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A guided tour of Machu Picchu


The train pulled into Machu Picchu train station within one minute of its stated arrival time, a pleasing way to start our tour. Very quickly, we were put into groups depending on whether we could speak English, Spanish or French. We said goodbye to our Belgian friends and joined a small group composed of a thirty-something married German couple and a twenty-something American couple. The Americans were from Los Angeles, and both possessed the highly toned bodies expected of those who lived in L.A. The Germans were from Hamburg, and looked like they enjoyed eating hamburgers.

We all boarded a bus and drove for twenty-five minutes up a zigzag trail with sheer drops. An affable Peruvian called Alfredo was in charge of our group, and when we’d parked at the top of the hill, he gathered us outside the bus to give a brief history of Machu Picchu. All around us were other tour groups, guides and coaches. The place was heaving.

Machu Picchu classic view“This Inca site is almost eight thousand feet above sea level,” said Alfredo. “Most archaeologists believe it was built around 1450, but was then abandoned about a hundred years later. One possible reason is that the people died from smallpox, which, as you probably know, the Spanish brought over with them. But no one knows for sure whether this is right, especially since the Spanish never actually found Machu Picchu. Come, let’s go see it.”

Alfredo took us up to a spot where we could all gaze down at the Inca wonder. It was the place where a million photographs had already been taken, but we took a few more anyway. Our companions were doing the same thing. It was just how we’d imagined it would be – a mass of Inca ruins, interspersed with green, with a distinctive mountain backdrop behind it.

“You are lucky with the weather,” said Alfredo. “Yesterday it rained a lot, and there was a mist hanging over the site.” We regarded the blue sky and then the sun. Later, I would discover a red triangle of sunburn below my neck, but at that moment, Machu Picchu seemed the perfect temperature.

Alfredo produced a folded A4 photo of Machu Picchu from his pocket. After smoothing it out, he showed it to us. “Tell me what you see?” he asked.

We all peered at the photo and shrugged. It was Machu Picchu, of course. In fact, it looked like the photographer had been standing in the same place as us. The American girl told him it was Machu Picchu. Alfredo nodded and then rotated the photo by ninety degrees.

“What do you see now?”

Llamas and trad dress at Machu PicchuThe effect was extraordinary. The photo now showed a man’s head, complete with nose, mouth, lips and chin.

“Good, isn’t it?” Alfredo said.

An American gentleman called Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. He named it the Lost City of the Incas, and a few years later published his findings in National Geographic magazine. People read about his find and started to see it for themselves. Initially, it was only a few visitors per year, but then the drops became a trickle and the trickle became a flood.

The overflow of people got so bad that archaeologists warned the Peruvian government that if they didn’t restrict the number of tourists visiting Machu Picchu, then untold damage would result. And then, they warned, no one would come and a major source of income for Peru would run dry. The authorities didn’t like the sound of that and so from 2011, they decreed that only 2500 people a day could enter the site. But that was still a lot of people. We could see groups of them standing among the ruins or following guides along the trails. After admiring the view for a few moments longer, we headed down hill to join them.

For the next hour or so, Alfredo took us on a tour of all the important sections of Machu Picchu, including the Watchman’s Hut, Sun Temple, Condor Temple and Royal Residence before taking us to another viewing platform favoured by lizards and red spiky plants. Below us, deep down in a canyon were some tiny train tracks running parallel to a river.

“In January 2010, that river burst its banks,” said Alfredo. “It trapped nearly two thousand tourists up here. They had to be airlifted out.” I remembered seeing it on the news. I peered at the river and noticed just how close it was to the railway tracks. Thankfully, there was no sign of rain.

Alfredo took the six of us back to where the coaches were. After checking some of his paperwork, he pointed to Angela and me. “You two have got lunch included in your ticket price. I’ll take you there in a moment.” He looked at the other four people. “I’m afraid you haven’t. But you can always buy some yourself. It’s up to you.”

The LA couple looked unperturbed by the news, joyous even. “Don’t worry,” said the blonde babe. “We ate a slice of lettuce yesterday, and we have a bag of couscous hidden away for emergencies. Besides, we want to go hiking around here. Burn off some calories after eating a stick of celery for breakfast.”

Old walls, Machu PicchuThe Germans conferred for a moment and then decided to head straight back down the hill. After waving everyone off, we followed Alfredo into a nearby buffet-style restaurant. After sorting us out, he wished us well and went off to find his next tour group.

“How excited are you?” I asked Angela after we’d sat down with our meals. The choice of food available was not great, but there was lots of it.

She looked confused. “Excited? Right now, you mean?”

“Yes.”

Angela scooped up a piece of what looked like chicken. “One out of ten. Having a meal isn’t one of the most exciting things to do.”

I nodded and ate a slice of beef. “Okay, how excited were you when you saw Machu Picchu?”

Angela thought for a moment. “Maybe five or six.”

“Okay. How excited are you about going to Lake Titicaca in a few days’ time?”

“Why are you asking these questions?”

I put my fork down. “I just wonder whether we’re becoming blasé about all the things we see and do. Most people would put seeing Machu Picchu at an eight or a nine. But you gave it a six. I’d give it the same. Yes, it looked great; yes, I’m glad we’ve seen it; but things like that don’t get our pulses racing anymore. Remember when we went to Japan? We were both really excited. And the first time we visited the souqs in Marrakech? We loved it. But seeing Machu Picchu – one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – all we could muster was a six out of ten. We weren’t excited by it.”

“I was,” Angela cut in.

I looked outside at the lines of people queuing for the journey back down to the train station. We would be joining them soon.

“What’s brought this on?” Angela asked.

“It was that Belgian couple on the train. They were excited at being in Peru: excited at being on holiday. We weren’t as excited as they were, and I’m a little jealous of that, I suppose.”

I picked up my bottle of Inca Kola, undecided whether I actually liked the Peruvian soft drink. Instead of being dark brown, it was a golden yellow. Its taste was unlike any other cola I’d tried, with a sort of vanilla essence to it.

Angela stared at me. She picked up her own Inca Kola and took a sip. “Look. I agree that we’re not as starry-eyed as we used to be, but I’m still excited about Lake Titicaca and Rio de Janeiro. When I think of seeing a tango dance in Buenos Aires, that makes me excited. We’re not blasé, Jason, we’re lucky.”

Extracted from Jason’t latest e-book ‘Panama City to Rio de Janeiro’. Buy it here or find out about his other titles here. Pictures by Shutterstock.

Machu Picchu amongst the clouds

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