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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Machu Picchu Experience

The best part of my recent trip to Peru was Machu Picchu, a place I first read about as a junior in high school. With the help of scholarships I attended the University of Oregon where I majored in history and learned even more about the Inca civilization and the city in the clouds the Spaniards never found. I had done very little traveling before college, but what I learned in my Latin American history class was so fascinating I put Peru and Machu Picchu on the list of places I might like to visit someday.

It’s not easy to get there: two planes to Lima, another to Cusco, tour bus to Ollantaytambo, train to the village at the base of the mountain, and a small bus up a narrow dirt road. As our bus navigated the switchbacks (no guard rails except in the hairpin corners), we hung onto our seats and watched the raging Urubama River below us shrink to the size of a worm. Other mountains towered above us, mounds of granite that appeared to have propelled through the earth’s crust during some gigantic cataclysm.

The minute I walked through the main gate, I forgot about the journey that got me there as the panorama I’d seen many times in pictures appeared in front of me. The setting itself is stunning. The mountains surrounding Machu Picchu are massive, jungle-covered peaks draped in a mist that adds a mystical quality to the place. And then you see it. Sitting on a plateau bathed in sunlight is the remains of a city built stone by stone that once housed a thousand inhabitants. The thatch roofs are missing, and terraces meant for crops are covered in park-like grass, but the condition of the stone buildings, walkways and stairs that have existed since the fifteenth century is remarkable.

It would be easy to resort to hyperbole when describing how I felt while exploring the brilliantly constructed buildings and rugged stairs of this citadel. How should a writer or anyone explaining this place go about describing one of the world’s wonders? Words such as "great," "wonderful," "marvelous" or "amazing" don’t work for me. "Awesome," the mantra of today’s young people is trite. "Mind-blowing" or "cool" lack respect, and "surreal," another overused word, means odd or bizarre rather than wondrous. I finally settled on "magical," a word I liken to the delight I used to feel during the Christmas season or on family vacations before I entered world-weary adulthood. Yet even "magical" fails to capture the essence and mystery of Machu Picchu. I feel blessed to have seen it with my own eyes, because pictures, videos or words can’t capture its allure.

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