Machu Picchu

“OK, then,” said Jose. If you looked for the word ‘crestfallen’ in the dictionary, it would not have his picture next to it. No, Jose’s picture would be next to whatever collection of Cyrillic characters denoted the Russian version of ‘crestfallen,’ with all of its attendant Siberian capacity for dramatic melancholy. “We go on first bus.”
Moments before, to our great relief, our compatriots on the tour of Machu Picchu had indicated that their preference would be to get up early enough to take the first bus up and thus arrive in time for sunrise. Joanie and I were thrilled – we were prepared to do some convincing if necessary, but we were already on the same page.
Jose, our tour guide, had tried to talk us out of this course of action, saying that sunrise wouldn’t be until after seven, and that the first bus left at five thirty, and that we would have to be ready to leave the hotel – check out of the hotel, in fact – no later than four if we wanted any chance of getting on a bus that left before six. We could, he insisted politely, have a longer sleep, eat some breakfast, and leave the hotel at six, have a much shorter wait for a bus, and still get there in time for the fabled sunrise.
Didn’t matter.
We’d been robbed of the chance to actually hike into the city. Next best thing? First bus to arrive.
I can’t speak for the others in our group, but Joanie and I went to bed immediately after dinner – I think we hit the pillows at roughly 8:30pm. The next morning, too early to be anything like bright, Jose – wearing a persistent but noticeably unhappy smile – collected us from the hotel lobby and took us to the bus stop, where we found that our group was not only going to be on the first bus but would be the first people to take their seats on the first bus.
Ninety minutes, two cups of morbidly tepid coffee, a hurried dash back to the hotel for a bathroom visit, two tasteless rolls stuffed with some attempt at cheese, and a brief but unsettling stray dog-fight later, we left Aguas Calientes for Machu Picchu.
Jose warmed to his task quickly enough, and proved an engaging and entertaining tour-guide. We kept noticing that he said “we” about everything that the people who lived there had done, and eventually he confirmed what Joanie and I thought – he was full-blooded Quechua, this mountain and the valley from whence we’d just traveled were his ancestral home, and many of the traditions and customs he described to us were very much still the way of life for him and his family. (Jose was also trilingual – and listening to him bounce back and forth between his very good English, the Spanish he spoke to the bus driver and gate attendance, and the susurrating bursts of Quechua that he exchanged with his fellow tour-guides as our paths intersected in Machu Picchu made me feel like an uneducated dolt.)
As we took our tour of the ruins, we learned a great deal. I won’t burden you with too much, but some highlights include the following:
  • There was no such thing as the “Incan people,” or “race” – the people were (and still are) the Quechua, and the term “Inca” was their word for the king.
  • Machu Picchu is the name of the mountain (literally, “Old Mountain”), not the city built upon it – the city’s name is lost to history.
  • Its name is lost because, by itself, the city wasn’t that important – it was mostly a gated vacation spot for the Inca and high-ranking families. (This immediately made Joanie and I think of Chautauqua.) Its importance today has to do with nothing about the city’s purpose or even architecture, but rather its completeness, its purity: the Spaniards never found it, and thus were unable to burn it down out of love for Jesus.
  • There are llamas there. A small herd of them. And they greet you when you finish the initial climb up to the guard-house. You’re hustling up this uneven flight of stone steps, surrounded by some fairly dense foliage, and you look up to see the end of the stairs – and a llama looking down at you from the top. And not just looking down at you, looking down on you. 
You! Yeah, you! Yeah, I’m watching you. Keep moving, gringo.
  • You can tell who lived in which house by the stone-work: temples have smooth walls with stones perfectly fitted; commoners and lesser nobility lived in houses with rough walls with stones that needed to be mortared together; and the king and the priest (both of whom counted as demi-gods) lived in homes that were blended between the two, mostly smooth, mostly fitted, but just rough enough to see the difference.
  • There is absolutely no amount of information , no recounting of data, no collection of facts that can express to you the power, the melancholy, the beauty of Machu Picchu as the sun pours over the Eastern Andes and glides across the walls, the lawns, the terraces, the ruins.

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