A week into my stay in Peru, I finally got the chance to visit Macchu Pichu. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the idea of lost cities, both fictional and real, and I can still vividly remember the day when I first heard about the discovery of the ancient Incan complex, deep in the Peruvian jungle. On that cold, rainy day more than ten years ago, even as I cracked open the encyclopaedia I still felt a rush of excitement at the thought of seeing the stone ruins.
We didn’t trek straight into the Macchu Pichu complex, as I was hoping we would. We didn’t take the Inca Trail – the route which leads straight up to the Sun Gate at Macchu Pichu – but instead, trekked through the Lares Valley to the old sun temple at Ollantaytambo and got the train to Macchu Pichu Pueblo, where we stayed the night. Our tickets had been bought well in advance, and so when we arrived at our hostel, all we had to do was wait for the next morning, when our chance to see the lost city would come.
It was an incredibly early start. We set off at sunrise and climbed onto a tour bus, breakfast in hand, as we wound our way up the mountain path. Vines and creepers surrounded us; crawling down the mountain on one side, while a sheer drop was on the other. We drove higher and higher, the jungle plants growing thinner and thinner, until we finally reached the complex. By that time, it was about seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and the ticket barrier was already very busy. Once our tickets had been verified, we climbed another set of smooth, Incan steps, half overgrown by plants, and finally got our first glimpse of Macchu Pichu.
It was incredible.
The enormous stone ruins were half-open to the elements, making the open rooftops look like the ribs of a skeleton. Huge terraces ringed the mountainside in steep, narrow steps, running right up to the summit, which was half-hidden by plants. The smooth, pale stone gleamed in the early morning sunlight, making the complex beneath our feet look as if it was almost glowing. Vines, trees and flowers crawled up the mountainside and the ruins came down to meet them, disappearing into the jungle as they crept further down the mountain. And above it all, the enormous mountain of Huayna Pichu towered over us, silent and dark.
It was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.
Because we arrived so early in the morning, the site was relatively quiet. We were by no means the only tourists there, but the complex was quiet enough that we occasionally had patches of the ruins to ourselves. They were more than beautiful; as we explored the Incan city the old buildings towered over us, crumbling in places but still majestic. We wound our way through tiny paths and steep steps in the quiet, still morning, half-lost among the ruins. At the centre of the city there was a small field, where llamas and alpacas were grazing. Occasionally they got bored and climbed out of their pen to explore alongside us, and more than once we turned a corner to find ourselves face to face with an angry-looking llama, as though we had wandered into its living room. As we moved through the old city and the day grew hotter, we saw more and more tourists, until by the time we left – around midday – the place was completely packed.
I’ve tried my best to do the city of Macchu Pichu justice, but words will always fall short when describing a place like that. It’s far more than just looking at the ruins; it’s more like standing in the midst of history, or finding a little pocket of the world that time has left in peace. With so many of the old Incan complexes destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, seeing something so whole and so untouched almost felt like a gift. It is highly likely that there are other lost Incan cities hiding somewhere in the Peruvian jungle; countless Incan paths – smooth, paved paths, not just dirt tracks – have been found leading away from Macchu Pichu and spiralling off into the jungle. Those paths must have gone somewhere, although nobody knows where. The thought that there are dozens, possibly hundreds of old Incan cities just waiting to be discovered is an incredible one. Perhaps, in the future, they will be discovered by someone much luckier than I am, and whoever pulls back the vines and looks upon the cities for the first time in centuries will get to see the Incan civilisation as it was meant to be – ancient, proud and untouched.
But until that day, we must let Macchu Pichu keep its secrets.