Our guide’s “secret” viewpoint is really not, and after zig-zagging up the Inca stairwell, we make it to our zenith: the “classic FaceBook pose to make all your friends jealous.” So, pose we do, juggling shots with a young newlywed couple from the Midwest here on their honeymoon, sweat wiped from brow in a failed attempt to defy the sweltering humidity and blistering tropical sun.
But, Graham and I don’t care, because we are in Machu Picchu!
Here we are, high above the rows of stone buildings and temples and terraces, Inca trail winding round behind us, complete with two llamas trekking upslope, oblivious, and I swear, I might as well be in that Disney movie about this very empire.
Our guide–I think his name is Benet, but I could be horribly misguided, ha–sits us down like rapt students and tells us the most glorious tale, how this place came to be, and the story, a grandiose, action-packed drama rife with battle, conquest and delusion, has us sitting on the edge of our seats:
On the perpetual search for gold, it turns out the conquistadors hear of the promised land high in the Peruvian hills, certain to find the “X” on their treasure map, so up they trudge the Inca trail, a massive network of foot trails uniting the four corners of this ancient realm. Unfortunately for him, the Inca king falls prey to a major misperception, and believing enemies within his own kingdom responsible for these armor-clad white men, he thinks to pull the plug from the source and sends his troops to fight his own instead of against Pissarro.
So, the story goes that the Incas are responsible for their own downfall, severing head from body and leaving the land and kingdom ripe for conquistador pillaging.
Which, we hear, leads us to another mega misperception, for the Spaniards are here for gold, convinced the Incan coffers must be lined with the sparkly stuff. How wrong they are, we learn, for gold holds value to the conquistadors but not to the Incas, who, they, couldn’t be bothered to do much with the soft metal–or, really, any metal–other than use it as flair, a little decor here and there.
Most definitely not major gold producers, these Incas, and hearing of the imminent occupation, they flee this sacred city on a hill, abandoning Machu Picchu for fear of total destruction. The conquistadors, it seems, never make it far beyond Cusco, literally the center of Incan life, and for the next five hundred years, Machu Picchu falls into memory’s abyss, the stuff of legends.
That is, until a resolute and stubborn German explorer makes it his life’s passion to find the Lost City of the Incas, which, he does at the turn of the 20th century, overgrown and crumbling, tipped off by local farmers who, for generations, play in the ruins and think nothing much of this legacy, so commonplace to their daily experience.
And, now, today, Machu Picchu belongs to the world, partly because of excellent PR and reconstruction on behalf of the Peruvian government, partly because this site, simply put, is effing bad ass.