Peru’s popular tourism destination continues to draw more visitors, making some worry that the ancient site could be a victim of its own success.
Last month, I visited Peru for the first time. Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and the Sacred Valley of the Incas were more stunning than I could have pictured.
While I embraced the many positive life messages from this trip, something else tended to preoccupy me. I couldn’t stop thinking about things I would do differently if I had another chance.
I am not usually one who spends time dwelling on the past. I am much more inclined to focus on building the life I want in the future. But there is something about visiting ancient ruins that naturally forces us back in time.
If I had the chance for a do-over, I would not have waited so long to try and climb those steep hillsides, counting every step and struggling for every breath in altitudes as high as 12,400 feet.
I would have made this journey when I was much younger and stronger and athletic. Or I simply would have better prepared for it by spending more time in the gym.
I wish I had been more adventurous in my youth, that I had developed an insatiable thirst for challenges that seemed insurmountable. Maybe then, it would have been my mission to hike the Inca Trail, like the Canadian woman I met on a bus on the way to Puno.
At 36, she had just completed the rugged, four-day hike through the Andean mountains, realizing a dream she’d had since seeing pictures of Machu Picchu in National Geographic magazine when she was 10 years old. The feeling of accomplishment had been so rewarding, she said, that she was overwhelmed.
I would like to have had the stamina of Anna, a young family friend who on a trip a few years ago climbed Machu Picchu twice on the same day. Her fiance had planned to propose to her while overlooking the mountaintop temples. But he chickened out the first time and asked her to do it again.
I wish I’d been as prepared as my young cousin Jasmine, who packed light and had more energy than the guides who do this for a living. On some tours, Jasmine led the group. Other times, she lingered behind to make sure I was OK.
For several days, my mind raced with what ifs.
Perhaps it was the sheer beauty of the snow-capped Andes peering through the clouds that caused my thoughts to wander. Maybe it was my awe at the obvious genius of the Incas, who in the early 15th century used sophisticated technology and architecture to build an empire of intricate stonework structures.
It might have been the simplicity of the floating villages of Lake Titicaca, occupied by the Uru men and women, indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia who preceded the Incas. Or it could have been my fleeting anger at the Spaniards and the Catholics who destroyed historical works in Cusco, the former capital of the Incan empire, pillaging gold and silver in the name of evangelism.
On the way to Santa Maria, one of more than 40 floating villages on Lake Titicaca and a two-hour boat ride from Puno, I contemplated what life would be like without material things. I acknowledged privately that I had spent too much time collecting objects that have no value other than to make me feel secure.
This island made of wood and dried totora reeds that resemble straw, is home to seven families who live in what they insist is near perfect harmony. The islands only last 20 to 25 years, and each resident pitches in to build a new one when the time comes.
Families trade fish and birds for goods and peddle handmade souvenirs to tourists.
Women, who still wear traditional dress — brightly colored wool skirts and woven hats — prepare meals on kettles over an open fire. Men shuttle young children to nearby schools on large reed boats.
But even in this remote area of the world, it is impossible to escape the lure of modern "things."
The nicest boat, called the "Mercedes Benz," taxis residents to adjacent islands and the mainland. The one-room houses, though built of reeds, have solar panels that provide electricity for television sets and radios.
And after inviting me into their home, one family hit me up for $60 for a "genuine baby alpaca" wall hanging, advising me that I would be displeased with the less expensive acrylic one.
One of the biggest problems facing the Uru people today is their declining population. When young people leave the island to attend high school and college, they don’t come back.
Their parents send them off and wish them well, understanding the importance of allowing young people to make their own choices and hoping that those choices will be different — even better — than theirs.
This trip reconfirmed my belief that in many ways, people all over the world are the same. We’re all wishing for a do-over, but we know that we only get one shot.