Machu Picchu Bathed in Fog, Till the Sun Broke Through

By Karen and Duane Sherer Stoltzfus
Peru SST
Co-Directors, 2014-2015

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Early in the morning, the Spring 2015 Peru SST group poses in the traditional spot that overlooks the Machu Picchu ruins.

On the evening before we visited Machu Picchu, we talked about how we wanted to make the most of the chance to see this mountaintop retreat; few people have this opportunity, and for nearly all of those who do, it’s once in a lifetime. We scheduled a light breakfast for 5:30 a.m. to be ready to leave the hostel by 6.

We woke up to the sound of rain. We walked to the bus loading zone, in the rain. We waited to board our bus, in the rain. We made the climb to Machu Picchu, a series of steep switchbacks, in the rain.

When the students posed for the traditional group photo, on a terrace overlooking this masterpiece of Incan architecture, they were framed in fog and mist. It took an act of faith to believe that the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows, the ceremonial baths and the vast residential and agricultural complexes were arrayed nearby.

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Our guide, Amadeo, shows a picture of a helicopter that landed at Machu Picchu during an advertising shoot that caused damage to the site.

But what could we do? We took the photos, long faces and all, and proceeded with our tour. Amadeo, our guide, took the lead (and seemed a little downcast himself).

Machu Picchu, as the author of one of our textbooks noted, was like a Camp David for Incan royalty, a place to get away from the crowds and the stress; it was also a religious center where festival days and astronomical events were celebrated. The site includes about 200 buildings. In the 15th century, the site may have been a bustling retreat for 500 people at a time, with the Incan leader Pachacuti holding court.

For the first couple of hours, Amadeo provided a introductory tour. He explained that the American professor and adventurer Hiram Bingham made the remote site known to the outside world, in 1911, through his famed expeditions, but that we should qualify references to him as the scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu. Local people knew what was there, if not its implications.

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Huayna Picchu climbers, Elizabeth, Maria, Ammon and Ike line up for a photo overlooking the Machu Picchu ruins.

We saw the major buildings as well as other items of interest, like a cable installed by Japanese geologists to measure the gradual sinking of sections of Machu Picchu.

Amadeo’s role as our guide ended here. We said our goodbyes at the entrance gate to Huayna Picchu, a peak that towers above the Machu Picchu complex. Huayna Picchu is restricted to 400 climbers each day, who face a relentlessly steep hike. We managed to get tickets for the full group by purchasing them in early January.

And this is when Machu Picchu showed us the personality we were hoping to see. By the time students reached the summit of Huayna Picchu, the sun was shining and beginning to burn away the mist and fog. There were great photos to be taken. We also agreed to meet later in the afternoon at the terrace where we had paused for group photos earlier in the morning, to try again.

Round two for the traditional group photo at Machu Picchu, later in the day, once the had fog lifted.
Round two for the traditional group photo at Machu Picchu, later in the day, once the had fog lifted.

 

Otherwise students were on their own to explore the area. Many students hiked up to the Sun Gate, which offers a panoramic view of Machu Picchu, and some also took a shorter walk to the Incan Bridge, part of a mountain trail that heads west from Machu Picchu. (A twenty-foot gap was left in this section of the carved cliff edge, over a 1,900 feet drop, that could be bridged with two tree trunks, otherwise leaving the trail impassable to outsiders).

If they wished, and many did, they could stay at the retreat until around 5, catching the last bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes. A few students chose to walk down instead, an hourlong hike.