A pilgrim in Peru: Part Three, arriving in Machu Picchu

On my third day in the Sacred Valley, I awoke at 5:40 to bird trills and wood smoke-scented air. I could hardly contain my excitement: Today was a day I’d been waiting for most of my traveling life: We were going to Machu Picchu!

We hit the highway at 6 am, passing sheep, pigs and cows being herded into pens and villagers in brightly woven capes and great hats walking along the side of the road. After 25 minutes we arrived in Ollantaytambo, where porters in bright red ponchos waited for Inca trail trekkers; too pressed for time to make the four-day trek, we were taking the quick route: a storybook blue train to Aguas Calientes, the town nearest Machu Picchu, where a bus would wend to the base of the site.

On the 30-minute train ride, Manuel pointed out where bridges had been washed out or railroad tracks twisted and tossed into the river by the raging floods of a few months before: stark reminders of nature’s raw power. This train, he said, had restarted operations only three months earlier. I thought of the Inca temples we’d seen and of Manuel’s words from two days before: “The Spaniards called them idolators and maybe they were — but I think they did very well; they had a big respect for nature.”

Then we reached booming, ragtag, pizzeria-and-hostel Aguas Calientes, where we walked through a maze of market stalls and boarded the bus for the 30-minute back-and-forth bounce up the dusty road to the ruins.Here’s the thing about Machu Picchu: No matter how many photographs you’ve seen, stories you’ve read or posters you’ve absorbed, nothing can prepare you for the surreal whoosh of actually being there. From the spot where the bus drops you, you walk up some narrow stairs and some winding paths, the sun beating on you, the sweat starting to trickle down your back, and then you reach a level area and take a few more steps and – whoosh! – suddenly there it is, spreading out before you, the gray granite walls and poky roof remains and green open lawns and jungly green rock-thrusts just beyond. Suddenly it hits you: Machu Picchu – I’ve arrived!

For a while you just stand and stare, absorbing it, letting it seep into you. Then eventually you become aware of the other travelers, some as stunned as you, and you decide it’s time to head into the ruins. And then time suspends, and you spend two, three, four – you don’t know how many – hours wandering, letting your hands trail along the rock, smelling the grass and the granite baking in the high-altitude sun. You visit the agricultural sector and the industrial zone, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Condor, the Sacred Square and the priests’ chamber, the House of the Virgins of the Sun, the Watchman’s Hut, the cemetery, the Temple of the Sun and the sun dial. But what you are really doing is walking through time.

You’re imagining what it was like 500 years ago when a thousand people lived here – their woven clothes, the potatoes and maize they grew, the grain they stored, the granite they dragged laboriously from the quarry and the gold and silver and chisels, the wood and water, they used to break down and shape the stone. You imagine the runners arriving from Cusco, the robed priests, the weavers and warriors, the singers and teachers and pottery-makers.

And then you’re imagining what it was like 99 years ago, when a 12-year-old boy brought a discouraged Hiram Bingham to this rocky revelation. What must it have felt like to gaze on this tumble-jumble of intricately wrought walls and plazas, trees and vines? You imagine the crescendo of emotion and astonishment, the arc of enlightenment, as Bingham gradually realized what he’d found, what he called the Lost City of the Incas.

And then you think about what this discovery set off, a succession of events every bit as tangled and dramatic as those ruins: A foreigner recognizes the significance of this remote site, clears and plunders it, and in so doing creates a global icon that is responsible for sustaining as much as 80% of the local economy today, and that has literally put Peru on the international tourist map. This eventually encourages the Peruvian government to reallocate significant resources to study and preserve other ancient sites and artifacts in the area. The ever-swelling procession of Machu Picchu pilgrims, even as it underpins and integrates the local economy, threatens to undermine and disintegrate the site itself.

You recall what Manuel said on the train, how the torrential rain and floods of earlier this year dramatically demonstrated just how economically fragile the economy of the Sacred Valley is, how much it depends on this one site: From February to April, when floods took out those tracks from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, 78% of visitors to the region canceled their trips.

So visiting Machu Picchu is, like the site itself, multi-layered: There’s the historical backstory, the cultural backstory, and the economic backstory. And then there’s the pure human experience of being present at Machu Picchu. All of this roiled inside me as we roamed the ruins. I felt a pulsing presence there, but something wasn’t quite connecting, somehow it wasn’t getting through to me. Before the thought formed in my mind, I knew it in the pit of my stomach: I had to come back at dawn.

Manuel and I returned to Aguas Calientes late in the afternoon and I settled into the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, a glorious world of its own at the far end of town, all gracious adobe-walled rooms set among lush gardens with an outdoor sauna, pool and hot tub perfect for a post-Machu Picchu muscle-soothing soak. After a pisco sour welcome in the main lobby, I repaired to the dining room overlooking the Urubamba River; in a grand setting of exposed wood beams and flagstone floor tiles, with exquisite ceramic figurines decorating the walls, I slowly savored every bite of grilled Creole chicken with cassava croquette, washed down with an excellent Argentinian Malbec. The food was tasty, the setting artful, the service attentive and enthusiastic, and Machu Picchu soared in my head: All was aligned in my Inca cosmology. I looked at my watch. The sun god was approaching: Time for bed.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo
Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Four, visiting Machu Picchu at sunrise
Related: How to hike the Inca Trail

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and ruins in Peru are purely my own.