It was an early start as we walked down the narrow streets to the bus stop. There were no cars in Aguas Calientes aside from the buses that zipped up and down the single street leading to the switchbacks to Machu Picchu. Bouncing down the road, surrounded by tourists of all nationalities, images raced through my head. What would it look like in person? As we started to gain elevation, spires of green jutted to the sky. The valley floor became a distant cousin. Back and forth, back and forth we went until we pulled up to the entrance. There was a lodge, a cafe, and such off to the side. No food was allowed inside the site. To the left was a place to stamp your passport to affirm to the world you had in fact made it.
Although the entrance to the site is developed, it was easy to imagine what it would have been like walking into Machu Picchu before anyone else. Lush green jungle spread out in every direction around the excavated site. As we finally walked through the entrance and down the path to enter the city, people grinned from ear to ear. For some, traveling to Machu Picchu had been a lifelong dream; for others they had hiked days to reach the site and welcomed the reprise from the difficult journey, happy with the accomplishment of finally making it. The anticipation was real; more than any other place I had traveled to. After walking a hundred or so feet past the entrance to the first major structure, we were faced with a fork – to turn up or down. We were headed to Huayna Picchu, the notorious peak featured in all the photos of Machu Picchu. It was our first opportunity to forge own path and explore without one set way.
We turned right down the stairs and cut across the long terraces used once for farming crops. The irrigation system was a feat in itself as water ran down intricately carved canals running down the side of the mountain. We passed by a large open field which we would later come to find out was where the Mayans would hold large conference type gatherings and ceremonies.
After cutting across the length of the site, we reached a tiny entrance at the very back of the park. We were the second group to go up that day, and the crowd of people waiting to enter grew quickly. At our designated time, we passed through the small entrance. We were required to sign in and out for obvious reasons. The Ministry of Culture only allows 100 or so people to hike Huayna Picchu in two different shifts per day due to safety concerns of too many people traveling up and down at once. Many years ago, some people had fallen off the side of the peak to their death and after hiking it, I can understand why. The steep ascent to the top and sharp drop offs to the side was not for the weary. We started the hike up the majestic peak. The drop offs in places were fierce and the steps were at times as large as a small child. A particular amazing part of the hike was the diversity of people attempting the climb. From young to old, people were trudging to the top. After what seemed like a century of switchbacks, the first platform came into view. A welcomed rest, it was the first opportunity to observe what now looked like the tiny city of Machu Picchu below.
We then ascended another set of very steep stairs, through a tunnel, and up a ladder to reach the top of the peak. Large smooth slabs of rocks lay at the top for people to lounge on, but the spot was certainly not meant for those fearful of heights. We maneuvered out around the boulders and back down to a path that wrapped around the top of the mountain to an official sign and another more solid resting place. The ancient city of Machu Picchu sat perched below in perfect alignment. After resting for a bit and taking in the view, we started the descent to explore the city itself. The steep stairs leading down caused me to sit on my butt a time or two. A group of people cheered for a recent proposal that had just happened. It was easy to understand why one would choose that place; a proposal at the top of the world.
After making it to the bottom of Hauyna Picchu, our legs ached but that wouldn’t stop us from enjoying the main attraction. We walked through the site and up above the Temple of the Sun to catch in the classic view of the site. We sat and rested, taking in the view; knowing that our time was limited. It made me wonder how we would ever leave this place. We made our way back to the entrance of the site to grab some food and meet our late afternoon tour guide. Our tour guide did a wonderful job taking us by all the notable locations in Machu Picchu and explaining the history of the region. Temple of the Three Windows. Temple of Condor. The Sacred Rock. The Royal Palace. Each place has its own special significance.
By the end of the day, the numbers inside the site dwindled. A group of UNESCO representatives met in the main square, a wide open expanse of green in the middle of the site. We begrudgingly followed our tour guide towards the entrance of the site as it would soon be time for closing that day, snapping photos along the way. The sun lowered behind the clouds and peaks, creating a moment that would not be forgotten. No matter what decade or century you are in, ancient or new, the sun still rises and falls all around the world every day; a tribute to the simplicity of a very complicated world.
It’s extremely difficult to describe the feeling standing in such a special place. If there is any place the old saying of “you have to be there to truly experience it” rings true, it’s Machu Picchu. Bumping up and down the road on the bus back down to Agua Calienties, it was, of course, bittersweet. A surreal day had come to a close. Unlike other places people always say they’ll go back to, I knew it may be a once in a lifetime experience. Sure, I’d love to go back and visit someday. But would it really happen? For once, I could honestly say I’m not sure. We reached Aguas Calientes worn out from the day but at the same time wholly satisfied that we were able to experience such a magical place. Machu Picchu would remain perched in the clouds, waiting to be discovered by its next visitors, secrets to behold. The next morning we would make the journey back to Cusco and back to the everyday world we all know.