By Antonio Ramblés
The air is cool and a weak dawn filters through the clouds as I rub sleep from my eyes and hope that there’s someplace to buy coffee at this early hour. The heavy clouds seem to bode ill for a Machu Picchu sunrise, but visitors are undeterred as they queue up on a street corner waiting to board one of the busses that ferry everyone but Inca Trail hikers up the mountain and back.
The dirt road on which it ascends is full of switchback curves and narrow enough that the bus often has to back up a few yards to allow returning vehicles to pass.
Machu Picchu’s altitude is nearly a quarter of a mile higher than Aguascalientes’, and for the better part of a half hour the bus passes through the changing vegetation of several microclimates.
The entrance gate sits above most of the archeological site, but the famous panoramic view can only be seen from the hillside above.
The lookout seems like a good place to gain bearings before diving into the ruins below.
Wisps of clouds hang over the site and hover around the backdrop mountains, lending an otherworldly quality to the scene.
It would take an Ansel Adams to do justice to this stunning landscape.
Even at this hour, the overlook is crowded with earlier arrivals, including backpackers who’ve just hiked in on the Inca Trail. Everyone seems to want a selfie with the ruins in the background.
The complex below doesn’t at first seem so big until I begin to measure heights and distances against the antlike streams of people passing through it.
I’m surprised to see the Urubamba River passing within hundreds of yards more than a thousand feet below, for it rarely appears in photos.
In hindsight, though, it comes as no surprise that this inaccessible place was nevertheless built close to the Sacred Valley’s heartbeat.
At Machu Picchu, everything seen earlier in bits and pieces at Pisac and Ollantaytambo – the rounded temple walls with immaculately fitted stones, the terraces and homes, and the granaries and cemetery – are all pulled together in one incredible design.
Less than half of the ruins have been restored, but even in its unfinished state it is just as unquestionably original as it is a masterpiece.
The sun at last stabs through the clouds in a single beam that cuts all the way to the valley floor.
In less than twenty minutes the veil of clouds completely lifts and the ruins are bathed in sunlight.
On the mountainside above, the Inca Trail winds its way down nearly 6,000 feet from its peak to pass through what was once the city’s main gate.
A family of alpaca grazes on a meadow amidst the ruins, eyeing the photographers that surround them, but otherwise as indifferent as sacred cows.
The Inca are so often presented as shapers of land that it’s interesting to see how they also integrated natural formations into their architecture. Only the Roman ruins at Ephesus compare with the scope and sophistication of Machu Picchu, but there’s a different feel to this place.
Clustered around temples set within a natural cathedral, it’s a place that impresses the visitor even more with its spirituality than with its construction. It’s a feeling that recurs often in the Sacred Valley.
This site was abandoned less than 100 years after its completion as a consequence of the Conquest, which lends a particular sadness to its majesty.
Like Pompeii, it cannot help but evoke the sorrow of leaving home unwillingly and in haste, and it leaves forever open the question of what might have been.
The train departs tomorrow afternoon, retracing the tracks to Ollantaytambo and then turning into the mountains before arriving at Cusco. Come along for a walk about the Inca capital.