My little group — two other younger women, their father, and our guide, Luis Carlos of Wayki Trek, trudged up and down the last 12 km of the Inca Trail the day before we entered Machu Picchu for real. It was a long day; 650 meters of elevation gained on a narrow dirt trail with regular steep drop-offs to one side or the other. In places, the original stonework the Inca put into place is fully intact. I count 327 stairs in one place. Another staircase is steep enough that I shorten my trekking poles all the way to make it up, which is a slow project, punctuated by deep breaths. I am grateful for the practice with stairs I had climbing temples in Tikal.
We trudge past Wiñaywayna, the highest point of our trek today at 2,650 meters, and stop to eat the rice, chicken, and fruit we’ve been carrying all day. My pack is lighter now that the food I had on my back is in my belly. Strange. Our afternoon is a rolling series of ups and downs, until finally we cross over into Intipunku, the Sun Gate, the place where we can at last gaze upen Machu Picchu, object of our toil.
That first glance, after shucking my backpack and ducking around a pillar, hits me like a punch to the sternum. I fall back a step and stumble into the rocks I just rounded, face awash in the afternoon glow that bathes the rock below me. I can’t breathe for a moment. There is nothing on earth that rivals a Wonder of the World.
There are no real words for the Wonder, either. I beheld this vastness of generations past, 500 years gone, stone quarried out of rock with naught but stone, wood, and water, walls stacked with the labor of hundreds, thousands, on a steep granite mountain awash in jungle that covers everything if it lays untouched for more than a year.
It took more than 100 years for the modern Peruvians simply to clear and clean this site of the jungle that overtook it when it was abandoned. There are still sites nearby that have yet to be cleared of growth. In some places, the labor continues, and the maintenance is relentless. We pass several groups of machete-wielding workers hacking back the bush from the edges of the trail. Each year, the rainy season brings mudslides and rock falls that bury the trail towards Machu Picchu. The debris must be cleared so that the endless stream of tourists — 5,000 a day — that come to bear witness can continue to make their way over the paths of the ancients.
Some places have drawn tourists since well before it was easy, safe, or cheap to travel there. The Great Pyramids, the Great Wall, the Lighthouse at Alexandria, perhaps, or pilgrimage sites on El Camino de Santiago, all brought their share of travelers en pie, or horseback. I imagine Machu Picchu might experience a similar fate, even as airline travel from around the world grows increasingly expensive, and the endless stream of buses that carry the more tender-footed travelers up the winding road from Aquas Calientes slow to a trickle. Would the locals continue to hack away the jungle? Would the tourists still come? In places, and fewer, I think, still yes.
When Hiram Bingham slashed his way through the jungle to this place on July 24, 1911, he found two local families still living in the city. They were growing food in the terraces. As is the way of most “discovered by European stories,” he did not truly find Machu Picchu. He merely exposed it to the world. The locals knew, and kept the secret from the Spaniards for 500 years.
Now we know. Now the world knows. And anyone with the means and the desire can come and see, touch, walk, smell, and breathe in the space where a group of people working together produced one of the greatest triumphs of human culture and intelligence. We are not worthy of our own history.