The day has arrived for Machu Picchu. The Huffords—Geoff, Michelle, Alec, Jerome and Miles—have agreed to my request to get up early and catch the 5:30 a.m. bus. The alarm goes off at 4:45 a.m., and we buzz about to get our gear together. We reach the station on time and there’s a short line. We get on the 5:40 bus and arrive at Machu Picchu 20 minutes later. Ironically, our round-trip bus ticket to the landmark cost more than our hotel room.
The road to the top consists of a number of switchbacks. The suspense builds as we climb ever higher. The river seems miles and miles away, and the clouds swirl around nearby peaks and dissipate. As we gather in the dawning, there’s a hush as though we’ve walked through the doors of a church.
Michelle Hufford and I walk up to the ticket turnstile, and a young man approaches and offers a tour of Machu Picchu for 160 soles ($53US). We agree right away. Then he learns that there are six more in our group. He agrees to tack them on for another 20 soles.
Freddy is a professional guide, a member of a trade union that certifies he’s qualified. His English is good, and we’re pleased to have him for two hours. Our early arrival means that few other tourists have come, and Freddy can talk without competing with other guides. The ruins are still rather empty, and we can look down upon them in their entirety.
After a few introductory remarks, Freddy leads our group to the gatehouse, the best vantage point. It’s here that we see all Machu Picchu as thousands have before us.
What can I say about Machu Picchu? That it’s beautiful? Magnificent? Mind-boggling? It’s all of those. To think that this kid from the sticks got to see one of the ancient wonders of the world is amazing. I’m so grateful.
We learn many things from Freddy. Machu Picchu does indeed mean “old peak.” One doesn’t climb it, because the ruins are set into it. High atop the peak, the Colombian flag flies. The mountain seen in many photographs is Huayna Picchu, “young peak.” We’ll climb it later.
Freddy relates the story of Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu (MP) in 1911. He indicates how the Inca Trail was kept secret from the marauding Spanish, the only way it could evade destruction. At the main gate he explains how the royal estate’s only entrance could be locked by tying a tree trunk against the towering stones.
Freddy explains how the various areas were used, from the playing field where the royals gathered to the residential section. The latter was divided into living quarters for men and women. Experts say children didn’t live there, because no toys were found among the ruins. Michelle and I pooh-pooh the idea that the women and men didn’t mingle. We know better.
We continue our tour of the site and visit the sundial, the quarry, the temple of the three windows, the wings of the condor. When we finish, we still have most of the day to continue our exploration.
At 10:30 a.m. we line up with others at the entrance to Huayna Picchu. Climbing to the top of this mountain requires an extra ticket that costs $10US. We picked up our tickets in Cusco so we could also acquire the slightly lower priced student tickets for Mikayla, Jerome and Miles and use our credit cards.
At 11:10 a.m., #322, #325 and #323—Mike, Mikayla and me—pass through the entrance. Surprisingly, the climb to the top of Huayna Picchu takes only one hour. Mikayla and the Hufford boys race to the top as Mike, Michelle and I take a slower pace and Geoff is in between.
Mike, Michelle and I stop several times on our ascent. The altitude, lack of fitness or age contribute to shortness of breath and we pause to recover at some switchbacks. We drink lots of water, too.
About three-quarters of the way up Huayna Picchu our efforts are rewarded with a stunning view of Machu Picchu. From this perspective we can see the expanse of the ruins and pick out places where we stopped with Freddy. We can see the point at which the Inca Trail leads into MP, and the quarry where the stones were cut.
The sun is high overhead now and the orb’s intensity washes out the ruins. They seem to fade into the mountainside. We continue our climb.
We finally reach a plateau of sorts where other climbers have gathered to rest and grab a snack. We’re almost at the summit. Ahead of us is a narrow tunnel that we must crawl through. It deposits us near the peak. A few minutes later we look down upon Machu Picchu, drink in the breeze and gaze upon the cloudy peaks surrounding us.
My friend Sharon LaBorde had asked me to whisper her name into this ancient realm, an idea I embraced enthusiastically, for I had been trying to come up with a special way to remember this place. I softly called out her name. I followed with my sister’s name, Sharon Gaydon, and her husband John. I whispered the name of my friend Vicki Foster back in Florida, and my nieces Seren and Bekah. Mike and Mikayla. Ellen and Geoff. Phyllis. Bill. And so on and so on, blessing every one.