As Michael Jackson once said “This is it!”…hopefully, this will work out a bit better than that did…
It was the usual cup of coca tea to wake us up, but this time it was delivered at 03:30. We had to get up early to be at the checkpoint, for the national park that Machu Picchu resides in, as soon as it opens at 05:30. It pays to be at the front of the queue when it opens as there will be less people at Machu Picchu when you get there. It looked like we were second in the queue when we got there. We had to negotiate the path from our camp, at the top of the camp site, down to the checkpoint in darkness. Whilst my headlamp did a decent enough job, I still nearly went tumbling a couple of times. Although most of us woke up a bit groggy, we were all bubbling with excitement by the time we got to the checkpoint and our wait for them to open passed quickly. And, thankfully, by the time we got through the checkpoint our headlamps were no longer required and daylight was already upon us.
It’s a steady old trek along the side of a mountain with a few undulations along the way. More interestingly, the path narrows to almost less than 1 metre in places with a shear drop over the edge which made watching where I put my feet pretty important. We were in amongst the clouds, but I could see the sun looked as though it was trying to burn its way through. At the very point that you are about to reach the Sun Gate, from where in good weather you can get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu, there is a very steep climb. Nicknamed “Oh my God!”, it is a set of stone steps at an angle almost akin to climbing a ladder. It does look a little intimidating, but I soon realised that it only lasts for maybe 35 metres before you are at the top, so I made light work of it other than the obligatory watching my step.
Upon reaching the top I looked through the Sun Gate itself, a large stone-framed doorway and into the distance at where Machu Picchu should be. At that very moment it was cloudy, but as I looked on, the clouds parted and the sun shone exactly upon Machu Picchu making it appear as though it was made of gold. It gave me a bit of a lump in my throat as it really started to sink in that this long cherished ambition was finally being realised. It’s right up there with anything else I have seen on this planet and made all the more important to me due to the effort I had to make to get to this stage. Breathtakingly stunning. No pictures can capture the scene that I saw before me: Machu Picchu in all its ethereal glory.
We rested at this point and took many photos before setting forth once again on the trail to finally walk into Machu Picchu. There was still a fair hike to get there, I would guess a few miles, and along the pathway we had a very close encounter with some fearless Alpacas and a not so close encounter with a chinchilla sat atop a rock above our heads.
Rather than have a grand entrance to welcome you onto the Machu Picchu site, it almost creeps up on you and before you know it you are already there, standing at one of the iconic view points. I stood in absolute awe of the place. It wasn’t quite crawling with tourists yet either, so I tried to confound the many critics who say it is impossible to take a decent photo there without also snapping a tourist. I think all of the group went a bit snap happy and I, for one, was pretty much taking photos from that point until I left hours later. I understand that it is one of the most visited places on earth, but to me I may as well have been alone, so caught up in my own “discovery” of Machu Picchu that I barely noticed others there at all.
Bizarrely, due to some bureaucratic stuff we had to walk out of the Machu Picchu main gate (where the busloads of tourists arrive and depart) before re-entering the place some 20 mins later. It was then that I realised how much of a tourist Mecca this is! In a way it was like walking in and out of Alton Towers, but don’t let that detract from my experience. I tried in vain to call my girlfriend to say I had finally made it, but could only text – what is it with the Peru international phone system? My girlfriend also tried to phone me, but could only get my voicemail! Heading back in I was now part of a large queue of sightseers – quite a change from our arrival on the trail. And now the sun was beating down from a cloudless sky too. So my warm feeling inside was met with a warm glow from outside – today is a good day.
Edgar gave us a fantastic tour of the site. There’s so much to take in that perhaps one visit to Machu Picchu doesn’t quite cover it. I listened intently and took many, many photos. I really did get the feeling that I was in a place of real historical significance and the 4 day trek was so worth it because it made my visit there so much more meaningful to me. I felt a sense of achievement, but I also thought back to when Incans would have trodden the same path on a pilgrimage to this most holy of places and what a sight it must have been for them to see when it was at the height of its full regal glory. I remember reading one person’s account of visiting Machu Picchu and that it made them feel insignificant in the “grand scheme of things”. I can see how they might have felt that way, but I did not. It did make me feel like a small speck in the history of mankind, but I didn’t see it as insignificant. Instead, I saw the thousands of pairs of hands that created this place: small cogs in a large machine working for the same purpose and with their eyes on a much larger achievement than one single person. Although their names may not be recorded or remembered, their legacy still lives on.
I wish I had the words to describe my memories of being there, but no matter how much I could write I truly don’t think I could capture that particular moment in time and if you want to know more about Machu Picchu in an historical sense I believe the Wikipedia site is very good.
To climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain often seen in photos overlooking Machu Picchu, you need to have a ticket. Only something like 200 visitors are allowed to climb it each day and it is supposedly quite a climb to get up there. I had no ticket and held out little hope of getting one on the day plus, if I’m honest, fatigue and the now baking heat put me off attempting it. Instead, I climbed up to the opposite side of Machu Picchu which is still a steep set of steps and very tiring and positioned myself in a place where I could sit and try to take in as much of the sight that stretched out before me. I sat and thought about a lot of things from the shallow hope of a nice warm shower later that day to much more personal and meaningful thoughts of the world, life and my place in it. I’m no hippy, but it was a sort of spiritual experience for me, in the same way that any major event in one’s life is – although it is said that Machu Picchu does hold a powerful energy!
By now, the view that I had was of a glorious site crawling with tourists (and that’s no complaint, I was a tourist there too!) and after my last few photos, I felt it was the right time to say goodbye.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Machu Picchu. It is supposedly slipping slowly off the mountain which can’t be helped by the thousands of visitors, so perhaps something will be done to stop that. I hope the trail remains and continues to be looked after. Looking from the entrance down the winding road to Aguas Calientes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the road replaced and possibly restrictions placed upon where the tourists can go too. Right now, you are free to roam throughout the site, but I wouldn’t be surprised if areas get cordoned off or preserved behind glass in the future. It is 100 years since Machu Picchu was “rediscovered” and 35 years since the first tourists started to come to visit. Things have certainly changed since then and I’m sure they will continue to change if only to preserve the site as best they can.
Sat on the bus with my head against the window I felt like Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) at the end of Platoon except instead of war, I was thinking of the trek “The trek is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days.”
In Aguas Calientes, a bustling town that seemed like it’d be a good place to party, we met for a final meal together and we said our goodbyes (although I would be on the same train as many of the Germans). I bid an especially fond farewell to the guides who will have a day off before starting it all over again with another group of greenhorns!
I sat on the train back to Cusco from Aguas Calientes. It’d be a great journey and must be great for most tourists: the train has large windows and skylights for panoramic views, but the sun was setting as I boarded the train and the view were soon plunged into darkness. I closed my eyes, put some Ennio Morricone on my ipod, and thought through my own epic montage of the last 4 days.
Back in Cusco and back in El Ninos (different room this time, with a lovely double bed) I had a long hot shower and then went out for a light snack and drink. It was the lovely double bed that I soon returned to, not to wake till some 12 hours later.