men talking volubly in Spanish as they went (we had hardly enough breath to keep our lungs working!).

Every chance

Honour was satisfied however. When we struggled to the top we discovered they were mountaineers from Spain who the following day, were off to climb a hitherto unconquered mountain on the Peru-Bolivian border. After witnessing their performance that day and foolhardily shaking hands with them I feel they have every chance of success.


Machu Picchu to Lima... where we met two more intrepid fellows, an Englishman and a Canadian, Robbie and Ray who had teamed up in Panama and walked through the Darien Gap. This 250 miles of jungle and swamp has successfully defied all attempts to cross it by car - one did get through but the expedition cost £17,000 and the car was carried most of the way by 250 native porters.

Robbie and Ray took 10 days, canoeing downriver where possible then striking back into the jungle for the right trail. They had lived almost entirely on porridge and had found the going tough - hands and knees up even a small incline; when we saw them they looked fit enough, but did not seem overkeen to relive the experience.

We saw a little more of Lima this time than during our trip up to Bolivia. It is a booming city set in a country of great poverty and potential unrest. There are many contrasts; Lima is virtually an oasis only eight miles from the coast and surrounded on all other sides by the Atacama desert.
Inside the city the contrasts are more marked; wide boulevards with beautiful homes, modern clubs with the most luxurious appointments, and next to all this some of the worst slum areas in South America.
On the outskirts of Lima are the 'barriadas' where live the Indians who have come in from the hills hoping for work - and often finding none. But certainly finding no accommodation. They live in home-made huts, the walls are sometimes of the poorest brick but more frequently of plaited palm leaves or canvas, the roofs are all of canvas and cardboard.


In the largest, 50,000 people are calculated to live, it is called 'El Monton' since it is built onto a gigantic exposed refuse dump of that name.The disgusting odour of this heap permeates the whole area, dogs, pigs, donkeys and fowl scratch in it, and many jobless people root through seeking saleable or edible refuse. "El Monton" is now being cleared; the people say it is a conspiracy to deprive them of their only source of income.

Among the worst slums we found a devoted group who were members of "Emaeus" the society to help less fortunate people, and inspired by the work and example of Abbe Pierre in France. The accent is on understanding the problems; really to understand one must live with the people, live their problems and their hardships. The leaders are a married Canadian couple but many of the workers are from s Swedish society called "The Swallows"

Ran homes

Most were young girls; one Marianne, was engaged to an Italian boy and had worked as a teacher and a mental health nurse, she was to stay in Lima for at least a year in charge of a house filled with 61 children whose parents either could not, or would not, support them.
They run actual homes for children - like this one- and also crèches. They have a system of 'godparents', the cost of maintaining a child has been itemised and people are asked to contribute to the upkeep. But money is short and the work is hard.

Editorial note: The Spanish climbers were from the Expedición Espanola a los Andes 1961 - from Barcelona


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