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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Machu Picchu

Being in Peru, going to Machu Picchu seems like an easy, natural choice.  Considered one of the new wonders of the world, I had no doubt that we would choose to go there during our student-planned X phase. Turns out, it wasn’t so simple.

Back in El Alto, we had an almost 2 hour long conversation about whether or not we felt comfortable actually choosing to visit the ancient Incan city. After a trip full of education about leaving our mark in a thoughtful, positive way, we wondered whether it would be hypocritical to visit a Peruvian site run by British companies that essentially fly all the profit out of Peru. That kind of exploitation was not something we wanted to support. At the same time, we wondered if we could truly understand the effect of tourism on Peru without seeing it for ourselves, and we wanted to understand Incan ways of life better. After many internal and group struggles, we finally decided: those who wanted to go to Machu Picchu could and those who wanted to make a statement could do something else that day in the surrounding area. In the end, three students made the brave decision not to go.

Although I was not one of the three, I definitely understand the sentiment and it was an extremely hard decision. In the end I decided to go because I wanted to understand more of how the Inca people lived and I wanted to experience some of the problems brought by massive tourism for myself. In the end, nobody regretted their decision. Those of us who went to Machu Picchu learned a lot and those who didn’t go felt good about not supporting the exploitation of the site.

I must say, I really enjoyed my day in Machu Picchu. We woke up at 4am and hiked up to the site by 6 in order to avoid the hoards of tourists that arrive in the afternoon. Despite our efforts, I was shocked by the number of people who had had the same thoughts as us and were already there as the doors opened. Uncomfortable, we chose to bypass some of the vista spots full of people and their selfie sticks and continue down to the actual ruins.  Because we didn’t spend a long time up top taking photos, when we got into the ruins themselves, there were very few other people already there exploring which was relieving. We spent several hours wandering through the buildings, admiring the stonework that simply seems impossible, and wondering at the view.

For me, the most powerful things I saw were the ways the Inca honored the natural world with their buildings. My favorite examples of this were the Temple of the Sun and the mountain rocks. The Temple of the Sun was designed carefully so that during the solstices, the sun would shine directly in through the windows, just twice a year. It is incredible to think that the Incans were able to coordinate that so accurately so long ago. The mountain rocks (for sure my favorite part) are rocks that are spread throughout Machu Picchu that are carved exactly as the mountains behind them. This was in order to honor the mountains, considered sacred and holy in Inca tradition. Some houses even have roofs shaped as the mountains behind them.

After wandering and learning for a couple hours, we sat together and just looked at the view. The Incas definitely knew what they were doing when they picked the sites for their cities. Everywhere you look there are huge green mountains that seems to go on forever, surrounded by mesmerizing moving clouds and blue sky. Despite all the tourists, it is easy to feel at peace.

I regret the fact that in order to visit Machu Picchu I had to support an oppressive, essentially colonialist system, but I don’t regret visiting the site. It helped me understand the Incas more and allowed me to gain perspectives I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m glad I went into the visit with the understanding that any money we spend will go to support the British companies that run the site- helping us veto taking the train or buses. I remain a little conflicted about the choice, but I’m glad I saw the ruins and it is an experience that will remain with me for a long time.