Machu Picchu had been on the top of my travel list for years, and a few months before my birthday (in 2010), I decided it was time to finally see it. I got my tickets, but a month before my trip the area was hit with torrential rains, which led to massive flooding. The train tracks around Machu Pichhu were destroyed, and the government decided to close Machu Picchu for a few months while repairs were made. It was recommended by my hotel, the train operator, and various tour guides that I postpone my trip. But I had not bought travel insurance, and further, I really wanted to spend my birthday on an adventure. I decided to go.
I figured that I would console myself with some of the "secondary" sites in and around Cusco. I signed up for a guided tour of the area on the day I arrived. Starting at the main plaza of Cusco and working outwards, there was one Inca ruin after another, from the Qorikancha temple downtown, to the Sacsayhuamán Fortress overlooking the city, to the nearby ruins of Tambomachay and Pukapukara. We ended the day at Qenko, where we followed a dimly-lit narrow path through the temple, ending in a small room with an Inca altar used for animal sacrifices. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, and this was just day one.
In the days that followed I saw more of the surrounding area and the Sacred Valley. The day of my birthday, I decided to take it easy and roam around Cusco. It was fun to wander the cobblestone streets, duck into a cafe during a brief rain shower – and have a staring contest with a llama who poked his head in the open window by my table – and feel like I was on my own adventure of discovery. Stopping for lunch at a restaurant I came across in a hidden courtyard, I was surprised when the waitress mentioned that I would normally need a reservation. But so many people had canceled their trips after the flooding that business was quiet.
Her comments made me realize that I had already forgotten about Machu Picchu. I had been having such a great time seeing everything else. We can get so focused on that one "must-see" landmark, that we overlook the wealth of history and culture that may be lesser known but just as wonderful. I don't know what I missed at Machu Picchu, but I know what I didn't miss – the crowds. And I certainly didn't miss out on great experiences. Machu Picchu being closed turned out the be the best birthday gift.