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11 Thoughts on Machu Picchu

I just returned from a tough, rewarding and thought provoking trip to several South American countries this summer. For me, like many people who travel down that way, the highlight of the trip was a visit to Machu Picchu in Peru. After going to see one of the modern seven wonders of the world, I was left with several thoughts:

  1. IMG_8987
    The train that will take you to the base of Machu Picchu

    Machu Picchu is the definition of why a person should travel while they’re young. There are a lot of people out there who have decided to put their career above everything. More power to them. However, many of them are also excited for the second phase of their life where they get to retire comfortably and travel to their heart’s content. Well, there’s a reason for the old adage “travel while you’re young.” Machu Picchu is not easy to get to and is at a pretty high elevation, about 8,000 feet. Sadly, even if a person throws down the cash to avoid the, at times scary, van ride to the end of the closet road, and the 2 hour hike into the nearest town, and pays a bit more to avoid the 1,700 step climb up to the site, if they have any health problems or nagging injuries, they’ll likely find it quite challenging to get around and fully take in the place.

2. I really don’t like tourists. As I said in a recent article, I am an unapologetic travel snob. I distinguish between travelers and tourists and Machu Picchu perfectly exemplifies the difference. Tourists arrive and move around in huge swarms like locusts and many of them wear heels and skirts, or something else equally inappropriate for climbing around the top of a mountain. Tourists assume everyone is interested in what they have to say. At least that’s what I assume by how loudly they talk. Tourists constantly block paths while aimlessly waiting around for someone to tell them where to go next.

3. Machu Picchu will force you to become a tourists, at least for a day. I tried to do Machu Picchu as independently as possible. I hiked in, found my own accommodations, and hiked up myself. That said, I still found myself waiting in line after line to get there and even with the hike in and hike up, I was in a huge crowd all doing the same thing. There was even in a predawn line at the gate waiting for the trail to the top to open at 4 am. There’s just no way around it with a place that controlled and restricted by the government, which is trying to protect the site.

4. There is no sunrise at Machu Picchu, despite what everyone says. Luckily, I understood this thanks to a great book I read about the site, Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Despite knowing this, I still joined the hundreds of people who began their hike to the top in the dark to beat the sun. Still, getting up that early was the right move. Because while there isn’t a colorful sunrise to paint the sky above the ruins, a fully risen sun does make a very dramatic entrance over the surrounding mountains to cast its bright light down on to ruins themselves.

IMG_90385. Pictures are not complete without someone’s big head in them. This was not a generational thing, or an American thing, or a girl thing. Every single person I saw there was constantly posing for pictures be they selfies, group shots or solo pics. I often felt like I was the only person taking pictures of the site itself. Don’t get me wrong, I took a few shots of myself being there for posterity and after that hike up, I felt like I had kind of earned it, but I was much more interested in capturing photos that highlighted the beauty of the ruins and immensely impressive setting they were built in. I’m not sure what the need is of people to be in all their own pictures, but clearly I’m the oddball for having an issue with it.

images (2)6. People are getting ridiculous with their poses. I used to make fun of Russian couples for the intensity of their photo shoots. On the beaches of SE Asia, the women were often rolling around in the sand like they were paid models and the men would sit there and snap a hundred photos of their wannabe cover-girl girlfriends. However, this now seems to be the standard as everyone was acting like they were at a cover shoot. They were either jumping or laying down, or, my personal favorite and seemingly the pose of the season, doing “The Happy Jesus.” They would put their arms out to the side like they were being crucified, while smiling big. The competition to get the best pose even cost one German tourist his life the week before I got there. He fell off a cliff while trying to get the perfect pic, which was just one of the growing number of “death by selfies,” so far this year.

IMG_9051 17. Some places have to be seen to be fully appreciated. The highest compliment I can give a place is to admit that my best attempts at taking pictures of it don’t do it justice. Like the Great Wall, Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu is such a place. Along with getting a better understanding of just how impressive some of the craftsmanship involved with the buildings there are, going there to take in the Inca’s insanely impressive choice of location for this city, which sits at the end of the snow capped Andes and the start of the Amazon jungle, and lays between two mountain peaks that rise above a horseshoe bend in a river. And this is to say nothing of how impressive a feat this construction project was given its high elevation that leaves most visitors having to pause for breath at least a few times during a visit.

IMG_91878. There are llamas up there. Maybe it’s not a big deal to some people, but I was very excited to get up there and see several llamas walking around on the main plaza. It was a really nice touch that helped make it that much easier to imagine what the city might have been like when people were actually living there.

9. No matter the weather, it’s always a good time to go. I arrived on a perfectly clear day without a cloud in the sky nor a cloud hanging on the mountains. It made for some good pictures; however, I can honestly say that I would have loved to have gotten some pictures of the place shrouded in clouds and mist, which it apparently often is in the early morning before the sun burns it all off.

10. Yoga pants are the pants of choice for female travelers. At one point during the my hike to get there, I started counting to see just what percentage of women were actually wearing these super stretchy pants. I stopped after finding the first 49 of 50 women I came across were wearing them. This leaves me with just one question for the ladies: How comfortable are these things? Seriously though, do I need to get a pair? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a workout product so universally adopted by people.

incatrail_elevation_map11. I wish I had known to book the Inca trail well in advance. While there is said to be a daily limit on the number of tourists who can visit Machu Picchu, no tour agent I met in Cuzco has ever heard of anyone being turned away. However, when it comes to taking the multi-day hike on the Inca trail, the impressive ruin-lined highland highway the Incas built to move from city to city, there is a strict limit on visitors. So if you’re interested in going, you need to book months ahead. This is likely a good thing since it will give you time to prepare for it since it’s a pretty difficult hike. That said, every single person I met who did it said it was one of the best things they’ve ever done in their life.

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Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

One thought on “11 Thoughts on Machu Picchu

  1. Brian, you absolutely need to try on some yoga pants! Preferably after wearing a skirt, panty hose & high heels for at least 6 – 8 hours. After that, you might be able to understand their appeal….. 🙂

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