The following morning, after a restful night’s sleep at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (the only hotel located adjacent to the ruins themselves), I arose before dawn to be in line to enter the park when the gates opened at 6am. As one of the first 30 or so people inside, I managed to experience a few hours of the magical place with only a few hundred others milling about vs. the hordes that would descend later on (peak visitation is between 10am and 3pm). It was my first time at Machu Picchu, and as most past visitors will attest, no amount of prior tourism marketing adequately prepares you for the site itself. Yes, you know what it looks like from a thousand brochures and photos. But those images can’t really capture the full spectrum of the location, surrounded by mists and rainforest-clad mountain spires. In between moments of snapping away like a drunken idiot, I did manage to pause and take it all in. Words definitely don’t do it justice, so if you haven’t been, just make sure you get there at least once.
A short while later, I met our MLP group at the park entrance, and David gave us a private tour, leveraging his years of knowledge of the area. What’s perhaps most surprising about Machu Picchu is that, while much is known about the site and the Inca people, even more is not, and remains subject to debate, conjecture, and outright speculation. Overhearing other guides, it appeared that each merged the official history with a bit of personal opinion or special facts — I suspect that each tour of the area is a little bit different. For example, almost everyone asks the obvious question: how could the Incas have shaped such perfectly form-fitting stones without the use of metals like iron or steel? Using other hard rocks? That’s not an especially satisfying answer. Likewise, questions about means of transport (without use of wheels) remain, as does the ultimate question — what exactly was the purpose for which Machu Picchu was built? A last bastion? A royal retreat? A sacred religious site? Perhaps some, or all, and more.
Ultimately, perhaps Machu Picchu’s true power today lies in its capacity to elicit powerful emotions and a sense of wonder from modern people, across the spectrum of nationality, class, and religion.