03 October 2007

The Machu Picchu Post

I woke at 4 am. In near-total darkness, I headed up the steep path to the ruins of Machu Picchu. Nobody else was there. I reached the top after one hour. Thinking I must be the first person to have arrived at such a ridiculously early hour, I didn't notice the three other backpackers sleeping, hunched over a table, until they stirred. Naturally, they were Israeli.

I wish I could say that I successfully bullshat my way in with my expired ticket, but the guy in the booth didn't even check it. Thanks to Laurel from San Francisco for facilitating my scam-artistry.

What can I possibly say about Machu Picchu? I whooped and hollered when I reached the top of the entrance path and saw the whole thing spread out before me, in real life, for the first time. But I felt like I was still looking at a picture of it. There are pictures of Machu Picchu everywhere in Peru, and I wondered if that doesn't pollute the impressions you have upon seeing it yourself. It's an amazing sight regardless, but it's not one for which I felt any sense of discovery or enchantment. Choquequirao--yes. Even Angkor Wat, because it's huge, and most photos only show the front facade of the main temple. But Machu Picchu has been converted into a tourist attraction, definitely. It's like Inca Disneyland. By midday, it became flooded with tour groups, you have to "stay in the lines" by following set routes around the site, and guards are everywhere to blow a whistle at you if you stray into forbidden areas.

At 6 am, when the gates opened, the hardy travelers rushed to the entrance to Wayna Picchu, that tall mountain peak that looms spectacularly over the ruins in promotional photos. Normally, it takes about an hour to hike the steep path to the top. Naturally, I took about 15 minutes (boast boast) and had the place to myself for about a half hour. I just sat. And stared. And stayed for a long time.

I was delighted by the Japanese tour groups, the only ones I've seen so far, and went out of my way to be polite to them, which was quite enthusiastically received. They told me my Japanese is very good, and I said, no, it's not. Just like back in Japan! They were pretty high-tech, too. Each tourist had a special earpiece so he/she could listen to the tour guide's commentary, which he/she spoke into a microphone. I think this might have been less a stereotypical Japanese love of gadgetry than a stereotypical Japanese aversion to people (like tour guides) speaking loudly at them. But that's just a guess which my many Japanese readers can comment on.

I did the usual ruinwalk (ooh, walls, sacred niches, the famous wall of three windows!) before boarding the bus back to town without a ticket (I neither wanted to walk back nor actually pay for the bus). In the evening, I visited the eponymous aguas calientes and found them more tibio than caliente.

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