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Getting high in the Andes: Machu Picchu

Peruvian bureaucrats make British civil servants look like a bunch of anarchists. Their mastery of time-and-patience-sapping forms may be unrivalled. But even they mellow for Machu Picchu, the mystical Inca city hidden from the world for centuries by dense high jungle.

Paddington in Cuzco

True, you do have to have your pre-booked ticket, your passport, your guide, and hope in your heart, but by Peruvian standards the earnest functionaries fairly whiz you through the turnstile … and you are in. In another world.

There’s a pretty llama grazing, its ears decorated with red rosettes, in front of you, the Andean mountains you have just bussed through to your right, and some Inca walls including the intact gable end of a house to your left, but no sign of the main attraction.

‘Right,’ called Rosa, our pretty Peruvian tour guide, corralling our group. ‘There’s quite a steep climb to the classic viewing point. Or we can go round the more level way, see the lower section close up, and do this later. Which would you prefer?’

Joy and I looked at each other. American archaeologist Hiram Bingham III had revealed the citadel to an astounded world just 100 years ago – a mere 56 years before I married my child bride. And 56 years and a few months before we decided we would see it one day.

It didn’t matter to us but it was a unanimous decision – NOW! While the legs are fresh.

‘Okay.’ Rosa smiled, looking at the sixtysomething members of the party. ‘It’s quite tough if you go too fast, so we’ll go steady and it should be okay. It takes about fifteen minutes, so if you want a rest, just call out.’

We all smiled back. As if …

Inca stonework - at Sacsayhuaman

We were now almost a thousand metres below Cusco’s rarefied 3,330 metres, my nose and head were only semi-blocked, and I had my secret plan. Just in case.

All I had to say to myself was ‘Symonds Yat’ and all would be well.

Joy and I had holidayed in the Wye Valley the previous autumn, and we had naturally visited the renowned Herefordshire beauty spot and its very English gorge. After a leisurely stroll and then a light lunch, I spotted the innocuous sign just beyond the car park that said Symonds Yat Rock Half A Mile.

It led to a reputedly wonderful vantage point overlooking the site and many miles beyond. So I decided to see for myself; while Joy strolled back to the car. Half a mile, even up a moderately steep rough track, couldn’t be too bad.

Half a mile? It was more like a mile and a half. Moderately steep track? It was bloody Herefordshire’s Everest. Rough track? It had vast hewn steps not dissimilar to the steep terraces at Ollantaytambo, the Inca mountain town we had visited the day before Machu Picchu.

Halfway to the Yat Rock, my calves were screaming for mercy, my heart was pumping madly. I had a long breather before resuming. The eventual view was indeed excellent – not an Andean wonderful, glorious, or magnificent, but good enough to warrant a minor climb. I took out my occasional compact binoculars from a cargo pocket, and had a good swing round. And there it was to the west, just as I suspected … a Home For Demented Signwriters.

A year on, the climb to the so-called Watchman’s Hut vantage point – and the iconic view of Machu Pichu on all the postcards – would be a doddle.

W e took it at a leisurely pace, Rosa stopped twice to give us some viewing advice, and I was determined not to let the oldies down.

Machu Picchu

I did finish the climb at the rear of the group, just behind Joy (in case she slipped, you understand), but only marginally. My legs were hurting and I was short of breath. But soon we were all at the spot to the right of the Watchman’s Hut, Rosa’s favoured spot, which was a bit further on than the most popular viewing points and which most tourists therefore ignored.

And there it was right in front of us, in all its glory … a dream come true.

Just writing those words, bringing it all flooding back, I am close to tears.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

This is hard for me to say. But I have just had half a minute with my head in a handkerchief, catching a few salty tears, trying to stop my shoulders heaving.

After thirty years as a newspaper sub-editor and then editor, dealing with murder and mayhem and mad cow disease, I have never considered myself a particularly emotional man. All right, I cried and almost fainted when I saw my daughter born (pretty avant garde for those days), I wailed at my father’s funeral … shit, don’t start again, Frank.


As I get older I find myself crying more easily. Soppy bits on the telly, particularly real-life dramas, wedding ceremonies, births and deaths, lovely people doing selfless things. Usually not crying crying, but leaking a few tears that I have to surreptitiously slide away with a finger or a tissue while ostensibly blowing my nose.

But crying at a pile of old stones … Jeez.

There were no tears at the time, so maybe I should just rewind.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

And there it was right in front of us, in all its glory … Machu Picchu. The city that had been lost to the world for 600 years until 1911, just a year before my father was born. Barely a generation ago for me, even though the centenary of that amazing discovery was now just months away.

It’s a cliché but no words can truly describe that Hiram Bingham moment. It sort of transcends words; just leaves you with this feeling that you can’t quite put your finger on.

Let me just say what I did and how I felt, and, second-hand, how my lovely wife felt.

We stood there and stared. You just can’t stop staring. You don’t look at your partner. You don’t look a the guide beginning her commentary. You don’t look at the silly Japanese girls striking whacky, gawky, limbs-akimbo poses in between the camera and its subject. You barely look even at the thatched Watchman’s Hut, one of the site’s few restored buildings, perched on an Inca-made ridge not far above you. You just stare at the unrestored and partly restored ruins spread out beneath you. You don’t know why they are so magnetic but they are.


Then you get the camera out and, like the Japanese girls but without the teenage gymnastics, start shooting wildly: the same picture from slightly different angles each time, in case you miss something, in case this or that position will give you the most perfect portrait ever of the lost city.

Everybody is smiling and laughing and joking – you can’t stop that either. Rosa, who has no doubt seen it scores if not hundreds of times before, is smiling and laughing too. She goes through her spiel, but not much of it sinks in. There’s too much staring to do.

Then, in our case, you remember Paddington. Paddington Bear (in the shape of a cuddly pre-trip birthday present for Joy from our two grandsons) has to be honoured in his forefathers’ sacred place. The pictures are brilliant – you even get the feeling that poor Paddington, facing the camera that is pointing at the heart of Machu Picchu, is silently crying, ‘Turn me round – let me see it!’

I don’t know how long we were at that first viewing point, maybe twenty minutes, but it flew by. And all the time the emotion is building up in you. You can’t say what the emotion is, or why it is building up.

The only other time a similar emotion has caught me unawares, and Joy felt it too, was when we went into St Peter’s in Rome. I am a registered heathen but the power and magnificence of the building moved me in a way that surprised me.

I didn’t expect a collection of ruined buildings to have an even greater effect, but it did. Times two at least. I guess it must be the setting, the stunning Andes, the verdant high-jungle against the sky, the complete vision of the city even though most of it has gone, the legend itself. The spirituality, if you must.

And then it was time to move on. But it didn’t matter – almost everywhere we went had similar stunning views.

Joy and I didn’t discuss that first sight of Machu Picchu, and its effect on us, until we were back in our room that evening. I thought it was just me; she thought it was just her. We didn’t really acknowledge it to ourselves at the time, but we both know now that we had been on the verge of tears up there for quite a time.

I hope everybody else in our group experienced it and thought it was just them. They all looked happy enough, Max and Sue-2, the Marple sisters, Taffima, and Tyke. And those nice people we didn’t see again, who were doing the Inca Trail and would see the citadel another day, Matthew and Katherine, the Bexley-Heaths, the John Terrys, the various Tall Guys, Will and Sophia, even Bagman Roy. Perhaps it would transform him into a proper Cropper.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

The next five or ten minutes are the least inspiring. You go round the back of the Watchman’s Hut – or to give it its full name in English, The Hut Of The Caretaker Of The Funerary Rock – and suddenly the Main Attraction is out sight.

There’s a nice Inca wall and a huge oval-ish lump of stone, sort of in the shape of a fat chaise longue, with three steps at the lower end. A chaise longue for the dead, because this is the Funerary Rock, which scholars believe was probably used to lay out Inca nobility for mummification.

It’s on a flat parcel of land with a smallish peak behind it to one side and a mountain plateau the other. And after your guide has said her funerary piece, you move on round the corner, and suddenly the mass of Machu Picchu is staring you in the face again. And it’s there for most of what is left of your guided tour.

We were in and on, amid and above the Main Attraction for the best part of three hours. Rosa took us to and explained the Temple Of The Sun, the Royal Tomb, the Sacred Plaza, the Intihuatana, (the Hitching Post Of The Sun – which is a sort of grand-piano-sized ‘sundial’ used by Inca astronomers to predict the solstice but not tell the time). And much much more.

Like the cosy little town houses, the tiered ceremonial baths, the intrepid thirtyish retro-hippy. She was perched cross-legged on a dining-table-sized flat rock jutting out into space, her eyes closed, her arms outstretched in the classic thumbs-on-middle-fingers yogic pose as she sought her own personal peace or karma or something. We all looked and thought about it – the serenity, the repose, the sheer drop – and came to the sensible conclusion.

With the knowledgeable Rosa as our guide, our mission was more cerebral.

Looking and listening as she explained bits of Machu Picchu in close up, rather than the magnificent whole that rouses the emotions, it soon became obvious that the stonework is generally nowhere near as impressive as at Sexy-woman (read the book!). But this is because much of the ruins were rebuilt drystone-wall-style, but with a muddy mortar.

The curving, tapered semi-circle of the Temple Of The Sun retains some fine original stonework, and although it is closed to visitors you can get a good view from above. There are more good examples in the room housing the enigmatic Sacred (or Reflection) Pools – two raised bowls set in the floor, no bigger than washing-up bowls, looking as if they are made of concrete – whose use remains a mystery

The quarry that made it all, however, is more impressive than Sexy-woman’s, possibly because we got a darn sight closer to it. As is the huge single Sacred or Ceremonial Stone, as big as the hut it stands beside, and where we gathered for a rest and a resumé before resuming for the final push.

We took pictures of it all: the good, the so-so, and the magnificent. Except for ten minutes after Joy had a little slip going down some steep steps. Nothing serious – she grabbed a stone jutting from a wall and I clutched her arm – although it might have been nasty on another less auspicious day. She was holding the camera and was more concerned about losing the precious memories it held than some scrapes and bruises.

Everybody around us duly showed real concern and then fortunately we were on our way to the next attraction. Joy was being ultra-careful so I took over the camera again, and snapped away merrily until I tried to look at an image on the screen – and there was no image.

Joy was mortified, and I was trying to stay calm and logical. Slips happened – it wasn’t Joy’s fault; it could easily have been me. And then, just as I feared I might have to make a mad dash round the entire site clicking away like a dolphin on espresso, I discovered that her trip had dislodged the little control thingy, knocking it from Auto to Something Else My Technical Brain Didn’t Quite Understand. A quick nudge back to Auto and we were away again, missing maybe half a dozen pictures that we have successfully lived without.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

As we came to the end of our tour, Joy and I were tired but elated. I was certainly nowhere near exhausted, as I’d been after the Ollantaytambo climb. My legs were still reasonably spry, my breathing was calm and even, my head was clear.

The entire gang made its way back to the entrance/exit in pleasant, happy, smiling, jokey mood. We had done it. We had seen it, we had touched it, we had trodden it.

Some stopped to have their passports stamped at the little official hut but Joy and I decided against it. We had the pictures, thank god, we had the memories – we didn’t need the bureaucracy.

My parting shot was to tell the people at the head of the queue for the In turnstile, ‘It’s rubbish – I wouldn’t waste your money.’

It was a good way to spot the Britons – they all laughed or at least smiled at the deadpan joke. The rest, of those who could speak English anyway, looked worried.

I could see them wondering, ‘Is this a nutter, or what?’

We had caught Machu Picchu on a good day. Although the Peruvian authorities restrict the numbers of those doing the Inca Trail and entering the citadel each day, to protect their heritage from undue ravages, and no doubt to keep their civil servants happy, apparently at the height of the season the citadel is pretty crowded. Today, in mid-to-low season by comparison, it was very lightly populated.

An inclusive lunch at the mountain-top restaurant helped the transition that was about to come. Within the hour we were back on the bus, back round the hairpins, and back down to earth.

– Edited extract from Holiday Of A Lifetime … Never Again! By Frank Rawlins. His ‘holidaylogue’ is currently available as an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords for less than £3, and will soon be available as a paperback. See for details.

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