Stunning but Not Mystical
Alas, dear friends, Machu Picchu is, in fact, at least all it's cracked up to be...
Mix equal parts of: three hours line-standing (during lunchtime), $180 of the precious refund dollars, waking up at 4:45 AM, and having to wear wide-brimmed tourist hats over shamefully white tourist skin...
Add Machu Picchu (see below), and find it obviates the aforementioned combination.
Having wanted so much to find no joy, no shameful Club Med-esque pleasure in the well-orchestrated tourist scene of Cusco, we found that Machu Picchu is not only the most beautiful place in the world, but also worth all the trouble. The train ping-pongs its way up the mountain so you're not sure whether you're in a forward facing or back facing seat for over an hour when the cars begin huffing down from the top of Cusco's valley setting. The mountains change from modestly rugged desert or temperate around Cusco to damn near Smokies-like, complete with tiny wood houses puffing smoke from their chimneys on the riverbanks. Within ten minutes you're surrounded by children harvesting coca leaves on the banks of a now roaring river with toothy, jungling peaks soaring directly overhead. (in fact, the more expensive train comes with a bubble dome top) Tunnels come from nowhere, tightly hand cut into the bare rocks; sometimes you weave in and out of the same tunnel for minutes getting glimpses of Incan terraces still in use through gaps in the rock face. It is almost worth it by the time you get there, but then you arrive. Fifteen minutes of nail biting bus ride above 1000 foot sheer drops later.
It's so appealing both to write about stunning places and to take their pictures (guilty on both accounts), but so horribly inadequate. The terraces go up and down as far as you can see on both sides of the mountain, which is a sliver perched over two river gorges with that world famous big, pointy rock in the background. The "big, pointy rock" in the background was a guard tower, thus proving that the Inca had something going for him and was a horribly cruel man; I'll vouch for the second part having scrambled and panted my way to the top of it. Wayna Picchu (the rock) is at least three times taller than you can see in pictures of the place and is completely vertical for all of its unbarricaded height. The main ruins and hundreds of tourists seem like merely ants from that height and you can even watch the tourist groups parading around in single file lines!
Somehow, though, its so majestic in scale and setting that even hundreds of pasty tourists with their socks pulled to their knees can't dampen the experience. "The" photo of Machu Picchu, although a good angle, is less than a tenth the view, with uncountable peaks all around spearing the clouds, terraces as high and as low barely excavated from the jungly mass, and the original Inca road vanishing off to the south.
Lest I sound too awed for you cynical readers, I will stop to poke a little fun. I have no qualms with Machu Picchu; none. Nevertheless, it was actually not a spiritual headquarters, as some people prefer to believe. Yes, there is a temple to the sun, and the moon; as there were in ALL Incan cities. In fact, right now I am parked on a much holier Incan site writing an email. Because I love you all, please, please, NEVER worship at Machu Picchu (at least don't tell me about it). One tourist group whose name I would name if I could, came to worship at the ruins. Not indigenous people, not the inheritors of the Sun Kingdom, but pasty tourists with big hats and socks to their knees. I caught a bunch of them touching and moaning at one of the temple's walls and another man fanning himself with crossed arms as if he were a butterfly. I think synchronized breathing was involved. Because I love you, please do not confuse beauty with spirituality. They are both fine, both lovely, but not the same. We also saw a pair of llamas chase each other around the main plaza trying to mate for an hour; that was good. Now we're getting on the bus for four days straight. Less beauty...more smells...
enjoy the summer, we're freezing!
anna and randy