Machu Picchu: Just as amazing as the Nat Geo photos

We woke up at 4 a.m. to make it to Machu Picchu, the sacred Quechua (Inca) city on the winter solstice, before the sun rose.

We hiked up above the city and looked down on the temples as the sun crept steadily up over the mountains.

As it crested, the first rays hit the sundial the Quechua (Incas) built, just 40 feet from us. Within an instant, the light would hit the sundial far below, and enter a window at a specific point for the winter solstice.

It was almost surreal to stand there before this massive city of ruins spread before me, a place I have read about and looked at photos and wondered about my entire life.

People were streaming in for their chance to explore this 1200 AD site, and there was me, a tiny black dot of parka and jeans in an infinity of time, history and knowledge forgotten.

I think if the sun was not moving and the light changing every few moments, I might have cried. I stood there, above, and watched the light from the dawn move its way across the main plaza, the king's residence, the sacred rock. Each moment it looked like a new place, the tall cliffs of the Andes, covered in trees and green—like a Bornean rainforest—dwarfing us on all sides.

In 1200 AD, the Quechua built this city as a strategic place to honor the gods and the elements, and to strategically keep themselves protected while trying to expand to the Amazon.

The temples here and the way that they built the city show their relatonship to nature. It was not living with nature; nature was their life. They adapted to it.

Three temples—Mother, Water and Sun—are intrically built as a conjoined structure.

The Condor temple is ingeniously designed so the wings and head make a body as well, from a completely different and flat rock. It looks as though the sacred bird is soaring off the mountain, and out to beyond.

How did their astronomers know where this solstice light would be? How did they build the observatories and sundials so precisely with only rudimentary rock tools? Their best instruments were their minds.

When you walk below and sit at the sacred rock, then look back up at the dwellings and terraces for agriculture, and notice the gap they put in between to supposedly account for the fault line and movement of earthquakes, you can see how they built this sacred empire within nature.

It complements it. I used to think people are just jerks and that is why when we build suburbs and cities we mow the nature over. I'm sure that if we built Machu Picchu on this same site, with the same breathtaking views and unspoiled nature, we would bend nature to us. Manipulate it.

Why? On that rock, I thought, well, I think it's more about breeding. The environment. All those years ago, we had to find a way to work with nature. To be a part of it, that's how one survived.

Today, we don't need to adapt, and so we just don't think that way and have altered our collective view of nature is and what its purpose is. Mainly, we act as though it's there for us... a shame.

As our guide said, many people tried to find Machu Picchu, but could not, and that's why it remained intact all that time. If the Spanish conquistadors had found it, we'd all be staring at a big church, and not the Inca ruins.

What's amazing, too, is that they are not ruins. They built things to last forever. The water system? It works. Water was running from the Sun Gate (an hour's walk down into the temple) and out and down toward the dwellings... thousands of years later.

After exploring a lot, I walked up from the Condor and sat in a shady spot on the stone steps and meant to write, but instead watched the clouds on the mountains ahead of me, taking it in.

My pen would still be there for me, later.