Long Road to Machu Picchu

At the start of the year, Momina Aijazuddin Saeed resolved to "just do it"

Long Road to Machu Picchu
January marks newness in so many ways. You can wipe your slate clean and create shiny and happy beginnings. You can change your life as the clocks mark a new year- from the proverbial losing 30 pounds, travelling the world or changing your career. New Year brings about the delicious possibility of dramatic change and reinvention (well at least until March when most people begin to make new lists and resolutions).

After many trying years of failed aspirations and huge fees for unused gym memberships, I gave myself a break last year. A bucket list would be the way to go. Step aside from the NY resolutions – this would allow me to open up my mind and choose 100 things to do in life; however large or small, random or insignificant. Dropping 50 pounds would not be one of them. I would not resolve. I would just do.


So very self consciously, I began with baby steps – learning how to make a soufflé, doing a down dog in yoga and made my own personal top 100. My top 10 “dos” were much more prosaic than the last 10. By then, my imagination had been liberated. I was soaring (at least on a list) into the heady world of ice skating in open air and swimming under stars. A simple bucket list proved to be therapeutic exercise. It allowed the luxury of assessing what you enjoy most in life, and to propel you to do more of it.

Fast forward a few months and that is how I found myself clambering up Macchu Picchu, the ancient mountain ruins in Peru. Translated as Old Peak in the local language, Macchu Picchu is the lost city of the Incas and the most famous and visible sign of their magnificent empire.  To get there, one must take a plane from the capital Lima to Cuzco, go by an old colonial train through the gorgeous Urubamba valley and then clamber the ruins. Finally there is a hair-raising bus ride along winding mountainous roads to the base of the city. Imagine the drive past Nathiagali with equally insane bus drivers and you then realise how much the driving fraternity have in common throughout the world.


I had a Eureka moment of “is this what I really wanted to do with my life” while holding onto the old stone stairs and tufts of grass alongside them. The authorities have wisely decided to maintain the site without railings but clearly did not anticipate visitors like myself who are scared of heights. I spent the better part of the ascent crawling after octogenarian women who were clambering up the ancient stairs like experienced mountain goats. “Years of going to the gym” as my sage companion pointed out: “there’s no escape”....
After the first climb at the peak overlooking the site, I sat down to catch my breath alongside a golden haired llama and shared a silent moment

After the first climb at the peak overlooking the site, I sat down to catch my breath alongside a golden haired llama and shared a silent moment. We both gazed out serenely at the magnificent green valley beneath us, the topography similar to Pakistan’s northern areas. There culminated a lifelong dream of mine (the llama was a welcome unexpected addition to this vision) and I was overwhelmed.

Part of being overwhelmed is the lack of oxygen. The valley is located at over 2000 meters above sea level (about 16000 feet). To survive that altitude, locals advise you to drink large mugs of coca leaves (almost like mint tea) as this reduces the nausea and acclimatization process. Hating the taste of coca leaves, I opted for inhaling vast quantities of “ceviche” throughout the trip, a Peruvian fish salad which deserves a guide book of its own.

So what is Macchu Picchu?

In 1911, a Yale history professor Hiram Bingham III explored the Andes Mountains in Peru and “discovered” Macchu Picchu. Before that, the abandoned citadel’s existence was a secret known only to locals living in the unvisited region. It was abandoned an estimated 100 years after its construction in the 1500s, probably when the Spanish began their conquest of the region.

There is a reason these ruins are known as one of the new wonders of the world. The stones are still intact and separated into three zones - agricultural, urban, and religious. One walks through the natural lush green terrain before stumbling onto the view immortalised in so many photographs. From there, one can see the entire city.

The magnificent Machu Picchu
The magnificent Machu Picchu

The agricultural terracing and aqueducts take advantage of the natural slopes; the lower areas contain buildings once occupied by farmers and villagers. The sacred religious areas are located at the crest of the hills, overlooking what seems to be a perfect orderly world - with sunshine, fresh mountain air and unpolluted verdant greenery all around the flat city at the top of the mountain. The site stretches over an impressive 5-mile distance. One meanders through the 3,000 large stone steps and slabs that link its many different levels.

Words and pictures cannot capture the magnificence of this vista. Like other places of wonder, whether our local Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh or the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore, one is struck by how forward thinking and modern these urban planners were. They anticipated the need for protection and security, and how to prepare for winter by storing food and wood, all at the top of a mountain.
Macchu Picchu's current guardians only allow a limited number of visitors each day to prevent erosion and degradation at the site

Macchu Picchu’s current guardians only allow a limited number of visitors each day to prevent erosion and degradation at the site. Guides are educated, trained and do not allow people to litter, eat or drink or damage the site. Our guide gently explained the rich history and culture but with pride and enthusiasm.

A modern day travel writer Mark Adams has documented the expedition in a travel cum history book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” to recreate the journey. Short of actually traveling to Machu Picchu yourself, it’s a perfect acknowledgement of the lost city’s 100 years centenary as a modern-day tourist site.

Adams decided to travel the Inca Trail to the site while also interspersing it with Bingham’s own journey in 1911. The book is an engaging account of Bingham’s colorful life (which involved lengthy law suits of smuggling out arte facts from the ancient ruins, to his rise and fall as an American senator) and parallels Adams own trek. Harrison Ford’s larger than life character in the Indiana Jones movies was reputedly modeled on Bingham’s exploits.

The two different narratives and time frames within the book allows Adams to showcase the fascinating tribulations of lost histories, of valuable historical objects being smuggled abroad and of how the government in Peru ended up in a lengthy century long law suit with Yale over stolen bones and gold. Such is the stuff of legends. Bingham’s experience, that of an armchair traveller turned adventurer, propelled even me - terrified of heights, altitude and arduous exercise - to discover the adventurer within me.

As I sat there, breathing quietly alongside the peaceful and silent Llama, my mind kept thinking of Maya Angelou’s wise words: “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

That thought, so eloquently put, as only Angelou could, seems to resonate with me more than ever as this year begins. So I hope that this New Year, we can follow her words of wisdom by doing and not just making resolutions.