I’ve already been to Machu Picchu two times (2005 and 2009). Over the years I’ve always tried to be a traveler instead of tourist simply checking off boxes to say that I’ve been somewhere. Despite that, Machu Picchu is the one place I’ve been everyone should see no matter the motivation.
I went in 2005 to check it off. I’ve seen enough ruins in my life to not be expecting much. I arrived early in the morning and climbed up through the fog unable to see more than a few feet in front of me. “Not impressed,” I thought. “This better improve quickly.”
Then the clouds broke and there it was.
Ever since I’ve told everyone that Machu Picchu is a place that must be experienced before one can understand it. And despite two trips there, I still can’t explain why the place is so special.
I’m not a spiritual person who believes the place is magical. I don’t believe aliens built the place or that there are hidden secrets still lurking. But there is something there that defies my understanding. I did feel something different when there.
Perks of Being a Local
I’m returning to Machu Picchu in a few days. This time I’ll be a resident and am taking advantage of the discount perks that we locals folks get. First of all, there’s a special train for locals that costs only $6 (!) instead of the normal $145 or more for tourists. Then admission is $30 instead of $70.
It’s so inexpensive that I’m actually going to visit two days in a row. The train doesn’t leave until 6:30 the next day so I decided I might as well go one more time since it is so cheap and I have a day to explore.
Despite visiting one of the world’s greatest places, I’m not as excited as you’d expect and it all is because of what happened in 2009.
The 2009 Visit That Will Never be Repeated
I planned the visit through the small hostel where I was staying. The plan was to take the tourist train the day before and then go up the mountain early in the morning before the next day’s trains brought the hordes of tourist who mostly spent just a few hours there before catching the late trains back to Cusco.
By the time I was in Aguas Calientes, a major wrinkle was thrown into the plans of many. The next day was June 24, the day of the biggest celebration in Cusco, Inti Raymi, when the city was filled with thousands of people. It was also the day of a major strike across the region including the train workers!
Sadly, as many as 2000 tourists were unable to do their planned trip to the site on that day. But what that meant for a handful of us who were already in town was that we had the place to ourselves.
Yes, for the most part Machu Picchu was mostly empty. I was told that fewer than 200 people visited the site all day long! Instead of the massive crowds that should have filled the complex, only a few got the experience of a lifetime.
At that time, there was a limit of 400 people allowed to climb Huayna Picchu. People would wait at the gate early to race up the entrance to the spectacular sharp peak visible in all the postcard photos you’ve seen of MP. When I asked at the front entrance about going up there, the guard just laughed and said don’t worry because no one would be there today.
Needless to say, I’ve never really wanted to go back after that day. As the crowds have increased exponentially in the last decade, I knew it would not be the same experience. Now I’m told there is a circuit that you must follow and free exploring is not allowed.
On that special day back in 2009, I wandered all over the site at my own pace. There were very long stretches of time when I didn’t see a single person. Imagine going to the most popular amusement park and having it almost completely to yourself. That’s how it was that day.
And Yet I’m Still Excited
Even though I know I’ll probably never be able to repeat that visit, I find myself getting more and more excited each day. As I said before, there is something about Machu Picchu that can’t be explained. I know the crowds will be maddening even though this is definitely the off-season. And the weather might not cooperate as it is the end of the rainy season in this region.
Still, I know that I’ll be captured by the place once again no matter what the experience is like in 2019. I’m probably going to take a ton of photos. I’ll try to avoid pics with crowds of people, but that will probably not be possible. I’m hoping to focus on the little things — the details — that most people miss even as they walk right past.
In trying to view Machu Picchu differently from all the tourists who will certainly surround me, I hope to experience it in a way that few others will. Keep your fingers crossed!