31st October 2014
As one of the world’s greatest tourist sites you would expect Machu Picchu to be busy – and it is. Each day between 2000 and 2500 curious travellers make the zigzag journey by bus up from the shabby train terminus of Aguas Calientes, pass through the turnstiles and into the parque archologique.
Normally such hoards would have me running for cover. I am very lucky, spoilt even, that so much of my travelling life has been spent away from the madding crowds. Indeed, at Wild Frontiers we have built a business based around off-the-beaten-track tourism and specialise in getting our clients away from everyone else. But there are exceptions, when, in order to experience a truly extraordinary phenomena, either natural or man-made, you simply have to bite the bullet, stop being a tourist snob, and follow the herd. Machu Picchu, like the Taj Mahal, The Pyramids and Angkor Wat, is such a place.
Being offered a seat in the Hiram Bingham luxury train up from Cusco, I didn’t arrive until well after one. Despite a lousy forecast, much to my relief the sun was around, albeit flitting coquettishly behind dark clouds. As the others on this particular train were largely elderly couples who I feared may not move around quite as nimbly as myself, I told our guide not to worry about me and that I would do my own thing. As usual my modus operandi was to get some good film and photos – I could read up on the explanation of what it was I was actually exploring later. And with the sun being anything but certain I wanted to get on.
So, on arrival at the gates, I sped through the turnstiles and followed those entering up to the first vantage point. It really doesn’t matter how many people are in this spot staring south towards the main citadel and the famous phallic peak that forms such a dramatic backdrop, you are sure to be blown away. Having seen the site a million times in guidebooks, posters and postcards it was still something of a surprise just how magnificent and beautifully preserved it is.
Still, after a quick photo and eager to escape the throng, in my usual ‘bull at a gate’ way of doing things, I rushed up a steep incline towards the Sun Gate… I'm not sure why, it just seemed the thing to do. Anyway, half way up I realised this was not going to be the best spot to get the epic view I needed and so returned, panting and sweating – we are taking about almost 3000 meters here – to where I’d started. Here I met my train companions, with the guide, looking wonderfully calm and serene, said a sheepish hello and headed off in a different direction. And this time I got it right, walking up towards Machu Picchu Mountain and then veering east along one of the many terraces.
Moving along the terrace as far as I could I found a spot right at the end and sat down. From here there was no one else in site or within earshot; the crowds really did just melt away, the sun came out and once again all seemed right with the world. And there it was… the image I had held in my head of this great place for more than 30 years. In the late 1980s, whilst in a band, we had a song called 'Angel Town' and I’d wanted to make the video here. Some dream. But how wonderful it felt to be sitting here now, all these years later, finally feasting my eyes on something so magical that had meant so much for so long. I had found my spot and, having done all the filming I needed to do, I just sat there and watched for over an hour, which, as anyone who knows me will testify, is little short of a miracle… I am not good at relaxing!
But all good things come to an end and when two German teenage girls sat down on the ledge directly above me and started jabbering away and photographing a small teddy bear – I guess to show Facebook friends "he’s been to Machu Picchu..." – I knew the magic had passed and it was time to move on.
It didn’t really matter. Machu Picchu had certainly lived up to its billing as one of the great man-made wonders of the modern world. It was a thrill to see it.