by Jim Gladstone
Did you go to Machu Picchu?” That’s the first question my partner John and I were asked by nearly a dozen friends and family members when they learned that we’d traveled to Peru this past April. None of them had ever been to South America’s third largest country. Some had never left the United States, but the mysterious Inca city, perched on a high mountain ridge above the rushing Urubamba River, has a power of attraction that reaches through its ever-shifting veil of clouds, capturing imaginations continents away. And yes, we had been there.
Behind our friends’ wide-eyed queries, I sensed both a vicarious thrill and a begrudging resignation. Machu Picchu has seduced its way onto many fantasy bucket lists, but then been quietly set aside, dismissed as an impossible dream.
“How long does it take to hike in,” we were asked. “A week?” “Did you have to train in advance to handle the altitude?” “You must be really fit.” No, no, and, alas, no. We are forty-something, fatigue-prone desk jockeys. When we return home from work in San Francisco each evening, we are remarkably consistent in deciding to hit a restaurant rather than hitting the gym.
We bear little resemblance to the hardy, fedora-sporting American explorer Hiram Bingham who brought news of Machu Picchu’s discovery to the world in 1911, or to the impressively exhausted and body-odored troops we crossed paths with as they concluded four-day treks with their arrival at the ancient city.
If you’ve ever longed to visit, but felt that you weren’t up to the challenge, its time to re-evaluate. One need not be macho to reach Machu Picchu. This genuine wonder of the world is much more easily accessible than many realize.
While history and travel documentaries have glorified arduous hikes along the traditional Inca Trail through the Andes, there is easy access to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes by train. From town, it’s just a 20-minute bus ride to the ruins—a ridiculously switchbacked zigzag of a drive that some travelers may find far more daunting than the prospect of a half week’s hiking and camping.
We held our breaths while our bus driver executed a cliffside turn that measured somewhere between 150 and 170 degrees, passing another bus, idling on the other side of what can only generously be described as a two-lane road. Take that, rugged hikers! Adventure travel comes in many forms.
Machu Picchu is a marvel, however you get there. The stone-walled settlement of homes, temples, and agricultural terraces was built in the mid-1400s, a feat of arduous labor and ingenious engineering in the midst of craggy Andean peaks, then abandoned after barely a century, as the Incas suspected the approach of Spanish conquistadors. In fact, the Spanish never discovered the mountain settlement, which then dropped out of civilization’s consciousness, essentially unknown until the 20th century.
One need not be a history or archaeology buff to feel deeply stirred by Machu Picchu. The sprawling site is immersive and experiential, not over-curated or over-commercialized in the way of Mexico’s Chichen Itza or the pyramids in Cairo. Walking amid its uncongested paths (only 2,500 tourists, all accompanied by authorized guides are admitted each day) is at once serene and mind-boggling. This is the world’s most improbable ghost town.
Even for those unfazed by, or attracted to, the physical challenges of trekking, if you’re visiting Peru for the first time and have a typically tight American vacation schedule, it’s worth thinking carefully about whether you want to dedicate the bulk of your trip on a long walk to Machu Picchu.
While the famed ruins are Peru’s top tourist draw, Peru is rich in natural and cultural attractions. John and I had just eight days on the ground, and after traveling thousands of miles to get to Peru, we wanted Machu Picchu to be the centerpiece of our visit, but by no means the sole focus.
To make the most of our time, we turned to Lima Tours (Tel: 511-619-6900 / 954-380-5040. www.limatours.com.pe, one of the country’s leading travel companies. Planning and guiding Peruvian itineraries for 56 years, Lima Tours is a pioneer in cultivating LGBT tourism in Peru, helping to organize international gay travel groups beginning in the 1970s. In 2008, the company received a Hall of Fame Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA).