I’ll confess something. I don't really know what I want to say about my experience of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Do I want to make you laugh? A little, but not a lot. Do I want to make you stand agape in wonder? Somewhat, but not a lot. Do I want to make you jealous? Of course, but again, not a lot.
When you think of places for amazing travel photography -- or more honestly, social media showboating -- Machu Picchu certainly tops the list of destinations. In fact, between 2000 and 2007 over 100 million people voted Machu Picchu as one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World." Quite remarkable -- and certainly a contributor to tourism.
But, in all honesty, I found the experience a little perplexing -- it was as enjoyable as it was terrifying, as magical as it was awkward, and as impressive as it was unremarkable.
See the thing about Machu Picchu is that it has an ancient history that is at best still quite murky. And its more recent history is at worst more clear but slightly troubled.
The Incans built the citadel sometime around 1450 and it’s unclear how many people lived there, and even how many Incans knew about it. One estimate I heard was likely only 5% of the population even knew of it. And even the people who lived there were restricted in movement around the site itself. The city was abandoned, either after the Spanish Conquest or because all the inhabitants died from smallpox. Either way, the Spanish never pillaged the site and it feels like everyone just disappeared one day, lending a certain Pompeii feel to the grounds.
Hiram Bingham is credited with “discovering” the city in 1911, though, like so many other Americans/Europeans before him, he didn’t really know what he discovered and as it turns out, local people already lived there, and even showed it to him. But hey, he brought “experts" and influence and capital via institutions like Yale, and over the next hundred years Machu Picchu and nearby Incan towns did benefit from archaeological discovery and preservation. Of course, Peru also saw its history carted off and the site fall prey to unbridled tourism.
So fast forward a hundred years and you’ve got a UNESCO World Heritage designation, some scuffles between Yale University and the Peruvian government, and the ever-common tension between tourism and preservation (and truth.) Add to that the World Heritage designation, plus the New Seven Wonders designation, and you have an ancient ruin that is utterly unprepared for the increased tourism such designations would undoubtedly bring. Walking the grounds you begin to understand very quickly why it's been on, though now off, UNESCO's endangered list. Here's hoping the government's new Master Plan for Machu Picchu will help ease the strain of tourism and add the much needed educational storytelling the site lacks.
(Side note, I will definitely acknowledge my role in contributing to the tourism challenges Machu Picchu faces. I stayed in Ollantaytambo, itself another site of ruins that seemed catered only to tourists. I opted for the train to the town at the base of the site as the Inca Trail hike was full. But at least I didn’t steal any cultural artifacts.)
Getting to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo is actually rather easy — and spectacular, if I do say so. We left before sun rise, curving through the morning fog, between the rolling tops of the Andes, underneath the cover of a thick dark sky. I quickly made friends with the other singletons sitting next to me and we each marveled in quiet silence at the scenery. Perhaps I should have just stuck with the train given how utterly unprepared I was for the next part of the adventure...
The train spat us out at the base of the mountain, in the town formerly called Agua Calientes, now slightly confusingly called Machu Picchu, though both names coexist. This little town literally burst at the seams to fit in as many tourist shops, cafes, and buses as it could. I felt a little like being on set of a Wild West movie only with the entire town stacked into two blocks. That said, the benefit of such a city is it’s impossible to get lost on your way to the mountain. Literally you just follow the herd of tourists to the buses located about 20 feet away from the station. And if we have established anything about me and these nature visits, I don't like getting lost.
After zig-zagging for 30 minutes our bus finally arrived at the Machu Picchu entrance. My new found friend, Zet from Mexico, thankfully reminded me that we needed to bust a move to make it to our 7-8am time slot to climb Huayna Picchu (Waynapicchu) mountain.
Now I don’t know if it was the fact I had awoken at 4am, or that I didn’t fully read up in advance (it’s definitely the latter) but Huayna Picchu is a @#$&-ing near straight uphill climb — nearly 1,000 feet in under a mile. And the damn mountain is 8920 feet high so you’re talking major altitude-sickness time, and puffy eye syndrome as I learned.
Oh, and you know the nickname for Huayna Picchu which I did not know? The Stairs of Death.
Simon Hill, I blame you. I know you had nothing to do with this, and you didn’t even know I had booked Huayna Picchu until a couple of weeks before I left, but I still blame you because I need to blame someone else.
Let me tell you, the moniker, Stairs of Death, absolutely fits this mountain. Had I known the nickname I'm not sure I would have climbed.
First, let’s review some facts on Huayna Picchu deaths as provided by Nathan whose travel blog, Annes de Pelerinage, I’ve just discovered and now love. He scoured the internet and estimates 20 people have died in the last 10 years. I mean I guess with 400 climbers a day that’s not really that bad, but still, that's 20 more deaths than I care to know existed.
Now about 15 minutes into the two hour climb, I came to the same conclusion as Nathan — this site would have been closed in the US and Europe years ago for both safety and preservation concerns. The hike is incredibly precarious with people often going up and coming down steep, slippery stairs at the same time, all without any safety railing. I’m not advocating for changes to the structure, just saying, this tomfoolery would not fly elsewhere.
So, up the incredibly precarious, apparently slightly murderous mountain Zet and I went. Me with a stupidly large backpack and tripod and Zet with her charm and “¡Sí se puede!” cheers. We really needed that cheer because as we climbed higher, with zero signage, it wasn’t clear we were making it any closer. Until of course the early birds and athletic types started streaming down the stairs, taking up precious space, but telling us we were close.
Eventually…eventually we made it! Time to celebrate with selfies and a rest. From the top of Huayna Picchu you can see Machu Picchu — that’s the allure of the hike. What you forget, though, is that cloud coverage can really obscure the view. But the clouds do lend a mystical ambiance to the summit which I supremely appreciated.
That which goes up… must come down.
I wish I could say the way down was easier. Then again, if climbing up what had to be 16 inch high steps with only a few railings was difficult, then getting down would surely be just a series of death jumps, no? Oh, and wait, what’s that? You and your family of six want to camp out what appears to be the only boulder that simultaneously holds the best view/selfie spot of Machu Picchu and the exit path? By all means, hold the rest of us up for 10 minutes as we clamor for the next best selfie and a safe way down. Add to that the way down from the summit winds you around a slightly different path at first which literally involves near crab-crawling through a wet, dark, and narrow passage. Again, this would not fly in the states or Europe.
Nothing worth noting happened on the descent except that maybe 15 minutes into the descent we passed a sporty American family of five with a pre-teen daughter who could not stop crying but no one, even she, was really certain of the cause. My heart went out to her. Sure there are far scarier climbs at far higher altitudes, but nothing quite raises the “I’m not in control of this situation” feel like having to chase your adventurous parents and probably annoying little brothers up a winding set of ancient stairs forever while the air continues to get thinner.
When I finally made it to maybe the last 10-15 minutes, I heard the distinct swish of quick paced little feet jumping over rocks like it ain’t no thing while I was laboring to get my feet to cooperate with the whole “left right left” thing. As the two boys darted past I thought, “wait didn’t I just see them…with a crying sister?” And that’s when I realized I am absolutely awful at climbing. These people literally raced up, and down, the mountain — starting at least two hours after me and finishing at least 10 minutes before me. The guard congratulated them on being some of the fastest, especially as a group, and for winning what I dubbed prize of being the craziest effing family in the area. Me, however, I won the award for the slowest.
After exiting Huayna Picchu I caught my breath and assessed what to see next at Machu Picchu as I met a group of Indian guys from New York City, of all places. Small world. Plus as Bloomberg employees, that meant we all only worked a few blocks from one another. Seriously, small world. And then as we all back toward to entrance to Machu Picchu we ran into my train/bus mates! Seriously how is it possible for the world to be so large and so small all at once?!
Now, as I set out into the ruins of Machu Picchu, I found it surprisingly easy to see imagine how the city might have run. Farming over here. Trading over here. Living right there. I think the roaming alpaca lend a certain realness to the imagination…
For those who are into ancient sacred sites filled with natural wonder Machu Picchu does not disappoint. Twice yearly the famed Intihuatana stone aligns perfectly to the sun — on the summer and winter equinoxes. The Incas held ceremonies at these times to “tie the sun” down. Though, in all honesty, the construction of the site itself might even be cooler than the Intihuatana stone, unless you’re there for an equinox. Just look at the curvature of The Temple of the Sun (below). The Incas extracted stones from the nearby quarry and somehow — no one seems to actually know how — precisely cut and filed them to fit one another perfectly without mortar.
Oh, and this is in an empire that did not frequently use wheels or animals to help with lifting. Just let that sink in.
If you’re having trouble letting it sink it, perhaps that’s the challenge I actually found Machu Picchu posed. Yes, of course, it will make you smile and even laugh at times. Yes, of course, it will take your breath away. Yes, of course, it will fill you with wonder. But, it’s almost an incomprehensible site, almost too wonderful in the true sense of of the word. What I mean is that, I don’t think one day is enough for the landscape or the culture to sink in. I found my time there a little too rushed, a little too active, a little too crowded — leaving me with the feeling of having dreamt the whole experience. No sooner had a train spat me out from the fog of the Andes into this beautiful and perplexing ruins whose scale was just starting to set in than we were back on a train with a weird fashion variety show. Which was perhaps the perfect coda to the who experience. Beautiful, awe-filled, yet so commercial it was hard to know whether to pray or to pay at any given moment.
Should I do it again, or should you be planning your own trip, here’s my thing with Machu Picchu. Stay for longer. Get yourself a book on the Incan Empire, find somewhere quiet in the ruins, sit yourself down and start reading and looking around. Then come back the next day and do it again. Otherwise, Machu Picchu will feel like little more than the perfect background to your next Insta selfie. Though that said it really is a damn good background.
Oh, and remember Huayna Picchu, “Stairs of Death” involves a freaking awful straight uphill climb over slipper rocks with little to keep you from falling to your death like 20 other people. So maybe do that on Day 2 after you have the photos to prove you did make it to Machu Picchu.