Machu Picchu (Old Peak, in Runasimi*) consumes Peru’s tourist trade like a hungry bear at a salmon buffet. The iconic Inca ruins draw so many tourists that a tourism industry barely exists elsewhere in the country, despite the vast and impressive ruins to the north and the world’s second deepest canyon to the south.
Much of Machu Picchu’s modern day success owes to historical momentum. At the turn of the 20th century, Peru’s ruins lay unknown beyond the ivory tower of academic archaeology.
That all changed when some Inca porters brought the singularly obsessive Hiram Bingham to see their neighbors, who lived in the ruins of an old Inca settlement. Hiram was looking for the lost city of Vilcabamba and offered money to anyone who could show him ruins. The farmers living in Machu Picchu showed Hiram around and bam! – Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu.
In the same vein, Matt, Lesley, Syd, Agnes, Jordan and I also discovered Machu Picchu. Rather than use Inca porters, Matt, Lesley and the kids took the train and Jordan and I traveled by a combination of our car and our feet.
Part of Hiram Bingham’s historic walk to Machu Picchu now follows the train tracks that connect a hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. The hike is a level and easy two-hour affair that clings to the thin strip of land between the Urubamba River and the sheer precipices of the surrounding mountains.
The trail ends at Aguas Calientes, which looks every bit a ski town in high season that has misplaced its snow. Fleece-clad tourists throng the steep and narrow streets. Shop windows offer high-end native fashion. Bars and restaurants tempt passersby with garishly overexposed photos of what one can expect to eat inside. An outdoor market features 50 versions of the same stall, selling colorful festival masks and alpaca wool garments.
US$24 will get you a bus ride to the ruins and back. A sweaty 40 – 60 minute ascent up a steep trail also exists for the more economy-minded traveler.
In addition to entry into the ruins, Jordan and I had booked tickets to hike Montaña Machu Picchu, one of the two mountains, between which the ruins sit. Rain and a friendly Colombian couple were our constant companions as we marched upwards in the hope that the clouds would part long enough for some great Machu Picchu shots.
The view from the top was a blank wall of all shades of white and grey. The rain gathered force and attacked us from side angles as we unsuccessfully experimented with different defensive positions. A large spider resembling a tarantula sought shelter in a flower and made for the most interesting summit view.
We descended to the ruins through the drizzle. Up close, the stone structures impressed regardless of the weather. During their tenure, the Inca developed extremely fine stonemasonry techniques. Where europeans needed mortar to make their stone dwellings impregnable to the elements, the Inca pioneered techniques to fit stones together so tightly that nothing could get through.
A curious stone structure occupies the high point on a hill overlooking the central plaza. Looking like a piece of stone age modern sculpture art, this raised finger of stone is one of Machu Picchu’s enduring mysteries. Guides and guidebooks refer to it as a sundial, although some research has cast doubt on that theory.
No matter what it once was, the stone now serves as an object of admiration for the throngs of seekers who now rush through the great ruins. I suspect that to really know Machu Picchu, one would have to spend years here, whereas the modern tourist infrastructure does its best to push each of us through in about two hours.
We tried to break out of this cycle by sitting on a conveniently flat rock to just take it all in – the ruins, the mountains, the wet and many-colored people. Our efforts enjoyed the illusion of success until a tour guide ushered us off our rock so that her group could pose there for pictures.
In their questionable defence, it did make a great photo spot.
*Runasimi is the Quechua word for the Inca’s language, translating to “people’s language”. Spanish conquistadores mistakenly called it “Quechua” and the name stuck. The word quechua describes a “temperate valley” ecosystem and the people living therein and may have also been the name of a group of people living in Peru’s Apurímac region.
Some great Machu Picchu and Peru-in-general reading:
- Turn Right at Machu Picchu, by Mark Adams – After spending several years as editor of an adventure travel magazine without ever having so much as camped more than one night in the woods, Mr. Adams decides to follow Hiram Bingham’s path of discovery along the now-famous Inca Trail. Mr. Adams recounts Hiram’s quirky history with skill and wit, alongside his own mosquito-infested adventure.
- The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie. Get ready to cultivate a healthy hatred of all things catholic and Spanish, because as Ms. MacQuarrie eloquently recounts, the intersection of these two groups, embodied by the conquistadores, were bloodthirsty savages whose cruelty to others was limited less by their nightmarish imaginations and lack of moral fiber than by the laws of physics. Seriously, the things the conquistadores did to Peru’s indigenous defy reason and echo into Peru’s still-bloody present. Happy reading.