After three days of perfect Andean bluebird skies and sunshine, it was unreal when I woke to the sound of rain on the tin roof, that I’d found so charming the night before. Nestled under the cozy alpaca blankets the sound was a lullaby. I drifted in and out, dreaming of mountains and jungle and trails that go on and on and Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu! I sat up in the early light and registered the pouring rain outside our windows. That mesmerizing sound meant that after waiting years and years, I would finally see Machu Picchu in the rain! Worse: my mind immediately went to the bus we were scheduled to take up to the site and the narrow dirt roads that I’d seen washed away for three days of trekking. I cannot sugar coat it: as I lay there waiting for the alarm, my mind raced in and out of some very scary scenarios. Suddenly I could recall every isolated headline that had involved a foreign bus crash, “Five American tourists were on board.” I had been commenting all week that the entire country of Peru seemed like it was trying to slide, split, or wash away. Listening to the pouring rain outside, the idea of driving up a dirt road to Machu Picchu was not at the top of my list of things to do list.
Let me say however, that despite my
paranoid anxious concerned thoughts, that morning in Aguas Calientes, with the rain hitting the tin roof and the soft light in the room, the comfort of clean soft sheets on me… was one of the sweetest mornings I remember, ever.
The alarm went off and we all jumped into order. The plan for the day involved loading all of our things and storing them with the hotel while we toured Machu Picchu. Our guide Edgard would be at the hotel between 6:30 and 7 AM to pick us up for the bus, and we had to eat breakfast, be dressed, and store our stuff, to check out on our return. At the end of the day we were heading to the Sacred Valley region, and saying goodbye to our friend Edgard. While we were all getting used to early starts, it is a lot harder when the bed is warm and cozy and it’s raining outside. I must admit that I had a momentary thought of bailing all together. Looking up at the mountain, where Machu Picchu sits nestle between the peaks, I could not imagine enjoying a trip there. Hundreds of wet steps, fog and obscured views- this was not at all what I’d envisioned.
We all bundled up against the cold, put our rain gear on and headed out, after a yummy breakfast in the dining hall. Peruvians like their breakfasts and even the simplest hotels seemed to serve up wonderful freshly squeezed juices (there is no competing with fresh squeezed pineapple or mango juice!), eggs, yogurts and other yummy things. As we headed across the square we all felt tired and deflated, the weather a distinct downer on such an anticipated day. We were silent in the bus. Who knows what the others were thinking, but I was checking to see where all of the escape routes were and trying to figure out how I would get to each of my children.
As we drove up the twisting road the rain slowed and then stopped and I began to hope that we’d at least not be soaked. At the gates we handed over our tickets and stowed away the rain jackets. It was drying up, but still chilly as we entered. When you step past the gate and the initial (restored) houses, the view before you is nothing short of heart stopping. For me, it was a lifetime of seeing that image and thinking: one day I will go there. Edgard swept his hand across the view and said: “Familia, welcome to Machu Picchu,” and I began to cry. I was totally unprepared for what emotions would surface once there, after days of arduous trekking and somehow losing track of what this moment might look or feel like. There was a huge wave of gratitude-peace-awe-pride-happiness-amazement- and ripples of so many other emotions that washed over me and left me tearful. “Are you ok Amiga?” Edgard asked me quietly, as the others took in the site and found a place to sit, so that that Edgard could begin our “tour.” I’m just so happy, it’s been my whole life of imagining this place… I’m just so happy. Edgard squeezed my arm and stepped back to let me take it in alone for a moment.
We spent two hours walking the ruins with Edgard, as he shared his amazing knowledge of this mystical place. The incredible story of how quickly it was all built (between 40-100 years, many cathedrals have taken 200 years to build!); the fact that it has survived for 600 years perched between two peaks, in a country fraught with earthquakes and weather; the immensity of it and the spectacular architectural detail; these are all things that are hard to describe and stunning to behold. As much as Edgard was able to tell us about Machu Picchu and with everything we learned at the Machu Picchu museum in Cuzco, or read on line, it is incredible to me what is still not really known about the place. While some scholars maintain that it was built for the great Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438-1472), others maintain that it was being built for many years before that. Some believe that the site was in existence long before what is commonly accepted as the original construction. Though it’s been know to the modern world since 1911, I came away thinking that we may not know as much as we do know about Machu Picchu.
The place is awe inspiring, regardless of what you know the history to be. Edgard shared tales of Emperors, mummies found, concubines and slaves, the development of metal work and weaponry, and the stunning feat of building such a complex high in the mountains, in a place that then remained unknown for 400 years, except to a few local farmers who often slept amongst the ruins and grazed their livestock in the 600 year old pens and terraces. When Hiram Bingham asked a local Quechua farmer to show him this secret place, it is said that he only offered them one sole (approximately $.30 today). Inconceivable! The many treasures and discoveries that he discovered were shipped off to Yale University in 1912 and have remained there since. In 2011, on the 100th anniversary of Machu Picchu’s discovery, many items were finally returned to Cuzco and are now on display at the Machu Picchu Museum at Casa Conche. Nearly 47,000 items were originally taken and only 366 returned, with a promise to return the remainder by December 2012 (Peruvian Times, June 2011). We visited the museum after visiting the archeological ruins, but wish we’d done so before, though either way, the artifacts and place are spectacular. (Below: Cliff hugging terraces, vault for mummies, llamas, magnetic dial and precisely cut windows and arches)
As we walked through narrow passage ways and sacred chambers of Machu Picchu, I was struck over and over again by the reality that I was walking in a place that has for so long seemed a fairytale to me. The iconic photos of Machu Picchu are something most of us have seen at one time or another. The images had become stuff of legend or fantasy for me, and as I’d trekked all week I’d kind of lost track of what the goal was: to see this sacred place. I’d imagined it and thought about it, but it had all become surreal and hard conceptualize in concrete terms. As I walked around it all sprang to life and I found myself on sensory over-load, the imagery so vibrant and breathtaking that it’s hard not to be swept away.
Much of Machu Picchu has been restored over the many years since its discovery, or since the 1980s when it became a world heritage site. When Bingham found it, the jungle had kept it “secret” for nearly 400 years and the entire place was covered in vines and growth. Still it is remarkable to see how intact it still is and how unchanged, in many ways. Llamas graze on the terraces, as they have for hundreds of years, now brought in by the Peruvian government to help keep up the greens. Rock seams are as strong as they were when built, the walls and arches all still intact over so much time. The Incas were masters at stone work and were known to intentionally cut stone to take into account earthquakes and landslides. Again, it is truly incredible when one sees the damage that these natural disasters have done to so many other places around Peru, yet the Inca sites (all of them) remain so remarkably intact.
Their study of the stars and astronomy is equally fantastic. In each of the ruins we visited throughout our trip to Peru, there was evidence of their exceptional knowledge. In virtually every site there is some relic that, when viewed on the summer equinox of June 21st, changes. Some cast a shadow that forms a sacred animal (llama, puma, snake, etc) while others line up and cast light onto other objects and point due North, South, etc or tell accurate time. There were stones that are reported to emit magnetic energy (we thought we could feel it, but the place does cast a spell…) and stones that are still shrouded in mystery; but stones abound. If nothing else, the Inca were superb masons and the fact that so much of Machu Picchu remains intact, most often with no mortar or additional structural additions (aside from cut stone) is a true testament to this fact. Buildings that still stand, fountains and aqueducts that still bring water, the stone steps, hundreds of steps to climb and navigate, all have been walked on or remained standing and working for 600 years or more! It occurred to me over and over, that the Inca must have been extremely physically fit to have navigated Machu Picchu on a daily basis.
The sun slowly made its way out and we watched as the low clouds slowly lifted and changed the vista, as our time there passed. Each time I looked, the view had changed and I found myself snapping picture after picture. For the record, we came home with over 2,000 photos, breaking the previous India record of 1400 by a mile. As I look through the images now, I am still stuck by the changing light, the vibrant colors, and the incredible beauty of the place. As is often the case in vacation photos, the images do not seem as impressive as the place itself, but I am still taken away as I look at them. In the moment I found myself walking along as if in a spell. Some moments silent and introspective and others bursting to exclaim Look at this! Oh my God! This is incredible! Garnering me eye rolls from my kids.
(<– I sat and watched this)
At the end of our two our tour with Edgard, he said his farewells and told us to enjoy the site on our own until our agreed upon lunch in town. Smart Guy and Principessa decided to hike up to the Sun Gate, the end or beginning of the Royal Inca Trail (depending on the launch point) that so many trekkers arrive or depart from. Middle Man, Little Man and I found a terrace to sit on and just watched the sun move across the grounds, the light change and the enormity of the place. I watched small birds dart in and out of a small shrub and the river move far below. Time stopped. I stopped noticing the other tourists for a brief time and only heard the wind. I imagined what the Incas must have felt living in this high fortress, some of them living there their whole lives, while others only summered there from Cusco, the capital of the empire. My mind wandered and my muscles relaxed as I enjoyed this place of wonder.
On our way out we stopped and got our passports stamped with the heritage site stamp. I have not traditionally added extra things to my passport but this one seemed worth having. We lined up and got on the buses again. The sun making it much less likely that we’d all plummet to our deaths on the return trip, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride down. At lunch it hit us all that we would soon say goodbye to Edgard and a distinct sadness descended. How had we all grown so attached to this wonderful man, in the short period of four days? Four days that felt like weeks, on so many levels! He hugged me as I went to sit down and I tried not to get emotional. We relived our adventure and worked toward goodbye, a wonderful meal in a restaurant filled with tourists.
As we finished Edgard said to us: “Amigos, I’ve been waiting for the right time to ask you this, but there has not been one. I would be honored if you would attend my wedding this Saturday in Cuzco.” We all burst into grins and agreed that we would indeed be there… how could I miss my son’s wedding? We said our goodbyes, filled with big hugs, hand shakes and the tears we’d been holding in (Smart Guy, Middle Man and Little Man would all want me to clarify that their eyes remained dry). Edgard had a train to race to, back to Cuzco, and we had to get our luggage and catch our train to the Sacred Valley.
When we’d dried our eyes, said goodbye and headed back out into the streets of Cuzco, just outside the restaurant was our dog Machu once again, waiting for us to pet him. Middle Man and I burst into excited grins and called him over to us. A wise dog, he knew we were leaving and he barked at us, as we left him to chase the train. We raced back to the hotel, got someone to help drag all our stuff to the station and boarded what has been called one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Along the river, always along the river, we travelled past Inca terraces, scenic farm lands, Andean peaks and small villages. Middle Man had developed a fever and mild illness and we were all tired and ready to just take in the views, lulled by the swaying train. The ride was incredible and we arrived around dinner time to the small village of Urubamba. No driver there to meet us and empty streets, aside from a few vendors and the dogs. Onto the Sacred Valley, and our next adventure! (Below: Views of/from the train)