9:30pm, the night before my visit to Machu Picchu. I leap out of bed and race for the toilet.
“Esta ocupado,” whispers a dorm-mate. But I’ve already slammed into the door and the poor girl inside – merely trying to brush her teeth – opens up. Before I can speak, the first retch comes. I manage to hold it down, burst passed her, and plunge my head into the bowl.
It takes me a little while to wonder if she is still behind me, frozen in shock and disgust, or if she fled at the first hint of what was to come. But, really, I am too relieved to care. Standing up shakily, I flush the toilet. Nothing happens.
“No hay agua…” reveals my dorm-mate.
Ever since the Arroz Cubana the night before, my stomach had been bubbling like a witch’s cauldron. Until then, the Peruvian street food had been serving me well. No matter where you were, if you could find a local fruit and vegetable market, you could find little stalls offering hearty plates of rice or noodles for as little as $1.35.
But this time, I came too late. The market was almost finished and all but one of the stalls had closed. The señora had to relight the burners and literally scrape the bottoms of the barrels to feed me – the last morsels of rice, the last sorry-looking egg, the last shrivelled clumps of salad.
The next 24 hours became an exercise in the maintenance of perfect stillness for my stomach. That made the train to Machu Picchu Village an interesting challenge. It rattled along the mountain tracks at an agonizing 30km/hour. I cowered in my seat for all of half an hour – burping, gurgling and farting like a drunken baby – before I was forced to the bathroom at the back of the carriage.
“Esta ocupado!” the young carriage attendant informed me.
“Estoy enfermo,” I croaked back.
“Aiiee…” he groaned, turning away in disgust. The seconds pulsed through my cranium. Drops of sweat rolled down my forehead. Then, to the entire carriage’s relief, the door opened. Unfortunately, it seemed the moment to decisively end my torment had passed. Still, sticking my head out the open bathroom window did me some good, and I made the rest of the journey without incident.
Wedged between sheer jungle mountains and perched over rushing rivers, Machu Picchu Village is picturesquely remote. Remote, but overrun nonetheless. All the signs are in English and all the prices in US dollars. The steep streets are difficult to navigate, especially for the town’s rubbish collectors, who scream for right-of-way as they hurtle past, barely arresting the momentum of the overstuffed wagons that roll down behind them.
I rose at 4:30 the next morning for a (very) light breakfast in my factory farm of a hostel, then headed to the bus station. A queue of tourists snaked almost a kilometre through the streets. Merely confirming that this was, in fact, the line for the buses saw 50 more join the line. Inching alongside the train tracks through the middle of the town, we were easy pickings for sandwich vendors and tour guides. As a train rolled by, I briefly considered throwing myself in front of it.
By the time we actually started moving an hour later, the line was snaking a kilometre through the streets. Inching along, we were easy pickings for sandwich vendors and tour guides.
After two hours of waiting, we were loaded onto a bus. One of the tour guides sat next to me.
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” he observed, rubbing too much citrus deodorant on his neck.
“Yes,” I replied, “beautiful.”
And, actually, it was. The jungle peaks soared above the valley in sweeping, dramatic fashion, wreathed in lush vegetation and the rising morning clouds.
Disembarking the bus, I felt a lot better, and even managed to lose my would-be guide, slipping away in the line and into the complex. Weaving through the crowds, I soon came to the platform where the quintessential view of the ruins could be taken in. I resisted the urge to immediately take out my phone. Instead, I just tried to take it all in. To feel the awe old Emperor Pachacuti must have inspired, that his Inca would drag all those enormous blocks to such absurd heights, simply for another royal estate. His name has been translated as “He Who Overturns Time and Space,” and, meditating on the ruins, one might feel both the power and the folly of such a claim.
But no more than 30 seconds passed before I was tapped on the sleeve.
“Sir, I want to take a photo.”
A line of people were waiting to take my place. Handing my phone to a stranger, I got my few snaps and got out of the way.
At every other vantage, it was the same: somebody anxiously waiting for a gap in the crowds, adopting for a few seconds a pensive look into the distance, maybe one knee bent in contemplation, like Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Or sitting cross-legged, back turned, arms outstretched, in a spontaneous embrace of their unique moment. All this before hurrying off to the next photo-op. The most daring would clamber over the rope-fences and up onto the outcroppings in search of a photo that was truly one-of-a-kind. Or at least, one with a background not filled with other tourists. They quickly incurred the wrath of the wardens, who blew whistles and waved furiously to herd us along the one-way circuit.
I quickly veered off that main complex path, wandering down the most peaceful path I could find. After fifteen minutes, I came across a trekker coming the other way.
“What’s up that way?” I asked him.
“The Sun Gate.”
“Mmmyeah, just another view of the whole thing.”
“You don’t sound very impressed.”
He squinted at me from beneath a sheen of sweat and gripped the straps of his pack.
“I hiked four days to get here,” he lamented, trudging away.
Actually, the frugal purist in me would have preferred to have done it this way. Despite his comment, I can imagine how reaching the storied ruins would be a fitting climax to a multi-day trek through the natural wonders and other (more tranquil) Incan sites of the Sacred Valley. Friends later confirmed this to be the case, but persistent back and shoulder problems made such a trek unwise for me at the time.
And still, everywhere I went, I saw people with similar expressions to this disappointed hiker. They sat exhausted in the shade, nodding vacantly along to the lectures of their guides, eyes screaming ‘how did I get roped into this?’
Not that you see this in the photos, of course. There, everybody is determined to create the same fantasy they themselves were promised in travel magazines and on social media. To understand something of a history they’ve no connection to, of the astronomical significance of structures that are no longer there. They will try to marvel at the grandeur of is, in truth, merely piles of rubble, built in a landscape admittedly spectacular, though robbed off much of its formidable mystique by the throngs traipsing casually across it for a couple of hours before taking the bus back down to the train station and off again to the hotel.
Of course, I cannot exempt myself from their number. I already knew I had little interest in ancient ruins. Yet here I was, unable to resist the pressure to visit one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World.’ As decided by internet poll.
Catching sight of the exit, a girl behind me cried ‘Yippee!’ We lined up for our complementary Machu Picchu passport stamps, then boarded the bus back. REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’ blared over the speakers all the way down the mountain.
American explorer Hiram Bingham wrote in 1910 that “few romances can ever surpass that of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca land.” As the first outsider ever to lay eyes on the deserted, overgrown citadel, deep in the uncharted Andean wild, you can hardly fault his sentiment. The most intriguing ruins are deserted, after all. Whispering quietly, if at all, of their former purpose. But, like temples and churches, when they are flooded with commerce and the deafening expectations of tourism they lose whatever might have made them sacred to begin with.
They become like plundered tombs, robbed not in search of gold, but the new treasure of our age: profile pictures.
And this much, at least, is true: the pictures are phenomenal.