I have had the privilege to visit many iconic places this year like the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, the Petronas Towers, the Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square for example. No matter how open-minded I tried to be I inevitably went to these places with expectations that were either met or disappointed. Wading through seas of people aggressively selling miniature plastic models of the attraction has an uncanny ability to make one want to race through your visit at phenomenal speeds.
Worse than the tourist tat vendors however are the tourists themselves. Or should I say ourselves. Just as you are attempting to allow your mind imagine what the site looked like in its glory days your attention is invariably yanked against its will to some screaming western tourist named Rhonda whose enthusiasm simply cannot be contained to within her own personal space and instead feels the need to announce to the entire complex that she has found just the ideal spot for a photo op!
But Machu Picchu was different. It’s a place I dreamed of going to since I was an even shorter Conortje than I am today and so I had prepared myself for the possibility that I might be somewhat under awed. Maybe it would look smaller in real life or perhaps the masses of tourists would suffocate its beauty. But incredibly my expectations were not only matched but I ended up in love with the place in a way I never dreamed would happen.
It helped that the day began, long before dawn, with only my newfie and myself scrambling up the mountain in the pitch dark to be at the ticket entrance well before it opened at 6am. The first 400 people to arrive are allowed to climb the famous mountain Huayna Picchu which forms the stunning backdrop of Machu Picchu. Neither of us had really given a thought to whether or not we wanted to climb it until we heard of the limited number of tickets available. Then it became a challenge. We had to be one of those 400. And so we got up ridiculously early and raced up those mercilessly steep four hundred plus metres puffing, panting and wheezing and not exactly yet awake. It paid off though as we were the second and third visitors of the day and got our special stamp which gave us permission to do another grueling uphill hike later that day.
But it also meant that we were among the first into the complex and were able to witness the sun rising over the enormous mountains that tower around Machu Picchu. And that is what makes the place so special – it is the unique combination of man’s talents and nature’s elegance that sets this Inca city apart. That sunrise was the most sublime I have ever witnessed. I wouldn’t even attempt to describe it as I know I don’t have the talent to do it even a smidgeon of justice. Suffice it to say that for at least twenty minutes I stood rooted to the ground with an enormous smile and watched in disbelief at a beauty that will inspire me till the day I die.
After the day had properly began we continued investigating the remains of this bizarre city and even managed to climb Huayna Picchu with a gusto that was powered by an enthusiasm that would even put Rhonda to shame. We spent over ten hours climbing, exploring, day dreaming and simply enjoying the beauty of the place. Time and time again I found myself saying out loud I can’t believe I’m really here.
To get to Machu Picchu we had been hiking for four long days through high mountain passes and lush valleys. We had suffered cold nights and extreme attacks from hungry sand flies which left everyone looking like they were recovering from some nasty Andean strain of measles. To say it was all worth it is a ridiculous understatement. I can’t recall any other place I have visited this year that made me feel emotional just being there. I can’t explain why but I think everyone one feels it, even just looking at photos of the place. Is it the feeling of what this mighty civilisation could have achieved had the Spanish not ruthlessly put a bloody end to it? Is it the awe you feel witnessing the unique seclusion of a city surrounded by some of the most impressive mountains in the world? Is it the inspiration you feel when viewing the very best of man’s talents?
Who knows! I reckon there is some Inca magic left in the air: traces of greatness that will never die, protected by nature’s finest defenses and undaunted by the vast number of visitors it continues to host.
Looking now at the results of my own perfect photo ops I find myself remembering that sunrise and with an involuntary smile still say to myself I can’t believe I was really there.