It’s here! Our Traveler Thursday series kicks-off today, with Mackenzie Welch’s journey to Machu Picchu.
For me, big part of travelling is showing up and seeing what happens. That’s how I ended up in Peru for part of this summer, on my own, with a day pack worth of stuff, and without a guidebook. My goal in Peru was to see Machu Picchu before my study abroad program in Quito started and to try to get a glimpse of other parts of Peru. After a short time at the beach and two overnight buses, I arrived in Cusco. Unfortunately I didn’t have a ton of time to explore the city and left for Machu Picchu after spending three days there.
To begin my trip, I woke up at 5 AM on Monday morning and grabbed my backpack and a cup of coca leaf tea, which helps with altitude sickness. I squeezed into the van that would take me past the Sacred Valley and up into the mountains for the morning bike ride. I immediately fell asleep. I don’t know about you guys, but I cannot stay awake on long bus or van rides.
When I woke up, we had made our way out of Cusco and were up in the mountains. Because it was early and we were driving higher and higher up the mountains, everything was obscured by fog. As the car wound around turns and further into the Andes, mountain peaks would appear in the fog and disappear again in a matter of seconds. It was a magical landscape, where the van was just floating through a cloud of white. At certain points, we couldn’t see more than twenty feet in front of the van. When the clouds parted, we could see massive stony mountains roaring out of the mist and even a llama or two walking along the roadside.
After about an hour, we reached the highest point of the mountain pass and got out to begin our bike ride. With elbow pads, knee pads, and huge helmets, we grabbed our bikes and sped down the mountain. It was freezing cold for the first hour of biking, and we cruised through the mist without being able to see much more than the road right in front of us. Cars came hurtling towards us out of the mist, and we had to be careful to stay out of their way but not fall off the side of the mountain. After a while, we reached a lower elevation where we weren’t biking through clouds and could see the valleys and peaks surrounding us. I tried taking pictures while I biked, but after a girl fell and had to go to the hospital, I decided you guys would forgive me if I didn’t have many pictures of biking.
After biking we piled into the van again and got a bite to eat before rafting. At the rafting shop, we had a safety briefing and loaded up on gear. The outfits we had to wear for rafting made all
of us look ridiculous, with big white helmets and giant waterproof jackets. We had to memorize a few commands for how to paddle and then we set out. Going down the river was really entertaining and even funnier because my friends couldn’t tell left from right. Every time the rafting guide told them to do something, they would accidentally do the opposite. I made fun of them, but they got their revenge when they started swimming in the river and pulled me in
After rafting, we headed to another small town and spent the night there. In the morning, we went zip-lining in the mountains. It was incredible, not only for the feeling of flying through the air attached to a small metal cable, or wire, but also because the views were incredible. Some people did tricks on their cables and would zoom from mountain to mountain while hanging upside down. (Check out the video I made for you to see the view!) After zip-lining, we had a great lunch and then started a three hour trek to get to the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. A lot of people take the train, but it was way more exciting to walk on the train tracks next to the roaring river. When we got to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu Moutain, everyone was pretty worn out and we went to sleep early.
At 4 AM my alarm started beeping angrily and I rolled out of bed. It was pitch black in our room, so I just hoped I had everything in my bag as I ran out the hostel room and down to the bus stop. I waited in line for an hour in the dark before getting on the bus to go up the
mountain. At 6 AM, I walked through the entrance gate to Machu Picchu.
It was everything I had expected and more. There is a feeling that you get when you enter ancient places, when you think about the thousands of the people who lived and died where you are exploring. I love to think about how the Incans that lived in Machu Picchu felt as they
walked through the city and what they thought about. Machu Picchu is also a unique ancient city, because it was never discovered by the Spanish when they were destroying other Incan cities in Peru. Because it was never ransacked, the buildings were never damaged by human hands and are mostly intact. Machu Picchu needed only a little restoration work to make it look like it does now.
The lack of extensive restoration makes Machu Picchu more exciting for me than other ancient cities, because that means that most of the stones that I touched were put there by Incan hands hundreds of years ago. It also makes the city more mysterious. When you walk through the city in the early morning, all of the nearby mountains are hidden by fog. It looks like you are just standing in the middle of a cloud, but you are also surrounded by towering stone walls. At 6 AM, there aren’t many other people, so there also places where you feel completely alone in the ruins.
The fact that the history of Machu Picchu is unknown adds to the mystery of the morning. None really knows what Machu Picchu was used for, or even its real name. Machu Picchu just means Old Mountain. A few of the theories for the city are that it was a city for the religious leaders and astronomers of the Incan people or that it was built to be the unifying point of the massive Incan empire. Even though the facts are unclear on what Machu Picchu was used for, we know it was an important city because of all of the temples and the hundreds of Incan mummies that have been discovered in the city.
Machu Picchu was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham in 1911. The reason that I put discovered in quotation marks is because when he arrived, there already were local families living next to Machu Picchu and using parts of it as a garden. Hiram Bingham himself was led to the ruins by a local eleven-year-old boy who already knew where they were. Since 1911, the city has become increasingly famous, and now thousands of people come to Machu Picchu every day. Machu Picchu was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, joining the ranks of other famous historical sites around the globe.
There is still a lot of investigation being done regarding Machu Picchu, and I’m excited to learn more about what modern day astronomers and archeologists find out about. If you want to learn more about Machu Picchu, check out the links I’ve put below. Lastly, if you want to go to Machu Picchu, take me with you! I want to go back!
Mackenzie Welch is a political science major at Swarthmore College on a Benjamin A. Gilman International scholarship to study abroad in Quito, Ecuador. To read more of Mackenzie’s adventures abroad visit: http://www.reachtheworld.org/journals/39242
The featured image for this entry comes from Brian Parcells, MyShot