What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I ask because so many of my pals had comic book aspirations, like: become an astronaut, a musician, a crime-fighting-bat-masked-vigilante (some were more original than others). But then there I was, wanting nothing more than to be… an archaeologist.
Ah, you say, just like Indy Jones!
Your presumption would, for most normal kids, be correct. For me however, I had wanted to be an archaeologist way before I could watch Nazi face melts without getting nightmares for weeks. No. I wanted to be an archaeologist because I liked finding old pieces of pottery in the park or my mum and dad’s garden. I wanted to be an archaeologist because, for as long as I remember, I had seen a picture somewhere of a lost city, discovered high up amongst the jungle of some mystical land’s mountains.
Namely, though I didn’t know it at the time, Machu Picchu. A sacred Incan city built 600 years ago near Cusco – the centre of the Incan universe.
Fast forward some 18 years to present day. The wee country lad who fancied he might one day strike a treasure trove of buried Roman silver in his back yard, is now, some may say, a man. A big, bearded, brutish, tattooed man, who fancies he might one day strike gold with a collection of dumb poems about getting wasted with his pals and his inability to find love.
Go to Google Maps and zoom in as far as you can on that very same Incan city hidden away in the mountains of Peru, and with any luck you might just see me staring right back at you. Because just a week or so ago, I got the chance to realise a childhood dream. And not any childhood dream at that, but one which sparked the whole weird, twisted, peculiar sequence of events that get us to whichever destination we suddenly find ourselves in. I got to walk through the city of Machu Picchu.
Rejuvenated by the arrival of my Glasgow uni comrade and confidant Siobhan, (henceforth referred to as Shaun), el Capo and I took the long but beautiful 22 hour bus ride down and up to Cusco: ancient capital of the Incan world – evident in its narrow cobbled streets, looming temples, and 12000 hostels (I think the latter was particularly typical of the 15th century).
With a day or two to see the city, party, and let Shaun adjust to the altitude (Cusco sits at around 3,400m above sea level), we were soon bound for the small tourist-trap town of Aguas Calientes, sat at the base of Montaña Machu Picchu.
We decided to do the whole gig ourselves. Tours to Machu Picchu started at well over US$100, and the thought of traipsing behind a guide, prepared meals and cushty transport all the way, felt to us too inauthentic. And so to avoid detracting from what was sure to be a monumental experience (and to save some of those precious Peruvian centivos), we set off solo.
For all and any thinking of visiting the site in future (looking at you Ma, promise I’ll follow through on my oath to take you there, one day), it’s honestly super easy to do this yourself.
We took a minibus from Cusco, seven hours out, along mountain roads most generously described as… precarious, to a little Hydroelectric dam cuddled in the basin of a valley through which ran jungle and river and all the sounds and smells attached. From Hydroelectrica it was a long, hot, but almost entirely flat walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. The walk was not hugely entertaining once the novelty of your surroundings had worn off (half an hour in), but brief glimpses of Machu Picchu a thousand metres above us, and flipping the bird at passengers passing us in their swanky train carriages, was enough to spur us on.
Aguas Calientes itself could easily be a quaint, maybe even gorgeous little town nestled away in a forgotten corner of the world. Indeed, for several hundred years it was exactly this. Since the discovery of one of the Seven Wonders of the World just around the corner, though, it has become more or less what you’d imagine from such a place: hugely overpriced, swamped with tacky tourist markets, and 75% populated by old, rich assholes and American families who think their three and five year olds will remember how they felt when they set eyes upon such a piece of history.
Still, we weren’t in Aguas Calientes to fall in love with the town, and so excited were we, with clear blue skies above us and all that awaited us up the mountain, we were happy to make the most of it. We took two nights in the cheapest hotel we could find – which had kids movies on the TV in our bedroom all night: jackpot – and spent our time around Machu Picchu eating good food, goofing around, doing a spot of tacky-tourist tacky-souvenir shopping, and endulging in our own company.
Awright, enough about the walking and the shitty town and aw that shite, mate. We’re no here fur that.
You’re right. You’re right. Sorry. Ma Da always reminds me I don’t have to provide every detail when I’m telling a story. I’ll try take a leaf from his book.
Morning comes, then. Or at least, whatever semblance of morning can be mustered in the cold and dark of 3am. Chucking our shorts and tees on, we pack bags of water, snacks, and hoodies, and set off – early enough that the town feels empty, sleepy.
We’d been recommended such an early start by English lads Angel Mouth and Sam Smith, who we’d met in Cusco. They’d told us just how busy the gates got by opening, and we were determined to be the first in there. We didn’t disappoint. Sort of.
Gates to the park, and to the start of the proper uphill hike opened at 5am. Unfortunately, these gates were located just ten minutes from town, which meant almost two hours sat smoking and snacking in the dark. Thankfully, this also meant we literally were the first people to start the hike up. El Capo will I’m sure, till the day he dies, boast of being the very first person in.
The hike itself is a real adventure. A long, long line of sweaty, red-faced, bug-bothered mostly 20-somethings, visible only by the light of their headtorches – like a procession of regal fireflies – could be seen working its way up a staircase carved into the mountain, so steep and oddly spaced you’re a hero if you can make it without a break at almost every second switch-back.
Whilst we struggled a little (beats me why, they told me cigarettes are supposed to improve your health and fitness), we managed to only let a handful of groups overtake us. I think perhaps these groups missed out though, as our frequent breathers allowed us to stop and take in the (ironically) breathtaking views from our rapidly increasing altitude.
Bad breathless/breathtaken joke, I know. I inherited my dad’s sense of humour.
As the sky grew lighter and lighter (the sun still an hour or more off rising above the huge peaks) the outline of the mountains was cut jagged across our horizons, as slowly but surely trees and flowers of violet and white emerged all about us from the murk of dawn.
Eventually then, we summit to the plateau housing the ancient city. We’re gasping for breath, sweating bollocks, and faced all of a sudden with… a queue full of lazy assholes who took the fucking bus up.
Nevertheless, with only sixty or so ahead of us in line, we were still some of the first of the day, and felt all the more vindicated for our being there than I’m sure any of those fresh-faced fuckers did.
6am rolls round and gates are opened. Suddenly, and I know it sounds clichéd, but quite seriously, as I’m walking into Machu Picchu, all of a sudden I realise I’m fricking walking into Machu Picchu. My heart’s going like the clappers, and I can barely hold myself back from breaking into a run.
What hit me first, perhaps even before its beauty, was its size. Its sheer vastness. I’d watched close to a hundred people enter the site before me, and yet as I climb my way up more steps to stand at the cliff-edge, looking down upon the remnants of Incan civilisation, I feel very, very small. In fact, if not for the presence of el Capo and Shaun by my side, I might very well have felt entirely alone.
When el Capo and I were in a wee city called Ica a few weeks previously, we’d got rippin’ and went for food. He had some deep-fried street chicken, which he said was so good he literally could not describe it with words. He asked had I ever had that same sensation before. I said I didn’t think I had. Whatever, funny story. But standing there, pressed up against the stone wall of a terrace cut somehow into the intensely steep side of a mountain 600 years ago, looking out over a whole giant city of stone and grass and immense history, whilst the sun’s rays cast it in gold and our eyes began to pick out its true scope – unrenovated parts scattered throughout all the mountains surrounding us – I knew that I could, finally, and with utmost sincerity say, that just like el Capo’s deep-fried chicken, I literally could not describe how I felt in that moment. Not then, not now, maybe not ever.
All I clearly remember is the look of complete contentment on my pals’ faces as we sat there, unperturbed by the occassional passing tourist, gazing at Machu Picchu in all its majesty. We sat on that terrace for an hour, just dumbstruck, imagining how vibrant and full of life these mountains must once have looked. Debating how the Incas could possibly have built this, working out ideas for short stories and inspired-art.
Cold sweat stuck to our backs, water in hand and re-energised by a few cheeky Snickers bars, we started clambering down the old stone stairs into the city-proper. I remember turning to Shaun at one point, still dazed, to remark how somehow it got even more incredible the closer you got to it. Once again, it was the size that struck me: ruins of walls still standing a head above me, and reconstructed houses maybe thrice my size. It took constant reminding to keep in mind that this was not some miracle of modern technology, but rather a feat of a civilisation that existed over half a millenia ago, using tools and weapons deemed less than primitive at the time by invading Europeans.
The symbolism, use and practicality of Machu Picchu remains something of a mystery, with tour guides and historians alike unsure of the truth. The most compelling argument seems to be that, given its position at not only the centre of the Incan world, but so too in such a secluded and impregnable spot, that the city was both a sacred religious site, and one of the last refuges for the Incas (in particular their royalty) when escaping the barbarism of Spanish colonialism.
Walking through the site, placing my hands on the smooth hewn stone and standing aghast in the centre of ampitheatre and palace like structures, you really get the feel for how important a place Machu Picchu once was.
From certain spots you can look back up the mountain to the spot where we sat and smoked to watch the sunrise, and you’ll see the parts of Machu Picchu that no one ever shows in the pictures. Like the Sun Gate, nestled way up in Montaña Machu Picchu, and presumably an ancient entrance to the city. Or like the thirty plus layers of terraces used to farm and provide for the site’s inhabitants.
One of my favourite pictures I took that day, in fact, is of the side of one of the hills, covered completely in stone houses and paths and winding stairways. I might have pulled it from stock images of any old medieval European town, and yet I didn’t; I took it of an Incan city carved into a mountain at 2,500 metres above sea level. It shows just how advanced and busy a place this once was.
Under the heat of the sun and with our water running low, having already been awake for 8+ hours, we left Machu Picchu with grins on our faces. The walk down, funnily enough, was a whole lot easier, and we encouraged kids passing us on the way up with broken Spanish of “you’re nearly there!”
I’m proud to say I’ve been very, very lucky on this trip. With still several more months to tuck under my belt, I’ve already experienced a plethora of different cultures. Dipped my feet in the oceans of many countries. Seen deserts, mountains, jungles, glaciers, and a thousand cityscapes. I’ve camped on the Great Wall of China, ran my fingers along the stone of ancient temples, and felt the spray of Natural Wonder waterfalls on my face.
And yet, with absolute certainty I can say that Machu Picchu has been one of the coolest, most extraordinary places I’ve ever visited. I’ll never forget, even if I can’t describe it with words, how I felt that morning we spent watching the expanse of it illuminated in sunlight; two of my besties by my side.
With all the love I can muster for my friends and family back home, and with a special dedication to Luke ‘el Capo’ Gram, who’s made South America all that it’s been for me over these past few months. See you in Toronto, pal.