“Well, sometimes things don’t materialize as we would wish,” our guide told us. We had woken at four in the morning in Aguas Calientes to hike up to see the Machu Picchu sunrise, waited at the gate in the dark of night, and raced up the near-vertical base of Machu Picchu (my poor friend Gar wearing our collective backpack which our guide mistakenly informed us we could store at the bottom of the trail) still in complete darkness. Five days of hiking the Salkantay Trek later, we were finally at the destination to watch the sun rise above Machu Picchu. And like any other day the sun rose and the day got brighter, until it illuminated complete fog and clouds preventing us from seeing a single thing. Our guide offered us consolation and began showing us around the site where we could see stone artifacts only when we were very close up. None of us really cared – Machu Picchu is noted at least as much for its placement as for its traces of ancient Incan civilization. Building a stone city isn’t especially fascinating – constructing it in the middle of the Andes is what makes it remarkable.
Finally though, the sky began to clear on either side of Machu Picchu. We could see jagged vertical peaks covered in lush forests and stone cliffs in front of snowcapped giants of the Andes. Below we could see rays of sun reaching towards the valley floor, illuminating the Urubamba River and the trail along centuries old terraces to Machu Picchu. Somewhere between these peaks and over their passes we had walked a similar path in a similar form to the Incans (minus trek poles, specialized boots, ultralight backpacks, synthetic trek clothing, Clif bars, obsequious guides, etc. etc.) over five hundred years prior. I envied the desolate view that these bygone farmers saw from their impressively built terraces on the Machu Picchu hillside. So unlikely of a location is Machu Picchu that the Spanish, in their attempted plundering of all Incan civilization, did not find Machu Picchu; nor did any foreigner until 1911, over 450 years after it was built, when indigenous farmers finally revealed its location to an American historian.
When we turned away from the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu, the clouds were finally parting over the ancient Incan city. Often times tourist spots are washed out and overrated, but that does not apply in this case, for Machu Picchu deserves every bit of praise and attention that it receives. On a low and flat ridge beneath two higher razor edge peaks, the stone city served as an estate for some of the last Incan emperors. Besides the cruelty the emperors imposed by requiring porters to bring food, stones, and other supplies so that they could have a getaway house and the Incan equivalent to a level croquet field, there was nothing questionable about choosing Machu Picchu’s location. Straddling the low mountains of the Andes, its majestic views are as postcard and emperor-getaway worthy as any place I have been.
With our newfound visibility we walked around the archeological site far more interested and fulfilled. Our guide talked about the lay of the land, Incan mythology, and how the Spanish would fuse Christian stories with those of the Incans in order to convert locals. We passed alpacas, other tour groups, and Peruvian teenage girls who would strike the same pose for minutes on end until they found one appropriate enough for a profile picture. After getting shown around for a couple hours, our guide drew our five day organized trek to a close and left us to explore on our own. We smoked rolled cigarettes on the hills overlooking Machu Picchu, tried to find alpacas to pet, and imitated the obnoxious Peruvian teenagers by taking some sexy photos ourselves. We were proud to have finally reached our destination and amazed to see the beauty that, as cliché as it sounds, cannot be put into words or summed up with photographs.
We left Machu Picchu early in the afternoon to begin our several mile hike to where the bus to Cusco was leaving. Exhausted, we decided to take another bus from the peak of Machu Picchu to its base rather than hike down the steep and demanding face. While waiting for the bus, a man quietly approached me offering to sell me a Machu Picchu pin. Decent enough of a souvenir, I bought one before the man asked me my name and left. Around fifteen seconds later, a barrage of Peruvian salesmen approached me screaming my name “Alex! Alex! Water bottle, shirt, hat, anything?” My friends and I laughed hard as I deflected each sale and swore to myself that I would never give my name away again to a crew of opportunistic salesmen. We boarded the bus while the salesmen began smiling too, and left the beautiful site.