When I stepped onto the dirt path and left the overhang of the park entrance, I saw the fog lifting from the bright green terraced mountainsides–a sight I had only seen in textbooks. It was easy to forget that it was only 6am and that I and my travel buddies had just ridden half an hour up a mountain on a bus that threatened to topple over the edge and crush the small town of Aguas Calientes hundreds of feet below. But now, in the early light of dawn, we began our journey through the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Perú.
As we walked, we hardly said a word to one another, lost in our own thoughts and silenced by awe. I couldn’t speak; I didn’t want to. I wanted to be on my own without anyone near me and just sit and absorb the atmosphere and watch the thick fog float through the broken doorways and out over the missing roofs. Across the river thousands of feet below, the sunlit mountaintops barely showed above the fog. I imagined what it must have been like, to wake each morning and step to the grassy ledge of a terrace and take in the sights as alpacas grazed and jungle birds began their daily song. For a few moments I thought I could hear the distant hum of families talking, of children running on the packed dirt from one house to another.
In some places, walls of fog eliminated all sight past ten feet, hiding sheer drops that appeared to go on forever, but were only several feet down when you stepped near enough to see. Machu Picchu has a way of making you feel like you are at the precipice of the world, that there is naught before you but open air, endless mountains, and a steep drop to your death. But the terraced mountainside is quite safe. Each step is completely flat and about six feet wide. If you fell down to one, you could stop yourself from dropping to the next easily, but the heights still twisted my stomach in fear.
As we walked down the packed paths, up smoothed steps, and towards Waynapicchu (or Huayna Picchu), our climbing task for the day, the fog slowly lifted from the ruins. The park was nearly empty and it felt we were the only ones there. I took as many pictures as I could of the sites because I knew later there would be tourists in every picture, and I wouldn’t settle for that. It’s believed Machu Picchu could had been a holy place, a place for Inca priests to dwell, and I wanted to capture whatever holiness and serenity I could, but it was the feeling of the place I wanted to capture most. It’s nearly impossible to express in words or images what it was like to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu. One of the people in my group said that to her ruins were just ruins, and after one sees so many all over the world, they all start to look the same. But that’s not true for me. Every place is different, every place has a different story to tell. I was in another world, another time. I willed myself to feel the presence of the past that had been and of the people who had lived ages before.
I sat in silence at the base of Waynapicchu, waiting to climb the mountain to get a view of the park, trying to soak everything in. If I could have, I would have waited all day and watched the foggy haze turn to clouds and drift lazily around the mountain peaks before me and stare as the sun swept across the sky and sunk behind the mountains once more. But the gates to the trail opened right on time, and we joined the 100 other people who had come to climb Waynapicchu. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but we knew we wanted the view of a lifetime, so we climbed for an hour to the top, using the same stone steps the Inca put in place centuries before, some only inches high, others nearly a foot or more. The railings were a new addition. Welcome, but sometimes I challenged myself and tried to take the mountain like a true Inca. I wasn’t cut out for that, but it was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had. There’s nothing like trying to keep standing on soar, quaking legs, ready to complain, and then looking around and seeing a world unlike anything I’ve seen before, and maybe will never see again. Complaints were held back and fatigue pushed through, replaced with renewed vigor. Throughout the day, I was in a constant state of awe and wonder. I was in the ancient realm of the Inca, seeing what they saw, hearing what they heard, stepping where they stepped, touching what they built, and feeling the lingering presence of what could be the ghosts of Machu Picchu.