Dawn draws a glowing fog over the ruins of Manchu Pichu. Alpaca wander the courtyards, chewing their grassy breakfast and paying little attention to the boisterous group of tourists racing across their grazing territory. The scene is one of poetry, inescapable from flowery descriptions and nostalgic musings; it is that emotional high one gets while traveling, while experiencing something or some place profound for the first time. Lindsay and I remark to one another that we feel like we’re in a photograph.
A Galen Rowell photograph to be exact (now sitting proudly in the Mountain Light Gallery of Bishop, CA). In the early 90s, Galen took a photograph from the original entrance to the ancient city, the same spot we now sit. Comparing his photo to our current vista, we can see the restoration efforts that have taken place at Manchu Pichu, and its simultaneous deterioration, since he captured the image.
Most noticeably, Rowell documents the symbiotic relationship between the Inca architecture and the natural surroundings, something that hasn’t changed. I’m convinced that some roof tops in Manchu Pichu were built to exactly replicate the mountain ridge lines in the distance, that the way light and shadow play in the window spaces mirrors the way light travels through the rugged Andean landscape.
Yet as we make our way deeper into the ruins, we realize the things that have shifted since Galen’s portrait. Yes, we can feel the ghosts of the Inca, and of Rowell, and of the early 20th century explorers who unearthed this wonder of the world, as they all surely experienced this sacred space in the same light. But we can also feel the pressure of the 21st century’s globalized tourist industry as it treads on these hallowed grounds, an impact of which we are also guilty . . . an impact which if unchecked could be disastrous for this city in the clouds . . . an impact emblematic of humanity’s precarious placement on earth.
What does this impact look like?
At 4 am we left Aguas Calientes, a town that has positioned itself at the end of the railroad tracks and at the base of the Manchu Pichu mountain. On their way in or out, or both, every tourist who comes to the UNESCO Heritage site of Manchu Pichu inevitably must stay, eat, and walk through Aguas Calientes, the location from which I’m positive the term “tourist trap” evolved. Everything that’s wrong with travel, the cheap, “indigenous” imitation plastic shit, the Americanized food, the economy based solely on the whims of backpackers buying stuff, fills every nook and cranny of every Aguas Calientes street.
Beyond Aguas Calientes, up the hill and into the main grounds of Manchu Pichu, the problem does not subside. Though the historic Peruvian National Park limits the amount of visitors in one day to 2500, this many people roaming there day after day takes its toll on the buildings and the landscape. Every tourist is armed with multiple plastic water bottles, an item that will cram landfills or float “out of sight” into the great plastic island of the Pacific, which might now be the 8th continent of our fair world.
And so though my experience builds a different image than Rowell’s photograph of the same place, I’m still having the experience. I’m watching the palimpsest of humanity from the ancient Incas, to the discoveries of the city in the early 20th century, to Rowell’s early 90s portrait, to my own vista now. I’m linked by breathing this air, by soaking in this sight, by pausing for a moment and relishing in it, by being aware.
As travelers, we are deeply responsible to share this awareness, to offer witness of the sites, sounds, cultures, places, and people that we visit, wander through, and relish in. But we are responsible to testify about what we actually see, not the romanticized version of what we thought we should see. Manchu Pichu is a beautiful place, rather well taken care of, but it sits precariously on the brink of the human race’s uncanny ability to destroy that which is most profound: nature.
Writer’s Note: First, apologies for being two days late . . . I’m struggling to maintain my weekly Sunday entry this summer. Second, my growing interest in the concept of Uncivilized Writing motivated me to explore another story from past travel this week. Our adventure in Peru (Lima, Cuzco, and the Sacred Valley) happened in 2009, and like many travel memories, our ten days there regularly dance through my mind, particularly this time at Manchu Pichu. Let me know if you enjoyed it! Thanks, Matt