It was dark outside but the hostel was already stirring. As we treaded lightly down a blackened stairwell, we saw lights on under doors and heard the sound of water running. Once on the ground floor we found the proprietor of the hostel making us breakfast. We’d asked for an extra early start: 4:15 am, and she had everything ready except for the eggs, so we skipped the eggs.
The streets of Aguas Calientes were still and empty. The mountains that wall in the steep valley were as black as the sky, an invisible presence. It was surprisingly warm. We’d been on the Altiplano for weeks breathing thin cold air and wrapped in llama products for warmth. Here at the foot of Machu Picchu Mountain though, we were back on the threshold of the Amazon. At some point on the train from Ollyantaytambo, the hills had changed from an arid beige to a verdant, jungle choked green. The familiar humidity and welcome lungfulls of oxygen rich air were luring us back to the lowlands and to the rich abundance of life in the rainforest.
Our footsteps echoed against post-modern multistoried buildings with tinted glass facades and names like “Incan Gold” or “Pachamama’s”. None of the dozens of hotels standing shoulder to shoulder had rated themselves less than three stars. And why should they have? None was any better than the other. Aguas Calientes may once have been a nice town, but now it’s a tourist factory, processing foreigners like slabs of juicy pink ham. The surrounding environment is stunning but, almost literally, no one cares. We’d all come to Aguas Calientes for one single purpose.
The buses that wind up the switchbacks to Macchu Pichu start leaving promptly at 5:30 am. A line had already formed for the first bus when we walked up at 4:35. As the departure time neared, there was a tussle as several people who had not woken up early tried to bluff their way to the front. Tension was high. Tourists like us were trying to get ahead of Machu Picchu’s biggest problem: other tourists.
Machu Picchu is constructed on the webbing between two mountainous fingers of rock. Unlike the altiplano, this part of the Urubamba River Valley is tropical and wet. The Incan engineers brilliantly constructed their terraced city with drainage systems that would thwart the heavy rains for centuries, by they couldn’t have predicted the invasion of hundreds of thousands of tourists. UNESCO lists Machu Picchu as threatened, but while some of the world’s treasure are in danger of languishing without the appreciation they deserve, Peru’s most famous ruins are in danger of being trampled to death.Because of the hoards, all anyone wants to do is be the first to arrive, otherwise, unlike the hundreds of other available Incan remains in the old empire, it will be impossible to feel like you’ve just stumbled across your own lost city. This fantasy has been actually achieved by approximately one Westerner.
In 1911, While Colonel Faucet was slashing his way through the Amazon looking for the Lost City of Z, Hiram Bingham was being led by Pablito Alvarez, an 11 year old Quechua boy, up Machu Picchu Mountain. What he was shown, covered by vines and partially inhabited by locals, was a revelation. In order to snuff out the last vestiges of the Incas, the Spanish had put most temples and cities to the torch, either building Spanish temples and cities on top of the ashes or simply letting the rubble melt into the hills. Naturally they’d also picked every site clean of anything worth melting down. Anything smacking of idolatry that wasn’t of gold or silver was broken or defaced.
The Spanish had overlooked the mountain citadel. Unlike its high plains counterparts, Machu Picchu had been consumed by the forest and hidden. Because it was a sanctuary for Inkan royalty, few ordinary citizens knew about it, thus it’s location was lost along with the toppled nobility. The paths leading to it were grown over and washed out by landslides. It became a true secret city, preserved by its isolation.
It is no longer isolated.
When we got off of the bus there was already a line of gringos clamoring to become the first explorers to discover the ruins that day. They’d either hiked up the side of the mountain in complete darkness or stayed at the exclusive new hotel built just outside of the gates.
Somewhere the sun was rising, but on this mountain, surrounded by higher mountains, all was still dark except the sky. When the gates opened there was a respectful stampede towards the ruins. Because we’d spent so long at altitude we easily gained the lead.
I’ve heard that some people cry when they first lay on eyes on Machu Picchu, especially at sunrise. Being a cynic I was prepared for disappointment. As we came around a forested bend and took in the famous view of the ancient city my eyes were dry, but only just. Magda had been here before but hadn’t made it for sunrise, instead of standing on the edge of an Incan wall, mouth gaping open like my own, her camera jumped to its usual position and she recorded the birth of the new day.
Back in Bolivia we walked the ruined walls of Incalljata, alone, and imagined its former grandeur. It was a sprawling series of foundations in a beautiful landscape. The same was true for the half dozen other Incan ruins we’d visited. The fact is we’ve seen lots of ruins, from Europe to India to Mongolia, all shells of shattered kingdoms, all fascinating in their way. Nothing compares to Machu Picchu. The Great Wall rises and falls dramatically over rollercoaster hills. Angkor Wat is masterfully constructed and unimaginably immense. Machu Picchu is positioned perfectly at the dramatic crest of a towering blade of earth and positioned harmoniously within its environment. It is both a lovely ruin and a spectacular location, the one built to blend seamlessly into the other.
As the mountains to the east became lined with gold and long shadows leapt across the valley, it became clear that the citadel was built with this moment in mind. Shafts of sunlight became essential elements to the architecture, supportive columns that completed the ruined city.
The opening view acts as a buffer to the first wave of visitors. Stopped in their tracks, the tourists behind us were left to fill their hard drives while we climbed down into the ruins.
Machu Picchu isn’t perfect, much of it has been reconstructed so as not to too heavily tax our imaginations. Great lawns are roped off to maintain the appearance of a barely visited site, the crowds are herded onto one-way pathways that weave around the mountainside. Llamas are strategically placed on the terraces to tend to the lawn and inspire cooing noises. This is all for the benefit of visitors and feels a little – managed. But once we left the beaten track and began wandering the steps and alleyways between the houses we were lost. We peeked through trapezoidal windows into rooms of unknown usage and invented purposes for them. Since we didn’t have a guide, we wandered at will, stumbling across points of interest like the Temple of the Condor and the Hitching Post of the Sun (these are actual names, as much as it sounds like I made them up).
When we bought our tickets online we tried to obtain tickets to Huayna Picchu, the photogenic backdrop to the ruins. None were available since only 400 per day can climb this ruin-speckled protuberance. We got tickets instead for Machu Picchu mountain, twice as tall, twice as difficult with a view so spectacular it threatened to exact that tear I’d been promised.
Halfway up the montaña I thought I was crying, only the reach up and feel sweat running into my eyes. It was a punishing climb of unrelenting stairs and constant elevation gain. We climbed 2,140 feet straight up the side, resting occasionally, our acclimatized edge all but muscled out by ordinary exhaustion. When we reached the top, up an Incan staircase that sliced through the meat of the sharp peak, we were greeted by a view of the Urubamba River carving a 300° curve around Machu Picchu. The grand Huayna Picchu was now just a picturesque hill, the ruins an orderly arrangement of stones marking a clearing in the jungle. A ray of light appeared from between a thickening cloud cover and found the stone buildings, illuminating them with the kind of reverence the Incas reserved for the sun itself. Like a glowing emerald mounted in a verdant crown, Macchu Pichu shown up at us, the crowds gone, the heavy handed management obscured. Lessened beneath the majesty of the Urubamba Valley, the last lost city was still undiscovered. We took in the view for some time before starting the climb back down to find it again.