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Published: July 27th 2010
Five AM, Ollantaytambo
People are just starting to arrive to catch the morrning train to Agaus Calientes...
It has gotten to the point now that I wear my increasingly soiled khaki travel trousers as point of pride. I want to see how dirty they can get before I break down and disinfect them in the laundry. It’s a good thing Rosalinda isn’t here. She would have shut the trip down until every last stain, spot, and streak was removed.
There is only small stirring at Ollantaytambo’s train station at five fifteen in the morning. Departure is not until six. I am a stickler for being exceedingly early in fear of my chasing after the caboose with the contents of my belongings spilling out of my backpack while in full sprint. A vendor is opening her kiosk and cannot manage to lift the steel door and prop it open in the rain. She calls me over and I lift it for her. In her gratitude, she offers me a packaged snack, but I decline to go back to my coffee.
The train to Aguas Calientes pulls out of the station on time. It had damn well better for the extortionate amount PeruRail charges for such a short distance. Dawn is breaking. Every seat is occupied. They are comfortable, but
I really thought this was the setting for Avatar...
the experience is only somewhat improved over what Kenny Rogers rode on in The Gambler. Facing me is a young mulatta woman with long curly jet black hair. She is separated from the four others with whom she is travelling. She is carrying an overstuffed canvas bag from Wal-Mart. At the base reads a slogan for recycling and using non-plastic bags. It is in Portuguese. Without any apparent reason she turns her head to the window and sobs. Tears drip from the corners of both eyes. I lunge to assist or console her, but my instincts prevent me. My guess is that she is the domestic help for the two couples seated behind us. One of the husbands roughly taps her on the shoulder and orders her to take out a large bottle of water from the bag. No words are exchanged, but their communication is rather frigid. Back at their seat, neither the two couples nor their children have anything on them except cameras. She carries everything else.
For all the fleecing visitors go through, it is a smooth transition to get up to Machu Picchu. Most who disembark the train are daytrippers with only a few supplies
Central Plaza from Above
Patience is required to wait for the clouds to clear...
over their shoulders, and make a bee line for the ticket booth. If they’re with a group, the guide makes the purchase saving them from cringing at the forty-four dollar entrance fee. I have decided to take a different approach to ease the pain. First, I know I will not be coming back anytime soon, so I look at this as an investment. The return is still unknown. Second, I fork over several folded fifty soles notes and pretend it’s not real money, or that I picked it up off the street.
While hefty, the seven dollar fee each way justifies itself rather quickly. Neat, modern, and quiet tour buses collect passengers at a designated spot. Three or four are lined up and ready to go. As soon as one loads, the next one is ready. The process is quick, clean, efficient, extremely quiet, and highly organized…not very Peruvian at all. I sit next to an American, an aspiring photographer from Scranton. An obnoxious group of American college students are in front of us. Most of those in the back are French. One of the Americans “men” draws a phallic symbol on the fog that has collected on the inside
The Central Plaza...I took this shot perhaps nine to ten times until I got a decent result...
of the window. I clench my fist and resist the urge to launch a face-to-face verbal assault. It would have terrified him. He suddenly wipes the window clean with his jacket sleeve.
The entrance to Machu Picchu is above a series of hairpin switchbacks. As the bus climbs, the surreal unveils itself. The landscape is nothing at all like the rest of the Sacred Valley. Farther downriver the Urubamba weaves through deep, lush, and impenetrable jungle. The mountains are lower, but covered with vegetation. Vegetation drips off the edges. The peaks are not pointed, but rounded. Each summit is individual accomplishment rather than a range like in Ollanta or Cusco. Clouds encircle and hover over the peaks. Moisture oozes from every pore of the forest. I can now make a connection to some of the posters affixed to the walls of so many travel agencies around the world. I give Jason a nudge, “What do you think so far?”
“Unbelievable” is all he could come up with, then silence.
Without any forethought I blurted it out. It came to be all of a sudden. “I know where we are. We’re not in Peru. This is Pandora! Those are the
The angle at which the terraces are consctructed defies reality...
floating islands of Halljuskem or something.” Hallelujah is what I wanted to say. Jason corrected me and smirked. We look again at the marriage of foliage, clouds, and mountain. It is hard to argue. “Right around the bend don’t be surprised if some Na’vi come out and jump on the roof of the bus!” Jake Scully’s Avatar would be at home here. If you’ve seen the movie, there is no better way to depict coming to Machu Picchu.
Finally, I have made it to the entrance gate. Packs of tourists are wavering in a pattern of confusion below. This better be good. I have helped line the pockets of too many executives (and complained about it enough) for this to be a letdown. There was even one point where I dallied with the idea of ditching Machu Picchu and moving on. Up to one thousand five hundred trample its grounds every day. I don’t like to share. I am sharing this with the masses and I brace myself. I hand the ticket over to the attendant and am electronically approved to move forward.
Jason and I round the corner. I never bought into the hype, ever. A can’t miss? Machu
Falling into the Mist
There's no telling when or if a ball would ever come to a stop...
Picchu cannot be all that. Nothing can possible live up to such lofty expectations. Then a breeze lifted a layer of mist to reveal not a group of ramshackle residences on the brink of falling apart, but sturdy stone homes neatly stacked together minus the thatched roofs. They cling to terraces. There are so many, it’s practically a neighborhood. The scope is unimaginable. The scene paralyzes the both of us. “Oh my-“
“God” the other finishes the thought. In that very instant, it all becomes worth it. The waiting in line for the train tickets and the crashing of the computer system. I dismiss the early rise before dawn and the herd mentality, even that jerk of an American with his artist’s rendition of his pe-, well you know.
I step forward to take in the scene around me but am so entranced I do not look where my feet are making contact with the ground. It is a state of disbelief. Several times Jason utters, “I can’t believe I am here.”
“Uh-huh” is the best I can muster. Now I get it. It all makes sense. Now I understand why Peruvians who have never been here brag that because
Though without the thatched roof, these homes are in better shape than some that I saw in Huancavelica...
of Machu Picchu, their country counts as much if not more than the rest. I have had to listen to it ad nauseum for weeks. It is the Eiffel Tower, Coliseum, and Big Ben of South America all rolled into one. All doubt is eliminated. I silently issue apologies to PeruRail and the corrupt officials whose pockets I am gilding.
That’s just the first five seconds.
Machu Picchu is otherworldly. All the hype is true. Thirty-two individual terraces descend from the sky to the edge of a cliff from which there is no return - unless you’re a bird. The remains of the city are so well defined, it makes the ruins at Ollantaytambo look like a pile of rocks. Homes and ceremonial stands cling to the summit at mindboggling angles. The sheer concept of mathematics employed to construct the city is to me incomprehensible. The angles on which buildings and terraces tenaciously hold on for dear life are almost vertical. Machu Picchu is cloaked in as much mystery as the finicky, lethargic, and ominous clouds. There are more open questions than answered ones. Machu Picchu is one big supposition for historians. What is not up for debate is what
A Quiet Retreat
I snapped this away from the one thousand three hundred or so scattered about...
the Incas created, so secretive that not even the Spaniards learned of it.
Jason and I walk without much conversation past walls, through portals, and climb stairwells that lead to views of the Urubamba valley. Such vistas are so dramatic that it should be illegal for humans to witness or at least come with a legal disclaimer. The other twelve hundred or so are surprisingly quiet; there are no screams, no whistles, or shouts. The sun will not make an appearance today. The clouds are not cooperating and do not afford anyone a full panorama. Machu Picchu may very well be the greatest single sight I ever known, but have never completely seen.
Llamas with ID tags in the ears graze on the Central Plaza. Jason and I ignore them. We know they are props to keep the multitudes happy and the shutters endlessly clicking. I am secretly hoping that one of them spits on the throng of Koreans trying to surround it for a group shot. I think one of the men is trying to mount it. It is a not a pretty sight.
A pelting rain falls. Most folks have transparent pastel ponchos on or are freely advertising
The question still remains...How did the Incas move such massive stone blocks?
their outdoor gear by The North Face. It is a frigid but temporary shower. I pull up the collar of my jacket and wait for it to pass. My daypack soaks up much of the rainfall. The precipitation ensures that Machu Picchu and its surroundings are eternally green and fertile.
We take a seat on a precipice and stare at the valley below, patiently awaiting the clouds to permit us a tantalizing glimpse of the river. At one viewpoint, I sit on the sharp edge of a terrace and stare for twenty uninterrupted minutes…no words…no smart-aleck remarks. I stare to try to remember this place in time, to remember what it was like. Jason breaks the silence, “You know, if this were in the States, you couldn’t enjoy it. Everything would be fenced off for fear of someone falling off the city and into the valley.”
“Yes”, I countered. We can walk wherever we want, even if that means a shattered ankle or a call to our embassy for beginning the repatriation of our battered remains. I like that. I like that it isn’t 100% safe, yet we control the risk we take and balance the consequences with the reward.
River Valley Below
The drop from Machu Picchu to the river is harrowing...
It makes you think and be responsible for yourself. Here there is no one else to blame.”
On the brink of overload, I decide to leave Machu Picchu near two in the afternoon. The clouds have never lifted. I am disappointed, however not very. One assistant says he has known people to have come six or seven times and never had a clear day. I board the bus back to Aguas Calientes with Jason, who is flipping through the hundred and fifty or so photos on his professional camera. Still in a state of awe, “Have you seen anything that can top that?”
Yes, I have. I spoke of Angkor in Cambodia. It is the greatest single manmade structure on the planet. Today, however, belongs to Machu Picchu. In terms of impact and drama, it delivers overwhelmingly.
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