by Rodrigo DeMedeiros
The highlight to our Peru trip was - predictably - Machupicchu. We took an ungodly early train from Ollantaytambo to the small village of Aguas Calientes, just a short bus ride to the entrance to the magnificent ruins of Machupicchu. Our guide Manuel was waiting for us at the train station, and took us straight to the Rapu Wasi lodge - a beautiful tree house style lodge with rustic wood bungalows stacked on the rocks with a great view of the adjacent mountains. We arrived at 8 am and were greeted by the awesome hostess, who was kind enough to get us a different room where everyone could crash, although our actual rooms were not ready until 9:30 am (official check in time.) Everyone was exhausted - Bella and Heather particularly, both showing signs of altitude sickness. We gathered in the restaurant a few steps from the lodge and had delicious coffee and hot chocolates - and I mean rich, intense-flavored, perfectly comforting hot chocolate. We were all grateful that Manuel suggested we all rest for a couple of hours before venturing uphill to the ruins.
Once up and moving again, we took a 20-minute bus ride uphill to Macchupichu, with amazing views of the valley at every sharp turn. The feelings and thoughts in my mind spun from elation to fear - fear of being disappointed, or so excited I wouldn't be able to capture footage properly for the documentary. I had brought my tripod with the intention of doing a time-lapse at the ruins, but a guard spotted it protruding out of my back and demanded I leave it behind. The entrance is very civilized and has a "coat check" room where people can leave their excess luggage. A small disappointment, but I wasn't about to let that tarnish my experience. I still don't know if the tripod was too professional looking, or if they were afraid it would potentially damage something if I accidentally banged it around.
Machupicchu was very different than what I had imagined. I honestly had no real expectations - I really believe that nurturing expectations can be a huge downfall; it's much better to just let the experience unravel and bring its own set of feelings. So I was prepared to let myself get lost in the moment. I had avoided thinking about Machupicchu completely, focusing instead on each step of this journey through the different areas we visited in the Sacred Valley, letting the beauty and uniqueness of each of the ruins guide my natural feelings.
As you walk through a wide stone path hugging the edge of the mountain towards where the actual ruins start, you don't immediately take in the quintessential post card image we came to accept as Machupicchu. At first, there is a silence. I could hear my heart thumping on my chest - accelerated by the effort, no doubt. And due to the altitude you tend to focus on the uneven terrain you're walking through, and the steep steps down, and on the immensity of the green hills to your right, the chasm below a constant reminder of your insignificance; then you notice the long walls of carefully piled rocks, that you touch and lean on as you descend.
Suddenly there is the iconic mountain. I realized that the ruins are much more spread out around the plateau of the mountain than what you can see in the confines of a post card. This seems obvious, but you then take in the disconcerting sense of scale. And it hits you. You notice the hordes of tourists spread out, scattered like little ants; you catch fragments of monosyllabic conversations in dozens of different languages. And you start immediately to pass judgment and wish you were there alone to witness this spectacle. Machupicchu is the most well preserved of all the Inca ruins. And this is easily explainable due to its crazy location! Pizarro and his army never found it, so this set of ruins left a lot more history behind that has helped archeologists understand and learn more about this amazing civilization.
We climbed further up towards a path to an ancient Inca bridge carved on rock and skirting the very edge of the mountain. There, at the top, just before walking that treacherous path, I turned around to see the post card image we learned to call Machupicchu. And all the beautiful pictures in this world cannot come close to what it feels like to have climbed up there, feeling the sun and the wind on your face, and the weight of the altitude bearing down on your tired body, or the sudden sensation of breathlessness that hits you often. I saw a lot of middle aged people, some of which definitely seniors in their 60's and 70's, with their sticks and canes, slowly taking the numerous steps around the ruins. I was so physically worn out that it was hard for me to imagine doing this at that advanced age. I told Gretchen that had I done this in my mid 20's (when I actually had the first urge to do it), the experience would definitely had been more mystical, spiritual. Instead, the climb exposed all my physical inabilities and lack of preparedness. I felt old, out of shape, and very, very insignificant. I gazed upon those well-preserved ruins and felt disgust for the Spaniard conquerors, the blatant human instinct for power and evil. Yet, all this immediately followed by the calming thought that in the end they never found their way here.
The narrow path to the old Inca Bridge was where I had a real Indiana Jones moment. You walk up to a clearing with another breathtaking view of the valley below, where in a small hut sits a park ranger lady with a logbook. You are obligated to write down your personal information and the time you started the walk to the bridge, just in case there is an accident and you don't return within a reasonable amount of time. I suppose they send somebody down the path to try and find you. God knows. Thoughts of "appropriation of remains" crossed my mind, but I quickly pushed them aside. The path is narrow, but surprisingly smooth. A couple of turns are scary, tight, and you can look over towards the mountains and see the ridiculous steep chasm below. A one way trip down for sure. There is a narrow passage that leads straight to the mouth of the ancient carved bridge. The sight is something straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie: a thick steel cable bolted to the rock serves as railing as you hug the mountain and slowly descend to the very edge of the blocked entrance to the bridge. I had a Gopro attached to my chest the whole way there and despite the distorted wide angle, the footage offers a good representation of what it feels like to get that close to the mouth of the abyss. Certainly not something you want to do frequently - you just don't want to grow desensitized to the looming danger such a path offers.
We spent most of the day in Machupicchu. As suggested by our guide, we stayed until mid-afternoon when most of the tourists were gone. Back at the lodge, I felt numb and tired. It was so surreal to set foot on those ancient grounds. And the memory was already starting to fade slightly.
Peru was humbling in so many ways. And I was happy to realize that I am not quite as jaded as I thought by the relentless first world comforts and distractions we have in the US. Witnessing this way of life, through the ancient ruins, the simple food, and the resilient people made me see that deciding to take this trip has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. I am slowly climbing back to meet my real self, one experience at a time.