The Legendary Inca City of Machu Picchu

Where: Peruvian Andes
When: January 2004
Partners: Huayna Picchu (once solo, and once with JD)

Putukusi (from Machu Picchu)

Ever since I first set eyes on a picture of Machu Picchu, the legendary, inspiring and dreamy Inka ruins deep in the jungles of the Peruvian Andes, I wanted to visit her.

And so in 2003 I found myself setting out on a two-week visit to my first South American country. Among the memories of giant mountains, the eroded streaming hillsides I explored alone for hours above the city of Cuzco, the native people who welcomed us so warmly, the dogs who wandered everywhere, the massive cocaine bust only blocks away, the quiet, contemplative moments spent watching a blind beggar playing harmonica in the city squares, the ocean next to Lima, the little Inca children of the mountains so curious about our light skin and hair, it's perhaps Machu Picchu that I remember most fondly.

After setting out from Cuzco one morning by train, we met up with a retired American man who had toured the world extensively since abandoning the working life. Among the many questions I had for him, I asked, as I frequently glanced out the window of our groaning train to see acres of marijuana plants growing on the hillsides on our way to our stop in Aguas Calientes, what the most poverty-stricken place was he'd ever been. Without a pause, he replied "India." Shame.

Eventually arriving in Aguas Calientes, we found the river flowing like mad and the locals eager to sell us their crafts. But it was on to the site!

Arriving by late afternoon in a bus, the site was crowded and just as it had appeared in photographs - mysterious, mesmerizing, beautiful. But too busy.

I set out alone, away from the clouds, to climb Huayna Picchu, the small, steep mountain one sees above Machu Picchu in nearly every photo of the site. Following ancient, Inca-carved steps up the slippering, moist little peak, the views from the top were terrific, particularly looking down on the site and across the river to Pukutusi, a mountain more impressive than the one I was on.

Returning to Aguas Calientes for something to eat and a bed, my thoughts turned to an early visit to the site in the morning.

Heading up the steep, switchbacking road that leads from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, I arrived to the site at first light, the ruins still shrouded in heavy mist. I befriended a security man who with the help of a $20 tip gladly gave me a private tour of the entire site. While doing so, the morning sun hit the ruins, the mist began to spiral upward, and clear, morning views of the ancient buildings unfolded. A sight to behold!

Again heading up Huayna Picchu as my tour ended and the crowds arrived, I bid farewell to the ancient city and entertained thoughts of my return to Cuzco and the adventures that lie beyond!