Three Surprises at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu. Meh.

Just kidding!

As we rode the narrow bus road down the hillside from Machu Picchu this afternoon, I asked Tim if it was everything he thought it would be. And the answer was a definite yes.

But, actually, everything wasn’t exactly as we thought it would be. There were three things that surprised us about Machu Picchu.

First, the peak that is so frequently photographed and recognized across the world is not actually Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is a peak that actually rises just behind the photographer’s back when she takes a photo of the iconic scene. The peak so photographed at the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is actually called Huayna Picchu. Huayna Picchu is literally translated “Young Peak,” and Machu Picchu is “Old Peak.” In this case, it’s not a comment on the age of the mountains, but instead on which is taller—Machu winning that title. When Hiram Bingham, the gentleman who rediscovered the site, asked where he could find the last city of the Incas, a local told him Machu Picchu, meaning the general area, but Bingham took it to be the name of the site itself. And there began the confusion.

The second thing that surprised us is the beauty of the entire vista—not just the site itself. So often when you see pictures of Machu Picchu, the focus of the image is on Huayna Picchu and the remains of the community that was home to Incas in the 1400s. What you don’t really see is the mountains that surround this place. And they are absolutely breathtaking. Tim said he felt like it was a scene out of some kind of fairy tale. An enchanted place where magical things might hide.

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We hiked up to the Sun Gate to watch the sunrise on our second morning, and the vista was on full display.

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Finally, we were surprised by the weather. This doesn’t really fall into the same categories as the first two surprises, but this was one of the things we knew would be a surprise. I checked the weather frequently and fretted every time I saw rain forecasted for our Machu Picchu days. I wanted sunny days with every fiber of my being. So, I was so encouraged when our train arrived into Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town at the base of the Machu Picchu, and the sun was shining. However, by the time we took the bus up to the site and ate lunch, the clouds were thick, and the golden sunlight I dreamed of seeing on the peak was nowhere to be seen. The wind picked up, and I thought for sure it would rain. But it did not. I decided that I was going to be happy that, even though the sun did not shine, it did not rain. And even though it was cloudy and a bit chilly, it was not crowded at all. It felt like we almost had the site to ourselves at points. Our guide told us we’d have a different experience the next morning.

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And we did have a different experience for sure. We woke early for a 6:00 am entrance and a hike up to the Sun Gate to watch the sunrise. I was hopeful we didn’t get up at the crack of dawn only for it to be cloudy or rainy and the sun not even make an appearance. But, the closer we got to the Sun Gate, the more sparse the clouds became, and by the time we reached the top, the sun was bursting through the gate and lighting the site beautifully. Once we hiked back down and reached the site, that gleaming sun off the side of Huayna Picchu was there. I couldn’t have been happier, even though it was hot. Big thanks to our friend, Irmela, for making the recommendation to allow two days at Machu Picchu for the very reason that we’d have two chances at perfect weather.

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But the different experience our guide predicted for the morning was not the glorious weather—it was the crowds. And it was definitely far more crowded at the site being there in the early morning than when we were there in the afternoon the day before. Even though our photos weren’t as sunny from the day before, we were able to get plenty of the pictures we wanted without tons of other tourists in the photos with us. So, it was a trade off.

So much was just as we expected, but the new things we learned about Machu Picchu added a bit of the unexpected.

What a place. What an experience.

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