The bus careened up the narrow one-lane switch back road. The densely forested road made visibility almost impossible, but at each turn, the driver somehow managed to narrowly miss the oncoming buses filled with tourists just like us. I was convinced our driver possessed some ancient Incan secret for predicting oncoming traffic. At the top, we unloaded and filed into line to enter the historic site that ranks high on most travelers’ bucket lists. After paying the fee and getting stamped, we headed up the crowded trail to get our first glimpse at the Lost City. We formed a single file line and followed a path along a meticulously built Incan wall, then bent our heads and went through an archway. Once on the other side, we looked up and there before was the illusive Machu Picchu. The incredible ruins I’ve seen hundreds of times in photos was staring right back at me, yet there was one glaring difference. The city didn’t feel lost any more, it was crawling with tourists. Like ants in a maze we saw heads popping in and out of every ruin in sight. Large groups of people gathered in any open space, and listened intently to their tour guide. This wasn’t quite the zen experience I was expecting.
It’s hard to get that mystical feeling of one of the most awe-inspiring sites in the world when it is filled with tourists. Off season travel is a good way to get less crowds, but many of us are bound by real-world schedules. So how does one experience a location like Machu Picchu without all the crowds even during high tourist times? My recommendation, stay as close as you can to the site, and get easy access when the crowds have gone.
The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is located just a stones throw from the entrance to the ruins. After the last bus had left the top of the mountain, the only remaining people were those of us who were staying in the hotel. A small number compared to the height of the day. After our initial mid-day experience of the ruins, we retreated to the lodge for rest and were told to meet at 5:00PM for a more thorough tour during the wonderful late afternoon light.
What a difference those few hours made. When we again headed up the path, and through the archway, our second glimpse of Machu Picchu did give a moment of pause. The sun was angled a bit lower, highlighting the structures and ruins of the 15th century Incan culture. Huayna Picchu, the highly photographed mountain in most Machu Picchu shots, stood majestically as a backdrop, shrouded with a little afternoon haze. This was the Machu Picchu I had dreamed about.
The number of people had radically diminished from earlier in the day. Our separate groups at the site we’re also expertly timed, as if the guides were performing a choreographed Incan ritual. While one group stood up high at the House of the Guardians, the other stood low at the Royal Palace, and the third was tucked away from sight in the Industrial Zone. This was a nice touch to give an even more private feeling to our tour.
At the high vantage point (near the House of the Guardians), I sat on an edge of a terrace for a moment and pondered about the Incans that once lived here. Some 1,200 feet above the Urubamba river basin, on a very steep mountain side, these people decided to build what some think was an estate for an Incan emperor in which they only inhabited for 100 years. They built intricate drainage systems and terraced steep hillsides for optimal farming. They chiseled stone to perfection and built seismically structural buildings that have lasted the test of time. Clearly these were some tough, hard working people. To even suggest my kids carry an everyday backpack up and down these hills would be considered sheer torture.
And then there was Hiram Bingham, the early 1900’s adventurer who made his mark in the explorer world by re-discovering these historic ruins. The story goes he was tipped off by an 11 year old local Quechuan boy about which direction to head. Although the ruins were entangled in overgrown bush and vines at the time and there were no distinct paths to be seen, he must of felt exhilarated to discover this “lost city,” that ironically to some wasn’t lost at all.
While I day dreamed about industrial Incans and Indiana Jones-like adventurers, the rest of my family was on their own crusade – hunting the ruins for the 16 known water fountains and following the grazing llamas to where ever they decided to wander. With so few people around, it felt as if we really were modern day explorers scrambling up steep stairs and hopping down perfectly arranged terraces in search of new discoveries. After several hours of exploration, we trundled back to the Sanctuary Lodge for a little reflection and a comfortable sleep.
The next morning, our guides offered us several options of more views of Machu Picchu before the tourists arrived. We chose to wander around the ruins and discover unexplored nooks that the guide didn’t cover. Our 2 hours of exploration took us skipping through the Main Square wondering if the Incan kids had any time for games like Freeze Tag like my kids play. We climbed past the Sacred Rock and through a maze of Factory Houses trying to figure out how the estimated 750 Incan inhabitants fit into the small number of living quarters. We hiked down to the Prison area and scaled back up steep steps towards the Noble Houses and the surrounding farming terraces. As we peered over the cliffs edge, down some 1,200 feet, we wondered who was the lucky Incan who was tasked to farm the terraces on the edge of the precipices!
Before we knew it, our time was up and we headed back to the lodge to pack up. As we rolled our luggage out of the hotel and waited for our entire group to congregate, I watched the buses from Aguas Calientes arrive and drop off the many new eager tourists. I wondered if any would be staying the night and be able to see this not-so-lost city as we had, without the crowds of the height of the day. Would they be able to pretend to be turn-of-the-century explorers and uncover hidden nooks and crannies as we had just done? Would they be given the time to ponder Incan life and the sheer feat of building this sacred place? Would they leave having felt they had truly experience one of the incredible wonders of the world? I can only hope so.