The innocents abroad

Foggy terraces, Machu Picchu, Peru photo

Foggy terraces at Machu Picchu

Unless he was a much better secret keeper than his writings suggest, Mark Twain never tramped through the jungly ruins of Machu Picchu, “discovered” shortly after his death in 1910.

Yet, here we are at Machu Picchu and there’s Twain—or more logically, his ghost. Like Todd and me, Twain is sprawled across the top of a rock wall, recovering from our rain-tormented descent from steep Huayna Picchu, the mountain that rises above the main Machu Picchu citadel.

Twain’s looking a bit more drowned-rat than us, with his wild hair and sagging moustache adding to his dishevelment. And, rather than muck up his signature white linen suit on the muddy hike, he’s wearing mom jeans, which are drying in the sun that has managed to peek out from the still overcast sky.

Yes, that’s right. Mark Twain, back from the dead, is wearing mom jeans.

Umbrella and Intihuatana sculpture, Machu Picchu, Peru photo

Umbrella and Intihuatana sculpture at Machu Picchu

I stare a bit too long at Twain’s ghost, not wanting to miss it if he should stroke his spectral ‘stache or take out a notepad to scribble some curmudgeonly comical observations. Todd jokes that, clearly, the reports of Twain’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Before my groupie feelings for this ghost can get me in trouble, the sky, which never really turned blue, goes full-on gray. Mist rises out of the forests that coat the surrounding mountain peaks, escaping from the rich, thick green to coalesce into clouds.

Then the rain comes at us again, the second time today. The first rain fell this morning, as we were just starting our steep hike down Huayna Picchu. We slipped on the slimy decay that had washed onto the steep Incan staircases. We squished along switchback trails turned to mud. By the end of the hike, our muscles were trembling, and my hair had frizzed.

Tourists in ponchos, Machu Picchu, Peru photo

Tourists in ponchos at Machu Picchu

Earlier, on the way up Huayna Picchu, the skies were dry and the trail was crowded with the two hundred hikers allowed to hike it at one time. Every group that we passed seemed to speak a different language, revealing to us that Huayna Picchu is the tourism equivalent of the Tower of Babel (and they even bear a resemblance).

Now, faced with rain again, we open our umbrellas and begin to explore the abandoned city of Machu Picchu. When we encounter an English-speaking group, we “tour barnacle,” loitering on the edge of tour groups to pilfer a little of the guide’s knowledge. The tour guides at Machu Picchu spout all sorts of wild speculation—this rock was used for naked lady sacrifice, that mountain top was carved off by Incans to prove their power over nature, this niche was built by Incans for playing games with echoes. We’re glad to be guideless, allowing Machu Picchu to retain a sense of mystery—and its dignity.

Tour group looks at Intihuatana sculpture, Machu Picchu, Peru photo

Tour group looks at the Intihuatana sculpture at Machu Picchu

Eventually, only the most obstinate people—or those with proper rain gear—remain at the ruins. Gone are the tour groups who flew in just that morning, still gasping for oxygen in the high-altitude air. Gone are the weary but gratified backpackers who woke before dawn in a muggy tent on the Inca Trail. Gone are the crabby American retirees, complaining about minor inconveniences in their enviable lives. We almost have Machu Picchu to ourselves.

As we walk up to the Guardhouse, where generations of tourists have posed for the same perfect photo, the rain retreats. Dry again, we pass wild flower-topped terraces, llamas mowing the grass with their teeth, and stone-walled houses that need just a roof to be move-in ready.

Rocky strewn Guardhouse hill, Machu Picchu, Peru photo

Rocky strewn Guardhouse hill at Machu Picchu

Arriving at the Guardhouse, I grumble, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

There is no view, no citadel, no Machu Picchu. Just fog and clouds and mist and wisps and white and gray. This is our only time at Machu Picchu and it’s the only thing we have to do today, so we decide to wait the weather out.

And soon, the wind swirls it all away. The Incan citadel appears below, nearly as empty of people as it was during the centuries it was unknown to most of the world. We watch the clouds surge in and out, hiding and revealing the ruins like Mother Nature playing Peekaboo with us.

Postcard view of Machu Picchu, Peru photo

Postcard view of Machu Picchu from the Guardhouse

A blast of wind hides Machu Picchu for the last time and brings a third show of rain, heavy enough for the guards to decide that playtime is over and it’s time to go.

Kicked out of Machu Picchu, we get on the bus that will take us back to the train, one step closer to dry socks. I look for Mark Twain’s ghost on board but, of course, he’s already gone ahead.