Seeking out adventure at Machu Picchu is a terrible idea. The most visited tourist attraction in all of South America is hardly the place for thrills and uniqueness. But there I was, standing atop a two thousand foot cliff, staring down at an eight-hundred year old city with no one but my best friend in the world standing next to me, panting with exhaustion. Adventure, indeed.
The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu sits on the arm of a mountain fifteen hundred feet above the Urubamba River in southeast Peru. The nearby Incan capitol of Cusco is the gateway to the empirical outpost, from which tourists must either ride the train or walk the Inca trail. No modern roads lead to Machu Picchu.
Most tourists opt for the train since permits for the Inca Trail must be reserved months in advance. The train deposits visitors at the tiny village of Aguas Calientes, a collection of restaurants and hotels that serve tourists passing through on their way to and from Machu Picchu. From here, visitors must either take a shuttle bus up dozens of gravel switchbacks to the top of the mountain, or climb the nearby trail.
Each day, 3,500 people enter the city, so the prospects for solitude and adventure are nonexistent. Resigned to this conclusion, I departed for Macchu Picchu not expecting anything but an enjoyable trip to one of the most photographed destinations in the world. My friend Jamie had flown in from Washington D.C. to visit Peru with me, so we would at least get to spend some quality time together.
A foggy mist greeted us as we stepped on to the single track platform in Aguas Calientes on a mid-July afternoon. Having survived a cattle car of a van ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, and then the 2 hour train ride, we were ready to exercise our legs. Our reservations for Machu Picchu were for dawn the following morning, so after we found a hotel, we walked around town trying to find something to do.
The strict, elderly woman at the tourist information office glared at us and explicitly denied Aguas Calientes had any hiking trails, but she gave us a map of the town anyway. I noticed a little line extending away from the town market next to the train tracks. With several hours to kill, Jamie and I, both professional researchers, decided to investigate the accuracy of the map. On the edge of town, we spotted the trail. A chain link fence limited entrants, but a gate was open with a sign in Spanish reading something like: “Trail closed for construction.”
Able to turn around at any time, we started along the trail as it slowly undulated up the side of the mountain, climbing carefully constructed steps made of solid logs underneath a dense canopy. After about an hour of easy walking, we came to another chain link fence, this time 12 feet tall. Again the door was open, and again the sign said trail closed for construction. But rising above that gate was a ladder attached to a 90 degree rock cliff stretching into the clouds.
Jamie is afraid of heights and the sun was getting low in the sky, so at this point we considered turning around. But just as we were ready to depart, a kind-hearted Spanish girl descended out of the clouds working her way down the ladder. She encouraged us to continue, so we took a deep breath and began climbing. And climbing. And climbing. That first ladder, built of logs for the vertical supports and two by fours for cross supports, consisted of 90 mind rattling steps.
Over the next two and a half hours, we continued to follow the trail to an unknown destination. I had a hunch were headed for a viewpoint, but I didn’t want to spoil the destination by giving voice to that thought. We passed a few groups of people and asked, “Is it worth it?” or “Is it much farther.” We climbed another 150 steps on several ladders, none as scary as the first one.
With clouds above and humidity abundant in the mountaintop rainforest, Jamie and I broke through the last of the trees, entering a cleared out summit on top of Mount Putukusi. The phrase “took my breath away” is almost always used hyperbolically. Standing atop a cliff-side clearing, with Machu Picchu arrayed on the mountain before me, I was gasping for air and words. Jamie and I didn’t speak for several minutes.
The viewpoint we had stumbled on to is known to locals simply as “the viewpoint.” The clearing is about 600 feet above and a mile from Machu Picchu across the Urubamba’s vast canyon. Though I had sorted through thousands of pictures of Machu Picchu, I had never experienced this landscape view, with the river curled around the city’s base and mountain ridges radiating out behind it.
I became a different person that day. Having been on the road for four months, I had nearly lost my ability to be surprised. I had endured awful bus rides and summited beautiful mountains. I had thought Machu Picchu would be a relaxing vacation, not provide an adventure.
Jamie and I slowly descended from our moment of ecstasy. The climb back was even more daunting, with the sun setting and no exciting destination awaiting us at the end. We made it back to town as darkness set in.
The next 24 hours played out in a daze. We hiked up to Machu Picchu in darkness, entering the citadel as the sun rose over the nearby mountains. We visited the Sun Gate and the famous temples following in millions of footsteps, both ancient and modern. We were happy to visit Machu Picchu, a must-see for most people. But the excitement and satisfaction of stumbling on to a private view of one of the world’s true wonders may just be the most stimulating moment in my life.