Just before six in the morning, I stood waiting for the gate to open. I wanted to experience the ruins in the quiet of morning’s first light, with perhaps a handful of fellow travelers holding on to the same humble expectation. For this purpose I had climbed a few kilometers of stairs in the dark through the humid cloud forest.
As the opening time approached and the first buses from town unloaded, hundreds of people had already formed a snaking line behind me. At the front, a group of French college students argued loudly with the guards over a baggage issue.
I suddenly wanted to leave, even as I stood literally on the cusp of one of the great wonders of the world, plagued by feelings of anxiety as though the disappointment wouldn’t be worth it. I longed to experience again my day at Pisac.
The atmosphere was reminiscent of a Hollywood movie premier. Ticket prices for both the train and the ruins themselves were exorbitant, even by American or European standards. Aguas Calientes, where visitors stay the night, calls to mind an old West boomtown, built hastily around the railroad tracks for a single purpose: to handle the tourist traffic of Machu Picchu. Its run of the mill restaurants (at least 9 out of 10 are “pizzerias”) and hotels charge some of the highest prices in all of Peru.
All of which, of course, is largely irrelevant of the fact that Machu Picchu is one of the most purely breathtaking sites of human creation in the entire world, what Pablo Neruda referred to as “The high reef of the human dawn.” Which is to say, the Incans came upon a place of overpowering natural aesthetic beauty, and rather than simply be humbled, built a city that not only pays tribute to the surrounding grandeur, but contributes to it as well.
As the understandably animated throng of visitors began to filter through the complex, a discernable and heartening hush developed, that while not dominant, was pervasive. Groups and individuals perched around the guard tower, where the classic view of the Machu Picchu is gained, and some were content to sit quietly for the better part of an hour watching the clouds swirl and flow around the mountains and Incan stone, literally seeing the jungle breathe as clouds emanate from the Urumbamba River and forest, rising up to join the shifting banks overhead.
Yes, part of me found it tragic that a place so obviously constructed to lift the human spirit to a place of sacred quietude is not, today, experienced for its fullest purpose. Though beautiful, yes. Also historically interesting, photogenic, a place one can tell your friends you saw (like I’m doing now) and, ultimately, peaceful.
Walking away from Machu Picchu after my second day, having explored every room and pathway, from sunrise to sunset, experiencing both silence and memorable conversation, two thoughts preoccupied me: one was that I felt immensely grateful to be among its visitors; the other was that if the Incans could do it centuries ago – without even the wheel or a written language – what’s stopping us today? Even in our biggest creations – our skyscrapers, aircraft carriers, dams, and airports – the human spirit is not so fully expressed.
For me, the divide between why Machu Picchu was built and how we experience it today says a lot, succinctly and bittersweetly, about what we value as a civilization.