You think you know Machu Picchu. You have seen it in guidebooks, in things to do before you die lists, in Facebook photo albums of various friends. You’ve seen it in high-definition technicolour. How can seeing it in person not be an anti-climax?
I thought all of these things, until I saw it. The lost city, that technically has no name, but is referred to by the name of the mountain: Machu Picchu.
And maybe it’s the altitude, and maybe it’s exhaustion, maybe it’s that you’ve been working towards this moment for so long: planning and training and fundraising and hiking — but either way, it’s a big emotional moment. I tell everyone the same thing: if you want to see Machu Picchu, you should hike the Inca trail to get there.
Sure, you can take a bus up the mountain from Agua Calientes, and arrive all fresh and rested, but where would be the sense of achievement?
The last day’s hiking started with an unexpected lie-in. When this became the plan, I don’t know, I was fairly sure it was meant to be an early start to be there for sunrise: but none of that mattered once we were awake and on our way. To tell the truth, the hike to get to Machu Picchu on the last day fades in my memory: because there was an enormous event waiting at the end, and everything else becomes over-exposed because of it.
What I remember most is the stone steps up to the sun gate, from where you look down on to the lost city below. One more set of steps, except that lining the steps on both sides are the trip guides, the doctors, the porters you have become close to over the last few days. And they are all cheering and applauding. I raised an arm in triumph for a photo: I did it. On bruised and blistered and broken feet, I did it.
After the photo opportunities with mountain Machu Picchu in the background, we were encouraged to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection about why we were there and what we had accomplished. That’s about the time that the exhaustion and altitude combined to have almost everyone break down in tears. We were all there raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, and all had stories about how cancer had affected the lives of people around us — or us personally. My aunt would have loved Machu Picchu and Peru, and it seemed like a fitting tribute to her memory.
What I don’t often talk about is the pain I was in on this last day. I’d been on a prescription pain killers all week to deal with the pain in my injured foot and in my knees, and had foolishly decided for the last day to start reducing the dose. Looking back, I could have waited another couple of days, but I under-estimated how much of a hike the final day would be. But you know what? Look at that smile. I was genuinely happy. In that moment, it was all worth it.
Among the ruins of Machu Picchu there are wild llamas just wandering around, and once you have descended the long, winding path down to the city you yourself just wander among the ruins and the grass: marvelling at the pyramids and the buildings, and the ingenuity of this long lost civilisation. Everyone there probably wishes they were alone to experience it without the slightly grubby hikers, like me, or the fresh faced tourists just off the air-conditioned bus. Just the same, you remember the feeling of the city and try to memorise all the details to report back later.