Why Arriving at Machu Picchu was Bitter-sweet

Why Arriving at Machu Picchu was Bitter-sweet

After four days of hiking through thick-forested valleys our group arrived at the Sun Gate – the Inca King’s formal entrance to Machu Picchu. We gazed downwards towards the ancient city and its adjacent mountain range that formed the famous ‘face’ of Machu Picchu. It was stunning and surreal to see such a photographed landmark with my own eyes.

From the Sun Gate it would take a further 15 minutes walk to arrive at the actual site, our prize for the previous days hard work and effort put into climbing up and down the mountain range. Various emotions filled the atmosphere of our group, everything from a reserved sadness that the journey was about to end, to relief that we were a quarter of an hour away from actual toilets.

We pushed on and made it to the site, almost immediately arriving at a popular photo spot. From this point Machu Picchu began to feel distant and unsatisfying to me. Having made genuine physical effort to arrive at this point, I was greeted by hundreds of well-dressed tourists, saluting the sky with selfie-sticks and pursed fish-lipped expressions.

Machu Picchu is reachable by several different means. One way is via ‘The Inca Trail’, an 85% original path walked by the Incas to reach the city. It takes four days of hiking from start to finish to complete. You ascend stairs so steep you need the use of your hands, you wake up at 5am on the first and second day of camping and 3am on the third. You walk through bi-polar weather conditions that have you sweating profusely one minute only to be soaking wet with rain the next, you sleep in tents with thin air-mattresses separating your sleeping bag from gravel floor, you have access to freezing cold showers and less-than-desirable toilets. Despite any obvious discomfort the hike incurs, it is incredible. You are swallowed by the awesome surrounding mountain ranges, reach dizzying heights atop thousands of treacherous stone stairs, eat comforting food, forge lasting relationships with your travel mates and gain a true sense of satisfaction for doing something physically and mentally draining. Another way to reach Machu Picchu is by bus.

This isn’t a dig at anyone who has been to Machu Picchu via the latter option – I have several friends who have been to the site in this manner – it’s a good thing the city is accessible, because doing a four day hike to get there isn’t going to make sense for everyone. I am not better than anyone for going the way I did, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go to an archaeological site. after the time and effort it took to get there, I wasn’t prepared to see the city coated so thickly by people in jeans and crisp white articles of clothing; millennials posing next to and bothering the wildlife and tourists sitting on clearly cordoned off areas of the city.

Did I think we were going to have the city to ourselves? Maybe I did, or maybe I thought it would’ve been less busy or just more respectful. I can’t pretend like I’m fascinated by history, because I’m not. I don’t seek out ruins or archaeological sites because I find it difficult to relate myself to them. I wasn’t expecting to be overcome with enthusiasm about Machu Picchu itself, but perhaps that’s why I found it more frustrating to see so many people taking photos for vanity’s sake rather than for the purpose of being able to illustrate a talking point with photographic evidence. How many of the hundreds of people here were truly excited about what this city represented? I felt surrounded by people taking pictures for social media bragging rights. Here was a true wonder of our world, a confusing city in the clouds that defied logic in so many ways, being used purely as a backdrop.

We weren’t on our own during the four days hiking, our group of 10 was one of several other larger groups also undertaking the trek, each with over 20 porters to accompany them. But there were times when you could be walking for maybe an hour without seeing anyone else on the trail, and certainly no one in the distance, which stretched on for miles and miles of dense forest. We certainly weren’t living off the grid since we all had phones, but without internet the entire time we were there our world definitely felt smaller than it usually does. Even away from our normalised way of life for just 4 days was enough to feel disconnected from it; a reality that was abruptly returned when we reached the lost city.

I was tired when we walked around Machu Picchu – in all honesty I would’ve preferred a hot shower to seeing where the King lived, so maybe my mind wasn’t in the best place to avoid being so critical of others. But with time away from that moment and the benefit of hindsight my opinion is roughly the same. I hated seeing such a well-regarded historical landmark being used for such blatant selfies and stupid faces to net a few more Likes on Facebook and Instagram. How many people were actually looking and thinking about the structures here, both natural and man-made, before putting themselves in front of them? It didn’t feel like many. I suppose the question I wanted to ask was, ‘do you need to be in every photo you take?’

The Inca Trail is an artificial way of journeying to an ancient city. You don’t need to do it; you’re electing to take the long way round when a quicker and more efficient route is present. It doesn’t feel quite right when you arrive at your finish point though, because the days of difficult hiking prior make you believe you’re going to conclude somewhere only accessible by such means. When you arrive, the first thing you see is a gift shop it creates an odd feeling inside. For those fascinated by history the conclusion to the Inca Trail will surely be worthwhile, but for me, who wanted to simply find a quiet spot to sit and look at the city for a while, I found it lacking.

I am not dissatisfied with my experience because those four days spent in such an incredible landscape with fantastic people is another beautiful takeaway from my trip. But the odd emotions I felt when I arrived at Machu Picchu is something I wanted to get off my chest. Why present this to you? I suppose the expected reaction to my time at the city would be for me to tell you how amazing it is and how you all need to go; a humble-brag about something I was fortunate enough to experience that I know many won’t. Instead I’d sooner use the platform here to tell you the bittersweet truth of my own reaction to this beautiful tourist trap, a different story you may not have heard before, or may have experienced yourself.

Mountain Dawn: The vistas throughout the Inca Trail were the true highlight for me. Taken at roughly 5am on the final day of hiking, this eerie mountain range view allowed me once again to lose myself within my environment and feel like an explorer in a wild landscape.

Waterfall: A lone waterfall within the misty mountain range of the second campsite. I spent a good hour sitting by myself just scanning the 360-degree panoramic view. It was a great hour.

Girl Sitting: At the Sun Gate you get arguably the best view of Machu Picchu. This girl had the right idea, sitting silently and taking the city in. Shame her perch was also a popular photo spot and the queue of people behind her weren’t feeling her sense of introspection.

Mother/Daughter: I don’t have anything against selfies, but I question the mentality behind solely taking them. If you find a photo boring without you as the star, is it a photo worth having?

 Walkway: the Inca Trail has you hiking through dense, lush forest that feels like something out of Tomb Raider. The route is quiet and peaceful, it’s easy to lose yourself within the natural beauty – though daydreaming is not recommended as Ronja (red) found out when she slipped and nearly fell down the side of a particularly steep bit of mountain.

Machu Picchu: the iconic ‘face’ of Machu Picchu. Somewhat ironically, those who arrive at the city via the Inca Trail are least likely to get photos of the city at sunrise or with minimal tourists, simply because of the time it takes to get there from the last campsite.

Llama Tourist: Full disclosure, this particular tourist was respectful to this Llama. But I wanted to illustrate how closely the animals interact with the tourists, and how awful it was to see groups of screaming girls clap in a baby llama’s face to coax it into looking into the camera for that ‘perfect’ selfie.

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