Machu Picchu, Peru

June First, 2007









The more we read and talked to other travelers about Machu Picchu, the more we debated the merits of making the pilgrimage. Bus load after bus load, 2500 people, visit the site every day. We learned that if we wanted to be among the 500 trekkers who set out daily on the Inca Trail for Machu Picchu, we needed to make reservations four to five months ago! But somehow we are not able to resist the opportunity to see city in the clouds that escaped the ravages of the Spanish Conquest, undiscovered by Europeans until 1911.


So with somewhat lowered expectations, we head from Cuzco down into the Sacred Valley, and follow the winding Rio Urubamba. At the end of the road in Ollantaytambo we catch Peru Rail's tourist train down into the cloud forest, known as the eyebrow of the Amazon. We stay two nights at Aguas Calientes, a haphazard collection of tourist hotels and restaurants, a perpetual construction zone lying in a deep mountain fold below the Inca ruins.

At 5 am, the stars still shining beyond the jagged mountain silhouettes, we join a growing queue of tourists waiting to catch the first line of buses heading up the hill. By 6 am the sky is glowing with pre-dawn light and we make our way through the ticket taker's turnstile and up the stone path. The first view of this amazing place takes my breath away. The pictures we have all seen did nothing to prepare my sensory system for the vertical geography, towering mountains, and this city of stone perched impossibly on the cliff edge. We peek down into the abyss, and far below the Rio Urubamba is snaking its way towards the Amazon.


At the apex of a hill, near a oddly carved chunk of bedrock, a guard whispers to us that we are at the Intihuatana, Quechua for the Hitching Post of the Sun. At this place, five hundred years ago, Inca astronomers were able to predict the solstice by watching how the sun illuminated the angled rock. A small hushed crowd gathers to watch the sun rise over the distant mountains and drape its morning rays over the smooth granite surface. The Peruvian guard is obviously proud of his heritage and the great power once held by the Inca. For a long instant, time stands still...

A few moments later, in the brightness and warmth of full sun, the spell is broken. We shake hands, mutter a heartfelt muchas gracias, hasta luego to our host, and wander on down the path.
















It wasn't until we climbed up to the top of Wayna Picchu (the tall pinnacle opposite) that we fully understood the creative insanity of the Inca architects. The trail winds vertically up stone stairs (fortunately now with large rusty steel cables bolted into the rock for handholds), through constricted rock tunnels, and up a couple of wooden ladders. Perched precariously on the very top of this rock spire is a collection of stone buildings, walkways, and terraces with stunning 360° views of Machu Picchu far below and the snowcapped Andes in the distance. The perfect air-chair! This must have been a site of great significance because it would have been a mighty feat to transport the huge stones and construct this cliff top aerie.