“OK, then,” said Jose. If you looked for the word ‘crestfallen’
in the dictionary, it would not have his picture next to it. No, Jose’s picture
would be next to whatever collection of Cyrillic characters denoted the Russian
version of ‘crestfallen,’ with all of its attendant Siberian capacity for
dramatic melancholy. “We go on first bus.”
Moments before, to our great relief, our compatriots on the
tour of Machu Picchu had indicated that their preference would be to get up
early enough to take the first bus up and thus arrive in time for sunrise.
Joanie and I were thrilled – we were prepared to do some convincing if
necessary, but we were already on the same page.
Jose, our tour guide, had tried to talk us out of this
course of action, saying that sunrise wouldn’t be until after seven, and that
the first bus left at five thirty, and that we would have to be ready to leave
the hotel – check out of the hotel, in fact – no later than four if we wanted
any chance of getting on a bus that left before six. We could, he insisted
politely, have a longer sleep, eat some breakfast, and leave the hotel at six,
have a much shorter wait for a bus, and still get there in time for the fabled
We’d been robbed of the chance to actually hike into the
city. Next best thing? First bus to arrive.
I can’t speak for the others in our group, but Joanie and I
went to bed immediately after dinner – I think we hit the pillows at roughly
8:30pm. The next morning, too early to be anything like bright, Jose – wearing a
persistent but noticeably unhappy smile – collected us from the hotel lobby and
took us to the bus stop, where we found that our group was not only going to be
on the first bus but would be the first people to take their seats on the first
Ninety minutes, two cups of morbidly tepid coffee, a hurried
dash back to the hotel for a bathroom visit, two tasteless rolls stuffed with
some attempt at cheese, and a brief but unsettling stray dog-fight later, we
left Aguas Calientes for Machu Picchu.
Jose warmed to his task quickly enough, and proved an
engaging and entertaining tour-guide. We kept noticing that he said “we” about
everything that the people who lived there had done, and eventually he
confirmed what Joanie and I thought – he was full-blooded Quechua, this
mountain and the valley from whence we’d just traveled were his ancestral home,
and many of the traditions and customs he described to us were very much still
the way of life for him and his family. (Jose was also trilingual – and listening
to him bounce back and forth between his very good English, the Spanish he
spoke to the bus driver and gate attendance, and the susurrating bursts of
Quechua that he exchanged with his fellow tour-guides as our paths intersected
in Machu Picchu made me feel like an uneducated dolt.)
As we took our tour of the ruins, we learned a great deal. I
won’t burden you with too much, but some highlights include the following:
- There was no such thing as the “Incan people,” or “race” –
the people were (and still are) the Quechua, and the term “Inca” was their word
for the king.
- Machu Picchu is the name of the mountain (literally, “Old
Mountain”), not the city built upon it – the city’s name is lost to history.
- Its name is lost because, by itself, the city wasn’t that
important – it was mostly a gated vacation spot for the Inca and high-ranking
families. (This immediately made Joanie and I think of Chautauqua.) Its
importance today has to do with nothing about the city’s purpose or even
architecture, but rather its completeness, its purity: the Spaniards never
found it, and thus were unable to burn it down out of love for Jesus.
- There are llamas there. A small herd of them. And they greet
you when you finish the initial climb up to the guard-house. You’re hustling up
this uneven flight of stone steps, surrounded by some fairly dense foliage, and
you look up to see the end of the stairs – and a llama looking down at you from
the top. And not just looking down at you, looking down on you.
|You! Yeah, you! Yeah, I'm watching you. Keep moving, gringo.|
- You can tell who lived in which house by the stone-work:
temples have smooth walls with stones perfectly fitted; commoners and lesser
nobility lived in houses with rough walls with stones that needed to be
mortared together; and the king and the priest (both of whom counted as
demi-gods) lived in homes that were blended between the two, mostly smooth,
mostly fitted, but just rough enough to see the difference.
- There is absolutely no amount of information , no recounting
of data, no collection of facts that can express to you the power, the
melancholy, the beauty of Machu Picchu as the sun pours over the Eastern Andes
and glides across the walls, the lawns, the terraces, the ruins.