I had a choice to either go to the Amazon jungle for 4 days or do the Inca trail and trek to Machu Picchu. I’d made the former and so I took the easier, less scenic route to Machu Picchu.
Instead of days of slowly going past breathtaking scenery, I took a train and then a bus to zip past beautiful scenery. So it could have been better, but it was impressive anyway.
You get off at Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters in English). It has the appearance of a frontier town with rickety sheds and shop-houses and so has perhaps retained the flavour of its halcyon days after Machu Picchu had been discovered. These days, it is tourists and not seekers of El Dorado that elbow past one another over here.
You make your way up a narrow winding road and then suddenly, you get the first magical glimpses of verdant terraces where the Incas cultivated crops. A few llamas wander about. An Inca in traditional garb was playing the Inca equivalent of a flute. Enchantment was in the air. So was a light mist.
As you walk about, you see numerous barren houses with trapezoid windows offering spectacular views of the imposing mountain peak opposite. Some have exotic names like Temple of the Sun, Funeral Rock and Palace of the Princess. But there is little in terms of interior art to justify the fancy names. The real allure of Machu Picchu lies not in the internal beauty of a structure in the form of exquisite carvings. There are none of those. The beauty is in the location and the fact that the Incas could sculpt a city 8,000 feet above sea level. Of course, what adds to the beauty is the mystery. The Incas left no written records, preferring the spoken word to the written one. And strangely, there is no oral folklore about Machu Picchu.
As you wander, so does your mind. What is this lost city in the clouds? Is it a Royal Estate as some historians suggest? Or is it an ancient fortress that time forgot? Or is it a city built so high up, so that the Incas could get closer to their Gods?
Imagination plays a large part in one’s appreciation of Machu Picchu. But reality is just as fascinating. I looked overhead. A mist was coming over the mountain peak. Suddenly, a swallow burst through the mist and flew away. As I looked down from the edge of a steep incline, I saw a river lazily snaking its way through the scenic valley below. At every step, you feel like you are walking in a beautiful picture postcard.
Look across, and you see the spectacular peak of Huayna Picchu. Take a closer look and you will spot the remains of a house near the peak. Steps cut into the mountainside take the tireless traveller to its doorstep. I wondered who would have stayed there centuries ago. Was it the salubrious mountain air or the devotion of staring across at the religious sites of Machu Picchu that led people to build houses there? The tranquility you experience even when you walk 50 metres away from the tourists is spectacularly serene.
It’s almost a decade since my trip. But even today, the swallow darting through the sky, the distant yet mesmerising dwellings atop Huayna Picchu and the feeling that I stood closer to God as I was enveloped by the heavenly mist, will remain my most enduring memories of this mysterious city.