The Machu Picchu Mistake: Is Seeing the Ruins Still Worth It?
9:30pm, the night before my visit to Machu Picchu. I leap out of bed and race for the toilet.
“Esta ocupado,” someone whispers. I’ve already slammed into the door and the poor girl inside – merely trying to brush her teeth – opens up. Before I can speak, the first retch comes. I manage to hold it down, burst past her, and plunge my head into the bowl.
It takes me a little while to wonder if she is still behind me, frozen in shock and disgust, or if she fled at the first hint of what was to come. But, really, I am just too relieved to care.
Ever since the Arroz Cubana the night before, my stomach has been bubbling alarmingly. Until now, the Peruvian street food has been serving me well. No matter where you are, if you can find a local fruit and vegetable market, you can find little stalls offering hearty plates of rice or noodles for as little as $1.35.
But that time, I came too late. The market was almost finished and all but one of the stalls had closed. The señora had to relight the burners and literally scrape the bottoms of the barrels to feed me: the last morsels of rice, the last sorry-looking egg, the last shrivelled clumps of salad.
The next 24 hours become an exercise in the maintenance of perfect stillness for my stomach, which makes the train to Machu Picchu Village an interesting challenge. It rattles along the mountain tracks at an agonising 30km/hour. I cower in my seat for all of half an hour — burping, gurgling and farting like a drunken baby — before I am forced to the bathroom at the back of the carriage. Sticking my head out the open window does me some good, though, and I make the rest of the journey without incident.
Wedged between sheer jungle mountains and perched over rushing rivers, Machu Picchu Village is picturesquely remote. Remote, but overrun nonetheless. All the signs are in English and all the prices in US dollars. The steep streets are difficult to navigate, especially for the town’s rubbish collectors, who scream for right of way as they hurtle past, barely arresting the momentum of the overstuffed wagons that roll down behind them.
I rise at 4:30 the next morning for a (very) light breakfast in my factory farm of a hostel, then head to the bus station. A queue of tourists snakes almost a kilometre through the streets. Merely confirming that this is in fact the line for the buses sees 50 more people join. Inching alongside the train tracks through the middle of the town, we are easy pickings for sandwich vendors and tour guides. As a train rolls by, I briefly consider throwing myself in front of it.
After two hours of waiting, we are loaded onto a bus. One of the tour guides sits next to me.
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” he observes, rubbing too much citrus deodorant on his neck.
“Yes,” I reply, “beautiful.”
And, actually, it is. The jungle peaks soar above the valley in sweeping, dramatic fashion, wreathed in lush vegetation and the rising morning clouds.
Disembarking the bus, I feel a lot better, and even manage to lose my would-be guide, slipping away in the line and into the complex. Weaving through the crowds, I soon come to the platform where the quintessential view of the ruins can be taken in. I resist the urge to immediately take out my phone. Instead, I just try to take it all in. To feel the awe old Emperor Pachacuti must have inspired, that his Inca would drag all those enormous blocks to such absurd heights, simply for another royal estate. His name has been translated as “He Who Overturns Time and Space”, and, meditating on the ruins, one might feel both the power and the folly of such a claim.
But no more than 30 seconds pass before I am tapped on the sleeve.
“Sir, I want to take a photo.”
A line of people is waiting to take my place. Handing my phone to a stranger, I shoot my few snaps and get out of the way.
At every other vantage, it is the same: somebody anxiously waiting for a gap in the crowds, adopting for a few seconds a pensive look into the distance, maybe one knee bent in contemplation, like Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Or sitting cross-legged, back turned, arms outstretched, in a spontaneous embrace of their unique moment. All this before hurrying off to the next photo-op. The most daring clamber over the rope fences and up onto the outcroppings in search of a photo that is truly one-of-a-kind. Or at least, one with a background not filled with other tourists. They quickly incur the wrath of the wardens, who blow whistles and wave furiously to herd us along the one-way circuit.
I quickly veer off that main complex path, wandering down the most peaceful road I can find. After 15 minutes, I come across a trekker headed the other way.
“What’s up that way?” I ask him.
“The Sun Gate.”
“Mmmyeah, just another view of the whole thing.”
“You don’t sound very impressed.”
He squints at me from beneath a sheen of sweat and grips the straps of his pack.
“I hiked four days to get here,” he laments, trudging away.
Everywhere I go, I see people with similar expressions to his. They sit exhausted in the shade, nodding vacantly along to the lectures of their guides, eyes screaming, “How did I get roped into this?”
Not that you see this in the photos, of course. There, everybody is determined to create the same fantasy they themselves were promised in travel magazines and on social media. To understand something of a history they’ve no connection to, of the astronomical significance of structures that are no longer there. They will try to marvel at the grandeur that is, in truth, merely piles of rubble, built in a landscape admittedly spectacular, though robbed off much of its formidable mystique by the throngs traipsing casually across it.
Of course, I cannot exempt myself from their number. I already knew I had little interest in ancient ruins. Yet here I am, unable to resist the pressure to visit one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World,’ as decided by internet poll.
American explorer Hiram Bingham wrote in 1910 that “few romances can ever surpass that of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca land”. As the first outsider ever to lay eyes on the deserted, overgrown citadel, deep in the uncharted Andean wild, you can hardly fault his sentiment. The most intriguing ruins are deserted, after all. Whispering quietly, if at all, of their former purpose. But, like temples and churches, when they are flooded with commerce and the deafening expectations of tourism, they lose whatever might have made them sacred to begin with.
They become like plundered tombs, robbed not in search of gold, but the new treasure of our age: profile pictures.
And this much, at least, is true: the pictures are phenomenal.