As my flight touched down after midnight in Lima, my heart pounded in anticipation that belied the lateness of the hour. I was finally here. After many years of waiting, hours of planning, and countless books read, I was finally on the ground in Peru and mere hours away from the destination of my dreams—Machu Picchu, the sacred capital of the Incan Empire.
After a precious few hours of restless sleep, I was back in the air again and on the way to Cuzco, the gateway to the Sacred Valley and, ultimately, Machu Picchu. The city sprawled below the wings of the plane as we circled for landing, providing a scenic view of terra cotta roofs tightly packed together between sloping valley walls at an incredible elevation of more than 11,000 feet. Needless to say, I quickly understood on a personal level why many hotels in the area provide oxygen to their guests upon arrival.
I was introduced to this cultural epicenter of Peru by wandering the crafts markets and the hundreds of overflowing stalls found in each. Vendors proudly displayed their colorful handcrafts, children played in the streets and begged for photos, stray dogs roamed throughout, and the smell of sunbaked earth and ancient stone streets pervaded everything. It was a culture bug’s heaven.
But after a couple of days in Cuzco fighting the urge to buy everything in sight, I moved on toward my main goal in the heart of the Andes. From the city, I traveled into the Sacred Valley, which I discovered to be aptly named. Quiet, agricultural and other-worldly, I was entranced by each small village along the way, all with hypnotic names such as Pisac, Urumbamba, and Ollantaytambo. As we made our way through the valley, I realized that these communities were not just villages, but they were primarily symbolic ruins constructed by the Inca many years ago, all leading the way to their sacred city. Each one was unique and beautiful in its own way, giving voice to the originality and ingenuity of their creators.
At last I reached the tiny town of Aguas Caliente, the jumping off point for ascending the viciously steep and winding road that delivers all visitors to Machu Picchu. I boarded the bus with other breathless travelers, all of us heady with the knowledge that we were finally within reach of our dream destination.
I clambered out of the bus and fought the urge to run toward the entrance to the protected site. As I walked through the gate, I was thankful for my restraint. Though excitement had been building for days, I felt as though the entire world stood still as the ancient City of the Incas spread out before me. Rather than scrambling around the site to marvel at the dry stone walls and irrigation system with others, I immediately felt the need to find a quiet place of solitude to marvel and meditate.
As I sat alone on a secluded outcropping and gazed in wonder at the scenery around me, I suddenly understood why the Inca chose to establish their holy place here. Jagged peaks covered with lush greenery soared thousands of feet into the air from their base in the valley below, and the sound of silence was overwhelming. As though it was perfectly orchestrated, a fine mist began to drift over the site, leaving only a few dedicated explorers to marvel at the view. What a pristine moment in which to soak in all this beauty. Knowing that I may never have the opportunity to return, I was humbled by the experience and left speechless.
It was a quiet ride back down the mountain to Aguas Caliente, all of us lost in private thought as we bounced over the rough track. Even the hysterical atmosphere of the train station, where travelers jostled for the last seats on each departing train, couldn’t break my reverie. I was soon on my way back to Cuzco and—eventually—home, but I knew I would never be the same again. I had experienced something so unique, so spiritual and unspoiled, that I don’t believe that I’ll ever encounter anything quite like it.
On this most anticipated trip, I embarked on my journey with excitement and expectations that were not only met but exceeded. Every destination, culture, and environment is different, but Machu Picchu is truly something special. I can honestly say that it is not what I expected—instead, it is much, much more.