With the recent reopening of the ancient Incan citadel-city of Machu Picchu to tourists comes hope for the region’s battered economy, which is estimated to have lost a million dollars a day since heavy rains and flooding in late January stranded 4,000 vacationers and forced a two-month shutdown of the world famous attraction. I was lucky enough to visit just before the calamity struck.
The first stop on any trip to Machu Picchu is Cuzco, an 11,000 foot high city founded in the 12th century, according to legend, when the first Incan king found a spot where he could plunge a golden rod into the Earth until it disappeared. Thus was born a city which, in the Incan language of Quechua, literally means “naval of the world.” Although the gold and riches Incan royalty draped over the city’s temples and palaces was plundered by the Spanish not long after their conquest in 1532, treasure of another sort awaits sightseers today: a fully intact Spanish colonial city built directly on top of distinctive Incan architecture. Throughout the city, keen eyes catch glimpses of large, smooth stonework carved and assembled miraculously without benefit of mortar. This jigsaw puzzle work is easily seen in the ruins of the Sun temple of Qorikancha and along the narrow alley of Loreto, just off the main Plaza de Armas.
While trying to imagine what Cuzco was like when the Incans ruled much of South America, and then how it changed when the Spanish arrived, it’s not hard to see that today, the ruling authority are the dollars and euros shelled out by tourists. The main Plaza de Armas is clogged with vendors hawking horseback rides, Chullo hats made from Alpaca wool and photos with colorfully-dressed native women holding baby Llamas. To escape from all this, we chose our accommodations with care, ending up at La Casona, just a short uphill walk along a cobblestoned alley off the main plaza.
Housed in a colonial manor house believed to be one of the first Spanish constructions in the city, La Casona is a retreat from the bustle outside that reminds you you’re in a city almost unique in the world. Original Incan walls and colonial additions are obvious throughout the property, which has only 11 suites surrounding a central courtyard. It strikes a balance between evocative luxury and laid-back comfort, almost as if Spanish nobility had invited you for a few days stay. If any hotel can tempt you off the fascinating streets of this unique city, it’s this one.
Once our altitude sickness subsided (it took less than a day) and our imaginations were stoked by tales of Incan splendor, we set out for Machu Picchu. A three-hour train ride took us through some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve ever glimpsed from inside a train coach. Snow-capped Andean peaks and raging rivers alternated with lush agricultural land and the occasional ruined hints of civilizations long past. At the end of it all is Aguas Calientes, a small town whose sole purpose is to funnel (and profit from) two thousand tourists each day on their way up the mountain to the once lost Incan city.
If Aguas Calientes is an unfortunately necessary stop on the journey to Machu Picchu, we were fortunate enough to experience the town’s one bright spot: the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, an ecologically-friendly collection of 85 casitas spread across 12 lush rainforested acres just a short walk from the train station, this is a perfect spot to relax with a cup of coca tea in front of a fireplace, or indulge in a bamboo-and-eucalyptus sauna while contemplating the adventure in front of you: an ascent to one of the world’s most mysterious archaeological sites.
A typical day at Machu Picchu starts very early…in our case: 5 am, when we trudged down to the ticket office to grab seats on one of the first buses up the mountain. By getting out of bed before sunrise, we arrived at the gates of the site in relative quiet and tranquility, before the hordes of day-trippers loaded in behind us. As beautiful, intriguing and ethereal as Machu Picchu is, it’s easily overrun by tour groups, even if visits are limited to 2500 people a day.
Once inside the gates, we were met by a disappointing sight: clouds. Sitting at an 8,000 foot elevation, and tucked between high Andean peaks to the West and continental rainforests to the East, this spot is prone to unpredictable cloud cover almost any day of the year. But the weather only added to the mystery. Shifting shadows and sunlight alternately revealed and concealed bits and pieces of the massive city at the whim of invisible air currents. Each brief tease only encouraged us to probe deeper into the maze of temples, tombs, baths and houses.
Arriving early also gave us access to passes (limited to 400 each day) to climb the steep and slippery trail up Wayna Picchu, the peak that towers an additional 1100 feet over the southern end of the city. It’s a slow and exhausting hour-long climb that sometimes requires the assistance of metal cables embedded into the rock alongside the narrow pathways. Once we reached the top, the site’s true magic went to work.
Perched high above and out of the reach of the tour groups now filling the city below, our small band of patient adrenaline junkies waited for the thick clouds, now below us, to part. Hours passed and the group dwindled, as hikers one-by-one conceded that today was not their day. As I crouched with my camera pointing a direction I could only hope was back toward Machu Picchu, my partner marveled over an almost inexplicable discovery: a lone, wet, bedraggled stray dog. Human beings can barely make it up this summit with the help of modern transportation; how this creature managed the feat was inconceivable.
To pass the time, my partner began feeding the pup leftover scraps of bacon and sausage from the to-go breakfast our hotel had prepared for us. Suddenly, a shout of shock and elation went up from the few hearty trekkers still perched on rocks around the peak. The clouds had suddenly parted, revealing the enigmatic and awe-inspiring splendor over a thousand feet below us. It was a moment that truly defied words and reduced us to sighs and soft gasps of disbelief. And just as suddenly as they parted, the clouds closed in again and blotted out the vision that almost immediately we started doubting we actually saw. As we turned to start our descent, I gave the dog a good scratch behind the ears, dropped the rest of the bacon in front of him as an offering, and thanked what I now remember as the canine god of Machu Picchu.