2005: Machu Picchu, Peru; 17 Jan
A month in South America, and only one guided tour. One "all-inclusive package," one "tourista blue-plate special." With a limited number of days remaining on our trip, my friend and I arrived in Cusco with no arrangements and no place to stay. The only thing we had was an ultimatum hanging over our schedule. "We have to go to Machu Picchu tomorrow, otherwise its not gonna work." When we arrived at the Cusco bus terminal, after a 54-hour ride from Valparaiso, Chile, the joy of being on land mixed with the exhaustion of our ride. Two women approached us and pitched their hotels. One woman gave us a phenomenal rate. The other woman said, "My twin sister runs a travel agency right out of the hotel. We have gas boilers in our hotel. This woman's hotel has electric boilers. We have more hot water." It was the strangest duel between two women I've ever seen, and it made me feel ashamed to even be in the position of choosing one fine sales pitch over another. But the idea of not having to leave my hotel to book this tour seemed golden.
If you want to go to Machu Picchu on a day trip, you are going on a tour. The only way to avoid it is to hike the last stretch of the Inca Trail, a four day hike from Cusco. I highly recommend this hike, as a day trip proved to be overwhelmingly incredible but too brief.
We get to the hotel and the twin sister of the woman we spoke to at the bus terminal says, "Yes we have a tour leaving tomorrow at 6:30am." I sigh. I haven't really slept in any of the past three days on the bus. They've been the worst rides of my life, actually. I turn to Danielle in despair. I tell her I'm not sure I want to shell out $110 to have another miserable day without sleep. She says, "We have to go tomorrow. I'm going whether you are or not." The absolute authority in her voice was all the convincing I needed. The next day we dragged ourselves out of bed and went down to the lobby. 6:30am sharp. The bus was not there. At 7:30 the bus arrived. So did the other people in the group. We were in Peru. New time zone.
But the totally unnecessary 5am wake-up was invigorating. The trip to the Incan ruins featured a ride on a coal train, a bus ride on what was formerly the world's most dangerous road (Venezuela has now earned that distinction), hikes, information, wandering, and photo-opping like nobody's business.
Though it is South America's #1 tourist destination, the January offseason and the enormity of the grounds made viewing peaceful, relaxed, and intimate. The site is similar to other ancient ruins travelers have told me about. One can, without hindrance, climb on the walls, walk along terraces, hike down any hillside, and generally play all day long. I felt as if I were among some of the holiest ruins on earth, yet simultaneous inside of a well-curated exhibition and an absurd performance art space. The way in which you can interact with the space only heightens the profundity of the trip. If this ruin was within the continental US, all of it would be roped off. Visiting hours restricted. Viewing platforms designated. Instead, the experience is not a stagnant expectation. It can be interpreted a number of ways. I highly recommend this trip, and hope to make it back someday on a more flexible itinerary.