By eight o’clock we were walking along the same path Bingham had taken through the terraces, following a train of photogenic llamas reporting for duty. For whatever reason – our arrival before the big crowds from Cusco, my sense of having earned this visit over the previous weeks of walking, the absence of my sometimes sullen thirteen-year-old son – Machu Picchu was different this time.
Even after witnessing the knee-buckling natural settings of Choquequirao and Vitcos, it was impossible not to see almost immediately that Machu Picchu beat them both. The distant peaks ringing the ruins like a necklace were higher; the nearby slopes were greener. And of course the city, laid out before the visitor like a LEGO metropolis atop a billiard table, is impossible to turn away from.
For the first time since dropping out of graduate school, I remembered an unpleasant weekend spent struggling to comprehend the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s explanation of the difference between calling something beautiful and calling it sublime. Nowadays, we throw around the word “sublime” to describe gooey desserts or overpriced handbags.
In Kant’s epistemology, it meant something limitless, an aesthetically pleasing entity so huge that it made the perceiver’s head hurt. Machu Picchu isn’t just beautiful, it’s sublime.