Hops and Skips

Trekking Peru, Part 3: Majestic Machu Picchu

When I began writing about this Peruvian adventure last month [blogging delay due to newborn!], I had just finished Mark Adams’ travelogue on his own experience with the ancient Incan city. Living currently in a world without much travel, I’ve depended on the written word to quell my roaming desires; I’ve devoured travel memoirs during these quarantined months. One goal of this blog has always been to share stories – both my own and those of others – as information or inspiration to like-minded, curious souls; this series of posts launched a project I’d like to continue that connects personal narratives – like paired texts – to more thoroughly share a sense of place. Think of it as recommended reading, or the “because you liked…” option that so often guides our choices.

My visit to Machu Picchu itself was in no way exceptional. Over a million people visit the site each year; it’s certainly not “off the beaten path,” and, chances are, most visitors will make the trip with a good idea of what to expect from it. But the exceptional thing about travel, to me, is that though a destination itself is (mostly) unchanging and, on the surface, the same to all visitors, each individual will have a unique interaction with a place. Our histories, connections, and prior knowledge all shape the experience as we set foot somewhere new. Consider all the stories and all the voices of a place, and no destination can ever be found lacking.

When Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the Incan city in the clouds in 1911, it was at the serendipitous suggestion of a local farmer who offered to take him there from a nearby plantation for a day’s payment of 50 cents. Bingham was six days out from Cusco, having ventured through the towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, following an ancient footpath running along the Urubamba River. The day’s journey to this unknown site required crossing roaring rapids on a shaky bridge strung together by vines and a precipitous climb through the jungle to, finally, a tropical forest that hid those soon-to-be-famous ancient walls and ruins beneath its leaves.

Today, the journey to Machu Picchu (unless you’re hiking in via the Inca Trail), is much less rugged. You’ll journey through Aguas Calientes (aka, Machu Picchu Town), the closest town to the site itself, accessibly by train from Ollantaytambo or Cusco. From Aguas Calientes, there’s then a 30-minute bus that climbs up to the ruins. The first bus each day leaves at 5:30am, and it seems there is always a line, no matter what time you arrive in the morning. We didn’t make the very first bus but arrived shortly after the gates of Machu Picchu opened at 6, still before the sun had risen enough to crest the surrounding mountains.

The entrance to Machu Picchu is at its peak; immediately, you’ll encounter the full overlook of the site – the same view you’ve seen in many books, postcards, and Instagram photos – before heading down into the ruins below. Arrive early enough to see the sun rise through the sun gate and create dramatic shadows on the surrounding hills and valleys. If you’re lucky, the day will be clear enough for visibility on a breathtaking scale. At nearly 8,000 feet, Machu Picchu is actually lower than nearby Cusco, but its precarious location among the region’s towering peaks and valleys makes it feel unquestionably empyrean.

If ever a place was worthy of its designation as “Wonder of the World,” this is it.

Everything about Machu Picchu is magnificent, from its location to its design and construction. But more than its perfectly precise stonework, it is the mystery of Machu Picchu that has captured our attention and imagination. Why did the Incans build here? How did they do it? Why did they leave after only 90 years?

I have to be honest – as I stood on this day, staring at this inexplicable wonder, I wasn’t completely blown away. Maybe it’s because I physically felt like garbage from days of hiking at high altitudes. Or maybe it’s because the whole trip had already been so astounding that magnificence had become normalized; I was numb to new splendors. Those were both, most likely, contributing reasons, but I also fear another factor was at play: Machu Picchu is already such a familiar place that my own present visit didn’t have much to add. As Victor led us on a two-hour guided tour, I mostly wanted nothing more than to just sit down.

With Machu Picchu, there are endless facts to digest from books, and they’ll most likely be fascinating no matter whether you hear them before or after your own visit to the site. And though the facts build a connection and understanding with a place, they’re often relegated to the written pages of a journal if not forgotten entirely.

I wish, as I visited Machu Picchu for the first and most likely only time, I would’ve done so with a different perspective – as a participant in history instead of a mere observant tourist, reflecting on the big picture instead of dwelling on the details.

Look through the eyes of the city’s builders and consider why they made the choices they did. Envision the space bustling as an Incan city. Imagine what Bingham saw on that first encounter, when the overgrown foliage hid stone walls, and the spot was so inconsequential to locals that it was used for farming. And contemplate perhaps the most astounding fact of all: simply, how a society could exist in this place, as a whole world isolated, alone up in the clouds. 

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