By Holly McElwee
Perched high in the Andes Mountains of Peru is Machu Picchu, the No. 1 tourist attraction in South America. Hosting more than one million visitors in 2013 alone, it’s a bucket-list-worthy spot that cannot adequately be described in words or pictures. It’s impossible to explain the feeling of seeing this lost Inca city for the first time. The only way to truly know, feel, and experience Machu Picchu is to journey there and stand in its midst.
Sixteen of us from Grace Baptist Church in Troy did just that — we marveled at the splendor and glory of all that is Machu Picchu. It’s more than just the city itself. It’s the mountains surrounding the entire site. It’s the beautiful blue sky and the perfect white clouds. It’s the time and trouble it takes to get there. It’s the total package of the entire experience. That’s what makes Machu Picchu so great.
Visitors to Machu Picchu start the day with a guided tour. This is ideal, especially if the tour guide is terrific, as ours was. Jose was beyond knowledgeable. He was funny and quite a talker. He had a string of jokes for the entire tour. The best one was when he quipped, “I used to be white until I took this job.” It was an obvious jab at us “gringos,” but also a serious statement about the Peruvian sun that beats down on Machu Picchu most days. Without Jose, our understanding of this ancient Inca city would have been slim to none. Even the best guidebook is no match for an excellent tour guide. Jose explained all the nooks and crannies, as much as he could. For as extensive as the research has been at Machu Picchu, no one fully understands why the Incas built such a magnificent city on top of that mountain or why they abandoned it.
Jose didn’t spend the entire day with us, which was also fine. In fact, my most favorite part of the day was when our team had time to explore on our own. During this time we climbed to the highest vantage point of the city and escaped the crowds to have a little corner of Machu Picchu all to ourselves. I always strive for those types of moments; away from the crowds and seeing something unique and special. When we stood high on that mountain and saw what only birds can see, I knew that we were having the “once in a lifetime” moment. And, to share it with friends and family made it even better.
I also relish the new experiences of every trip. Even though I’d been to Machu Picchu before, there were parts I hadn’t seen such as the Inca Bridge. Seeing the Inca Bridge involves a hike away from the main Machu Picchu city. As my teammates and I trudged uphill, this became an entirely new adventure. At 8,000 feet elevation, any type of uphill hike is a “breath-sucking” experience. Thankfully, though, the trail leveled out became shaded. What a refreshing and delightful treat to walk along the path with the cooling effects of nature. Natural air conditioning, what a joy!
When we reached the Inca Bridge site, we realized that the final portion of the trail was not for the faint of heart. The trail snaked along the cliff wall, and to fall would mean certain death by the time one reached the valley floor below. A metal cable had been attached to the cliff wall as a means of a handle or support. Who was brave enough to venture along this path to see the Inca Bridge close up? I was, of course! The trail had brought us this far, and I wasn’t about to stop short. Thankfully, my walk to the bridge and back was safe and uneventful, and as much as I had the courage to journey out to the bridge (it couldn’t be crossed, only observed from the end), I had a several moments of nervousness thinking about the sheer drop down the cliff wall.
As our day at Machu Picchu came to a close, we just sat in the grass and reveled in the moment. I was reminded of a quote by novelist Louis L’Amour, “The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.” Machu Picchu may have been the end of the trail, but taking the journey to get there, climbing to lofty heights, and seeking out the once in a lifetime experiences made Machu Picchu even better than any of us ever could’ve imagined.
Holly McElwee is a teacher for Piqua City Schools. Read more and see pictures at www.travelingteacheronline.com