Busted Boot. Photo by: Krystal Mercer McLellan | Some rights reserved.

The Machu Picchu Diary 4:

There is no muse. There is only the mountain.

“If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned.”

— C.S. Lewis, Learning in War Time


10/07/2017 on the Inca Road to Machu Picchu, Peru

There is no muse. There is only the mountain. And what is the mountain? It’s Earth’s resistance to gravity. It’s a projection, beautiful in its reach and sad at the point where it falls short of meeting heaven.

We caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu ruins between 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm on Day 5, following a near vertical climb of 50 steep steps leading up to Intipunku, the Sun Gate. After four hours of solitary cloud forest hiking along the Inca Road, our arrival demarcated a return to reality.

At the top of the steps (known by many as the “gringo killer”), bleached teeth bros in cowboy hats and Ray-Ban clad pregnant women posed for their postcard pics in front of the citadel. Huayna Picchu towered majestic in the background.

Ruins of Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu. Photo by: Krystal Mercer McLellan | Some rights reserved.

I didn’t want to let the presence of a few tourists dampen my spirits, so I climbed one of the retaining walls to reclaim some of the silence I had enjoyed in previous hours. Marco, our guide, was waiting at the top.

“Thousands of people from all over the world dream of coming to Machu Picchu,” I harped. “And you Marco! You play a special role. You lead them to fulfill their dreams. That must feel amazing!”

“Yes,” said Marco. He met my eyes for a moment and then turned to wave at my husband who trailed behind snapping photographs.

“Machu Picchu is a special place.” he said.

Machu Picchu is a special place… That’s it?

I wasn’t sure why, but I thought he would have more to say about it. I had come to appreciate Marco’s silent respect for nature, his mindful and measured historical exposition for every ruin we encountered. He extended his trekking pole to a nearby ledge, indicating it was a great spot for photos.

Indeed, the view was spectacular. The sunlight was so intense it enshrouded the ancient city in a halo. After a short reverie and lunch with the ghost city in my sights, I realized that what Marco had said was precisely what he meant: Machu Picchu is a special place. He gave us the grand in-depth tour down the path from Intipunku and wove us through the citadel’s perfect labyrinthine walkways. I understood then how Machu Picchu is special — special for different reasons to different people.

For Peru as a whole, it’s an economic powerhouse that brings in hundreds of thousands of tourists and dollars per year. For porters who carry the weight of this industry on their backs, sometimes in the form of 45+ lb packs with surface area equaling that of washing machines, it’s their bread and butter (for lack of less backbreaking employment options). Same for guides, camp sites, hostels, and other enterprises that cater to wealthy international tourists.

For Peruvian people, especially Native Americans and their descendants, Machu Picchu is a miraculously preserved artifact of what once was a spiritual, cultural, and scientific learning center for an advanced civilization. It was abandoned and overtaken by vegetation before invading Europeans caught wind that it existed. Unlike other sacred Inca places located in and around Cusco, Machu Picchu’s temples and alters remain intact despite Peru’s colonial history, the effects of natural weathering, and tourist traffic impact.

Perhaps the mountain’s pull — the supernatural force that sucks sightseers and pilgrims right to its center — endures because the Spanish never sacked it.

On a personal level, my pilgrimage to Machu Picchu was fulfilling in that I overcame the physical and mental challenges I sought. I had thoughtful long talks with my husband about nature and religion. I faced off a Mountain spirit and lost.

I inadvertently conquered my fear of horseback riding, and I rendered a pair of heavy duty hiking boots irreparable (see feature image). I even journaled the journey to capture every invaluable lesson learned.

And I learned many lessons about history, nature, hiking, strength in numbers, and knowing my own physical limitations. I also learned a thing or two about why we travel, which this linked post by Kris Gage communicates better than I ever could.

So, I’m unsettled.

While I’ve reignited a spark for writing, which was the reason I agreed to take on this high altitude trek in the first place, I didn’t expect to see the suffering I saw in the faces of porters climbing uphill, or in the grimaces of elderly trail mates facing premature ends to their bucket list journeys. I didn’t think I’d end the hike questioning how booming tourism might exploit vulnerable people living near such world wonders as Machu Picchu. I didn’t think I would so fully understand why highland people leave their idyllic secluded family lands behind to live within closer range of larger settlements for better access to trade, medical services, and community.

I guess I’m now woke to the fact that existence— the simple act of taking up space — is a negotiation of sorts. Matter shifts to accommodate other moving matter.

I’m moved to continue writing, but only if the end product serves to counter negativity or rights a wrong.

Without chaos there is no harmony, but that does not mean all creatures haven’t the right to escape the chaos. All creatures do have trade-offs, however limited or vast. Even a mountain terminates at its peak to leave space for birds in flight.

If we can uphold a harmonious relationship with our environment in balance with nature, if we can understand that every consequence is preceded by action, if we are well-positioned to assist others in negotiating trade-offs to improve their own earthly predicaments, then why do we resist?


If you enjoyed the read, please 👏and follow the writer on Medium. To read the first entry of The Machu Picchu Diary, go here:

To view her hiking route, photos, and stats on Ramblr, go here:


Krystal Mercer McLellan is a novelist from Brazoria County, Texas. She blogs to share research findings and lessons learned as she goes through the motions of drafting her first novel. Visit www.MercerMcLellan.com to subscribe for book updates and free writing tips. Thank you for reading.


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