On paper, the story was engrossing, the stuff of an Indiana Jones blockbuster or of a Wilbur Smith book. Picture this: a misty morning in the Urubamba valley, deep in the Peruvian Andes. Jagged peaks covered in thick rain forest. Threads of vapour hanging to the canopy of trees, the sound of animals echoing across the valley.
Close in on a small clearing in the forest. A tall, handsome man emerges; we imagine him to have a vaguely militaristic stride in his step – most of his photos depict him in uniform, so it comes easy to think that even in his civvies he’s got something of the officer in him – and that floppy bushman’s hat that has been immortalised by Harrison Ford a handful of decades later. The year is 1911 and the man was Hiram Bingham, and he was moments away from discovering Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Inca, the last redoubt of the Empire, after Cusco and the Sacred Valley had fallen prey of the invading Spaniards.
Except that he wasn’t, and it wasn’t.
A village has grown at the foothills of Machu Picchu, and it’s such a forgettable place that it doesn’t even seem to have a name of its own. My guide calls it Aguascalientes, whilst locals call it El Pueblo. A cluster of buildings of bare bricks clinging on up a steep gulley hosts an assortment of hotels ranging from luxurious to flea-pit (and I let you imagine on which end of the spectrum we were staying), a bazaar resting under a corrugated iron roof and the train terminus.
We emerge out of our flea-pit of choice to a day as gloomy as the one that saw Bingham’s triumphant entrance into history. Low clouds lay as homogenously as concrete, sealing the ceiling of the valley as we shoulder our packs and begin walking downhill. I can’t shake off a feeling of bewilderment at seeing how much infrastructure, however shoddy, has been brought this far up; in fact, I can’t shake off a feeling of bewilderment at me being here at all. This wasn’t the Inca’s lost city, their last redoubt – which in fact lied five day’s walk away, in Vilcabamba – but a private estate of Sapa Inca Pachacuti. I know it’s cynical but I thought that we, and the people geared head-to-toe in Berghaus equipment queuing for the bus uphill, had come here to see the Inca version of Balmoral castle.
El Pueblo ends in a series of muddy workshops, its main road turning into a track cut through the woods. Bingham had come this way, polling local Quechua farmers for Inca ruins as he worked his way uphill, looking as he was for the elusive city of Vitcos. He had, at that point, seen a good few places but none conveyed the idea of grandeur that a capital must’ve had. Then innkeeper Melchor Arteaga pointed him towards some splendid ruins that, seemingly, lied way above the valley floor.
We catch a fleeting glimpse of the goal, sitting perched atop a tall ridge, so high up to seem vertical. This isn’t a leisurely ample and smooth valley carved over millennia by the slow grinding of a glacier; it’s narrow, steep, dug by a tumultuous river and very secretive, with cliffs towering high as the walls of Jericho. And we don’t have ram horns to blow into.
The concrete sky grows denser, and a few drops start falling. Tump tump tump they go over our soft shell jackets, adding to the rhythm of our steps as the only noises we hear around us. Then the first busload of visitors rumbles past, beating us to the top, leaving in its wake a chorus of alarmed shrieks from all the wildlife it’s awaken.
Access to Machu Picchu is restricted to a few thousand visitors per day, and they all go through a check-point before the river crossing. The log bridge that Bingham used has gone, replaced by a newer metal concoction that wobbles every time a truck rumbles by.
“Esta lloviendo en el Pueblo?” asks the ranger flicking through our papers, noting our dripping jackets. That’s when we realise that down here, less than a couple of klicks from the village, the skies are getting clearer.
A dirt track zigzags through the forest, a scar drawn across the mountain. We walk on it only if no other option is available, coughing in the dust kicked up by yet another juggernaut, opting instead for a small goat’s path that sometimes bisects the road but often leaves it. In those precious moments, trees and vines and leaves shield us from the belching diesel engines and we can daydream of being alone on the trail, in the valley, alone in the company of singing birds, buzzing insects and many other animals that we can’t see but can hear.
Climbing in a rainforest with a heavy pack brings struggles I wasn’t accustomed to. It isn’t warm, yet I turn into a stream of sweat. Rivulets start from the nape and come tumbling down the neck into the shoulders and back, down the spine and ever below. Even my legs feel wet and telltale wet patches start appearing on my ill-chosen cotton trousers. I find myself wishing I could swap them for the technical fibres worn by those being driven up.
Hiram Bingham didn’t reach Machu Picchu alone, for he was guided there by a boy, whose father and uncle had started farming on the ancient Inca terraces, growing corn and potatoes like their ancestors did, years before the city’s spurious discovery. Likewise, a self-appointed leader spontaneously decided to take point of this little troop of two. He looks competent, but lacks in communication skills, for he’s a stray dog, member of a small clan of quadrupeds seemingly living on the trail.
For the entire ascent we indulged in the romantic illusion of being the only ones on the mountain, on the trail and into the city, much like Bingham was – save for the handful of Quechuas growing crops. The moment we stepped in the esplanade where the entrance stands, though, our illusion fleeted away like dry ice. Access to Machu Picchu might be restricted, but it feels like the day’s visitors have all arrived just now, a mass of humanity brandishing selfie sticks, vociferous and pushy. A few weathered men and women stand in a corner, guarding their packs; they have the lean looks and celebratory t-shirts of people who’d arrived here the proper way, on foot from Cusco or Ollantaytambo. I wish they could have the mountain for themselves, for they’ve earned it the hard way.
Our guide dog unceremoniously dumps us, scouting for someone who can give him something more appetizing than the dried apricots that made all our food. Feeling dejected, we make our entrance. Below us, still shrouded in fog, is the lost city that never was, the last redoubt that never had been, more crowded than it’d ever been. We fall in line with everyone else and begin our descent into the ruins of Machu Picchu.