Clearly, I wasn’t alone. When I tore myself away from the luxurious confines of the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel to catch the 6 AM bus in the center of town, every seat was filled. The goal was to get to the citadel early enough to see the sun rise over the mountains and to avoid the rush of day-trippers who’d soon flood the site. I was in a group led by Alberto Rengifo (or Beto, as he told us to call him), who took us on a 15-minute hike up a stone path to the Watchman’s Hut, the best place to take in your first view of the citadel.
It was hard not to wonder what the city looked like when American explorer Hiram Bingham first saw it in 1911—it was then covered in the vegetation that had kept it a secret for centuries. What remains is this: a phantom city of about 200 buildings pieced together with 18 different kinds of walls, a citadel marked with fountains, quarries and temples, all built on top of a remote mountain.
It was also hard not to wonder what the ancient inhabitants of Machu Picchu would have made of today’s trail revelers. While curtains of thick mist swept in and out, revealing the citadel and then concealing it, I could hear the shouts of those who had hiked the Inca Trail and arrived at their goal. "We made it!" I heard over and over. Beto smiled and told me that people wait all their lives to make it to Machu Picchu, that it is the culmination of a dream. "And I get to be there," he said, "when they reach their dream."
The hills that surround the city are ridged with terraces—some for agriculture, some for defense—and I sat on the edge of one, waiting for the fingers of light that played over the mist to brighten. "I’ve been here thousands of times," Beto said, "and it’s always different." Then the light grew stronger and the citadel shone before us, laid out like a treasure. When you’re there, you can’t help but think that it is a secret place, a sacred place, that maybe it wasn’t meant for whooping backpackers and bickering couples and a grumpy, middle-aged female traveling alone.
But when Beto assembled the group to move on, I was ready to get closer to the city, to touch the gray stones and the mountain that looms behind it, Huayna Picchu.
Falling Into Revelation
A few hours later, I was covered in dust and howling in pain, splay-legged on the path leading to the craggy green peak of the mountain.
You may be asking how I got there.
During the tour of the citadel, I found my gaze drawn more and more to the challenge before me: a mountain to climb. Only a few hundred people are allowed to scale Huayna Picchu each day, and you must register at a small booth, listing your name and age. The first time I had to pause and catch my breath, I started to question why they want to know how old you are—so they can tell the authorities when you don’t come back?—but the reward for being winded on this path is that you can stop and look around. And I didn’t want to stop looking around me, mesmerized by the green folds of the neighboring mountains, by the emerald tracery of the Urubamba River at the bottom of the valley.
I began to feel a sense of accomplishment as my feet pressed on the next rocky hold, as I grabbed and swayed with the rope banisters. As I got closer to the top, a white-haired man with sunglasses and a walking stick paused to appraise my fitness on his way down. "It just gets worse," he said, cackling. "It goes straight up! And there’s a cave!" I grimaced and kept climbing. But I must admit that he had a point: It did get steeper. And there was a cave. With hikers behind me, I didn’t have much time to think, so I shimmied my way through the small opening and came out the other side, dust-covered and resplendent with my achievement. I hate heights and small spaces. What was I doing here?