When amateur archaeologist Hiram Bingham led the 1911 Yale Peruvian expedition down the Urubamba river, never did he expect to find the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu atop the valley’s rim. This was back in the day when the maps still had blank spots and rounding up your Yale((Though a Yale man, Bingham later taught as a preceptor at Princeton, where he developed a personal feud with Woodrow Wilson that carried into his political career decades later.)) buddies to go exploring for lost cities was something people((Marrying into Connecticut gentry helps)) just did.
Bingham would go on to become a WWI aviator and US Senator, but the world remembers him as the discoverer of Machu Picchu- the pinnacle of Inca engineering, and the secret mountain origin of single women ages 22-28.
All through my twenties I’d caught glimpses of Machu Picchu from every angle: the summit of Wayna Picchu on Bumble, the Grand Plaza on OkCupid, dozens of shots from the Watchman’s Hut on Tinder.
Machu Picchu has been thoroughly excavated, but mysteries remain: why was it built((Some say the citadel was built upon a nexus of mystical ley lines, but the leading theory is that it served as a retreat for nobility who wished to avoid Cusco’s summer heat- a sort of Incan Martha’s Vineyard.))? Why was it abandoned? Isn’t it dangerous doing sexy yoga poses on its precipices? When I left America I had only the vaguest itinerary, but seeing the legendary Inca temples filled with single millennial girls was always a of quest for me.
My path to Machu Picchu started on a quiet night in Buenos Aires. For two weeks I’d enjoyed the hospitality of an Argentinian grandma and her palatial bed and breakfast, but I felt it was time to move on lest I stagnate. The Peruvian government permits only ~2500 visitors to Machu Picchu each day, and only 400 visitors to the summit of Wayna Picchu. I purchased the soonest available ticket three weeks out and booked airfare to Lima.
My experience in Peru was unusual in that I always had the goal of Machu Picchu pulling me onward. I progressed down Peru’s desert coast through Lima and Ica and Arequipa at a steady clip. After many adventures I arrived in Cusco- the capital of the Inca empire and entrance to the Sacred Valley- with two days left to reach Machu Picchu.
I checked into Hostel Kokopelli((It’s worth noting that Kokopelli may be the best hostel I stayed at in all Latin America. It strikes the perfect balance of fun/comfort. The food and drinks are delicious and fairly priced; the staff are sociable and professional; the rooms are clean, quiet, and affordable; there are events every night; there’s a dedicated tour concierge in-house. I made Kokopelli my base for the weeks I spent exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley and couldn’t have been happier.)) and approached the concierge about booking a next day train ticket to Machu Picchu. She informed me that Cusco’s railway and buses were going on strike then, and maybe the next few days, too. Labor disputes are common in Peru, and the concierge recommended showing up to the bus station at 4am before the strikers put up their blockades so I could arrange private transport by minibus to the town Ollantaytambo farther up the valley. From there I could take a train to Machu Picchu.
The next morning at 3:30am I haggled my way onto a minibus full of farmers inconvenienced by the strike, and after a long, bumpy nap I awoke in Ollantaytambo- a town and Inca fortress-temple guarding the approach to Machu Picchu. In one of the most audacious campaigns in history, the Spanish conquistador Pizarro and his 200 men managed to more or less defeat an Inca empire of 16 million people. Historian John Hemming tells the full story of the conquest in riveting detail,((The Conquest of the Incas is an excellent read. The Spaniards’ luck, ruthlessness, and borderline-insane boldness never ceased to astound me. )) but suffice to say, Ollantaytambo is the Inca Helm’s Deep. Here are the parallels:
• last Inca king evacuates his people from the less defensible capital
• allied forest tribes send archers to defend the walls((I realize the elves only showed up in the movies. Do not test me on Tolkien lore.))
• nature itself rises up to defeat the invaders (the Inca divert a river to flood the plain)
• just look at the place!
Ollantaytambo was the only site where the Inca defeated the Spanish in open battle, largely due to the fortress’ walls negating the Spanish cavalry’s massive advantage in the open. Today the town is little changed from the 1500s, and the original Inca aqueducts still flow along the streets. The town is clean, cool, and quiet; it has a Swiss Alpine village vibe.
The next afternoon I rode the train down the valley to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. I was well back to the beaten path now- most conversations I overheard were in English, and I chatted with the Chinese businessman beside me.((Most Peruvians I spoke to after Trump’s election were unconcerned with Trump’s threats of trade barriers with Latin America; they see increasing Chinese investment and trade as a much bigger opportunity.))
Machu Picchu is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and Aguas Calientes is the frontier boom town that’s sprung up to serve the flood of visitors. Leaving the train station requires walking through scores of indistinguishable shops selling identical keychains, Inca-style handbags, and crude pan flutes. I dropped my bags off at a hostel, found dinner, and went for a walk to kill time before bed.
I realized that the date was November 13. Exactly one year before I’d been in Paris. It had been the worst day of my life, but it may as well have been on another planet, or in someone else’s life. So I did what I always do when life seems particularly absurd; I sat down in a small garden and played my ukulele. An audience of a dozen children gathered and asked if they could record me and take selfies with me. I taught the village children a few chords and let them strum a bit, and they taught me how to use Snapchat. They got a kick out of The Beatles’ “Julia”, and their delight was contagious. I walked back to my hostel, passing guitar/pan flute duos playing “El Condor Pasa” in every restaurant I passed.
Many visitors to Machu Picchu get up before dawn to climb the hundreds of steps to the ruins. I elected a more authentic approach in the tradition of Hiram Bingham: wake up at 9, eat a leisurely breakfast, and head up at 10.((The mountain is typically shrouded by mist until late morning, so there’s not much to see by getting up early. I’d learned my lesson from Tikal.))
I rode the tour bus up the winding switchbacks((Machu Picchu is big, and given that I’d be climbing Wayna Picchu, saving my legs proved a smart decision.)), and after twenty minutes caught my first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
The white-stone city perched atop the mountains is straight out of high-fantasy novel. I was struck breathless by the twin thoughts of This exists!? and I’m here to see it!? I sprang off the bus and through the gates. I climbed the stone steps past a sign that said “Watchman’s Hut” and behold! The sprawling vista was everything Tinder had promised. A Japanese tour group formed an orderly queue for selfies.
After getting my own photo, I walked quickly down to the central plaza. I had to reach the base of Wayna Picchu in fifteen minutes to catch the window I’d reserved three weeks before. I passed many enormous structures of the most impeccable stonework and queued for Wayna Picchu right on time. Even with a week to acclimate, the half-hour climb was strenuous; in places the stone steps rose as steeply as rungs on a ladder.
Periodically I looked back to enjoy a condor-eye’s view of the ruins below. Only 200 visitors are allowed at once on Wayna Picchu, so it was much less crowded. I passed the other climbers and had the summit nearly to myself:
I unpacked lunch and relaxed as more visitors arrived. All the photos on dating sites give the illusion that the subject is alone in an exotic, inaccessible place…
…but this is mostly a matter of good framing.
Despite the crowd, the summit had majesty to spare. I overheard two American accents and introduced myself. Turned out they were Harvard Law graduates who’d lived down the street from me in Cambridge, and we had several mutual friends. I stayed atop the summit til everyone else had left before descending myself.
Now I had all the afternoon free to explore and collect all the best photo angles.
I followed an arrow labeled “Sun Gate.” The four day Inca trail finishes at a famous archway (the eponymous Sun Gate) looking onto the entire city. I’d inferred from the sign that the Sun Gate was close by, but it was actually an hour’s hike uphill. Nonetheless, it did not disappoint. I waited several minutes for other photographers to mill around so I had a clear, uninhabited shot to make it seem like my adventure was more unique and remote:
Beyond the gate I looked down the stone-paved path at the final bend of the Inca Trail and wondered if or when I might return to this place via that ancient highway. Would I be with my future family? Would I be a solitary old man, come to retrace the adventures of his youth? I took a few steps down the path before a ranger called me back. “Yes,” I excused myself. “I know there’s only four days of wilderness that way. I was just checking it out.”
The sun was already low, and I raced back down to Machu Picchu proper, where finally saw what I’d come for: a profile pic in the making:
By now the crowds had thinned out, and the danger of getting hit in the face by swinging selfie-sticks had abated. The enormous stones took on the sunset’s golden hue such that the ruins shone like the mythic El Dorado. I walked quickly with my head swiveling, trying to drink in every detail like a human GoPro. I entered the grassy courtyard inside the titanic Temple of the Three Windows, and a ranger called out, saying that the park was closing and it was time to leave. I plead in Spanish for a few minutes to take some photos from the other side and that I’d be gone before the slower tourists even reached the gate, and he relented.
I power-walked through the now abandoned ruins. A wind had picked up and the cool updraft gusted up the cliffside. The ruins were the same I’d passed by that morning, but now my solitude lent them a new quality. Earlier it had been difficult more me to appreciate Machu Picchu more than superficially- the throngs of tourists tend to create a Disney World vibe. With everyone else gone it was easy to imagine myself in another time, that I was seeing the place as Bingham or Atahualpa had.
A warden blew a whistle and ended my reverie. I jogged back toward the entrance and joined the tail end of the departing crowd. The wardens gestured hurriedly at some girls making some last minute yoga poses on the cliffside.
As I was walking out, I remembered to snap a photo that had been over half a year in the planning. All through my travels I’d been playing a 10-man game of Civilization V at a rate of one turn every ~36 hours. The object of the game is to lead you civilization (e.g. Rome, France, America, etc.) starting from 4000BC to defeat all other world powers((Science, culture, and diplomacy victories are for wimps.)). During the game, civilizations compete to build various wonders of the world for big bonuses. I had made every effort to ensure that I would be the one to build Machu Picchu while at Machu Picchu:
But what was with all the single ladies?
“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land,” wrote Bingham. A century later, that’s been reinterpreted as literal romantic advice.
So much of modern romance occurs online and necessarily involves choosing one partner from thousands, which leaves little time for first impressions. But a selfie at Machu Picchu is remarkable for how many right notes it hits. The subject demonstrates that she is sporty, adventurous, well-traveled (and by extension, well-off and well-educated). A trip to Machu Picchu and Peru is a great conversation-starter, and two singles who both have Machu Picchu pics will have lots to discuss.
In the end, it was a no brainer:
I can only write from the male perspective, but this is by no means a female-only phenomenon. Tinder’s A/B testing rates that Machu Picchu pic as my most-liked photo, and I’ve been asked by women how “every guy on the Internet has been to Machu Picchu.”
I rode back to Ollantaytambo and Cusco with the HLS couple. Machu Picchu had been spectacular- a big drop in the bucket-list for sure- but it had felt a little rushed. Many visitors hike the four-day Inca trail through the jungle or the five-day Salkantay trail over the mountains, so that when they finally reach Machu Picchu it feels like a climactic accomplishment.
But by all accounts, even the Inca trail is hardly a Bingham-eque adventure. Travelers must book their hike at least six months in advance, and although only 500 tourists are allowed on the trail at once, that doesn’t include the government-mandated guides, porters, pack mules, camp chefs, and other support staff. The Salkantay trek became popular a few years ago as a less-crowded, more intense alternative, but it’s already becoming heavily traveled.
Of course, only some kind of hipster-Indiana Jones would discount the amazing experience such treks offer. You don’t have to be blazing a trail with a machete and racing Nazis to have an “authentic” adventure. But to be honest with myself, I did want that sort of adventure- something off-the-rails enough the scratch the itch Machu Picchu hadn’t quite reached.
Fortunately, Peru still offers such opportunities. In a back room of Cusco’s sparsely visited Regional Historical Museum, an all-Spanish-language installation describes a cultural relic of the Incas of the same caliber as Machu Picchu. Deep in the Andes, many days’ journey beyond the farthest road, lies Choquequirao- “the Cradle of Gold.”