Many times throughout the previous year we met travellers who were making an effort to avoid crowded destinations. It's understandable, as who wants to deal with obnoxious tourists, souvenir hawkers, overcrowded beaches and busloads of people on holiday... just like us.
Most head-scratching of all was that in their efforts to avoid crowds, they also avoided some of the most stunning sights Britnee and I saw all year: Ko Phi Phi Lee, Halong Bay, St. Peter's Basilica, Angkor Wat, Red Square, The Great Wall of China, pretty much all of Tokyo, and the one and only Machu Picchu.
There's plenty of hidden paradises in the world yet to be ruined by industrial tourism, but it's no secret that mankind has already scoured the earth and revealed most of its top treasures. With enough time and exposure, crowds will flock to all these spectacular sights and rightly so. Once you lay eyes on such masterpieces, the lure is understandable and the crowds acceptable. Machu Picchu is no exception.
The 15th-century Inca citadel went undiscovered by outsiders - including the conquering Spanish - until 1911. At that time Hiram Bingham, an American historian and inspiration for the character Indiana Jones, was searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba in the Urubamba River valley. After asking locals about nearby ruins, he was guided by a farmer up a mountain to the overgrown site of Machu Picchu. Since that day it has become one of the most-visited attractions in South America, thanks in large part to heavy promotion by Bingham himself who wrote a number of books about it.
Many visitors now make the trip to Machu Picchu by bus, traveling up the winding road named in honor of Bingham himself. While there is supposed to be a limit to the number of visitors entering the ruins - a cap being placed at 2,500 per day - some reports claim the number far exceeds that. In 2012, annual visitors to Machu Picchu surpassed one million for the first time ever. The following year saw that number increase by 200,000.
On our visit to Peru we got to experience some of that heavy traffic and learned early just how busy things would be. Trekking permits booked up several months in advance and when we arrived in Aguas Calientes by train, we saw the massive line of people waiting to catch continuous buses up to the ruins.
Figuring we'd be waiting in line as long for as it would take us to make the hour-long climb up, Britnee and I started out on foot. Instantly we regretted that decision as we huffed and puffed our way up the steep steps, despite having already acclimated at higher elevations in Bolivia.
At one set of ladder-like steps a previous hiker had scrawled in black marker pen, "Should have taken the bus." By then both Britnee and I strongly agreed, but sweated through the remainder of the hike and topped out dizzier than those disembarking the buses. Just as expected, when we finally crested a rise to see the Inca citadel before us, our elation was magnified by the expended effort - and the chance to collapse and catch our breath.
Throughout the previous months I had wondered what that moment would be like: laying eyes on Machu Picchu, the final layer of icing on our year-long trip. I had also examined dozens of photos of the ruins, one of the most recognizable sites in the world, thinking I could imagine what it would be like in person.
In reality, just like at every other stop on our travels, staring at a picture came nowhere close to the real thing. I was blown away just like you were probably blown away, or will be blown away one day. Any photograph of Machu Picchu is beautiful - whether taken on a $5,000 camera atop a tripod or on someone's cellphone on a stick - but I can't emphasize enough how jaw-dropping the ruins and surrounding scenery are to explore in person.
Unfortunately, according to a draft copy of Regulations of Sustainable use and Touristic Visits for the Conservation of the Inca City of Machu Picchu, restrictions at the famous site are about to get much tighter. Foreign visitors will have to hire an official - and I'm sure expensive - guide, and will be prohibited from leaving an organized tour group. There will also be established time limits of three to five minutes for stops at some of the most significant points of interest among the ruins.
Yes, the crowds aren't pleasant and are probably somewhat destructive. But what's the alternative: miss the world's most iconic and historic destinations completely? Certainly not. I'm a happier person having shouldered through sunrise crowds at Angkor Wat, squeezed between fellow tourists to admire the Mona Lisa, and walked in step with dozens of others amongst the ruins of Machu Picchu.
To see more from our visit to Machu Picchu, check out the photo gallery HERE.