10/29/2012 07:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Quest For Wonder: Machu Picchu

In order to experience the many wonders in South America today, we need to fly. And Lima, a short direct flight from major US gateways, is the concourse for much of the continent. From here it's a quick hop along the rugged southern spine of the Andes to Cusco, gateway to a lost empire.

These are the Andes, the world's longest mountain chain, crowned by the highest peaks in the New World.

The ancient capital of the Incas, Cusco, nests at more than 11,000 feet above the sea. It's here I pick up the trail of wonder, and one of its key signposts, beauty.

Once the site of two colliding cultures, Cusco today is a striking blend of Inca and European sensibilities. Like most travelers who hail from sea level, I like to take it easy the first day in Cusco so my body can acclimatize to the altitude. Hotels, like La Casona Inkaterra, run by my old friend Jose Koechlin, greet guests with tea made from coca leaves, and it eases the entry into the high Andes.

Despite the rugged terrain and thin air, people have been living in the high Andes for over 5,000 years. Building complex societies based on kings, gods, gold and things of great beauty. The greatest of these people, the Incas, ascended to power in the 1400s, in part because of their brilliant engineering skills. The ability to build roads--25,000 miles worth--along with the fact that their domain was almost as vast as the Roman Empire, earned them the name "Romans of the New World."

Wonder is an offensive against the repetition of what we know. And the highlands of Peru brim with mysteries, beautiful things we don't understand, such as the Festival of Qoyllur Rit'I which brings local peoples in their Sunday finery down from the high Andes to honor the Lord of the Star Snow.

And everyday life seems to go on almost oblivious to the beauty that infuses it at places like the Sunday market at Pisac. Vendors, buyers, tourists... foods, fabrics and faces -- all elements of a living canvas still thriving in the Andes.

The Inca possessed a cultivated sense of aesthetics, interweaving the vivid and the graceful in their daily lives. And these aspects of Incan beauty are alive and flourishing today.

That's not what the Conquistadors had in mind when they set out to loot the treasure of the Inca. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: where the Inca saw the tears of the sun in the gold they crafted, the Spanish saw only riches to be melted down for the cathedrals of Europe. Although the conquerors took nearly everything they coveted, beauty persisted. The Inca maintained their arts and crafts, traditions, music and ceremonies, and perhaps most significant, they managed to keep hidden a sacred citadel of thrilling beauty.

The whereabouts of the Sacred City of the Inca was lost to lore, despite efforts of latter-day treasure hunters, historians and archaeologists. But in 1911 an Ivy League trained American named Hiram Bingham showed up in Peru possessed with the idea of finding the lost city of the Incas. Some say he was the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

Jose and I set out as well, though in a fashion more comfortable than Bingham. We take the Inca Rail, which spirals into the valley like the shell of a nautilus.

It's like both being in, and watching a gallery of fine art -- moving through halls of stunning landscapes and portraits, past period pieces and natural sculptures, back, back through time.
On the July morning when Bingham crested this rise, to his amazement, he saw the ruins of an overgrown stone city perched on a narrow saddle. "The sight," he said, "held me spellbound. Literally, paralyzed as by enchantment, the spell of wonder."

Bingham called the place by its local name: Machu Picchu, which means "ancient summit."
Machu Picchu is a destination every traveler aspires to experience. Why? It may be because it is just so transcendentally beautiful. This is the wonder of beauty.

Standing here, the world spreads out before me-the deep valley of the Urubamba River and the distant ridge of the Andes that encircle Machu Picchu. It's as if we're flying, with a condor's view of this riddle of a ruin. Temples, terraces, shrines and sundials, all pieces of an exquisite puzzle.

Was this the royal retreat of the Inca, where the beautiful artifacts and icons, where the wealth and wonder of the ancients were once hidden?

Or a religious site? The complex is dominated by sacred temples and shrines...
Or perhaps there's an archaeo-astronomical explanation. Was Machu Picchu a giant observatory? Tracking the sun's passage across the sky?

The Temple of the Sun was crafted in the traditional method -- carved granite, no mortar --but with one striking difference: each block was angled back so that it would form a perfect crescent shape to surround the sacred stone within. Its two windows point to auspicious constellations, and align with the summer solstice, so the sun's first rays strike the interior stone.

Maybe we'll always have more questions than answers about Machu Picchu. But in the mystery there is a beauty that transcends the rabble of the senses.

When I ask Jose how this place affects those who come, he says, "People come here and they are awed by beauty, they are awed by what we're experiencing right now. We feel that there's something that moves us into just coming into yourself, some sort of introspection, those rare moments in modern life where you can actually get to be with yourself. How could you not be moved? There's something that people express when they go home, there's something that moves them."

Beauty is sometimes best when partially veiled, when it is an ambiguous, unfinished narrative. It fires us with wonder.

The Inca knew something we seek. When order combines with complexity, when elegance appears effortless, and there is a coherent but unspoken relationship among the parts, then there is enduring beauty.

Our imaginations are stirred by the beauty of the Andes, by its wildness, by the precision in the palace that brushes the stars. But there is a world of beauty in the little things, too, nature's own exquisite handiwork.

Some of nature's most superb creations are on a small scale, like the garden of native orchids at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu hotel and sanctuary. The Inkaterra is a leader in sustainable practices, including the preservation of the cloud forest. Through that good work 372 types of wild orchids spill open in its garden, one of the largest collections of orchids in the world.
Where does such diversity come from? The answer isn't readily evident here in the lush cloud forest, but rather in a cluster of inimitable islands that lay over a thousand miles to the west.