The highlight of most trips to Peru – our tours of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu had finally arrived. People come from all over the world to view these sites as they are the shining examples of the Incan empire. We spent a day traveling through the Sacred Valley taking in some of the amazing green vistas and by midday had arrived at an old Jesuit monastery that had been converted to a hotel. Our tour guide told us about his being haunted in a room at the hotel twenty years ago and we snuck into some of the rooms which undoubtedly held a mystic energy.
We spent the rest of the afternoon with a tour of Ollaytaytambo – a famous town and archaeological site. The ancient streets of the town still have a working canal system built by the Incans that carries fresh water throughout the city. The temple next to the town was built and inhabited by an Incan King and served as the major stronghold and resistance point of the Incans against the Spanish conquistadors. Impressive farming terraces and temples are built into the hillside directly adjacent to the town and it is quite a hike to get to the top. During our tour, we found out some of the advanced scientific practices of the Incans included successful brain surgeries and tooth implants. It is impressive to know that they were able to successfully perform operations that invasive in the 1500’s - undoubtedly more advanced than the medical practices of their Spanish conquerors at the time.
After our tour of the city we boarded a train from Ollaytaytambo to Aguas Calientes – the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes exists solely to service the people who want to visit Machu Picchu and the town is so remote that there really aren’t any cars. The only vehicles are the various trains shuttling people to and from town, delivery trucks and shuttle buses ferrying tourists to Machu Picchu. I was struck with how this town came out of nowhere – a collection of gift shops, hotels, bars and restaurants. An economy and sizable urban collective solely devoted to tourism. We checked into our hotel at around 11pm and after a brief meeting with our guide we concluded that catching the 5am bus up to Machu Pichu would be the best way to avoid the crowds... I wanted to cry because we had been running on not much sleep the last few nights and I wasn’t looking forward to another four-hour night sleep, but I knew it would be worth it.
The next morning, we woke up at four, grabbed breakfast, brought an extra banana and roll to our guide and we were on our way up the big hill to Machu Picchu. I honestly didn’t think we were going to make it there alive judging by the high speeds and narrow roads as well as a few close calls passing by buses careening down the mountain.
By way of background, Machu Picchu is a 15th century citadel constructed by the Incan emperor at the time to be utilized as a country estate. It was abandoned about 100 years later as a result of the Spanish conquista and remained unknown to the western world until it was rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingam in 1911. He cleared the property of the plants overgrowing it and began a restoration. It is now possible to view a large portion of the community as it was built over a half millennia ago. In 1983, it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is recognized as one of the seven new wonders of the world.
There is a certain feeling in the air at Machu Picchu – a kind of mystic energy that draws you up hundreds of stairs to the first lookout point. The morning we made it to the lookout point where 99% of the “postcard” photos for Machu Picchu are, it was an incredibly overcast day. The clouds intermingled between the peaks and over the village obstructing a good photo of the view. While not a feast for the lens of a camera, it was a feast for the eyes. In some ways, the mist-obscured views of the mountain and village below added to the mystic energy of the space and forced your mind back to the time of the Incans. Given our very early arrival, there were not many people around and we walked the grounds on a guided tour learning the function and meaning behind the varied structures inhabiting the site. However, since great photos were elusive due to the weather, we spent a few hours in the park café waiting for the clouds to clear enough for good pictures of the site.
Machu Picchu is undoubtedly one of the largest, if not the largest attraction to tourists in South America. As a result, the number of visitors regardless of the season is staggering. When we reentered the park to grab some photos as the fog had cleared, we were floored by the throngs of tourists exploring the site. The once quiet and mystic fog scene was transformed into a sea of humanity elbowing for their postcard photos. We made countless attempts to get a few unobstructed shots of the site and finally succeeded after what felt like a few hours.
While floored by the beauty and complexity of this ancient community, we were very happy to have explored numerous Incan sites in the weeks leading up to our visit because it gave us a lot of background that enhanced our experience as well as allowed us to see past the massive crowds. The irony of beautiful places in the world is that by virtue of their beauty, all the world comes to see them, which in some ways detracts from the beauty that brought the world to them in the first place. As people, our draw to beautiful places can serve to lessen those destinations in themselves. But what is beauty if not to share it with the world? It is a tough balance that needs to be struck and there is no way to do it in a manner that can please everyone, but it is an interesting problem – especially in a growing world. I feel incredibly blessed to have seen one of the new wonders of the world, and it is no mystery why it is considered as such. Its scale, advanced design, and dramatic mountain backdrop weaves a tapestry that can’t be duplicated. // Jeff