You’ve probably seen this before.
It’s what everyone pictures when they think of Machu Picchu—the verdant network of stone terraces, temples, and open-walled houses; the soaring peaks of Huayna Picchu framing the dramatic scene.
When I arrived at Peru’s “lost” Inca citadel in the clouds, I was expecting to round the path beneath the guardhouse, walk through the main gate, and find myself overcome by wonder, even awe, at the scene before me.
What I found instead was that after months of researching the trip and a lifetime of history lessons, the ancient complex was remarkably familiar. I felt like I was on a movie set, and the hundreds of selfies happening around me in that moment only reinforced the sensation.
That’s the thing with iconic destinations; travelers are so saturated with images of these world wonders that finally seeing them with our own eyes can feel like a non-event. What should be an extraordinary moment ends up feeling all too ordinary.
As I followed Hipolito Inquil, a guide from Cusco-based Salkantay Trekking, through Machu Picchu’s ruins with my tour group, I was all ears, recording all the details in my notebook as we walked.
I learned that the duality of the cosmos and Earth was important to the Inca, and that explorer Hiram Bingham was first brought to the site by a local boy known as Pablito Riccharte back in 1911.
My pen was moving furiously to keep up with all of the fascinating facts Hipolito was throwing at us, but my heart still had yet to form a connection with Machu Picchu.
Once Hipolito had taken us through the Temple of the Three Windows to a ritual stone known in Quechua as Inti Watana, he released us to explore on our own. It was still morning, hours before the archaeological site would be closed to visitors at 5 p.m.
Determined to get to the heart of this elusive place, I found a spot and started to sketch.
Every step of the process—studying the curves and angles of the terraces, experimenting with color combinations to capture the myriad tones and textures of the temples, homing in on the umbrella-shaped tree in the heart of Plaza Principal—made the scene feel less like a backdrop.
Unsure of what to draw next, I began to wander. Then I noticed a narrow path marked by a wooden sign pointing to Huayna Picchu. I followed it.
The first thing I noticed was the shift change in perspective. Instead of looking down on the peaks, they towered over me; the terraces were now walls of stone that I could reach out and touch.
But there was another change as well; I was, for the first time all day, alone. The chatter of groups and tour guides fell away, leaving me with only the crunch of gravel beneath my feet and the low rumble of thunder in the distance.
As I walked from the Plaza Principal into the residential western sector, it happened again. I was alone. Better yet, I was lost.
I moved from room to room in the labyrinthine network of stone houses, never running into anyone, my steps quickening with the unexpected thrill of being alone and adrift at Machu Picchu. Was this what Bingham had felt more than a century earlier?
In the dusty silence, the past seemed visceral. Standing between open-air walls, I pictured a thatched roof above my head and my eyes nearly started to adjust, imagining what little light the narrow windows must have let in. There would’ve been a cooking fire, maybe even a pot of freshly brewed coca tea. I could almost smell woodsmoke in the air and hear the bustle of people who had once called this place home.
In a part of this sector called the Tres Portadas, or Three Doorways, I sat down to sketch, but not before removing my hiking boots.
“The Inca used to walk barefoot,” Hipolito had told us. “They wanted to be in touch with Mother Earth—with the sacred ground.”
Little by little, hour by hour, the facts I’d heard that morning took on new meaning.
By the time I finished my drawing, it was nearly five o’clock. As I began making my way toward the main gate, I crossed paths with Ysaak, a guard who had addressed me on a few occasions while I was sketching.
Now he approached me holding out something in his hand. “Tell me, Candace,” he said, “Do you believe in the energy of the stones?”
Before I could try and answer such a question, he pressed a small, reddish rock into my palm. It was hot, as though there was some mysterious source of warmth radiating from within.
“What is this?” I asked, surprise in my voice.
“It’s called jiwaya,” Ysaak answered, spelling out the word in the air with a finger as he spoke. “This was the only material hard and strong enough to carve the stones,” he continued. “It has much energy.”
I didn’t know if what Ysaak was telling me was true. I didn’t know why the rock was warm or whether it had been used in the construction of Machu Picchu (though I would later confirm that jiwaya was indeed the name for the Inca’s stone hammers).
But in that moment, I could feel the energy of this ancient place, and was certain Bingham had been right when he wrote of “the power of its spell.”
As I resumed my trek toward the gate, I felt my faith in the power of world wonders restored. In the digital age, constant exposure to images of iconic places may make them more familiar, but it will never replace the experience of witnessing them firsthand.
All it takes is a little patience, a commitment to being present, and a willingness to get a little lost once in awhile.