machu picchu crouching tigers

“Are people the same all over the world, or are they different?” I ask my traveling companion, Anton, in the back of our taxi as it careens through the streets of Ica, Peru. Having just come back from seeing the congested, but tightly regimented, superhighways of ants and termites in the rainforest, it’s clear that Peruvian drivers operate on something closer to chaos theory, merging and unmerging like panic-stricken patrons fleeing a fiery theater. Twice, our taxi driver turned right from the left lane, cutting off the car to his right. Another time, our driver turned headlong into two oncoming, conjoined lines of traffic, forcing them to part like the Red Sea.

“Everybody is the same,” Anton says confidently, as an old entrepreneur walks up to our temporarily stopped car, offering to sell us toilet paper. “Same wants, same desires, same fears, same everything.”

Traveling may seem less urgent than ever in the 21st century, because pictures are so easy to make and distribute. Virtual reality, and Facebook’s new 360-degree photo feature, offer us climbs to the top of Everest and deep-sea dives in the Great Barrier Reef without ever leaving our couch.

Nowadays, then, the photographs themselves are the least of the story. The real story is the smells, the movements, the food, the things that could never happen in the “West,” the political arguments, the stories of cultural conflict. And of course there’s the ancillary story of the fish out of the water, the visitor trying to be more traveler than tourist. To that end, I’m pleased that my friend and I eschewed package tours, scaling the ruins of Cusco and Machu Picchu on our lonesome. You learn more while dealing with the minutiae of logistics than you learn from the back of an air-conditioned bus. Visiting foreign sites while rubbing shoulders with Americans is a lot like never leaving home; visiting foreign sites while talking with locals makes it likelier that they’ll rub off on you.

One Lima-born Peruana (that’s the Spanish word; “Peruvian” is English) who happens to be dating my cousin told me to skip Lima, so we mostly did, choosing to enter the country via red-eye from California to Lima and then transfer right away to a flight to Cusco. That internal flight, ascending from sea level to a destination 11,000 feet high, was a lot like the first part of a roller-coaster, where the rickety ascent matches your anticipation level. We could see Andean snows in the distance as our jet came upon a slight brown valley that entirely encompassed the mountain city. The limited sprawl congealed around one solitary airstrip – no, not an X, just one lone strip – surely there was more to landing an airplane in this world city than this? Nope! Next thing we knew, we were on the ground, in an airport whose number of gates had to be less than five.


Cusco is everything you’ve heard plus dogs. One day I held tight my beloved, badly ailing, barely breathing 9-year companion and chocolate lab as the doctor euthanized him. Two scant days later, I roamed a city with more stray pets than you see in the D.C. of Logan’s Run. Was this the Inca gods’ way of reminding me what a good life I gave Mosley? Or are we all living in our own Amazon-Netflix algorithms these days, where the very fabric of the universe says “Hey if you liked that, you’ll really love this”?

Cusco is so wonderful that the dogs don’t spoil it. Their wagging tails make nice accessories, along with the girls and women (never men, rarely boys) in traditional indigenous clothes offering you fabrics and tchotchkes. You just keep smiling and saying “no gracias” and the dogs and hustlers fall away like a waterfall you’ve passed under to enter a secret kingdom. This UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by mountains, of course, isn’t really hidden, though the conquistadors may have thought otherwise. One of our first stops was Qurikancha, supposedly “the most important temple in the Inca empire,” which the Spanish effaced by building their own temple of Santo Domingo PLOP! right on top.


For our first full day in Peru, Anton and I took a taxi seven kilometers outside Cusco to look at a few choice ruins, and walked all the way back. The ruins were perfectly ruinariffic, but it’s also nice to stroll nowhere near 100 meters from a tour bus, never mind most cars. I suppose there’s a degree of white-male privilege attendant to such a journey; let’s hope we made up for that by enjoying every random animal and smell. I could review the minutiae of the ruins of Tambo Machay, Pukapukara, and Q’enqo, but I’d rather review the, ahem, maxutiae of Saqsaywaman, and if you can say that word without giggling “sexy woman” you’ve got me and Anton beat. Saqsaywaman contains as extensive a series of ancient buildings as Machu Picchu, but is less famous because one, it doesn’t have the lost-city-of-El-Dorado vibe of being “discovered” 100 years ago, and two, instead of a spectacular mountain for a neighbor it’s got the urban sprawl of modern Cusco. Yet the stone remains are as spectacular as anything seen in any Greco-Roman site. We loved our sexy woman Saqsaywaman.


On our second full day in Peru, we visited the major ruins of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, between Cusco and Machu Picchu. We might have hired a car or paid a taxi driver, but either of these would have been far more arduous, and expensive, than the $25 (per person) we paid for a lovely bus tour. Anton and I tell ourselves that we do packages when appropriate, and we like the idea of non-package-day, package-day, non-package-day. We happened to get a terrific, indigenous-descended Quechua guide named Adriel. (I thought of Galadriel without the Gal; exploring the Andes, I no doubt thought about Middle-earth more than I should have.) Adriel showed us many things about the Valle Sagrado; above all were the sensational ruins of Pisac and Ollaytantambo. Adriel mentioned that Incas subjugated his ancestors and that every date we’d see at Machu Picchu (he suspected, not without reason, that most of the twenty of us were headed there the next day) would be from the 15th and 16th centuries. In a country that proudly sells Inca Cola everywhere (including McDonald’s; the soda is yellow and tastes like bubble gum), it was nice to have our official emissary to Inca history be comfortable with more than one version of it.


Contained within my Ziploc bag of printouts of all of our airplane and hotel reservations, at the back of the sheaf, was a somewhat idiosyncratic touch: a copy I’d made of a chapter of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” called “Collision at Cajamarca.” I thought I’d show it to Anton and whomever else we might encounter over Pisco Sours. (The Pisco Sour is the unofficial official drink of Peru.) It’s the story of one of the most fateful days in human history, the day in 1532 when Francisco Pizarro and his 168 fellow Spanish soldiers defeated the Incas’ 80,000 troops, captured their emperor, Atahualpa, and became conquistadores, without losing a single Spaniard. (On Netflix, you can rent the National Geographic version of Diamond’s book, which has an hour-long reenactment of this day, with extensive costumes, staging, and apparent Andean settings.) Pizarro went on to demand history’s largest ransom (still; roomfuls of gold and silver), and then kill Atahualpa anyway, and seize control of half of South America. It’s a story that provokes deep reflection from every person who cares about history and prejudice.

Back to the original question: are people the same all over the world, or are they different? Jared Diamond’s book is probably the best possible way of answering the former in the affirmative. Diamond assiduously minimizes “great man of history” arguments, basically claiming that there are great men and women in every culture, but that geography and farming advantages were deterministic. I don’t disagree, but I also find myself loving cultural differences. Anton and Diamond may be right, but I don’t want them to be. When I travel to another continent, I want to see sights, hear noises, smell smells, and meet people that are different, that change my perspective, that take me outside myself. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Somehow I think that’s part of why tourists to Peru are intuitively drawn to the ubiquitous llamas. They’re the only beast of burden native to the Western Hemisphere, a cuddly, weird suggestion of what might have been, what wasn’t, what’s different.

I could see the surprise on some of my fellow Americans’ faces when Adriel explained that the Inca Empire lasted (a little) less than a century. I joked to Anton that the Incas are to world history as Nirvana is to rock history. All-too-brief and loved more for their potential than for their actual accomplishments. Gringos are also often surprised to learn that the Incas didn’t even read or write, and thus we have to guess at half of the reasons for what they did. I like to think at how much the Incas did despite not being literate. Look at these 50-ton bricks placed, without mortar, so close to each other you couldn’t squeeze a needle through them, hauled up to the tops of mountains! Look at the drainage systems! Ancient Romans needed thousands of pages of instructions to get a city built; not the Incas. Diamond’s book, credulously quoting Pizarro’s army, claims that Pizarro’s priest showed Atahualpa a Bible, and the emperor threw to the ground this unfamiliar thing, this book. For me, that portion of the narrative confirms a few too many imperialist biases. On the other hand, the Incas were themselves imperialists over half their continent, so…

History is written by the winners, and crawling over pre-Columbian ruins, it’s not always easy to know whose story you’re getting, to know what survives and what should. One thing we know is that none of those conqueror-winners wrote about Machu Picchu, and surely that’s one reason for its mystique: it’s not “tainted” by association with the conquistadores in the manner of Saqsaywaman or Cajamarca. It’s a true “lost city” in the fabled manner of El Dorado. Machu Picchu is, however, tainted by association with Hiram Bingham, the white American explorer who “discovered” the site in 1911 with the help of indigenous farmers. Plaques pay tribute to him at the site’s entrance; the road to the site is called the Hiram Bingham Highway; the most expensive way of getting to the nearest town is via the Hiram Bingham train. (We took a cheaper train from Ollaytantambo, which nonetheless had a voice-over, in Spanish and English, in an intonation I’d only previously heard at Disneyland, saying things like “Please see to your personal items” and “We hope that your visit to Machu Picchu will be magical and mysterious.”) Seeing the site’s official Hiram Bingham plaques is a little bizarro (if not Pizarro) in our current time of taking down Confederate flags.


Visiting Peru without seeing Machu Picchu would be like going to Egypt and skipping the pyramids. So what, exactly, is one’s day at MP like? Well, if you don’t take the Inca Trail trek and camp on the fourth night right outside the site, and if you don’t take a bus from Cusco and arrive at something like 11:00am, then you probably do what we did, sleep in Aguas Calientes (formerly called Machu Picchu Village) and wake up well before first light. Every source tells you to try to get on the first bus at 5:30, and that’s why Anton and I thought we’d be clever, “sleep in” until 5:00am (ha ha), eat a leisurely breakfast, let the crowds go crazy at 5:30, and then stroll up around 5:45 for a presumably much shorter wait. Yeah, we were wrong. Only so many buses can travel the Hiram Bingham Highway at a time. (“How did they even get these buses in this tiny valley?” I ask at one point, noting no other four-wheeled vehicles. “Fitzcarraldo, Dan,” Anton answered, referencing our many discussions of the Werner Herzog film based on the Peru-exploiting rubber-baron. “Fitzcarraldo.”) We waited a very long half-hour in a dawn’s-early-light queue that had to be a thousand people long. And then the bus took us up the hill from the Urubamba River, and we waited again outside the entrance. And then we showed our tickets and we became one of that day’s few thousand people allowed inside Machu Picchu.

You walk about 100 feet of concrete, then scale about 100 stairs, and suddenly there it is: the postcard shot. Everyone catches their breath, everyone snaps a hundred photos. You knew exactly what it would look like, but somehow it’s better now that you’re here. You hear American voices and try to drown them out with the non-American ones. You think bucket list. You think Wonder of the World. You think I made it. Whatever else happens in life, that’s done. Now you can relax and enjoy the ruins. And it’s not even freakin’ 7am yet.


Anton and I had bought tickets that included climbing the big mountain that you see in the postcards behind the ruins, which is called Huaynu Picchu. Well…about a week before our flight to Peru, we realized that the site had been counter-intuitive and we actually hadn’t bought them at all. Upon this unwelcome realization, Anton immediately bought two “normal” Machu Picchu tickets to make sure we didn’t miss the site. Later, in Cusco, we learned that though there were no more tickets for Huaynu Picchu, there were tickets for the other, harder mountain, called Mount Machu Picchu, but we couldn’t simply “upgrade” to a ticket-plus-mountain-climb. If we wanted to climb, because of weird rules that include one passport number per ticket holder, we’d have to scrap our old tickets, eat the costs, and pay for entirely new tickets that included the climb. We dithered about it for a day and then decided to do it. After all, when would we ever be back?

About an hour of the way up Mount Machu Picchu, this plan began to seem crazier and crazier. It was all stairs…all stairs. You know how sometimes you climb a mountain and then there’s that one part where you start to go down just a tiny bit before going up again? Yeah, that never happens on Mount Machu Picchu. No switchbacks and barely any leveling off. Stairs, stairs, stairs. The mitigating factor was the weather. Rain had been predicted, but instead we had a nice moist chill that kept us from overheating but never soaked the stone steps. Over and over, I thanked the Sun God for his discretion.


Finally, finally, we made it to the top, overlooking the postcard-shot of Machu Picchu like a minor deity surveys his subjects. The way the sun felt on my neck, it had to be high noon. Anton, what time is it? Sarcastically, yet truthfully: “Nine-forty.” That’s when normal vacationing people wake up. We could barely believe that we still had a whole day to kill.


We made our way back down the mountain, which took more than an hour. We chilled in one of the rare shady places of the main site, next to some trees and llamas. Then we explored the site proper. So many ruins at Machu Picchu, so few conclusive explanations of what they were for. Surely the mystery is part of the appeal, a sort of existentialist-modernist monument: it’s here and it’s beautiful, but we don’t know exactly why. As you do, we looked at the the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows, the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Condor, the Inti Mach’ay, the Royal Tomb, and various meaningful stones. Nothing wrong with the Temple of the Condor, but I was equally impressed with the Temples of the Condos.

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We hadn’t packed lunches, because Anton heard from his friend that the buffet at the restaurant next to the entrance was to die for. The price raised my eyebrows: 120 soles, or about $40. Probably my eyebrows raised because we almost never saw three-digit prices in Peru, which is another way of saying that everything was inexpensive and I shouldn’t complain. I probably wouldn’t have paid $40 for that buffet back home, but after a calorie-burning morning like we had had: yes please. As we wiped our hands, it was around 2:00, and Anton was ready to head back to Aguas. I wasn’t. I explained to him that sometimes I go to museums and I just linger at a good painting for five minutes, not consciously obtaining new information, but imprinting it on my brain for future dreams and inspirations. I wanted to linger in Machu Picchu for another hour for the same reason. “You convinced me,” said Anton. We sat near the Royal Tomb, stared at the panorama of the site, and chatted about everything and nothing. Turned out to be the best thing we could have done, because at 2:00 the bus queues were hundreds of people long, and then at 3:30, when we finally left (MP closes at 4:00), they were non-existent. Winner: us.


What can little old me say about Machu Picchu that hasn’t already been said? If I might continue my Nirvana analogy, there will always be Nirvana fans who don’t otherwise know associated bands – say, the Pixies, the Meat Puppets, the Melvins, Dinosaur Jr., Siouxsie and the Banshees. And that’s okay. Similarly, there will always be people at the Machu Picchu ruins – many of them speaking in loud American voices – who don’t otherwise visit museums, who don’t know about other parts of Inca culture, like that. And that’s also okay. Even the most rabid and knowledgeable punk-alternative super-fans have to sometimes admit that “Nevermind” is a pretty good album. Likewise, even MacArthur-grant-winning archeologists have to admit that Machu Picchu is special. And don’t we need it to make arguments to philistines about the preservation of indigenous culture throughout the world? (“Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t want Machu Picchu tainted, and by the same reasoning…”) In this sense, Machu Picchu means more to the world than it ever did to the Incas. Long may it thrive.


Next week, Part 2 of 3: The Amazon rainforest