Adventures in Perú

Part 4


On the Royal Inca Trail.
Photo: Stephen Mills.


Ancient mysteries




Machu Picchu. The name itself conjures thoughts of ancient mysteries. Pictures of the ancient city, cradled among the mountain peaks, are breathtaking and world famous, and indeed the city itself is a UN World Heritage Site. It is a major attraction for tourists the world over, particularly from Europe, Israel, Asia, and other countries in South America.

There are two main ways to reach Machu Picchu. The first is the 4-5 day Inca Trail, which involves backpacking over steep terrain at high altitude. Because of heavy use and damage to the trail, the government now controls access and guides are mandatory. The second, and far more widely used access is by train from Cuzco to the small town of Agua Calientes, and then by bus for a 30 minute ride up hairpin turns. The latter method definitely held no appeal for us, but neither did we feel ready to sleep on the rocks for 4 nights. Fortunately, there was a compromise.



Example of the terrain, Royal Inca Trail.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


For our personal pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, we rose before dawn and boarded the train to Agua Calientes, which leaves at 6:00 am on the dot. The way out of Cuzco is so steep that the train follows a series of switchbacks, going forwards, then backwards, up the slope in a zigzag progression. We passed within a few feet of houses and yards, with dogs, chickens, pigs, and children running loose alongside the train. The children waved and called out for money; the animals didn't.

We had been told to get off the train at Kilometer 104, about 30 minutes before the scheduled arrival at the town. We were to meet our guide there to hike the Royal Inca Trail, a one-day trek that covers about 10 miles and climbs nearly 2000 feet in altitude, arriving at Machu Picchu through the famous Sun Gate. We told the hostess where we wanted to get off, and when the train slowed, we jumped -- not onto a platform or a station, but onto a 2 foot slice of ground beside the track. Fortunately, our guide was there to meet us and help keep us from falling into the ravine that bordered the tracks. After crossing a stream, we climbed a short distance to the famous trail. Access to the trail at this point is strictly controlled, and we had to sign in with the guards, who checked to make sure we had the proper reservations and guide.



The flight of 50 steep and narrow steps, shortly before the Sun Gate.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


I must tell you that this trail was work. Hard work. Especially for Steve, who hadn't eaten in 2 days because of Tupac's Revenge. At first the trail climbed along a smooth dirt path, curving around the mountain, and I settled in for a pleasant hike in the mountains until we came to the stone stairs. From that point on, the trail was more stairs than path, with the ascent getting steeper and steeper. We hiked steadily upwards from 9:30 to 1:00, to the ruins of Winay-Wayna, which had seemed tantalizingly close for the last two hours. We then took a break for lunch at a shelter where the backpackers hiking the full trail were gathered to spend the night. I am so glad we had not decided to stay there. The trail and the ruins along it were breathtaking, but the crowded concrete shelter looked like a typical government monstrosity.

After lunch we hurried on, as we had to pass through the Sun Gate before 2:30. Our guide had promised us that the trail was fairly level from the shelter to the gate, and then it was downhill to Machu Picchu. It turned out that his definition of level was that there was a net gain of 0 feet in altitude. We accomplished this by descending, then ascending for an equal distance. The last portion of the trail to the Sun Gate was a set of 50 very steep, very narrow stone steps. As we passed through the stone portal at last, we definitely felt we had earned the right to gaze on Machu Picchu.



"We made it to the Sun Gate -- Machu Picchu lies below."
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


By the time we had hiked down to the site, it was almost the closing time of 5:00 pm, so we saved any exploration for the next morning. We had booked a room at the only hotel on the site, the Sanctuary Lodge. Exorbitantly priced, it nevertheless offered us the opportunity of rising before dawn and entering the site at 6:00 am, a good hour before the buses started arriving from the town below. We climbed to a vantage point and watched, with a few other pilgrims from around the world, as the sun rose over a mist-shrouded Machu Picchu. It was worth all the work, and every penny. It was everything we could have wished, and our photos are worthy of any travel book.

We spent the rest of the morning with our guide, learning what is known, what is guessed, and what is unknown and perhaps unknowable about this ancient place. Scholars differ in their ideas of how the site was used by the Incas -- was it a hospital, a religious retreat, a festival meeting place, or a town with permanent residents? How many people actually lived there? Estimates of 500 are based on the number of bodies found buried, but did they actually live there? We do know that there are religious temples, domestic quarters, and agricultural sectors. We also know that whatever Machu Picchu meant to the Incas, it was so sacred that no one ever revealed its presence to the Spanish conquerors. Machu Picchu owes its remarkable preservation to the fact that it lay hidden from outsiders for hundreds of years.

Next month: Fresh jaguar tracks





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