Inca Trail - Day Four and Machu Picchu!
Trip Start Apr 24, 2008
38Trip End May 29, 2008
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By 4:30 am people were already heading down the path in the dark towards the checkpoint. Our assistant guide Freddy took those of us who were ready and claimed our "spot" in the line. Shortly thereafter I headed down alone with my simple flashlight (I had realized before lunch on day #1 that I forgot my cool new headlamp in my checked suitcase at the hostal! I told Casiano right away, which turned out to be the best thing because we happened to be near a little tienda on the trail, the last one we would see for 4 days. I bought a simple flashlight and batteries for S./9.00 and it was invaluable not only on the morning hike to Machu Picchu, but every night night at camp, in my tent, going to the bathroom, etc. I was just so bummed that I forgot my headlamp, not only because I bought it especially for the trek, but also because itīs just so freaking cool! It has setting of low, medium, high and blinky-blink and goes right on my forehead. Sigh!). I got to the checkpoint in no time and there was already one group ahead of Freddy and the few fellow group my members that had left with him. In a few more minutes, Casiano came with the rest of the group and we got comfortable with the fact that we would have to stand and wait for almost an hour before the checkpoint office opened. There were only a few seats and the first group had them (and they were loud and annoying too!). People from other groups quickly started piling up behind us in line and we were glad we were the 2nd group.
As 5:30 am approached, it started getting lighter out, but it was another very drizzly, gray and foggy morning. Things did not bode well for seeing sunrise over Machu Picchu. I was wearing a poncho over my hiking clothes and carrying both my hiking poles AND my flashlight, unsure of how I would manage that on the trail. At 5:30 on the dot a man appeared from the trail behind us, turned on the lights and opened the office. He checked the permits for the folks in the one group ahead of us and they took off through a doorway to the trail like race horses through a gate at the track! Then Casiano gave him the 14 permits for each of us and we were off in the same fashion!
It was truly like a race to the Sun Gate. The path was narrow so it wasnīt like you could easily pass people ahead of you unless they were *really* slow. It was wet and still fairly dark and fast-paced...it was actually pretty stressful and I didnīt like it! The path was a bit rough at times with plenty of small ascents and descents. I tripped on my poncho going up at one point and learned to hold it up in my hands whenever I went uphill. When it got light enough I no longer needed my flashlight but I didnīt dare stop to put it in my backpack. I couldnīt lose my spot on the trail and lose my group! I stuck it in my pants pocket where it dug into my thigh with every step and subsequently bruised me. After about an hour I was sweating like crazy but I couldnīt stop to take off my poncho. I just kept pushing on, talking with the people in my group behind me and sometimes passing a person or two in front of me from the other group. Suckers!
At the end of the trail and on the approach to the Sun Gate, the final challenge was 80 large stone steps. They were massive, half the height of my entire leg! But I breathlessly scampered up them and voila! I was at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu! Casiano and a few of my group members were already there, and more arrived behind me in the following minutes.
The reward for these 4 days of hiking and panting and slipping and sweating and shivering and peeing in holes in the ground is supposed to be the magnificent view of Machu Picchu from above when you arrive at the Sun Gate. Can you guess what we saw? Gray fog. Lots of it and nothing else. It was 6:15 and sunrise was supposed to be at 6:40. Casiano tried to sound positive, but we knew there was no way it was going to clear for hours. We raced to the Sun Gate to get the best spots on the perfect wall and we werenīt going to see a thing. In all honesty, this didnīt really bother me. I knew once we hiked down into the ruins of Machu Picchu weīd see everything up close, and chances were the weather would clear when sun was high. I wasnīt so into the sunrise thing myself and the 4-day hike TO Machu Picchu, the camping experience and the group fun was all better than seeing Machu Picchu itself. But thatīs just me and others in the group were really disappointed...especially the honeymooners Shannon and Kevin. I donīt blame them, as this was the main purpose of their trip to Peru! Such a shame.
After waiting about 30 minutes, we gave up and started hiking down the trail to the ruins of Machu Picchu. Along the way Casiano pointed out some really interesting Inca altars that had been built high on the mountainside. One was specifically for the sacrifice of virgin girls -- the stone altar was built in such a way that the blood would flow down the sides. Casiano says these werenīt considered sacrifices but rather "offerings" and the girls knew their entire lives they would serve this purpose. Their families were proud to have their daughters play such an important religious role. Hmm. Remember, weīre talking 500 years ago!
We descended all the way to the Machu Picchu entrance gate and were officially back in civilization...gift shops, restaurants, tour buses from the closest town of Aguas Calientes. There is even an expensive hotel on the grounds of Machu Picchu -- BOO!!! HISS!!! It was built in the 40īs and is totally offensive to the spirit of this sacred place! Anyway, we all congregated at the snack bar and ate our Llama Path-provided morning snack of juice and sandwich. Casiano announced that our 2-hour tour of Machu Picchu with him would start at 8am. It seemed quite unbelievable that at 8am we had already been awake for 4.5 hours!
I wonīt detail everything about Machu Picchu here because it would take me hours and it is all readily available elsewhere for you to read! The point of these blogs was really to tell you about the hike and my group. Suffice to say that Machu Picchu itself is magnificent. Itīs an architectural and archaelogical wonder, surrounded on all sides by lush, dramatic mountains. We explored the agricultural terraces (each at a different level so the Incas could grow different crops that provided food for 1,000 residents), ceremonial baths that still flow with water from natural springs, the Temple of the Condor (a stone temple with gigantic boulders that resemble a condorīs wings), a solar observatory, a sundial that tracked the days of the year, etc. etc. etc! The place has the ruins of countless altars, temples, residential abodes, cemeteries, and so on. This entire site, now world famous and declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, stood covered in vegetation until 1911 when Yale professor Hiram Bingham "discovered" it while doing Inca history research in South America. Of course the locals knew it was there and they even did a little farming next to the site, but the rest of the world knew nothing of Machu Picchu until Hiram Bingham saw it himself. He paid a local campesino about $2 to show him the ruins the secret was out!
Casiano gave us a great 2-hour tour and he was so passionate about the sacredness of this place, it was contagious! At 10 am a bunch of us decided we wanted to hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain on the other side of the ruins (there are even some ruins and terracing at the top of this skinny mountain!). They only allow 400 people per day up the steep, narrow trail so we dashed to get in line. Once there I started questioning this decision....the line was only inching along and Iīd heard it takes 90 minutes to climb and come back down. I wouldnīt have any time left to just wander around Machu Picchu, use my imagination, relax and take pictures! After all, I had to take a 12:30 bus to Aguas Calientes to meet the group for lunch and the ride back to Cusco, and when would I ever see Machu Picchu again? So I bailed out of the line and wandered around alone for a few hours. I climbed the steps to the Caretakerīs Hut from which I saw that classic postcard view of the ruins and Huayna Picchu behind them. I was so glad I opted for this instead so I could get my photos! I ran into Alwen and Paul up there and they took some photos of me with my camera (definitely one disadvantage to traveling alone -- very few pictures of yourself!). Then they left to check out the Sun Dial and I was joined by Shannon, Kevin, MaryAnne and Grant. I helped take pictures of them, they took more of me and we all exclaimed at how beautiful it was. By the way, by mid-morning the clouds started to burn off and mysterious whisps of clouds clung to the mountainsides. By early afternoon the sun was strong and everything was bathed in light. We didnīt see sunrise, but we got a little of everything else and I was happy!
The others wanted to perch themselves on that overlook and just enjoy the view until it was time to catch the bus. I did that for a while, but then decided to walk around the ruins some more. I wandered into the lesser explored areas, like common residential dwellings and tried to really let it sink in that royal Inca families lived in the space on which I was standing. Itīs hard to wrap your mind around! Itīs not even that old by many standards, itīs just that this place was created by an entire powerful civilization that was handily wiped off the map by the Spanish with their diseases and weapons and horses, yet this most revered creation is left largely untouched. Incredible. And by the way, archaeologists are sure that there are many more Machu Picchus still left undiscovered.
Well, at about 12:20 pm I headed down to the entrance gate to take the 20-minute bus ride to Aguas Calientes. This is a little town at the base of the mountain on which Machu Picchu is perched. Virtually anyone who visits Machu Picchu has to take the train to Aguas Calientes, and itīs really the only reason to go there. The bus ride is extremely steep and winds down sharp switchbacks and costs a whopping US $6! But it was included in the fee we paid Llama Path, as was the train to Ollantaytambo and the bus all the way back to Cusco. And these are not cheap -- they are really expensive, even by US standards!
Anyway, I took the bus and easily found the restaurant designated as our groupīs meeting spot. Just about everyone had arrived by 1pm and we all had a nice lunch together (not included in our trekking fee). We toasted and took pictures and gave Casiano and Freddy a nice tip. A little group of Andean musicians came in and played for the restaurant and Casiano joined them with his wooden flute!
Soon we all had to dash for the train station a few blocks up the street to catch our 2:26 pm train to Ollantaytambo. The train is operated by PeruRail, a monopoly that only runs service between Aguas Calientes-Cusco and Cusco-Puno. Otherwise there is no train service in Peru. We were all booked on the "Backpacker" train which is the cheapest but it was NICE! We had big comfortable seats in groups of 4 and magnificent views of the surrounding mountains as the train slowly made itīs 90-minute ride through the Sacred Valley and along the Río Urubamba to Ollantaytambo. When we got to Ollanta, we all transferred to the Llama Path bus that was waiting to drive us the 90 minutes to Cusco.
It was dark when we got to Cusco. The bus left us all at the Plaza de Armas and most of the group had decided to meet for dinner. (Kevin and Shannon stayed in Aguas Calientes for an extra night, and Dave took a taxi back to Cusco independently so there were now 11 of us.) I heard the rest making plans for dinner on the bus and I kept quiet...shortly they asked if I wanted to join in and I was very non-committal, as is my way! Then I thought, "Snap out of it, you really like these people and itīs your last chance to hang out with them. Itīs just dinner, not a life commitment!" In the past I used to do anything to wriggle out of spending time with people while traveling alone, but I am determined not to do that anymore. So I agreed to meet at the fountain in the Plaza de Armas at 8 pm.
I walked through the streets of Cusco back to the good old Hostal Amarú and I felt like I was putting on a comfortable pair of old shoes. It was nice to be back! I collected my luggage at the hostal and checked into my new room -- I had splurged for one night with a private bathroom ($25) figuring Iīd want it after the hike. Good decision! I was on the 2nd floor overlooking the inner courtyard of the hostal. I showered and rearranged my bags, then strolled down to the Plaza to meet the group.
Casiano was supposed to join us for dinner but we waited until 8:20 and no sign of him! It was freezing so we gave up and chose a restaurant on a neighboring plaza because they promised us free pisco sours (the typical Peruvian drink) when we looked at their menu. The restaurant was only so-so and the service was horrible, but the company was good and I was really glad I went. There were 9 of us and we were there forever (again, horrible service) and we were all SO tired! After all, weīd been up since 3:40 am and just spent 4 days hiking over mountain passes at high altitude! I ordered trout soup which was very hearty and delicious (I think I am going to turn into a trout before coming back to New York...Slice, set up a tank for me!) and Grant got a real Peruvian delicacy: cuy or roasted guinea pig. Yup, guinea pig is big here in Peru and it comes on a platter with itīs teeth still in itīs head!
After dinner we all exchanged email addresses and bid each other goodbye. I thought "It will be strange to be on my own again after spending 24 hours a day with these people for 4 days!" I made my way to the hostal, flopped into bed and slept like a log.