It was the early 1970s and Pan American Airways was marketing their flights south of the border. The one I lusted for had three stops: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—I had basic Portuguese speaking skills back then and wanted to mingle with the girls of Ipanema; Buenos Aires, Argentina—the throbbing metro of the tango, blood-red wine and ex-Nazis lurking in the shadows; and then there was Lima, Peru with a side trip to Machu Picchu—the high altitude, lost city of the Inca empire. Those dreams lingered in the long, cold winter nights of upstate New York where I was living at the time.
But when spring erupted, so did my meager budget. My 1968 Saab needed major emergency care. So did a neglected wisdom tooth that was throbbing daily. After those expenditures, I resorted to looking at Pan Am’s less glamorous Central American trip that packaged Guatemala City, San Josè, Costa Rica, and Panama. It was a price I could handle and I proceeded to have a grand voyage of discovery.
No regrets mind you, but that burning image of Machu Picchu high in the Andes was seared into my brain. I carried it for forty years. Then, after moving to Bonaire, a doorstep to South America, I knew it was only a matter of time before I traveled there. But it always was a matter of time, and perhaps a bit of money. A spontaneous, unexpected trip to Cuba intervened. Family sojourns to London, Holland and Florida followed. Finally, the moment arrived.
Just over one hundred years and one month after explorer Hiram Brigham stumbled upon the jungle-covered ruins at Machu Picchu, I found myself at Intipunku or the Sun Gate to this incredible ancient site. This was my second day at the Lost City of the Inca. The first was spent touring the major sights—the Temple of the Condor, the astronomical observatory, and the Sacred Rock. It was all splendid, as was a close encounter with a group of grazing llamas, but Day Two proved to be the best.
This was the freelance day, a time to wander, to contemplate the extreme grandeur of this manmade phenomenon that has been declared one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We rose at 5am to catch a bus that would take us from the El Mapi Hotel of nearby Aguas Calientes up a dusty, endless, switchback road to the ruins. We arrived just after 6am, puffed up a trail for twenty minutes, and arrived at an 8200-feet overlook above the royal Incan city. At 6:40am the sun broke over the sky-high, surrounding peaks of the Andes and spotlighted the intricate stonework. My eyes awakened to the thrilling moment of seeing a new day begin at this ancient site of mystery. Sunrises have happened countless times over the centuries, but I got to capture this one in all its glory on this grand morning. It was time suspended.
Twenty minutes later the show was over as thin clouds began to roll in, subtle hints of what was to follow. We trekked away to the Inca Bridge along an ancient path that took us away from the ruins. Upon reaching the crossing, I had flashes of Indiana Jones treading over this precarious structure with precious booty swinging in hand. The daydream ended here, however. The Inca Bridge is closed to all visitors who want to cross. Upon our return, we saw local workers tying ladders over the steep side of the path. I asked one what they were doing. “We cut back the plants that grow through the wall that supports the trail. If we don’t, the roots expand, crush the rock and the wall eventually crumbles taking the trail with it.” Hmmm. This must have been an on-going endeavor of the Incan public works over a half millennium ago. Their trails to this day form a matrix that covers the Andes of Peru. It was a network of nearly 40,000 thousand kilometers that connected the distant corners of their vast empire from Quito in Ecuador, down to Santiago in Chile, and east to Mendoza in Argentina. It must have been a Herculean task to maintain that extensive infrastructure. As our guide from Day 1 explained, “The Incas could work all day long. They thrived on chicha (corn beer) and coca (leaves from the narcotic plant). With those, they could accomplish anything.”
Later, we hike the renowned Inca Trail, the path that used to connect Machu Picchu to the Incan capital of Cusco 112 kilometers away. A shortened route now leads tourists to the Lost City. We, of course, are doing it backwards—walking away from the ruins toward the Intipunku, the Sun Gate. After an uphill hour, we sit among the temple’s massive stone blocks that overlook the ancient city a thousand feet below. I feel young today and walk fast and sure in spite of the high altitude. It is great to be alive. A forty-year dream has been achieved and Machu Picchu has delivered beyond expectations. I don’t want to leave, but a two o’clock train back to Cusco awaits. Ominous, dark clouds begin to roll in. The Incan gods have been gracious with sunshine for the past two days, but the fiesta is over. It is time to move on. But coming here was always about time, and perhaps a bit of money. I leave with the satisfaction of closure, a lifetime dream completed.