The Inca ‘Trial’ & the Ghost of Machu Picchu

Well, we’ve done it! We have just had a long lie in followed by a scorching hot shower and then down to Jacks Café to join some of the girls from our team for a gut busting breakfast of Pancakes & Maple Syrup. It was well deserved; the past 4 days on the Inca Trail have been a real trial as we slowly wandered along the 40-odd kilometres taking us over passes reaching up to 4,200 metres (13,500 feet) through the awesome Peruvian Highlands. The trip was better than we could have possibly expected, superbly organised to take a party of 11 of us from the UK, New Zealand, US, Israel & Spain. The group encompassed all levels of fitness, experience and age from Liz and Katie, the Kiwi lasses in their twenties who’d been backpacking around Peru for the last few months, to Gerald, a 57 year old, six and a half foot gentle giant from Wisconsin, on his first trip outside the US who’d never hiked or even slept in a tent in his life! We had two excellent guides, Miguel & Priscilla as well as 11 local porters to carry all our gear – oh and mustn’t forget the cook who fed and watered us with an astonishing array and variety of food over the hike.

A 4-hour bus ride took our team out to Km 82 and the start of the hike. The first day was a relatively easy 4-hour walk following the Urubamba river valley with a stop for a lunch of soup & pasta before climbing up for an overview of the huge Inca terraces at Llaqtapata and on to camp no. 1 near the 3000 metre high village of Wayllabamba. The cook showed off his culinary skills in the evening with a stunning dinner of mussel soup, followed by trout with vegetables & rice and a delicious dessert of hot jelly tasting like spiced wine. We were in bed at 8:30 for an early 6am start in the morning.

Day 2 is notoriously the most difficult of the 4 days with a tiring slog of an ascent over the 4,200 metre Warmiwanusca – ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. The day started well with a 6am wake up in the tent by a porter bearing a cup of hot coca leaf tea – a great wake-up beverage! Breakfast consisted of fruit salad with yoghurt, porridge, pancakes, toasted rolls and tea, certainly one of the finest breakfasts we’ve had in our 4 months of travelling in South America. The ascent was quite good, there was never a forced pace in the whole 4 days – you just ambled along as fast or slow as you liked, with a guide up front and one at the rear to ensure no-one was lost. The views from the top of the pass over the massed peaks of the Peruvian Highlands were simply fantastic. Sadly there is no interesting story or legend as to how the pass got its name – it was named as the rock formations at the top are supposed to look like a woman. The Incas seemed to have a tendency to do this and we were constantly shown things that were supposed to look like a Condor or a Llama etc, but all we can say is they must have hit the Coca leaves hard the day they named these things as in most cases the resemblance was beyond most of the folk in our group. The worst part of the day was the descent down the other side, which took us down steep rocky paths with steps of up to 18 inches in places. The day ended around 2.30pm with a fabulous campsite perched on some terracing near the ruins of Runkuraqay, with breathtaking valley views right outside the tent flaps. We lunched on Soup and Chicken-a-la-King with rice and then siesta’d in our tent watching the cloud display create a stunning array of vistas as they alternately covered, veiled and revealed the distant mountains down the valley. Dinner was Beef Steaks in gravy with roast potatoes and a hot chocolate dessert. Loads of calories but hey, we needed them!

Day 3 was an easier but longer walk and again started with Coca Tea in the tent. It was Luisa’s birthday and the cook had made a chocolate covered sponge cake piped with cream for breakfast. How on earth he did this using only a 2-burner gas cooker is beyond our comprehension, but needless to say the cake was delicious and was eagerly woofed down by the group along with the other breakfast goodies. We had a great morning visiting the ruins at Runkuraqay and Sayamarca, where Miguel explained some of the mysteries of the Inca world to us. Can anyone see what local animal this rock resembles? Ah – would it be a Guinea Pig? No! Actually it is supposed to be a llama! Look here – see the 2 ears and the nose and the long neck…Uh no…Ah Incas on Coca Leaves at their work again! Actually Miguel was a great guide – it takes 5 years to qualify – and he was always on hand ready to answer questions on the abundant plant and animal life along the trail in addition to all the stuff on the Inca ruins. The problem with interpreting the Inca ruins is that a lot of it is guesswork. The Inca civilisation, or to be more precise the Quechua civilisation (the Inca was the title given to the King of the Quechuas), was a small group of highland dwellers who lived for years trading peacefully with neighbours along the coastal plains to the West or with the forest dwellers to the East. It was only in the time of the 9th Inca that they began to expand, creating an empire that eventually ran from Ecuador in the north down through Peru, Bolivia and into northern Argentina and Chile. It was to be short lived (around 100 years) as all came to grief when Senor Pizarro and his Conquistadors arrived in the reign of the 14th Inca and put the lot to the sword in their greedy search for gold. One of the sad facts is that the Incas kept no written history of their people with traditions being handed down orally. Of course once the Spanish wiped out all the leaders and priests, the traditions died with them and are now lost to the modern world. In addition most of the gold artefacts were simply melted down to gold bars – easier to carry home, so again another possible source for interpretation was lost. So what remains are only the lifeless stone ruins and the purpose and function of the various forts, temples and dwellings can only be guessed at. Day 3 was a long haul and the paths took on a more jungly appearance as we entered the cloud forest nearing our goal – Machu Picchu. The third and final campground was at the hostel at Winaywayna, with hot showers to be had for the first time – we were starting to get a bit rank, as we had worn the same sweaty clothes since Day 1 and the hot showers were simply wonderful. After a chicken dinner we met all the porters and the cook and presented them with a tip for their efforts. The cook was a young guy and he constantly amazed us with the culinary delights he produced for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner each day. The cook is also the head honcho and it is he who hires and fires the porters. He needs reliable people who he can trust to carry the kit and so it makes sense that he is the boss. The porters were incredible, carrying what looked to us like mammoth loads – tents, tables, chairs, gas bottles, cookers as well as our personal kit. They used to carry 50 & 60 kg loads but recent improvements in working conditions have limited this to a maximum of 25 kilos. There are strict controls along the path, with simple weigh stations to check that the guys are not over-loaded. Still, carrying 25kg wrapped in a woven blanket, wearing sandals made from tyre rubber is quite an amazing feat of strength and endurance. There was also beer to be had at the hostel at Winaywayna and a party was in full swing when we got there but a 4am start on the last day put paid to any excessive drinking, so after one beer we turned in to a night-night song from the tree frogs and the gentle patter of a light drizzle on the tent.

Day 4 – 4am wake up and a groggy breakfast of pancakes & tea by torchlight, then we were off on the last hike. 2 hours through wet jungly paths took us to the Sun Gate – Intipunku. This stone gateway, set across a saddle between two mountains looks down on the ruins of Machu Picchu and on the summer solstice, through one of those weird mathematical & astronomical calculations of the ancients, the sun shines through a gap in the rocks to illuminate the stone altarpiece in the Temple of the Sun down in the city below. We had all seen the fabulous pictures of this most famous of ancient ruins on calendars back home and on postcards in the shops in Cusco. The intent of our early start today was to reach this lofty vantage point to observe Machu Picchu in the valley below in all its splendour and also to see it before the hordes of day-trippers arrived by train from Cusco. When we reached the Sun Gate, we eagerly rushed to see the view only to find that Machu Picchu had disappeared – completely buried in a layer of dense jungle cloud below us, totally obscured and refusing to come and show itself! It was a moment of supreme disappointment – the highlight of 4 days walking; the reward for the sore feet and aching muscles and it was all hidden under dense cloud, like it had all been packed away in cotton wool. We hung around for half an hour to see if it would clear but to no avail, so we set off tired and frustrated down into the cloud valley and into the city itself. Miguel gave us a tour, taking us around all the prominent features – temples, houses, dwellings and so on but all we could see were arrangements of dull grey stones in the misty cloud, like visiting the haunted cemetery in some weird black and white movie world.

After Miguel had completed his tour, we were free for the rest of the day to roam the site. It didn’t look like it was going to clear – in fact it looked like it might rain, so we decided to leave the site to go have a mid-morning breakfast and some coffee to take the edge off the damp chill. Half an hour later, we were fully revitalised by the caffeine intake and the sun had come up to burn away the cloud & misty veils and with it any threat of rain. There it was in all its glory – Machu Picchu finally revealed! The most impressive feature is the overall location. The city was built on top of a mountain and is surrounded by other, higher peaks. They are mostly sugar loaf type dark green mountains with incredible views down into the snaking coils of the Urubamba river valley below. The city is not actually that old either. It was built over a period of 100 years around the heyday of the Inca Empire (around 1400AD), but no one really knows what it was built for. Theories have proposed that it was a royal palace, a monastery, a learning place, but again as the Incas kept no written history its true purpose has not survived. The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu – it does not appear in any of their records and the city was abandoned at the demise of the Incas and lost until the early 1900’s when the American explorer Hiram Bingham, who had a keen interest in the Inca Empire, re-discovered it.

We spent a pleasant morning wandering the streets and alleyways of the lost city, now fully revealed to us under the illumination of brilliant sunshine and blue skies. We happily snapped away taking dozens of photos and then made our way to the little town of Agua Calientes to meet our guides for one last time and to pick up our luggage and train tickets back to Cusco. We expected Machu Picchu to be one of the big highlights of our whole Pan-American Adventure. It nearly let us down, but to be honest we both agreed that the best part of our Machu Picchu experience was getting there – walking the Inca Trail. All of our group made it with no real problems. The 4 days of trekking, in excellent company with great guides through some of the most amazing mountain scenery in the world brought priceless travel experiences and memories that will stay with us forever. If you are reading this and have dreamt of visiting Machu Picchu, don’t put it off any longer! Go there – but don’t take the train! Walk slowly. Follow the Inca Trail. Marvel at the mountains and immerse yourself in a great life experience!

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