Archaeologists Discover Astronomical Observatory At Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Allard Schmidt

Archaeologists excavating at the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru have discovered the remains of an astronomical observatory.

The Peruvian-Polish team cleared away an unexcavated building of the well-preserved Inca retreat, now the most popular destination in the country, and found that the stones of the structure have astronomical alignments.

The team used 3D laser scanning to map the building, dubbed “El Mirador”, so as to get precise locations and alignments. They found that the edges of many stones lined up with important celestial events on the horizon of the surrounding Yanantin mountain peaks.

The Inca were well-known as astronomers who took careful note of the movements of the heavens in order to plan their agricultural and religious calendars. This was common in many ancient civilizations and the field of archaeoastronomy, which studies who ancient societies examined with the sky, is a growing field of research.

The Polish researchers have been working at Machu Picchu since 2008 and have been focusing on the site’s archaeoastronomical significance. They presented their findings earlier this month at the International Conference of the Societe Europeenne pour l’ Astronomie dans la Culture in Athens.

Pyramid In Peru Destroyed By Developers

Dibojutri, WikiMedia Commons

For more than 4,000 years, a pyramid stood in El Paraiso, “The Paradise,” one of the largest settlements of its time in Peru. Last week, the pyramid stood almost 20 feet in height; today, it no longer exists.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the pyramid, just north of Lima, was completely demolished last weekend. The BBC states that three more pyramids would have been destroyed were it not for onlookers intervening. Criminal complaints have been filed by government officials against two real estate agencies believed to be responsible. Those responsible apparently feel as though they were within their rights as owners of the land.

This marks the second time in just as many months that an important pyramid has been destroyed by construction crews after a Mayan pyramid in Belize was destroyed in May.

Archaeologists Discover Portion Of The Inca Trail

Inca TrailA section of the Inca Trail has been discovered in Peru.

The new/old section is located in the archaeologically rich Cusco region and hasn’t been used for 500 years. The Peruvian archaeologists who discovered it say that most of it is well preserved, with about a third overgrown or washed away by landslides.

The trail measures 1.7 meters (5 feet 7 inches) wide and 4.3 kilometers (2.7 miles) long and links the main trail up with the archaeological site of Kantupata. This sanctuary was associated with Macchu Picchu only a few miles away and is currently being excavated and restored.

The Inca Trail is a popular destination for trekkers. It offers some challenging walking, as well as beautiful views and sites of historical interest. It culminates with the spectacular site of Macchu Picchu, the estate for one of the last Inca emperors.

This stretch of the trail will open to hikers in about two years after it has been properly studied and restored.

[Photo courtesy Ian Armstrong]

I was robbed in Quito and all I got was this poo stained t-shirt

It began like any other day in the life of a travel writer – gingerly exposing my limbs, one at a time, to the arctic water gurgling out of my hostel’s shower head. It was Tuesday morning, and I had just arrived in Quito. My research had left me in a state of premature love with this UNESCO heritage city almost 10,000 feet up in the Andes. While hyperventilating in the relentlessly cold stream, I decided that I would open my Quito story with an interesting historical anecdote.

The original inhabitants, the Incan tribe of Quitu, settled the city now known as Quito in roughly 2000 BC. This makes Quito one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. In the 16th century, the conquering Spanish forces decided to take the ancient city, but the Incans were not willing to give it up. The Incan warrior Rumiñahui threw the Quitu treasures into a volcano, killed the temple virgins, and burned the city to dust. The Incans could not bear to see their city wasted on the Spanish invaders.It was the ultimate middle finger to the colonial outsider. Razing your own town to deny the conquering forces its completeness is a twisted breed of poetic justice. But what really makes a city? As I took to the cobbled colonial streets and pastel Spanish structures of Quito, I thought about the irony of this all. The Spaniards rebuilt Quito to their own standards. It is not the treasures or buildings that make a place what it is, but rather the people. The people are still here, and later that Tuesday, they robbed me.

After spending the morning photographing Quito, I sat at an outdoor cafe on a huge open plaza, gorging myself on crispy cheese empanadas and locro soup with maize tortillas. An epic bare knuckle boxing match broke out just meters from my lonely table. These men beat the living hell out of each other. In one corner was a short fat man with messy childlike hair. He wore a tight orange shirt that held up his bulging belly like a rubbery girdle. He swung at a tall droopy man with a disheveled beard and crusty stains on his gray slacks. A group of security guards and cops watched the fight, laughing. They winced and turned, grabbing each others’ shoulders when the taller man appeared to knock out the combatant in the orange corner. But it was not to be. The proverbial David stood up tall and tackled the man in the stained pants. After beating his pudgy fists into his downed opponents head, the guards finally intervened and broke up the fight. Both men went back to sitting on their benches, idling in the Ecuadorian sun.

I thought to myself – Ecuador is going to be awesome.

I finished my late lunch and returned to my Lonely Planet “Old Town Walking Tour.” As I turned up Venezuela street, the heavenly Basilica del Voto Nacional came into view. Unlike its similar Spanish counterparts, the towering Gothic marvel is adorned with iguanas, armadillos, and tortoises in the place of gargoyles and saints. I stood there, thinking about how awesome it will be to get some sweeping HDR panoramas from the soaring tower of the old church. It was around this moment that someone from the roof of a charming colonial building dumped a bucket of shit on my head.

It startled me immensely. I ducked into a doorway and assessed the damage. My Nikon d700 was covered in what appeared to be diarrhea. My hair was damp with the same disgusting brown liquid. My backpack was mostly spared with just a light sprinkling here and there. If you have never had a bucket of fecal matter dumped on you from above, then congratulations, your life is less demeaning than mine.

It is a functional part of the robbery. Appeal to the senses, get the mark to focus on something close, make them nearsighted, shock them away from their natural balance, and then take what they have. Governments utilize this approach to push through agendas during times of crisis when the populace sees in only the short term. Crooks behave similarly. Like focusing a camera on something near, the background fades to a blurry bokeh, and you can only see the crap on the hand you just ran through your hair. This is when the muggers come for you.

About 10 seconds into my shitty assessment, two Ecuadorian men rushed me. One went for my backpack and the other went for my camera. Preparation and travel IQ go out the window if someone wants what you have bad enough. They roughed me around a bit as I shouted something pathetic along the lines of “Nooooo…not my camera.” Luckily, I held on to my backpack tight. They only made off with my prized camera rig. Each man took off in separate directions.

It happened so fast that I could not even tell which one stole my camera. A gaggle of Ecuadorians were shouting and pointing in one direction, so I took off at a full sprint. I caught up to one of my assailants and noticed that he did not have my camera. My mind reeled through the possibilities of what I could accomplish by tackling or tripping this man. I slowed down.

The police presence in Quito is excessively robust. It is one of those places where there are so many cops that it makes you feel more nervous than reassured. Within minutes, several members of the police force had arrived at the scene of the crime, flashing toothy smiles and nodding in confusion at my English explanations. I ineptly described the circumstances of the robbery. They spoke no English. It was like tossing a dinner roll at a wall and expecting it to stick. After questioning several witnesses and inspecting my hair and backpack, they sent me off to the Quito police station.

As I sat in the police station, reeking of shit and explaining the robbery with mutant Spanish inelegance, I could feel myself settle at a new personal traveling nadir. At this moment, as I watched several other westerners solemnly file into the station with their own tales of stolen belongings, I decided that I did not deserve Quito, and Quito did not deserve me. I phoned Grant, the super-editor of Gadling, and he put me on the next flight home.

Risk and reward is an inherent component to nearly every arrangement of our lives, and walking around any large Latin American city with thousands of dollars in camera equipment is a risky proposition. I understand this completely. This is why I carry insurance. Traveling can be risky, but one thing to remember is they cannot take from you what you do not have. There is a lot to be said about traveling simply and traveling in groups. If I had been a part of a large group or did not have a nice camera, then I would have been left alone. It is easy to minimize the risk of traveling without sacrificing the reward of visiting new lands.

Latin America is as dangerous as you make it. While the large cities possess a certain breed of desperation that has always worried me, the countryside is a beautiful place filled with kind strangers, dramatic jungles, and breezy beaches. If there is one thing to be gleaned from my story it is this – travel safely and watch for falling shit. The last time I came to Latin America I met my future wife, so it is not all bad.

Also, buy insurance. World Nomads is great for general travel insurance with $500 of electronics coverage included with a medical policy. If you carry expensive equipment, then take out a valuable personal property policy. I carry my policy with USAA, and I was fully reimbursed for my stolen gear within three days.

All photography by Justin Delaney

The ten toughest castles in the world

Castles make a pretty backdrop to any vacation. They conjure up images of brave knights and damsels in distress, but the reality was less romantic. Castles were fortifications built to defend important cities, ports, fords, or mountain passes. The best military minds in the world devised ways to destroy them, when they weren’t figuring out better ways to build them. Here are ten castles that proved almost too tough to take. Some took centuries before they fell, or cost the lives of hundreds of attackers. A few never fell at all.

Crac de Chevaliers
One of the best preserved Crusader castles in the Middle East, it protected the pass from the lowlands of Lebanon through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and into the rich Orontes river valley of Syria. It’s on the Syrian side of the border but its turrets afford fine views of Lebanon. Originally an Arab castle that was taken by the French during the First Crusade in 1099, it became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, a knightly order that protected pilgrims in the Holy Land. They protected themselves too, by strengthening the castle and putting up walls that were up to 100 feet thick. It withstood more than one siege and even the great Saladin couldn’t take it. It eventually fell back into Muslim hands in 1271 but remained the model for castle builders in Europe.

Masada
Facing the world’s biggest empire with only a ragtag group of dedicated fighters? Go to the middle of the desert, find a sheer mesa, and hold up in it. That’s what the Sicarii, Jewish resistance fighters, did when they rebelled against the Roman Empire in the first century AD. The location was perfect. The mesa had already been fortified by King Herod as a refuge in case of rebellion, but the Sicarii rebels got it instead. Sheer cliffs rise 300 feet (90 meters) above the desert at their lowest point, and in spots tower up to 1,300 feet (400 meters). The only way up are three winding paths that are exposed to arrows and rocks coming from above. The Romans, in their typical efficiency, built a rampart up the entire way so they could roll up battering rams to breach the walls. The Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than surrender. The Roman camps and walls used to cut Masada off from the rest of the world are still plainly visible.

Numancia
The Celts in Spain faced the same problem the Sicarii did. How to defeat the Roman Empire? Numancia was one tribe’s answer. This hillfort at the headwaters of the Duero River held out for twenty years until the inevitable end came. The defenders had run out of food and had been reduced to cannibalism. Like the Sicarii, the Celts chose death before dishonor and most of them committed mass suicide in 133 BC. Spain became a Roman province. Today you can see reconstructions of the fort and Roman siege techniques at the site’s musuem.

Osaka
The samurai were brave warriors ready to face death, but even they must have thought twice about attacking this castle. Completed in 1598, it was the base of operations for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who made peace between Japan’s many warring factions by beating them into submission. It took 200,000 soldiers more than a year to take this place in 1615, and when you look at this photo of the bare face of the ramparts you can see why. The castle combines form and function and is beautiful as well as impregnable.

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Walls of Constantinople
OK, this isn’t technically a castle, but the massive walls of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) protected the capital of Byzantium for more than a thousand years. Byzantium was the eastern half of the Roman Empire and survived long after Rome fell. The Bulgars, Slavs, and Turks all failed to take the massive double land walls and moat. It took the invention of cannon to finally destroy them. The Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 AD had a giant cannon that could shoot a 1,200 lb. stone ball a mile, backed up by an army that may have numbered as many as 200,000 men. The city still held out two months before falling and becoming the new Ottoman capital.

Sacsayhuaman

The Incas were master builders. Unlike most cultures, they didn’t build with regular blocks, but instead used irregularly shaped stones that fit together so precisely that not even a knife can be pushed through the cracks. Believe me, I tried. In the highlands around Cuzco, Peru, they built a series of temples and the giant fortress of Sacsayhuaman to protect them. The fortress has triple walls almost 20 feet (six meters) tall constructed in a jagged outline so the defenders could throw stones and spears at the attacking force from three sides instead of just one. It was finished sometime in the early 1500s, just in time for the Spanish to invade. The conquistadors were only able to take it after a fierce fight and the loss of Francisco Pizarro’s younger brother Juan.

Malta

Located smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean at one of its narrowest points, whoever controlled Malta controlled trade. This, of course, led to lots of wars. Malta changed hands countless times, but one of its biggest battles came in 1565 when the Ottomans tried to take the island from the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights were ready with not just one castle but three. The Ottomans had an estimated 20,000-50,000 troops. Barely 500 knights and 5,600 helpers stood in their path, but they had the castles. The Ottomans landed and started a heavy bombardment with a large number of artillery on the first fort on their list, Fort St. Elmo. The castle was reduced to rubble but its 600 defenders went down fighting. The Turks lost more than 4,000. The attack then focused on Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the Turks ground up their army against the walls. After losing at least a third of their force, they called it a day and retreated. Cannonballs from the bombardment can still be seen in the fields.

Burg Eltz
This castle has the distinction of still being the home of the same family that owned it in the 12th century. Built upon a 70 meter (220 ft.) high crag next to an important trade route, it was perfectly positioned to assert power. A river flows around three sides of the crag, making it almost impossible to take. The castle is an architectural jewel and much of the fifteenth-century interior is preserved. Burg Eltz has one of the best settings of all the castles in this list. The primeval Eltz forest encloses the castle on all sides, and several historic villages are nearby. Because of its commanding position and the political skill of its owners, it was only attacked once. In 1331, Archbishop Baldwin of Luxembourg tried to extend his territory by attacking the castle with catapults and an early cannon. After more than two years of bombardment, the archbishop admitted defeat and went back to Luxembourg.

Carcassonne

The high walls that ring this strategic town did what many French castles could not–resist the English throughout the Hundred Years War. The Romans had a fort on this hilltop in 100 BC and some of the original stones can still be seen in the walls. Later it was a stronghold of the Cathars, a Christian sect that was destroyed in a crusade led
by the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort, who killed anyone who he found in Cathar-controlled territory, whether they were Cathars or not. He’s the origin of the saying, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.” In 1209 he took Carcassonne, but the city stood firm against later sieges, including a long and determined one by the English. Nowadays it’s a perfect view of Gothic spires and imposing medieval walls.

Bamburgh
This Northumbrian stronghold is like many of the castles on this list in that the present structure covers up centuries of history. Bamburgh was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and there was a castle here from the 6th century AD. It survived a number of sieges and that’s hardly surprising when you see it standing proud on a little peninsula jutting out into the North Sea. A massive gatehouse and walls protect the landward side. In 1095, the owner Robert de Mowbray was captured by the attacking Normans but his wife took over the defense and continued to push back their assaults. She finally gave in when the Normans threatened to blind Robert. The castle fell again in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses when it became the first English castle to surrender because of an artillery bombardment. Modern technology succeeded where generations of swordsmen failed.