The Machu of all Picchus

Trip Start Jul 31, 2006
1
14
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Trip End Aug 24, 2006


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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Day Four of the Inca Trail..........

In our campsite at Wi˝aywayna, we were to be awoken by the porters at 4am. I somehow managed to get myself up 15 minutes earlier than that, and just lied there thinking about what awaited me. I`ve been dreaming about Machu Picchu for so long that I couldn`t dream anymore that night. I simply lied there and awaited for the reality to knock on my tent.

The hike to Intipunku (AKA The Sun Gate), where you have your first glimpse of Machu Picchu from the trail, reminded me a lot of Disneyland. Before you get to that point, about a minutes walk from the campgrounds is the last checkpoint. Here the wardens will open the gate and you begin your last trek to Intipunku and finally Machu Picchu.

At a little after 5am, we were about the third group to the checkpoint. The gate didn`t open for another 30 minutes. As the time progressed, in the dark, other groups started to line up behind us. I could feel the anticipation growing. I didn`t want to be trampled and be one of the last hikers to reach the Sun Gate.

So when the warden let us through, it was at a quick pace. The evil juiced-up Ben Stiller squad were obviously the first group through and were long gone before we even stepped through the checkpoint.

Nonetheless, I`ve never seen our group move so fast. It was like we were entering Disneyland the moment they open the gates and racing for the best ride on park. I felt like I was dashing towards Space Mountain. The biggest difference though was that there was no Mickey Mouse and we would have to sustain this pace for about an hour.

At a brisk pace, we were able to pass a couple members of the Ben Stiller Squad as they stopped for one reason or another.

The anticipation grew as we came upon some old Incan stairs. Unable to see the top, everyone assumed this marked the end of the trail. It had to be the Sun Gate. As I began the steep ascent, nearly on all fours, my heart began to beat faster. Only a few more steps.

I climbed the last step, looked out, and saw... nothing discernible. Am I missing it? No... impossible. I've seen the pictures; I know what the Machu of all Picchus looks like. As I scanned the horizon, Javier then unleashed the bad news... "C'mon, we've got to keep going."

After another 15 minutes of brisk walking, and overtaking some tired hikers, I finally began the final descent of the Inca Trail. I switched to video mode on my camera as I began to mount the steps, in hopes of reliving this experience time and time again.

As I rounded the wall and jockeyed for position, I honestly wasn't blown away with what was before me. Yes, Machu Picchu was indeed in the distance, but I was still in reality check mode...... "Was I really here?" I stood there and took it all in. The thing that really troubled me though was the switch-backing road in the foreground. Below us, you could see the busloads of people making their own pilgrimage from the town of Aguas Calientes.

Something seemed so wrong with that. Here we were exhausted on the fourth day of our hike, and below us, were the well-rested throngs who would inevitably reach the actual site of Machu Picchu before us. In fact, at 6:30 in the morning, you could already see the flashbulbs being shot amongst the ruins.

It was at that moment that I felt an overwhelming sense of pride in my accomplishment. Although I had never questioned why I was subjecting myself to a 4-day hike, it was all very clear to me at that moment. I had worked for this moment. A lot of energy and sweat was exerted to reach this point. Machu Picchu hadn't just been handed to me via coach. The trials and tribulations over the last few days, had made me appreciate the view even more.

From the Sun Gate, it took us about 45 minutes to walk down to the archaeological ruins of Machu Picchu. About every 200 metres, I stopped and took another picture from the new vantage point. I made sure the visit was documented well. As we got closer and started to tread upon some of the ancient terraces, I was excited to see grazing llamas along the way. Like everyone else, I opted for the artsy shot of the llama in the foreground and Huayna Picchu {the mountain looming behind the ruins in all the photos} in the background.


Experiencing Machu Picchu

Although the number of tourists were already copious, our "Average Joe" team of trail survivors battled for a group shot. With about 7 cameras going off, thanks to Javier, it was difficult to keep the crowds at bay. Like lost children, people would inadvertently trudge into the shot, and then back out, and then back in.

After meeting the rest of the GAP group who didn't do the trail, we then proceeded to the front gate. It was there that we relinquished our trusty walking sticks for the last time, had our passports stamped, bought some expensive Inca Kola, and then used the bathrooms. After the brief rest, we were ready to take in the marvels of Machu Picchu.

Javier took us to a terrace overlooking the site and had us sit down. He offered a fairly concise explanation of what was before us, but I had a really tough time concentrating. Both my eyes and mind kept wandering. I pretty much just sat there in a trance - staring out over the ruins.

After Javier led us throughout the site, we were given freetime for much of the day. The only stipulation was that we had to take the bus down to Aguas Calientes around 3pm, as we had to catch a train out of there at 4:20pm.

My freetime consisted of the following:

- Sitting near the Machu Picchu snackbar for the first hour and watching my fellow group members indulge in three bottles of champagne. I didn't want to partake, as there were many sick people drinking straight out of the bottle.

- Exploring some of the ruins with other group members in search of a grassy area to lie down. {... which was never found.}

- Climbing Huayna Picchu by myself.

This last experience was one of the cruelest, yet coolest, things I did while I was at Machu Picchu. It's definitely something I will always remember. I'd recommend it to anyone visiting M.P., but would caution them that it is an extremely physical experience. Also, if you're petrified of heights, then turn back now.

I had been humming and haa'ing about climbing Huayna Picchu for a while. Throughout most of the day, the queue to climb it was massive. The line takes some time, as you have to register with the wardens before you make the ascent. I was pretty certain I wouldn't get in; I had read that they only let in about 400 people a day and you pretty much have to be lined up before 10am. Ready for the rejection, I lined up behind several people slightly before 12pm.

To my surprise, I was let in.

I signed up, letting them know I was taking the trail. The idea is to both sign-in and sign-out when you leave. That way if I failed to sign-out, they would know to look for my body somewhere around Huayna Picchu. Yup, there were sheer cliffs all over the trail.

I tried to do it as quick as possible, because I was worried that I wouldn't make it back down in time to catch the bus to Aguas Calientes. The entire ascent was more exhausting than the 4 days of the Inca Trail combined. It was so steep in some places that you had to resort to all four limbs to climb it. Eventually, after 45 minutes of power-climbing, I scrambled upon the jagged stones at the top of the peak.

What a view it was! 360 degrees around the valley. Machu Picchu far below and from a new vantage point. Rain drizzling on my head. The moans of a woman who was in hysterics from the height.

Yes, I just stood there and took it all in.

I would have liked to stay there longer, but the clock was ticking. Unsure of the way down, as the path wasn't clearly marked, I attempted the descent. At one point, I got lost and found myself on a little terrace hanging out over the valley below. That was a wee bit disconcerting. I didn't want to get too close to the edge as I had visions of it crumbling away.

Climbing down on all fours in some sections, I eventually made it to the desk to sign-out. Panting and wheezing, I felt as if someone had wrung all the energy out of me. Nonetheless, I was glad I did it.

I immeadiately took the bus down to Aguas Calientes. Met the rest of the group at the pre-arranged meeting place and took the time to recover... both physically and mentally.

Although I got away from Machu Picchu in one piece, one of the girls in the group wasn't so lucky. Apparently she was sitting near the ledge of a cliff, kicked off her shoes on the grass, and it subsequently tumbled over the edge to the depths below. With persistent teasing from the rest of us, she merely argued she was making an offering to "Pacha Mamma".

What a day!
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