This past weekend we finally reached the pinnacle of our trip, Machu Picchu. I have wanted to go to this Wonder for as long as I can remember, partly because my mom has always been fascinated by Incan culture and talked about going to the site together. Although I was not with my family, I got to go to Machu Picchu with my friends, Professor Aggie, and our (possibly pet chicken-owning) tour guide, Carlos–not too shabby! I hope to return one day with my family and show them around, though I am far from an expert. The thing about Machu Picchu is that it resists such expertise–although there are plenty of very skilled tour guides who know the site well, nearly 60% of Machu Picchu is still buried underneath rainforest. Excavations of these hidden areas are dangerous and require advanced equipment. In many ways, Machu Picchu maintains an air of mystery, secrecy, of the past haunting the present, even though it is a very visited site.
Admittedly, the swarm of tourists at Machu Picchu the day I went detracted from the magic of the ancient city. I know it’s hypocritical to say so since I too was a sunblock-slathered, baseball cap-wearing tourist. But there is something incredibly and undeniably consumptive (and almost sickening) about the huge tourism industry surrounding Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes, where all visitors to Machu Picchu stay, eat, and shop, is but a stepping stone of a town and very eerie because of it. All of the restaurants sell the same food advertised in the same way: giant signs chained together, hanging out in front of the establishment. COMIDA MEXICANA. COMIDA TÍPICA. COMIDA ITALIANA. The bodegas are jam-packed with junk food, energy bars, bottles of water and beer and Gatorade, and Peruvian trinkets, all overpriced. Everywhere Machu Picchu is both venerated and commoditized; the town is both empty and full of people, empty and full of meaning. Tourists wander the sloping streets, knowing that the Wonder is but a bumpy bus ride up the mountain away as women reach out to them with pamphlets about spas, whispering, “Masaje? Masaje? Maybe later…”
All of this was in my mind as we queued up for the bus at 5:30 on Sunday morning. Already the line was long, snaking past the stores and restaurants that line the main street. Some were open, beacons of light cutting through the glum of early morning. I listened to the sound of the eponymous river crashing over rocks below and felt so many things: excited, tired, sad, overwhelmed. About thirty minutes later, we finally boarded a bus and began the ascent to Machu Picchu. The trail was treacherous–often without guardrails and one-way, which was problematic when a descending bus met an ascending one head-on–but nothing I wasn’t prepared for, as many of the other roads to other ruins were the same way.
When we finally reached the site, we had to wait in another line to have our tickets checked. I was overwhelmed by the amount of tourists already at Machu Picchu–there, of course, for the exact same reason as I, to see the sunrise–and felt profoundly sad wondering what the Incas who built the city would think if they could see it now. I know I should’ve been happy; it’s fantastic that so many people are interested in history and Inca civilization. But it’s like how I felt during the Inti Raymi festival a couple of days ago–what are people’s reasons for going? How much is performative? How much is real?
After all of our tickets had been checked, we followed Carlos down a path and suddenly there it was, the Machu Picchu. The sky was beginning to lighten but the site was still drenched in shadow, and it absolutely took my breath away. My view became more and more comprehensive as we climbed the stairs to a higher point where we could see the sunrise better. Other groups up there were milling about, taking pictures and listening to their tour guides, as rays of light shone from behind the mountains. And then, in a single beautiful moment, the sun appeared between two peaks; everyone’s heads were turned the same way, kissed by the warmth of a new day, as little by little the stones of Machu Picchu began to gleam. As much as all the tourists at Machu Picchu detracted from its magic, this collective sunrise was undeniably magical.
In Spanish, subidas y bajadas is the equivalent of “highs and lows,” and my trip to Machu Picchu was both, quite literally and emotionally. In fact, my whole time in Peru has been nothing but a series of subidas y bajadas. Sometimes I see an Andean child on the street with dirty, torn shoes or no shoes at all and want to cry, but then I see him hug his mommy–who is making a simple breakfast of potato, egg, and mayonnaise for hungry pedestrians–and wonder if maybe his life isn’t so sad after all. One of the perils of being observant (and extremely sensitive) is that these subidas y bajadas can happen suddenly and powerfully. But I’ve learned over the years to simply give myself a little bit of time to process and regain my balance. Then I can begin to climb again, to a place where I can see the sunrise and appreciate it for what it is.