A Skeptic’s Visit to Macchu Picchu

February 22, 2012

In 1997 I visited one of the great mystical “energy centers” of the world, the Peruvian ruins of Macchu Picchu in the highlands of the Andes mountains. The ruins sit atop a steep verdant mountain, surrounded by lower hills peeking out of cottony white clouds. The huge ruins, remnants of the Inca civilization, were re-discovered only recently (in 1911), having escaped the Spanish Conquest because of its remote location and rugged terrain.

The ruins are one of South America’s largest tourist draws. Minibuses crawl the zigzagging path up the mountain like a caravan of boxy ants, delivering their multicultural visitors to the top in about an hour. Among the tourists I arrived with were two or three groups of New Agers (they were often distinguishable by the crystals around their necks or in their hands). While I was there, these earnest pilgrims intently followed their tour guide as he described the ruins in a lexicon of New Age terms, steeped in ancient wisdom and earth energy mysticism. He spoke of ley lines and energy centers, of ancient rituals and shamans communing with gods and spirits. The pilgrims took photos and performed rituals and ceremonies, and waving their arms slowly, and harnessing ancient energies.They seemed suitably awed by their experience. Yet I had done some basic research on Macchu Picchu, and, as far as I could tell, the New Age angle was almost entirely made up.

I’d read about how the Incan Empire was the most sophisticated civilization in the Andes highlands, consisting of at least 12 million people. I’d heard about the amazing road system the Incas built, stretching about two-thirds the length of the continent and the ornate artifacts to be found in museums. Perhaps most exciting was the discovery in 1995 of an Incan “ice maiden” found at a nearby mountain, Picchu Picchu. The body, found by archaeologist and mountaineering legend Johan Reinhard, was remarkably well preserved and revealed a trove of information about the Inca.

But somehow my travel guides, archaeology and history books, and National Geographic clippings had missed the terribly important New Age aspects of the ruins and Incan culture such as cosmic cycles and archaeo-astronomy. I hadn’t heard about the “stunningly accurate” alignment with the Egyptian pyramids at Ghiza. I didn’t know that cosmic energies created a vortex above Macchu Picchu.

They flew in from Los Angeles or New York or Denver to attend the mystical tour. Few if any spoke the language or had the faintest appreciation for the cultures and peoples they supposedly came to see. The New Agers had come all this way, yet (judging from the questions they asked) knew very little about the ruins that lay before them or the empire they represented. They didn’t seem interested in the true history; they were there not to really learn anything new, but to impose their own mystical worldviews on a foreign culture. I understand that they were sincere searchers for enlightenment, but I was a little sad and disappointed that they had in a way missed the true significance of the amazing ruins and culture.

They got the touristy, New Age-lite version that bears little resemblance to reality. This sort of co-opting of indigenous people and culture seems crass and insulting. Dream catchers, once a sacred Hopi item, has been so exploited and commercialized that they can be found in the Wal-Mart automotive section next to Looney Tunes air fresheners.

I heard tourists talk of the Quechua people, a regional Indian group, and discuss among themselves their spiritual worldview. I was amazed at the patronizing tone the New Agers adopted, a sort of false reverence for the Noble Savage. From a fifteen-minute lecture and a fuzzy photocopied handout, the New Agers seemed to think they had a substantive understanding of Quechua culture and mysticism. I spent several weeks living with a Quechua family in their home in the Amazon jungle, without electricity or running water. I learned from them, harvested food with them, and taught them some English. I got to know the entire family and studied some of their medicinal plants. I learned a lot from my experience, but I would never presume to think that I had any sort of handle on their spiritual beliefs.

There may indeed be mystical energies around the ruins, but they have no inherent connection to the Inca, Macchu Picchu, or its history. In fact, as National Geographic writer Anthony Brandt writes, “It was more likely a winter palace for an Inca emperor, populated not by priests and shamans but by nubile maidens there to serve his pampered highness” (National Geographic Adventure, February 2003). There simply is no evidence of any special religious or mystical energies associated with Macchu Picchu. I can understand why people would wish to believe there were (and why tourism groups would exploit and encourage that belief), but I think it is anthropologically incorrect and disrespectful to freight an ancient wonder with fanciful and irrelevant significance. Macchu Picchu is absolutely an amazing and profound place where your spirit soars and the majesty is inescapable. Fabricating or exaggerating the significance of the ruins simply cheapens the experience.