From the Archives: Machu Picchu, We Don’t Deserve You

Going to Machu Picchu on a day trip is not for the faint of heart. They were dropping like flies on the way.

I leave my hostel at 3:55AM to catch my tour bus by 4:10, and just as I walk out the door, I find a French couple, the very same folks who had helped me get into my hostel a couple days ago, now stranded. There’s a mix-up with their tour guide, and there’s no Wi-Fi to help them clear it up. The boyfriend asks if I’ve got 4G, and of course I do (thanks, Google Fi). We try making my phone a hotspot, but that doesn’t work either, so I have to leave them behind to catch my bus. “I suppose we will not go today,” he says, which somehow sounds doubly forlorn in his French accent.

A half-hour later, I’m on the road to Ollantaytambo with an Indian family. It’s the first leg of a bus-train-bus combo you have to take to get there from Cusco. We’re twisting and turning through God-knows-where (because it’s pitch black), and I’m content looking up at the stars, because you can see them so plainly out here. They decide to open a sparkling water behind me; it spatters all over them. The son exclaims, “It’s lower pressure up here! You can’t open it now.” His armchair chemistry lesson is too late to be helpful, of course.

Anyway, the daughter takes a gulp — and immediately vomits. Like, trying to keep it controlled because we’re in a moving vehicle, but belching and sputtering and gasping and saying, “THIS IS THE THIRD TIME I THREW UP ON THIS TRIP!” She’s maybe 9 years old. The driver pulls over while the family cleans up. You can tell he’s nervous about getting us there in time after we get going again, because he’s gunning it the rest of the way, always looking for an opening to pass.

We get to Ollantaytambo no problem, though, just as sunrise is sending beams of light down the peaks of the Andes through to us in the valley. And it’s gorgeous and magical, and a half-hour later we’re on our way to “Machu Picchu pueblo – Aguas Calientes,” which maybe wins for my new favorite town name.

I’m seated on the way there with an Italian girl around my age and an older French couple. The Italian girl next to me is journaling, just like me. As I look across at the French couple, I realize a) they’re adorable, b) they’re in their fifties on an adventure, and c) that’s what I want, more than anything, to find in a partner.

The whole ride is mountains rising and falling, sheer cliffs coated with mosses and desert brush and cacti, and a stream that seems to be chasing us as we go. It’s like 7:45AM, but it already feels like I’ve had a whole day of activity. For the moment, I’m (naively) overwhelmed with how beautiful it is to just be in a train full of adventurers. So it is when your destination is a wonder of the world.

We’re all just junkies, of course, we tourists. The high we chase is maybe nobler than the kind involving a needle in your arm — but it can be just as all-consuming. And just as gross.

We get to town, and it’s like this teaser of what’s to come. It’s tucked between peaks, with this vaguely Asian-looking bridge that crosses the stream that really has followed us the whole way. It’s 8:25, and already there are piles and piles and piles of tourists. We wait probably 15 minutes for a shuttle, even though they’re whizzing by constantly to pick up another busload. When it’s our turn, we snake up yet another mountain, and every photo I’ve ever seen of this place becomes more and more laughably inadequate. Every angle, every way you turn your head, it’s just endlessly magnificent.

It’s moments like this when I think about how our innate ability to be amazed just has to have some kind of evolutionary benefit. Because no matter what language you speak, “Ooh” and “Ahh” are universal.

We keep going and going and going, higher and higher, until, around a bend, it reveals itself in peekaboo fashion. This enclave of stone dwellings basically descended from the heavens — because that is the only possible explanation for how in the hell any of this got here hundreds of years ago. It is so stunning precisely because it defies all logic and reason.

Once I’m inside, I slowly remember all over again why group tours and over-visited places are… not without their annoyances. You vie for five seconds of a view before the next throng of people run you over. The tour guide keeps talking and talking and talking and saying, “Come on, sir, stay with the group.” (The information is great and all, but when all you want to do is have a moment of peace to be wowed, it becomes too much.) The family I’m with ends up being excruciating, too: Every five seconds the daughter (the pukey one) demands her mother or father’s attention, talking over the tour guide — and I know I’m not winning any points with moms here, but frankly, she’s old enough to know when to shut the fuck up. And when we finally get through with the tour, we have ten measly minutes left before we have to take the whole journey back.

Still, I take it all in as best I can of course, from Huayna Picchu to the Espejos de Agua to the Condor Temple, not to mention the overall insane ingenuity of the Inca from an engineering/agricultural/architectural standpoint.

So yes, I saw all the views. And yes, they are truly unparalleled. And yes, for those little precious five-second intervals, it blew me away. And yes, it was worth it. And yes, I had a great time overall. And yes, it’s something everyone should see.

But that’s precisely the problem: When everybody sees the sight, we all enjoy it less. Navigating hordes of selfie sticks and people doing 500 goddamn poses in the same place is… well, it sure as hell isn’t a fitting legacy for a place as majestic as this.

No idea how to solve that one. But here we are.

On the way home, I find respite in — what else? — podcasts. As always, somehow the perfect, most serendipitous quote for the moment falls out of someone’s mouth, talking about getting past her divorce: “It was as if the soot of melancholy had been lifted from my vision.” That. THAT. That is what this journey is all about. I’m free to see again — to really, really see. And it’s still tough to find my pace, because I’m hungry to see it all.

The way back is perfection, though: The sun begins its slow descent over the mountains, leaving just enough light to make our climb above Urubamba an unbelievable orange-hued bonus.

So, note to self: Next time, do the thing on your own. And fuck the tour group.


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