Machu Picchu, Peru

How you get somewhere can make a big difference.  Here’s what I wrote two years ago after my first glimpse of Machu Picchu:

The fourth and final day of the classic Inca Trail hike finally delivers you to Machu Picchu.  Most groups camp at Wiñay Wayna the night before and wake up early to pass through a government control point.  Our group wanted to be the first in line, so we woke up at 3:30am and made it to the control point 10 minutes before anyone else.

From the control point it’s about a 90-minute hike to the Sun Gate (Intipunku), where – after a final climb up some very vertical stone steps – you suddenly have your first view of the ruins of Machu Picchu.  With our goal so close, we practically jogged from the control point and made it to the Sun Gate just before the first rays of sunlight began to hit the ruins.  What an incredible feeling to see Machu Picchu for the first time on such an unusually clear day, after hiking for four days to get there, sweating and winded from the fast pace and the final climb to the Sun Gate.

There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu, including an option that involves no hiking – you can take a train from a place near Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes and then take a bus from there to the Machu Picchu entrance.  But I have to figure that the impact of seeing Machu Picchu for the first time is very different when you’ve put in some real work to get there.

 

Sunrise on Machu Picchu in 2009

 

Machu Picchu in 2009

 
I just can’t imagine any better way to experience Machu Picchu.  Even if I’d been able to hike the Inca Trail again (only a limited number of people are allowed on the trail each day, and the spots usually book up months in advance), I’m guessing it would have felt like a disappointing shadow of those unforgettable four days in 2009.  So this time I mixed it up by taking the easier but less rewarding approach.

I left Cusco in the late afternoon on a bus to Ollantaytambo, where I caught the Peru Rail train to Aguas Calientes.  Making the trip with me was Matthias, a 28-year-old German engineer who’d stayed at my hostel in Cusco, and, like me, had used the hostel’s travel agency to arrange the bus and train tickets.  Matthias was near the end of a three-week vacation.  He’d been hit with some serious stomach problems in Arequipa and still hadn’t fully recovered, but he was determined to see Machu Picchu before flying back to Germany.

I couldn’t resist pestering Matthias with every American’s favorite question for Germans:  “Why was David Hasselhoff so popular in your country?”

Like all the other Germans I’d asked, Matthias bristled humorlessly and paused to collect his thoughts before responding.  He assured me that he himself did not like, nor ever had liked, David Hasselhoff.  “And I do not know if he was really so popular.”  Well, tell that to the hundreds of thousands of Germans singing along in Hasselhoff-induced bliss at the remains of the Berlin Wall on that magical First Night 1990.

Matthias and I checked into our Aguas Calientes hotel rooms and agreed to meet at 4:45am the next morning.  Buses don’t begin leaving for Machu Picchu until 5:30am, but the line starts forming at 3am and I wanted to be among the first to go up.  Most of the early birds were intent on claiming one of the limited number of passes for hiking up Huayna Picchu (also spelled Wayna Picchu, it’s the steep mountain that rises behind the ruins in most of the classic views of Macchu Picchu), but I just wanted to take photographs in the morning light.  The sky had been perfectly clear on my first visit, and I hoped this time there would be pre-dawn mist floating across the ruins.

The weather, unfortunately, refused to bend to my will.  No streaks of mist adorned Huayna Picchu and the sky was a uniform, washed-out gray.  And yet, despite being disappointed about the photography conditions, despite doing hardly any work to get there, and despite the fact that I’d seen it before, standing in front of Machu Picchu was a powerful rush.  Not nearly as intense as the first time, but still an extraordinary feeling.  At the risk of sounding New-Agey, the place has a unique energy.  “In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it,” said Hiram Bingham, the American academic who rediscovered the site in 1911 and brought it to the world’s attention.

 

Machu Picchu under a Gray Sky in 2011

 

Llama Mom and Kid at Machu Picchu

 

Machu Picchu Portrait

 

Rob at Machu Picchu (Photo by Matthias)

 

Inca Passageway

 

Machu Picchu Hipstamatic

 

Machu Picchu and the Urubamba River

 
Machu Picchu (Quechua for “Old Peak”) somehow went unnoticed by the Spanish conquistadors.  When Bingham found the site it was completely overgrown and known only to a few of the highland farmers who lived nearby.  There isn’t complete agreement among archaeologists on why Machu Picchu was originally built, but most believe it served as a sort of country estate for Pachacuti, an Inca emperor who ruled in the 15th century.  Due to disruptions caused by the Spanish it was then abandoned in the late 16th century.

 

Machu Picchu Landscape

 

Mach Picchu Terraces

 

Inca House at Machu Picchu

 

Mach Picchu Vintage

 
Matthias and I spent the morning wandering around the ruins.  After a quick lunch I made the short hike to the Inca Bridge, something I’d missed in 2009.  Leading west from Machu Picchu is a trail that in some stretches is cut into the face of a cliff, and along one especially vertiginous rock wall the Incas had to pile up stones to form a narrow bridge.  I tried and failed to capture in a photograph the alarmingly precipitous drop-off from the bridge to the Urubamba Valley below.

 

Inca Bridge

 
That afternoon Matthias and I took the bus back down the steep switchbacks to Aguas Calientes, where we caught the train to Ollantaytambo and then another bus to Cusco.  It had been a long day and I wanted to sleep late, but I forced myself to set my alarm for 5:30am.  On my second day in Cusco I’d overslept for no good reason and ended up missing all but the tail end of a spectacular sunrise, so on my last two mornings in the city I woke up early and climbed to the viewpoint at the Iglesia de San Cristobal.  Both times, of course, the sunrises were duds, but I reminded myself that there are worse ways to start a day.

 

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas before Dawn

 

Cusco Cathedral Hipstamatic

 

Cusco Cathedral Steps

 

Iglesia de la Compañía Blue Hour