Peru, Cusco

I almost didn’t go to Machu Picchu.

It was over 24 hours out of my way, unavoidably expensive, and, being the Most Beatenest Path in Peru, not a destination that Keteka would feature. But then I imagined how I would feel a few months from now if I had gone to the south of Peru without visiting Machu Picchu. I would have had to nominate myself as Biggest Idiot of 2013.

So I went, and wondered how I could have considered not going.

Props, by the way, to the Peruvian government – there really is no way of getting to Machu Picchu on the cheap. There is a spectrum of approaches and prices, which are described in detail in another post, but for now, all you need to know is that I took a train from Cusco and back the same day, and it was efficient, but uneventful.

Once in the town closest to MP (Aguas Calientes), you can either take a $9 bus straight up to the ruins, or hike an hour and a half. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and adventure traveler, I didn’t consider this a choice and I scoffed at the hour and a half prediction, assuming I could do it in an hour.

Peru, CuscoI’d like to take this opportunity to admit, publicly, that the hike up to Machu Picchu kicked my ass. It consists of nothing but climbing stairs straight up a mountain (400 meters?), at high altitude. I did indeed do it in an hour, but I was such a sweaty, breathless heap by the end of it, that I definitely can’t boast and I definitely don’t recommend it. There’s nothing on the hike that you can’t see from the bus (which I took down), so you should only do it if you really want to save $9. It does, however, lend a feeling of accomplishment and struggle to the journey to MP, which is otherwise tightly controlled and unadventurous (unless you take the alternative route).

When approaching world-famous destinations, I always look forward to the Wow Moment when you turn the corner or crest the hill. I’ll never forget when I turned the corner at the top of the Fontaine de Varsovie and saw the Eiffel Tower up close. I stopped short and my mouth was actually slightly ajar. After my initial shock, I remember thinking that yeah, the Eiffel Tower deserves the hype.

Machu Picchu deserves the hype. I had sky-high expectations for it, which were surpassed as soon as I climbed my final step and turned the corner to see that image we’ve all seen 1,000 times – exceptionally intact ruins at the base of a dramatically cloud-capped mountain.

I then spent the obligatory 25 minutes giddily taking pictures.

Peru, Cusco

The shot you’ve seen 1,000 times

One thing the 1,000 pictures you’ve seen don’t capture is just how big Machu Picchu is. I didn’t even really realize it either until I descended into the ruins. After thirty minutes of exploring at a pretty good clip, I had only seen maybe 1/8 of all of the ruins. I quickly abandoned my original goal of stepping into every single room, for fear that I would collapse from heat exhaustion, or at least miss my train back to Cusco.

You may hear that there are an obnoxious number of tourists on MP. There are indeed many tourists, but I wouldn’t categorize them as obnoxious. Everyone I encountered was just so genuinely psyched to be there and no one seemed to be taking the splendor for granted. I met a couple of like-minded adventure tourists later that day and they echoed the same sentiment – while we three were typically the type to be annoyed with large groups of tourists, it just didn’t seem to apply to Machu Picchu.

I also kept thinking about how the Incans left a lot at which to marvel – their perfect stonework, a city that has lasted over 2,000 years, the fact that they used to regularly climb those damn stairs, presumably while carrying the perfectly crafted stones. I kept wondering what tourists will be climbing 2,000 years from now: the Empire State Building? That Huge Statue of Jesus? A huge statue of me?

Peru, Cusco

Stonework built into a rock

After a thorough, multi-hour exploration of the ruins, I returned to the top and managed to find a quiet spot, away from tourists, that still had a view of Machu Picchu. I’m not usually one for long walks on the beach, or introspectively gazing at mountains, but MP earned twenty minutes of introspective gazing nonetheless. And it was a good twenty minutes.

It’s a little tough writing a blog post about Machu Picchu, because honestly, what hasn’t already been said? So I’ll just say this: Machu Picchu is amazing. Not the way fried chicken is amazing when you’re drunk. Not the way sleeping in on Saturday is amazing. It makes you stop, and look, and wonder, and marvel, and take a deep breath because you forgot to breath for a few seconds. That kind of amazing. It deserves 1,000 pictures and all the hype.