Rendered Breathless at Machu Picchu

Sydnie Schell is a student at the University of Kentucky and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is studying abroad with ISA in Lima, Peru.

The region of Cusco in Peru brings together history, adventure, and a mystique that surrounds the entire Urubamba Valley. Within the mountains lies a wealth of Spanish colonial towns, awe-inspiring Andean vistas, and most famously, Machu Picchu. It is to this fascinating and storied land that I am heading.

Cusco, Peru, Schell, Photo 1
Stunning views of the Andes Mountains on the plane

Cusco, also called the “Rome of the Incas,” is studded with some of the finest Inca ruins in South America, thanks to having been the capital of the Inca Empire before Spanish conquistadors colonized and appropriated the lands of Peru. The city also happens to sits at a dizzying altitude of 11,200 feet that makes Denver’s altitude of less than 6,000 feet look like child’s play.

Sucking in what little oxygen I can from the thin Andean air I am grateful that we are going down in altitude from the city of Cusco to the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu. It is easy to become winded with a mild headache from the high altitude. Mate de coca, a tea made with an infusion of coca leaves, is what the locals recommend. The adjustment to the altitude is easily ignored, however, when you focus on the incredible scenery. The rain-swollen river, snow-capped mountains, and clear skies make the two hour train to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu feel much too short.

Urubamba Valley, Cusco, Peru, Schell, Photo 2
On the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes

The beauty of the train ride through the mountains is only the precursor to Machu Picchu, one of the new 7 wonders of the world. This sacred citadel was abandoned by the Inca, reclaimed by the jungle, and lost to history until it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 and excavated. When Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu, it is said he took around 2,000 photos for the National Geographic Society. Today, visitors seem to want to surpass his amount of photos. Even I myself fall victim to taking hundreds of photos, but none of them fully capture the history and significance of its magnificence. Photos don’t do this place justice. Some things- like the pureness of the air and the firmness of the land-  simply can’t be photographed and that is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Machu Picchu, Peru, Schell, Photo 3
My view of the mountains from the Sun Gate

As I walk through the ruins I hold my hand out, dragging the pads of my fingertips across Inca walls. The smooth blocks are so tightly fitted that even 500 years after they were put into place you can’t slip a pin between them. I think of the people who have come here before me– People who didn’t have the luxury of planes and buses and trains to get here. People who hiked for weeks to come and had never seen photos of the famous mountains. I think about how incredible it would have been to see it for the first time.

Machu Picchu, Peru, Schell, Photo 4
Beautiful vistas at Machu Picchu

There are still people today who have saved up money their entire lives to make the trip here. When I arrive, it is easy to ignore the tourists milling around with selfie sticks and just take a moment to reflect. I am really here, a moment I have been waiting for for years, and it is better than I ever thought it would be. I don’t know if it’s the high altitude, the pure beauty, or a mixture of both, but I’m left breathless.

Machu Picchu, Peru, Schell, Photo 5
Fun fact- you can stamp your passport at Machu Picchu

Want to read more about Peru? Check out “How Peru Changed My Life”