When Hiram Bingham described experiencing Machu Picchu for the first time in 1911, he said, “It fairly took my breath away.” I echo his sentiment. While our family’s journey was much easier than Bingham’s thanks to the PeruRail train from Cusco, Peru, to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of Machu Picchu) and the bus that carried us up the mountainside, I still found myself drawing a deep breath in awe when I saw Machu Picchu for the first time.
The trip from Cusco to Aguas Calientes on a PeruRail Vistadome train was wonderful. I spent the three and a half hours looking out the window at the amazing Andes mountains as well as farmers working in fields and animals grazing along the route. To my surprise, we were served a delicious breakfast. It was a wonderful ride, which I highly recommend.
In Aguas Calientes, we were greeted warmly by Carlos at our hostel. We had a relaxing day to prepare for our trip to Machu Picchu. Then, after riding our bus up the switchback road to Machu Picchu, we made our way through the entrance and walked to the site. I kept telling myself to keep my expectations low. “Sure, I bet it’s pretty,” I thought, “but don’t expect too much or you’ll be disappointed.” When I caught my first glimpse of the site, I found myself in awe. No hint of disappointment.
The setting is incredible with high Andean peaks all around, sheer drop-offs of 1,000 feet or more to the Urubamba River below, and amazing stone work at the complex. My mind was filled with many questions: how did they build this?, how much effort was involved?, how difficult was it to leave this behind?.
To prepare for my trip, I read an excellent book: Turn Right at Machu Picchu, by Mark Adams. Adams weaves a description of his own trek in Peru following in Bingham’s footsteps with Bingham’s experience a century earlier. It is a fun read, and it provides excellent insight into Bingham and others who have tried to explain why Machu Picchu was built and its place in Inca culture.
I also thought of other friends from back home who had completed their own trek on the Inca Trail.
Our family enjoyed a walk from Machu Picchu to the Inca Bridge, which includes narrow paths without guard rails and steep drops to the river below. We walked through the ruins, looking at the stone work, imagining Machu Picchu when it was active and alive, and reading interpretations of Inca culture. We reflected on the people who built and inhabited this place more than five centuries ago.
But mostly, I found myself staring at the site, almost mesmerized by its beauty and immensity. Indeed, “it fairly took my breath away.”