A tourist trap high in the Andes

Exploring the iconic status of Machu Picchu in the brilliant sunshine without a trusty hat, and a dent in the pocket

A tourist trap high in the Andes

For a very long time I have been losing hats while travelling. I have lost many umbrellas too. But, then, after a while, I learned my lesson, and stopped taking umbrellas with me when travelling. Let it rain and let me be soaking wet, at least there is no possibility of losing an umbrella.

You can travel without an umbrella, but you cannot live without a hat. Because when you travel you are constantly moving and you spend a good part of your day out in the open with the sun often beating hard on you.

One hat that I really liked I lost in Machu Picchu.

Here is the story.

Several weeks after a winter trip, I could not find my hat. I must have misplaced it in my home. But then one day I got a job that required spending a considerable amount of time on roofs. So, before going to work I stopped by a popular sports shop and found a hat at a very reasonable price. The hat was very light, it could be folded and put in the pocket, and when you got it out and put it on your head the brim would open up and stiffen to shade you well. I was very happy to have found this very nice hat so conveniently.

So when I went to South America I took that hat with me.

That South American trip was unique because it started from a place just north of the Equator, and entailed travelling far beyond in the south. This ‘hemisphere-hopping’ meant we would see the summer months of June and July in the Northern Hemisphere, and then after crossing the Equator, we would experience the winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

Travelling south, we reached Peru from Colombia (Bogota, to be more specific) by bus. How can you visit Peru and not go to the ruins of Machu Picchu? But reading about Machu Picchu, I quickly came to the conclusion that the Machu Picchu archaeological site was a tourist trap. What to do?  Well, be trapped.

It doesn’t take much to understand that being a poor country is often about being ignorant of the available resources. Take the example of countries that promote their historical places to make money off tourists. At one end of the spectrum are countries that do not realise their rich historical past, and neglect their archaeological remains. On the other end of the spectrum are countries that market their historical places to an extreme, and make you believe your existence is worthless if you don’t visit them. And when tourists come to see their heavily promoted tourist attractions, they milk them so well.

It doesn’t take much to understand that being a poor country is often about being ignorant of the available resources. Take the example of countries that promote their historical places to make money off tourists. At one end of the spectrum are countries that do not realise their rich historical past, and neglect their archaeological remains. On the other end are countries that market their historical places to an extreme.

Our part of the world falls in the first category. The historical sites of the Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Giza, and Machu Picchu belong in the second category.

We realised Machu Picchu was a tourist trap very soon in the trip, when we decided to go to Cuzco, the largest town near the ruins of Machu Picchu, from Lima. There was only one bus that went from Lima to Cuzco. It left at noon, and after travelling for 20 hours would reach Cuzco the next day. We like to travel on long distance buses but our preference is to travel during daytime so that we can look out and see the changing geography. There was no point in being on a bus for 20 hours when we would be missing a big part of the landscape travelling at night.

We then wanted to break down this journey into smaller parts and only travel during daytime. But with towns far apart along the way, it was not possible to divide the trip into shorter daytime chunks. So we ended up flying from Lima to Cuzco.

And that is exactly what Machu Picchu was looking for -- jet tourists ready to empty their pockets for earning the bragging rights of having visited that historical site!

Once in Cuzco we had to figure out how to go to the Machu Picchu ruins. We could either hike for several days or take the pricey train ride to reach the Machu Picchu site. Unesco has designated Machu Picchu as a world heritage site, and now the government along with the Chilean company that operates the site is ready to virtually slaughter tourists wanting to visit the place. So we reconsidered our options, and thought maybe we should go to Bolivia instead, and come back to Machu Picchu some other time.

But when was that going to happen? Were we ever going back to Peru? The world is a big place, and life is so short. So we swallowed the bitter pill -- irrespective of financial constraints, we had to visit Machu Picchu in that trip!

The Cuzco to Machu Picchu trip had to be done in several stages. First, from Cuzco we had to take a bus to Ollantaytambo; from Ollantaytambo, we had to take the pricey train to Aguas Calientes; and lastly from Aguas Calientes, we had to take a van to the heights of Machu Picchu. We decided to try to get to Machu Picchu as quickly as possible to maximize our time there.

As soon as the train rolled into the Agua Calientes train station, we jumped out and ran to the town’s main road to catch the van. Getting to a waiting van, we found out we had to buy the van ticket from a kiosk that was some distance away. We ran to the kiosk and bought the tickets, and then wanted to board the van. But… before taking the van, we had to first buy the Machu Picchu admission tickets. The tickets were not available at the archaeological site. So with other members of the party in the van, and my hat on the seat, I ran to the office a quarter of a mile away, and bought tickets for the ruins.

By the time I came back, the van was gone along with my hat.

The next van took me to the ruins and reunited me with the group, but my hat was gone.

The sun was out and viciously bright. There were souvenirs available near the ruins that included hats priced at more than twice of what I had paid for my favourite hat. Besides, the hats they were selling were not even half as decent. I felt mad, indignant; I reached into my pocket, pulled out a hanky, and put it on my head instead.

Machu Picchu is generally considered to be an Inca religious site -- Inca’s seat of governance being Cuzco. The reason why Machu Picchu’s past is mysterious is because the Inca did not leave any written records of the site. In the Old World, the journey from pictures and symbols to hieroglyphics and then onwards to writing took place in the last 5000 years or so, but in the New World -- ‘new’ to us, the Old World people --things did not move beyond hieroglyphs; and the New World civilisations of Maya, Aztec, and Inca did not use any kind of soft material to write things on. In the New World ‘writing’ remained an arduous task and hieroglyphs had to be inscribed on stones.

I spent quite some time at the ruins and looked at everything with great interest but the thought of losing my favourite hat kept coming back to me. And in that irate mindset I came up with many reasons as to why Machu Picchu was overrated. To start with, at Machu Picchu there is a dearth of written material. We cannot know in any detail about anything we look at. Whatever we learn about the ruins through the internet is what we go with.

Another big issue with Machu Picchu is that there are only a few original walls that are still standing. Most of the structures have been put together by archaeologists through speculation. These artificially erected ruins make a very peculiar site nestled in the mountains. The phantasmagoric setting of Machu Picchu is created against the backdrop of water-eroded mountains that look like beasts with hooded heads.

To add to the mystery of the archaeological site, Machu Picchu is being marketed as the ‘Lost City of the Incas’. Most tourists succumb to this aggressive marketing. But there is no doubt that Machu Picchu’s importance is overblown. There are other archaeological sites in Peru much less hyped and better value for your money.

A tourist trap high in the Andes