I went to Machu Picchu over the summer and it was spectacular. It did what travel does better than vacation, which is to enlarge your puny mind. I gained an appreciation for Peruvian culture and some guilt for having exploited it — a strange juxtaposition which I will attempt to explain.
I grew up dreaming of going to Machu Picchu.
My mom went there in 1968 when she was nineteen years old, and she reminisced about it so many times I came to know the story by heart — how her parents decided to take her at the last minute (and during finals week, no less!) How they traveled twenty hours from Lima to Cuzco on a bus full of chickens. How she and her 21-year-old brother hiked unmarked paths in the mountains and got lost in the maze of ruins.
That’s why when my in-laws invited us to go, it was a no brainer.
I didn’t do a lot of research or trip planning. Instead I mostly daydreamed about the picture my mother and my father in law (who also saw Machu Picchu in his twenties) had painted in my head.
For convenience, I ordered a fanny pack. For safety, Scott bought a water bottle called a LifeStraw. We packed our carry-ons with essentials — Nikes, travel-sized hand sanitizer, a Spanish 101 book, and were on our way.
Most of what follows is taken from notes I jotted on my iPhone.
When we land in Cuzco we are greeted by the travel guide my in-laws have arranged. As we exit the airport, a Peruvian man begins snapping photos, grapevining in and out of our group, paparazzi style. We giggle nervously, surprised this was part of the deal until the man walks away and we realize it wasn’t.
Paloma, our guide, takes us to see Inca ruins all over the Sacred Valley. As we drive, we spot them everywhere — massive terraces cut out of the sides of the Andes, so high I can’t fathom how they got up there; we can barely manage the climb in our rented 10-passenger van.
Paloma educates us on Incan architecture, pointing out pyramidal angles and the way each rock is cut into perfectly interlocking shapes — like Legos, she says — all to protect against earthquakes.
She tells us the Incas built lavish temples out of stone and covered the most sacred ones in gold leaf. They ruled their empire from the capital of Cuzco for hundreds of years until the 1500’s, when the Spanish Conquistadors invaded. It was guns against spears, men on horses versus men on foot. It wasn’t even a fight. The Spanish tore down every Incan structure and built Catholic churches in their stead.
The jerks tore down every single Incan structure — all except for one.
We visit a textile factory inside an adobe home in a cobblestone town called Chinchero. The air is thin at 12,343 feet and the surrounding mountains are solid brown.
There are five women in the factory, all wearing traditional garb, shockingly bright. They all have the same hairstyle — long black pigtail braids hanging over each shoulder. The older ones have faces like the apples I used to peel and let shrivel at Halloween.
We sit on thatched benches in a semi-circle as one of the women, we’ll call her Camila, walks forward and begins to show us how they make dyes. Red from a parasite that lives inside a cactus. Purple from purple corn. Green from coca leaves.
She grabs a root that looks like ginger and grates it over a bowl of water, creating a shampoo they use to wash alpaca wool, and also — she points to one of her braids — the women’s hair. She works the alpaca with an easy, habitual motion, pulling the gunk out of it, then shows us another bowl that contains already-cleaned wool — the finished product — like it’s a cooking show. The two women with apple-doll faces walk up on cue, spinning cleaned wool on what look like Peruvian yo-yos into yarn. She tells us how the women can do this all day, even when chatting or dancing!
She tells us baby Alpaca is the softest of the wools, and that you should only buy it in this factory because elsewhere, it’s probably not even real. “It’s not baby Alpaca,” Camila says, “it’s maybe Alpaca!”
Camila’s presentation ends and suddenly three more women emerge to sell us their textiles. After what I think is successful haggling, I buy a beautiful blanket for gobs of money. I won’t tell you how much, for I am ashamed.
In the coming days, each of us finds our spoils being sold by street vendors. I beg Scott to not find out how much our blanket is going for, but he can’t resist, and the answer is that we have been severely ripped off.
We laugh to keep ourselves from feeling stupid. After all, we are educated people! We have traveled! We are not used to being had. Their presentation felt so sincere and lovely, I don’t like thinking it was a sham. And I really don’t think it was a sham — I think it was a hustle. I want to feel good about supporting these women, but the blanket I now must smother into my already-packed carry-on feels like a token of American naivete.
After more hikes and markets and unbelievable ruins, the time finally comes to make our pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. It will be the most incredible thing I have ever experienced, but to earn it we first must go slowly through hell.
We take a train that descends into Aguas Calientes, a tiny town built for the sole purpose of housing earlybird tourists eager to make it up the mountain by sunrise. My father in law tells us the town didn’t exist when he came here forty years ago. I am sure it wasn’t here when Mother came either.
The Andes seem different in Aguas — less arid, more jungle. Less of a rambling mountain range, more individual peaks jutting out of the ground; a cluster of granite push-pops covered in green.
The air buzzes with anticipation. Everyone seems to be speaking a different language; zip-off pants abound. We stroll up the main, only road as locals peddle llama keychains, llama paintings, bags, scarves, and hats featuring llamas, and selfie sticks. They speak fifty words of English and two of them are selfie stick.
I have so much trouble with the selfie stick.
After dinner we head back to our hotel. We see a four year old boy dressed in the traditional garb of the mountain towns. It’s the cutest thing we’ve ever seen until he starts scrambling towards us shouting, “photo! photo! photo!” and we realize he is not dressed but in costume, sent by his parents to help make a buck.
We do take a photo of a traditionally-dressed family, and pay them a handful of Soles for it. It’s what they’re at the market for, will surely help feed or house them, but it still feels a little gross.
We go to bed at 10 PM, too wired to really sleep. The men get up at 3:30 AM to make the bus line by 4 AM. The women go to meet them at 4:30 AM and are dumfounded by how far we have to walk to find their spot. Together we stand in the pitch black for two hours until finally it’s our turn.
We board the bus at 6:30 AM and scale one of the push-pop mountains, zigzagging sharp switchbacks on a narrow dirt road. We exit the bus and see that we have not made it yet — there is yet another line to enter the park. At seeing it, my mother in law Norrie despairs, “It’s like Disneyland!”
While in line I notice that my ticket says I am a 59-year-old man. Norrie is supposedly 27. All of our tickets are somehow off, two are even scheduled for the wrong day. We fret for thirty minutes that we won’t be able to get in, but at the ticket house they let us through without a word.
As soon as we’re through the gates, Scott and I run up the uneven steps to the Guardhouse, anxious to get there before all the tourists. We call them tourists, as though we aren’t.
I snap a few people-free photos, and can now breathe enough to take in this view.
The sun breaks over the mountains in rays of light so defined it looks like a kid painted them.
I am so overcome, the only ways I can think to describe it are awful cliches like ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘on top of the world.’
I wonder how I got here. I mean, I know — there was the flight to Mexico, then to Lima, then to Cuzco, the bus ride to Ollantaytambo, the train to Aguas Calientes, the lines and the buses this morning. But still — how did I get here? How did this get here?
Norrie and I marvel at what can only be called the majesty of the Andes. We apologize to the Rockies where we both grew up, but a higher bar has been set.
A new tour guide, Mario, takes us through the ruins. He goes over all the theories about Machu Picchu, which we’ve heard by now — most historians think it was a sort of summer cottage for wealthy Incas. Other theories say it was an agricultural center. Apparently someone even wrote a book arguing it was an ancient Playboy Mansion.
Mario speaks almost reverently, tells us the reason Machu Picchu is in such pristine condition is because the Spanish never found it. It was discovered in 1911 when American explorer Hiram Bingham set out to discover a different set of ruins.
The native Peruvians didn’t know about the ruins Bingham sought, but they did know about a city up in the mountains, which a young boy led them to.
Aside from being part buried and part overgrown by the jungle, it looked basically identical when they found it to the way it does today.
Mario tells us he’s been giving tours for thirty years, but this year has the biggest crowds he’s ever seen. He tells us legally they are only supposed to let 2,500 people in but he’s seen up to 8,000.
(Later Scott and I will find it’s more like 5,000-6,000 a day, but STILL.)
We find my favorite tree.
We figure out the selfie stick, and promptly embarrass ourselves.
We have a “Machu Picnic” on my blanket — tangerines and pancita smuggled from our hotel breakfast, plus a can of Pringles my rumbling stomach demanded I overpay for. We get to the famed sundial or ‘hitching post,’ and my father in law tells us he has a photo of his mustached, 23-year-old self sitting atop it. It is now roped off.
We are there for seven magical hours before it’s time to head back. But after everyone’s gone down the steps, Scott has to come back for me because I can’t stop staring.
The journey back proves as arduous as the one there — in line for 1.5 hours. Bus down switchbacks. Hour wait amidst a crush of people to catch the 2-hour train back to Ollantaytambo, then 3-hour bus ride over roads so jostling they add 8,000 steps to Norrie’s fitbit. We are more tired, more happy, more spent than we have ever been.
It is on this bus ride that I begin to have all the feelings, which I have since sorted out to be something like this:
I think the beauty of Machu Picchu is its remoteness. I think what makes it so stunning is maybe not the ruin itself but its setting — it’s the wondering how you got to be standing on top of the world. It’s the having gone through hell to get there. Machu Picchu makes an explorer out of everyone who visits her, and yet there’s a part of the equation that’s off.
I think it’s the Disneyland part — the selfie sticks. It’s 8,000 people when even 2,500 is too many. It’s the capitalization of a place that otherwise felt sacred.
I think of the way my mother and my father in law talk about this place forty years ago. I get cynical or maybe ungrateful and start wishing I’d seen it the way they did — not one in a throng of tourists, but in solo discovery. I think it’s the way it was supposed to be seen. You don’t build a summer cottage on top of an unscalable mountain if everyone’s invited, do you?
I think about Machu Picchu herself, and wonder if she is annoyed — for so long she had peace! For so long she evaded discovery, and now we march all over her, 365 days a year, like so many conquistadors wearing Nikes.
I am torn — so enamored by my transcendent experience, I want to tell everyone in the world to book a ticket. Today! And yet a part of me feels that in Bingham’s discovery, something was lost.
What is fascinating about the Incas is the mystery surrounding them — how they built what they did, without any modern technology, without even using the wheel. I loved learning the many theories, hearing each guide’s speculation, because it gave me a sense of wonder.
I haven’t felt that sense of wonder in a long time. Why would I, when I can Google every question that has ever crossed the human mind? I think we’ve created a myth that everything is knowable, and in so doing have forgotten what it feels like to be in awe.
We’ve gotten used to fabulous pictures of faraway places, of living through others vicariously that when we feel awe ourselves, what we register is cliche.
But what I felt standing on Machu Picchu was good old fashioned awe. It filled me up, then it made me feel very small. It was a sacred feeling.
Once home, Scott and I will try to research tourism in Peru, attempting to grasp what it has done to the country, but the information is so scattered and varying it’s hard to find a through-line.
Yes, tourism has boosted the economy and lowered unemployment. Yes, there is bribery, corruption, and disorder (aha! the tickets!). Yes, our footprints are wearing the place down and they are taking precautions to preserve it. No, the numbers show no signs of slowing down.
Seeing Machu Picchu in real life was more stunning than any of my daydreams. I will remember it forever and recommend it to anyone who asks.
But part of me secretly hopes Bingham’s original theory was right — that the first city he sought is still hidden in the Andes, maintaining the mystery of the Incas, leaving something to make us wonder, to help us remember the feeling of awe.