Visiting Machu Picchu- a UNESCO World Heritage site and wonder of the world- is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and an accomplishment to check off on the lifetime bucket list. I never imagined I would be so lucky as to have the opportunity to get to know these ancient ruins TWICE during my travels, and in two very different ways.
Machu Picchu: Round 1
I first visited the ruins more than two months ago, after a grueling four-day hike on the ‘Classic Inca Trail’ from a town called Ollantaytambo. This particular trek books up well in advance, which leaves zero room for flexibility in one’s schedule; I booked my trek, that would depart from Cusco on October 25th, in early May. After a couple months of leisurely travel through Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, I hustled through the northern half of Peru to arrive in Cusco with a few days to acclimate to the city’s altitude of 3,400 meters and set off as prepared as possible on the 25th.
October happens to be the start of a rainy season which grows gradually more intense moving into November and December (I have since been informed there is no such thing as summer in Cusco). I was fully aware of the possiblity of inclement weather during my trek and assumed every day carried about a 50% chance of rain; the weather gods did NOT dissapoint.
Each day, we endured several hours of some type of precipitation. At times it was only a light mist, but in tandem with healthy gusts of wind, the result was numb extremities, sore joints and frosty faces. On top of being physically challenging, the Inca Trail was putting our mental and emotional stamina to the test as well.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here- I really did enjoy this experience on many levels and the beauty we were surrounded by every day (when we could see it) was far more impressive than I could have imagined. The plunging, lusciously green valleys and glacier-peaked mountains were truly breathtaking.
The last day of the trek required relatively little hiking compared to the 7-8 hours each day prior; we awoke at 3:30am to eat a quick breakfast and depart for La Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate) in order to arrive at 6am to, theoretically, catch the sunrise with an astounding view of the ruins below.
The view upon reaching the Sun Gate lived up to expectations; the sun wasn’t shining but at least the fog cooperated. I didn’t know it at the time, but admiring the ruins from this vantage point would turn out to be my favorite part of the day.
Once we arrived at the ruins, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed. The hoards of brightly-dressed tourists fresh off the train from Cusco, unwittingly ruining every photo opportunity and making Machu Picchu appear more like a high-altitude amusement park than the architectural treasure it really is, particularly ruffled my feathers.
Starving, exhausted and temperamental, the best me and my two Canadian friends could manage was to sit quietly through a less-than-inspiring tour while we counted down the minutes until we were free to head to Aguas Calientes for food, massages and hot showers. In any case, the rain gods weren’t done with us yet; fog was already obscuring our views and we were once again forced to pull out rain coats and ponchos- we’d had enough.
I left Machu Picchu that day feeling rather discouraged; somehow the magic of the experience had eluded me, and as I would reminisce about the trip over the next few months the highlights were limited to experiences during the actual hike: the amazing views, the lesser-known ruins, the comeraderie with my hiking group, the sense of accomplishment after completing a challenging four days, even the surprisingly delicious meals- but not the ruins.
Machu Picchu: Round 2
December arrived with the exciting news that I would be joined in Cusco for the end of 2013 by my friend Andres from Ecuador, an architect from Quito with a particular affinity for a particular ancient Inca city. It didn’t take much arm twisting to convince me to visit Machu Picchu again, although we opted for the more economical option of taking a bus most of the way to the city of Aguas Calientes and then hoofing it a mere 3 hours on flat terrain the rest of the way.
Aguas Calientes sits roughly at the base of Machu Picchu, and from here you have two options: wake up around 4am to hike approximately 2 hours to the entrance of the ruins, or pay $9USD for a speeding bus to take you up the mountain via a narrow switchback dirt road. The rationale escapes me now, but we decided to hike.
Now a group of 3 (we were joined by another Ecuadorian, Sebastian, who made the last-minute decision to spend the new year in Cusco as well), we arrived at the ruins sweaty and out of breath just as the sunlight began to dance on some of the taller mountain peaks. With nothing but wispy hints of clouds in the sky (despite still being rainy season), I could already tell it was going to be an incredible day.
The first striking contrast between this trip and my previous one was the guided tour. The guide was engaging, knowledgeable and even used visual aids. I didn’t feel the urge to yawn or sneak away from the group and I actually learned a bit. Imagine that.
The second and most important difference between the two trips was the weather. By the end of our tour, around 8:30 am, the sun had risen above the Sun Gate and was shining in full force. It seemed to bring the ruins to life in a way I hadn’t seen before and which I can only describe as awe-inspiring.
The next 6 hours were spent wandering through the vast ruins dumbfounded by our good fortune and taking full advantage of the gorgeous lighting, the postcard-worthy type photographers dream of. Even on the multiple occasions we found ourselves lost, unable to find an exit, or spinning in circles, we didn’t mind.
For a brief period, the sun was obscured by fog that seemed to descend on us from every direction simultaneously. It lent an entirely new feeling to the experience, the mystical and mysterious ambiance which is probably more common than unrelenting sunshine, and again, we didn’t mind.
Every now and then, we simply stopped where we were and sat, taking the time to absorb and take joy in our surroundings- something I most definitely wasn’t able to do during my first visit. At the end of our long day we walked back down to town, sunburnt and content, our hearts overflowing with a newly discovered, profound appreciation for this beautiful site.
For me, Machu Picchu now occupies a significant space in my heart, and if it’s not too brazen to say, I think it probably will for the rest of my life. Had I not returned for a closer look, I can’t necessarily say the same would have been true. We don’t always get second chances in life, but I think it’s safe to say I’ll be taking advantage of the ones that do come along from now on.