Architecture & Spirituality

The Path Less Traveled: My Spiritual Connection to Machu Picchu

“Walking purposefully from A to B is felt as leaving so many steps behind and as having much more ground ahead to cover. Change the environment by introducing band music and, objectively, one still marches from A to B with seeming deliberation. Subjectively, however, space and time have lost their directional thrust under the influence of rhythmic sound. Each step is no longer just another move along the narrow path to a destination; rather it is striding into open an undifferentiated space. The idea of a precisely located goal loses relevance.”- Yi-Fu Tuan

On the 30th of May, 2017, we asked our friends on our social media platforms to share their stories regarding their spiritual connections to places on Earth (Facebook post here) – this is our story.

I am just going to tell a story this week; a small anecdote that perhaps would relate to the question at hand. I was an eager Graduate student at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland during the beginning of 2008. I was hungry to learn and jumped in any opportunity to expand my horizons (which often lead me to bite off much more than I can chew at times). The summer earlier, I had traveled and spent a semester in Italy with the architecture program, and this winter break, the school had put out a study abroad course in Peru to study Incan architecture and civilization. I was extremely excited at the prospect of traveling to Peru, since I had never set foot in South America before, and I believe I was among the first to sign up. The professor who lead the course was Professor Lindsay Vann who I had previously taken Ancient Greek Architecture with to satisfy one of my History core electives.

Side story: My very first midterm during my Masters program was for said Ancient Greek Architecture and I studied my ass off! For the first time ever, I wrote everything on cue cards and would kept studying as much as I can, even bringing in these cue cards to the shower (I don’t remember how I stopped them from getting wet). The course was rather difficult for me, as a lot of the information was quite new (I found out later that most other students had a brief introduction to Ancient Greek Architecture during one of the intro to architecture courses they had to take to enter the program), and I struggled to memorize all the names of the Greek Temples. I got a 50% score on the test, which was a relief to hear in the first ten seconds upon receiving my test score (50% was passing grade back in Cairo), until I realized that this translated into a big fat “F”. Needless to say I was rather de-motivated and terrified; I tried to reach professor Vann to try to negotiate some kind of makeup, and he brushed me aside saying that I should have studied harder (ouch). A week later, I get an email from him asking me to meet him at his office; I apparently scored the lowest test score but the highest paper grade in class, so he wanted to know what gives. I made up some BS about still trying to understand the ropes and how the education system was not what I was used to (when I think about that now, my previous education system would have made me ace the test and flunk the paper, not vice versa). He said he will be watching my progress, and if I continue to deliver work to him like I did in the paper, he would allow me to make up for the midterm grade. I got an A- as my final grade – and a beautiful student / professor relationship emerged (I took his Peru study abroad trip, we organized a study abroad trip to Egypt together – where I took over logistics in Egypt – and he was an integral member of my thesis committee) … but I digress.

My first steps off the plane in Lima was a bit of a disappointment: the immigration officers had trouble remember that Egypt was a country and proceeded to try and peel off my visa from off my passport to prove that it was fake; the ride from the airport to downtown MiraFlores was creepily similar to the drive from Salah Salem street to Downtown Cairo; and the hotel was stayed in overlooked a main square in Lima that looked too much like Tahrir Square. I thought I was hoping for something a little more magical to usher me into the new continent that I had never been before, but what I got looked too much like Cairo. It wasn’t until a few days later when we arrived at Cusco that I began to really appreciate the country and get to experience my first South American experience. All the architecture and place we had visited prior to Cusco were all from the colonial periods, which I found to be boring, I’ve experienced enough imperial colonial imposition in all the cities and towns that I have visited (and had very little patience to observe the subtle nuances that differentiates Peruvian colonial architecture that adapts Incan character in all its motifs). It is actually quite interesting what my mind chooses to remember and forget, as the first few days seemed to be completely erased from my memory, while the Cusco days seemed etched in, and I remember those moments rather vividly as if it was just last winter!

When we arrived to pedestrian friendly Cusco, we traveled about to the nearest Incan complexes like Ollantaytambo and Saksaywaman and hiked up to reach the sanctuaries. Our hikes ranged from between 30 to 45 minutes, often walking on slightly dangerous cliff-side conditions. The uphill trails were often very narrow, and included steps that seem to be flying in the air with no guardrail; one misstep and you could find yourself falling off the edge of the cliff. At the end of our journey, we were often greeted by a spectacular view as we looked over the entire sanctuary, and the fruits of our physical labor seemed to be reward by a strong sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t the destination that mattered much, but the journey towards it that made the terminus to feel all the much more important and beautiful than it perhaps actually was.

But it wasn’t until our ventures in Machu Picchu that we were truly tested, which has had been voted one of the new seven wonders of the world a year earlier. For the readers who haven’t actually been to the historical site, I ask you to recall the poster image in your head; the ruins of the estate on the cliff is where most tourists enter. While it is indeed on an elevated cliff, most tours arrive on site via buses which are parked in front of a visitors center which overlooks the estate. It is both peaks that flank the state that require more of a hike to get to: on one side there is the temple of the sun, which is relatively easy to hike up to, and on the other is Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu), which is not. The class was spending a few days at Machu Picchu, so a brave few of us decided to wake up early the next day and hike up to Wayna Picchu.

Trail of the Temple of the Sun – Photo Taken by MMM Riad

We woke up at 4 am, about an hour before sunrise (I always feel kind of depressed and in sleep deprivation pain whenever the I get out of bed before the sun). We had a quick breakfast and I remember that we were at the gates of the Wayna Picchu Trail at 5:30 am. One of the students suggested that we get there as early as possible, because he anticipated a long line, and wanted to make sure we were able to enter the trail before they closed it off (they only admitted 300 individuals per day to make sure they are able to manage the number of people on the trail).  We were the first ones to arrive. At 6 am, the gates opened, and we commenced on our journey – before they made us sign a waiver that if anything happens to us or if we happen to fall off the cliff or die on the trail, then the Machu Picchu organization/authority would not be held responsible.

The trail started off easy, and the group banded together rather well. I remember that we were about 9 individuals on the trail: Beret, Andrea, Jason, Jessica, Sarah, Shawn #1, Shawn #2, Nick and I. We were told that going up the trail would be short, but a rather steep uphill, but climbing down would be much easier (yet longer). Five minutes in, the trail turned into a series of zigzagging steps carved into the mountain – each step being about 45 cm high (three normal stair steps high) if not higher, with a rather flipsy rope to act as a guard rail to hold onto to keep you from falling. This is when the group ceased to band together, and the more fitness ready of us raced up these stairs of hell. I was not among those who were entirely fit at the time, and stairs were considered to be a bit of an enemy for me. I was fortunate enough that one member of the group was in worse shape than I was, and I used that as an excuse to lag behind and say that I did not want this member to hold back alone. In reality, I was extremely exhausted ten minutes into these steps, and there was no end in sight. I was happy that I packed my bottle of water with me, but was careful not to drink too much so I could ration my water effectively towards the entire journey. At times, I would take a moment to look towards my side and see that I was in the same elevation as the clouds … I had no experience to me walking in the clouds up to that moment in time, and the experience was – other than exhausting – rather exhilarating. I would stare at them and think about reaching out my hand and actually touch or grab the clouds, but I would be too scared to fall off the stone stepped path.

After about half an hour of climbing the stone path, we found ourselves on a platform circulating the mount. The rest of the group had sped up before us, and the only ones left were Nick, Shawn #1 and I. We could not figure out where are we to go from there – I mean, we did find a bunch of steps at a 70 or 80 degree incline that looked a lot like a tall ladder, but that definitely could not be it. We kept searching for a way to get up, but the more we looked the more we figured that the scary ladder was our only choice. We had no access to those who have gone up before us, so we couldn’t really ask … so ladder it is. Little that we knew that there was another path that we completely ignored that was much less dangerous than the ladder we just took. We also started somewhat of a chain reaction behind us, as other people from other groups started to catch up with us. There was a French lady that went up this ladder before me, but would randomly stop every 4 steps or so, look back and met and scream “MARIIEEEEEE, MARRIIEEEEEE!” at the top of her lungs. That enraged me, and I had rather violent thoughts of wanted to pull her off the ladder. The stepped ladder was about 80 cm in width and you could climb up with your hands and feet, no guardrails on either side and you would look back and see nothing but clouds and sky. I was terrified! Ten minutes later, Ms Marie Screamer and I had reached the top of the ladder and onto the platform before it, and it was smooth sailing from that point onwards. I believe that there were easier steps to climb up a series of 4 or 5 platforms after that, and then we were at the peak…. FINALLY, the peak!

I got on the peak and I literally could not stand. The peak of Waynu Picchu was not flat, but had a rather irregular terrain, and I was too terrified to get on my feet and be whisked away by a strong gust of wind, so I instinctively started crawling on my back like some sort of insect, trying to hug the terrain with dear life. Shawn #1 was on both his feet looking out, and I do not know how I had the courage to snap a picture of him at that point. I looked out at the rest of the Machu Picchu Valley and mountains, and was at awe with nature. I had climbed Saint Catherine 3 years before that, but did not feel this level of exhilaration before. I felt that I was among the clouds, I actually thought I was sitting on one of them. I thought to myself that this is what life would look like if heaven existed on the clouds, as cartoons depicted before. My previous imagination of heaven from my childhood years had merged with my actual experience at the top of Waynu Picchu, and save from the thoughts of fear I had that prevented me from standing up, these images had flooded my thought process. Looking at the lush green mountains and how the colors of green had inexplicably turned to blue as the colors blended in the horizon.

Shawn at the Top of the Waynu Picchu Peak

It was time to go down, the worst is over, I thought. Time to take the scenic route down to the Machu Picchu estate. But before we can head off the cliff after a total of ten minutes basking  in the peak’s sun, we heard a bit of commotion on the penultimate platform. I heard lots of wailing and crying, and then saw Sarah and Shawn #2 carry a crying girl onto the platform, where she hugged them and started to thank them, tears of fear streaming down her face. Ms Marie Screamer than popped up from nowhere and started to console her crying friend, who turned out to be “Marie”. They apparently got separated – it actually looks like her friend abandoned her. So apparently our group start a chain reaction that detoured all the groups coming up after us, and we took the more dangerous path. Marie was terrified and thought she would fall, crying and praying she would make it out of there alive. As soon as she reached the first platform after the stepped ladder, she sat in a corner and said she was not leaving. My friends heard her crying from above and decided to head down to help her, consoling her by letting her know that the worst is over. When she regained her composure, we cautioned her against heading up to the peak and told her that the way down was much longer yet much easier, and the worst is over. I gave her my bottle of water, thinking I wouldn’t need it anymore, and we wished her all the best, and left.

The difficult part was over, now we could take our time heading down Wayna Picchu, and enjoy the beautiful green trail … or so we thought.

Two minutes on the trail downwards we found ourselves on a very narrow ledge, that then breaks off into a cliff, and another trail underneath it about one storey below. The way off the first trail and onto the second is a via a non secured ladder – not a stepped or ladder built into the cliff as before, but an actual ladder. We had no idea how sturdy the damn thing was, and could not find another way around it. After thinking about Marie for a split second, we helped each other get off this rather scary ladder (which I remember was surprisingly more sturdy that it appeared to be) and we soldiered on, braving the trail. The next two hours seemed to be much smoother, as we kept climbing down the mountain – with an occasional ladder here and there that we had to climb down. I started to get thirsty, and regret my previous chivalrous moment with Marie, but it was a lot easier going back for the most part. Our group banded much tighter together at first, and we all walked down at a similar pace …. until one of us asked the question: “Hey guys, do you think that we have gone down, more than we have gone up?”

Side story: Remember when I talked about the Poster image of the Machu Picchu Estate? I had previously mentioned that the visitors center entrance was at the same level of the estate (more or less). However, to reach the visitors center (which was elevated from the rest of the town), we had to take a rather dizzying bus ride that took a zigzagged path up towards the entrance. I get car sick, so I HATED this bus path. One our way down (spoiler alert? well, I am typing up this story so in the end it is safe to assume that I survived this Waynu Picchu adventure), there was a little Peruvian native that would get on the bus and scream “byeeeee!!!!” and then while the bus takes the zigzag route one level down, the same boy runs down a series of steps to meet us at the next intersection point, climb back on the bus and scream “byeeee!!!”. He did this a total of eleven times! But again, I digress – the important question here is “did we go down more than we went up?”

The question that was asked seemed to break up the group’s spirit a little bit, and the closely banded group was divided into three. My subgroup was the middle group, not trailing too far behind (the subgroup behind us really took its time). We started to get rather worried that we seemed to be doing nothing but go down a never ending trail, until we reached a platform that was a cliff looking onto the rest of the mountains. In the middle of the cliff was two sets of arrows, each pointing at different directions: one towards a trail to go up, and the other down. The question was revisited once more: “did we go down more than we go up?” We were fortunate enough to meet a group of people coming out of the trail that seemed to head down, and we asked them were they came from. They told us that the trail that they just took would take us directly back to the estate, and the trail going up will take us back up. We were happy to hear that, until they said that this a trail that would turn into a one hour uphill hike … dread on all our faces. Ok … so three hours in this mess, and we have an hour uphill left. No water on us … nothing but our sheer will to survive that is energizing us… we took a few deep breaths and we soldiered on.

It was EXHAUSTING! To this day, I do not know how I made it through at that pace. Our subgroup was made up of four people, the Shawns, Sarah and I. I think one of the reasons of our survival was Sarah. She didn’t do much in terms of motivating us, it was just that none of the guys wanted to look bad in front of her (she was that kind of gorgeous). Half an hour in though, we both took a moment to catch our breaths. I remember the look we gave each other at the time, one filled with fear and anxiety …. were we ever going to make it off this path? What on earth gave us this crazy idea to do this Waynu Picchu trail in the first place?! Shawn #2 looked at this watch and said, “well, if we are going to take this one hour time estimate those guys gave us seriously, then we are half way there”. I believe that sentence saved our lives. Out of nowhere, we all burst out singing the chorus of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”:

“oooooh, we’re half way thereeeee -OOOO OOOOHHH LIIIIVINGGG ON A PRAAAAYERRRR”

Yelling it out at the top of our lungs, taking this brief moment of laughter relief to energize us and get us back on the hike. We shouted the lyrics out for about five minutes, and started to head back. Sure, we ran into a few fun obstacles, like having to crawl under a boulder and a number of those weird stepped ladder thinigies here and there, but half an hour later, we were out of there and back at the Estate. We looked at each other, lots of handshakes all around, and headed down to the restaurant.

This experience really stayed with me all those years later, and I do believe that it was somewhat of a spiritual one. I won’t exaggerate and say that it was a near death experience, because even though I had overcome a number of dangerous and risky obstacles, I was not in a position where I almost failed one and actually feared for my life. This experience stayed with me because it taught me a lot about the necessity of pilgrimage and procession, understanding the true meaning of journey. I feel that this trail is in essence a metaphor of life … and it made me appreciate aspects of my own life that I had previously taken from granted. It started somewhat of an awakening process that has been unraveling up to today, and gave me a new sense of appreciate towards the destination (my idea of “destination” underwent something of a paradigm shift). It is then when I realized that the path less traveled is often the one that brings about the most significant change in our lives.


See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture


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