Llama at Machu Picchu—2000

The Story Behind the Photograph...

This is one of those images where I’m not sure what I like better, the picture itself or the story behind it. After all, as for the picture, here’s this llama standing at the edge of Machu Picchu looking out as if he owns the place. It’s a captivating moment in a wondrous place.

And then, here’s the story behind the picture. Helen and I had gone to Peru in the Spring of 2000. Back then, Helen had a job at an ad agency in San Francisco working on the Apple account. She was having a great time designing logos, packaging and web pages for the design conscious computer company. She had one week’s vacation, but when we settled on a trip to Peru I convinced her to take a second week off, unpaid, so we could spend a bit more time exploring. Still, that left one day for us to visit and walk around the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is nestled in the mountains of Peru and is situated at the top of a peak. At the base of the that peak sits the town of Aguas Calientes which is where the hotels are located. We caught the train from Cusco and arrived at Aguas Calientes on a Tuesday afternoon. Rather than head directly to the famous ruins, we decided to spend a lazy afternoon in town, sipping coca tea and filling up on carbs. Eventually, we found and checked into a hotel – I think we chose it because they had filled their lobby with sandalwood incense.

It was in that hotel lobby, directly behind the reception desk that we noticed a picture calendar – and the picture for that month looked a lot like this one – it was of a llama looking out over the ruins of Machu Picchu. I ribbed Helen and joked about what the photographer must have done to get the picture. I imagined a trained llama and perhaps even a llama handler hitting up tourists for cash in exchange for snapping such a regal and timeless image. There was no way, I told Helen with confidence, that this picture just happened on its own. I also added, that I would kill to get the same picture in our one and only day at the ruins. The chances, I realized, were one in a million.

The next morning, we went up the mountain to Machu Picchu in time for the sunrise and started exploring. We roamed the ruins all morning and then at 11:30 headed up Huayna Picchu, the peak in the background. The trail to the peak is sometimes called the “Trail of Death.” I don’t know that anyone has died on that trail, but there are spots, especially toward the top, where you’re pulling yourself up by a rope and basically hoping for the best. By 3:30, we were back on earth, wandering the main area of the ruins – we got a bit hungry and figured we’d head up to an overlook and have a snack.

Helen and I had just settled into a nice spot, with our packs open and food spread out on our lap when… yes, this llama walked up in front of us and parked, just as you see him (or her?) in this picture, staring regally over the ruins of Machu Picchu. There was no llama handler, nothing at all that suggested this was anything other than an animal that lived nearby and wandered freely wherever it liked. I sat there for a millisecond in disbelief. Unfolding before me was the very shot I had seen the day before… the very shot I wanted to get and thought I wouldn’t ever have a chance of seeing, never mind capturing on film.

I tossed my food aside, grabbed my two cameras (one with B&W film, the other with color) and started taking pictures.

Which is how I captured this shot. In the end, I was in the right place at the right time. Most photographers, if they’re being honest, will attribute much of their success to this simple and entirely random act. In sum, I got lucky.



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