“Mister, your water for washing”, was the usual wake up call but tonight I was already dressed and in the finishing stages of packing up my gear for the final time. Machu Picchu awaited and we didn’t want to be late.
After our unusually light breakfast owing to the ungodly hour, we would no longer see our chef or porters. The only people accompanying us to Machu Picchu would be our head guide and assistant guide, as always one at the very front of the group and one at the back making sure we all arrived safely. Panting for breath but safe.
After dinner the previous night we had sorted out a spokes person for our group to say some words of thanks and had all put in a contribution of tips for all the incredible hard work everyone had done for us; carrying all our gear aside from our day packs, purifying our drinking water, cooking a 3 course meal every night and even baking that delicious honeymoon cake and transporting the entire camp over high mountain passes and through impossibly steep valleys.
They always had a smile and said a few words as they would power past us mid morning and by the time we would finally arrive in camp, breathlessly wheezing, they would have everything set up; the dinner was cooking and we were greeted with a glass of orange squash before some of the porters headed back to their game of 5-a-side football. 5-a-side football? At this altitude, we could only dream of joining in.
Having said our goodbyes we headed off down the track at 4am. It was only 20 minutes to the checkpoint but we had to get in the queue. What a queue it was by the time we arrived and here we stayed making small talk with everyone else for the next 60 minutes.
The mad scramble begins
On the dot at 5:30 the queue started moving, slowly at first. We could make out schizophrenic movements of everyone’s flashlights as they practically ran up the trail. There is no need to run. There is plenty of room at the Sun Gate for everyone and as long as you maintain a steady pace you will make it before the sun’s hit Machu Picchu proper.
After the last 3 days of peaceful bliss on the trail, this mad dash for the top resembled the traffic you would see driving down Avenida 9 De Julio in Buenos Aires in the 9am rush hour. It was, to be quite frank, a little disjointed with the rest of the experience.
Soon it was our turn as we breezed past the checkpoint. We were off at a full on power walk in the dead of night on a wet trail with only our flashlights to see for the first 30 minutes. What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, nothing. No slips trips or falls but I did overhear some heated debates amongst people about the pace or lack thereof.
30 minutes into zigzagging up the path the sky started to turn a lighter shade signalling the sun was imminent. The trail itself is not all that steep aside from a killer set of steps directly under the Sun Gate. You just need to keep and eye out for roots and uneven paving, much like the previous 3 days.
With the light gradually making its way across the sky, the views began to emerge between trees so a new hazard was introduced, the photo taking trekker. They’re a fairly common species usually found in the early morning or as the sun sets. You’ll find them with legs spread right across an already slim trail in an effort to perfectly frame what ever vista it is they have in their sights. Usually you would give them a wide berth but on this section it’s almost impossible. Feel free to try testing personal boundaries as you slide behind someone, but sometimes the best option is to wait. This can lead to a maddening stop start regime on the higher sections.
Because the sun is in the sky, don’t fret that you have missed your opportunity. It takes time to get high enough in the sky to cast its light over Machu Picchu itself usually around 7am.
Taking the last corner like a thoroughbred racehorses I was momentarily stopped in my tracks by the steepest set of stairs I had ever seen (and with some of the sections in the prevailing 3 days it was impressive list to top).
Some people try to use their walking poles to stabilise themselves which, on occasion, sees an unwilling trekker get catapulted from the stairs backwards. Hilarious for the rest of us to witness but more than a little frightening for them. The trick is to put the poles away and use your hands on the next step if you’re finding the going difficult. Honestly they’re not all that bad though.
The Sun Gate
Standing at the top it was hard to believe that we were finally here. After just over an hour (2 1/2 since we had left camp) of rushing, scrambling, waiting and clambering we were looking down on Machu Picchu itself. Only all I could make out was the jungle surrounding it. Expecting a panoramic shot reminiscent of a travel brochure I was a little confused to see a spec in the distance. I was going to have to get my zoom lens out if I wanted to get the shot I needed.
Blending in so well to the surrounding countryside and clinging to both sides of its once mountain top jungle tomb it is a sight to behold. That is once you can focus on the tablespoon sized blob in the distance. Without the suns rays it is hard to make out anything at all until your eyes adjust. Don’t take the view as a given though. You are still two and a half kilometers above sea level despite descending for the better part of yesterday afternoon. Cloud cover is not uncommon at this height covering the entire site or just the famous mountain peak behind it, Huayna Picchu (In Quechua Waynapicchu).
Blessed with the clearest of mornings on our occasion, the panorama sitting in front of us now was truly breathtaking. The suns light was slowly making its way down down the cliff top peaks in the background which, just yesterday, was our route down from Phuyupatamarka.
30 minutes after we had arrived, Huayna Picchu was bathed in the golden warm glow of the morning sun. Small, almost imperceptible gasps of wonder spread among everybody as the light gradually made its way across to the famous Main Square before finally finishing up at the quarry on the other side of the mountain, a sight you can’t see from the Sun Gate.
Small bands of groups begrudgingly began peeling their way down from their open air cliff top viewpoint to one of natures greatest sunrises, to slowly make their way down to the main site. The Sun Gate is talked about as though it is within a reasonable distance of the main square but it actually sits 40 minutes uphill. Bear in mind that the 40 minute estimate is based on people having been at, and thus will already be used to, the altitude.
Arriving by train and then usually opting for the express way to the site from Aguas Calientes, most of the day trippers take on a green tint as they desperately try to make their way around the site’s many, many stairs and levels. This also encompasses the Sun Gate path. The main site opens with the sunrise at 7am, usually to a throng of tourists eager to get the first shots of the day before the place becomes too crowded (all morning is generally considered peak hours).
By the time we had made our way down two thirds of the path we found ourselves confronted with some of these day trippers, obviously unaware of the physical endurance of getting to the Sun Gate uphill. It was hard enough on the knees going down but coming up to it from the main site and with the trail now in the full glow of the early but warm morning sun every day tripper’s face was etched with the pain that I had found myself in on the first day of the trek. I felt their pain more than they would know.
Standing in front of me was a bona-fide asthmatic 90 year old day tripper from Japan. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that at her pace she would still be climbing at Christmas. In the name of international relations I just smiled and told her she was doing good, not long to go now. I’ll never know for sure if she finally made it but the determination in her eyes told me everything I needed.
Gradually getting louder and louder I could hear…. Noise! Finally we had made it to the site. The Sun Gate path dumping us at one of the main cross roads in Machu Picchu near the main entrance. People were everywhere. For the last 72 hours I had been used to nothing but silence on the trails and the thoughts going through my head. Now it felt like I was in New York. The noise was deafening to me.
Waiting patiently in line for our group photo shot on the rock for 10 minutes I tried to take in the enormity of what I had just done. I had actually walked the Inca Trail and here I was standing in the middle of one of the most photographed sites in the world. I had done it the hard way. This was the first true sense of personal self achievement I had had in a long time and it felt great.
With the photo quickly over with we made our way down to the entrance by the hotel and near the toilets and café. Being the first time in 3 1/2 days that any of us had set eyes on a proper flushing toilet we all made a beeline for them.
You don’t get a badge of honour or a pin to proudly wear stating that you have been trekking the Inca Trail for the last 3 days. Standing in the toilets waiting patiently the looks shot at me by the unknowing day trippers ranged from curiosity to outright disgust. How dare I come to one of the greatest sites on this planet looking like I had been dragged through a hedge backwards before falling in a vat of sewage and finally covered in a thin crust of dust. They weren’t to know that I had fallen through several hedges but saved myself the indignity of the sewage problem by refusing to go after setting foot in my first toilet on day 1.
Strangely or not, I suppose, one of the more talked about things on the trail are the toilets. Or lack thereof. Us trekkers pay an awful lot of money to walk the trail in the form of the visa or permit that is part of the tour package (don’t go thinking you can do this on your own). It’s a shame the government doesn’t use that money to improve some of its facilities. It should start with the toilets. Long drop loos are never pleasant but there must be something they can do to improve the experience. I can’t offer any words of encouragement on their use. Just hold your breath for as long as you can.
Trekking the trail had an unexpected benefit. Within 4 minutes of entering the loos I had cleared the place. Looking at myself in the mirror I guess they had some cause for concern. At this moment in time Worzel Gummage would have won a best dressed competition over me but all I had on were the clothes on my back (and they had been recycled twice!)
All refreshed (splash of water over the face and newly minty fresh teeth) it was time to say an emotional goodbye to our assistant guide. She had another group starting in the morning so had to get home to change and repack and do it all again. How she got her drive and energy I don’t know but I’ll be forever grateful to her for getting me through some of the tougher sections on the route on days 2 and 3.
Heading back into the site after a quick breakfast in the cafe it was time to start our 2 hour guided trip around the site with our main guide. His depth of knowledge on the place and on the Incan people in general over the last 4 days was encyclopaedic. We all learnt so much from him. Much more than you’ll find in a guide book.
Your tour (probably included on your trek, or purchased at the main gate for day trippers in huge groups of varying languages) is an express route taking in all the main sites that there are to see on kind of a one way invisible path around the site to keep things flowing. Until you come across day trippers that don’t have a guide or the first clue what they are looking at or where they’re going.
The tour went by in a blur of sights; the Main Plaza, Temple Of The Sun, the Astronomical Observatory and the Guardhouse are just a few.
We had three hours by ourselves to take in the rest of the site. Main sites out of the way, I concentrated on the back streets and living quarters of the Western Urban Zone. Bumping into people that I had known from the previous 3 days, not just our group but others I met on the trail and in camp too, we would often compare notes on what we though of the site compared to those on the trail. Most commented on how busy they found it in the morning compared to the afternoon.
I had an hour left to make it back down to our pickup point in a café on the Main Street (okay, the only real street) in Aguas Calientes. Getting down walking takes an hour, by bus it’s 20 minutes once you get going. Taking a chance that a bus would be waiting when I eventually chose to leave, meant I had 40 minutes and I wanted some “me” time up here to sit and properly reflect on what the last 4 days had meant to me.
Eyeing a quiet looking spot on a hill above the quarry on the north side of the mountain I made my way through the masses of people as quickly as I could. Moving like a mountain lion thanks to all this high altitude training I had just put myself through, bounding past a 20 something day tripper with the grace of a cheetah on a hunt, I made my spot across almost the entire site and up 5 levels in 18 minutes.
Once again peace and serenity surrounded me once my panting had subdued. Within 5 minutes of sitting down I was on my own for two levels above me and 3 below. It was bliss. I will forever remember those 20 minutes sitting on that ledge in the glare of the mid afternoon sun. Machu Picchu spreading itself out below me. I finally felt that I had earned my place to be here.
All too soon it was time to leave. Foregoing all but 2 t-shirts in the extortionately overpriced gift shop at the entrance (along with the equally overpriced 5 star hotel just above it), I dashed for the bus as it was about to shut its doors.
More than a few hairpin bends and a couple, “I’m gonna die” moments later the doors flung open onto the not so gracious Main Street of Aguas Calientes. As its name suggest in Spanish, the town is known for its hot springs but the only real draw is it’s proximity to Machu Picchu. If you want to leave Machu Picchu early to avoid the crowds you’ll find the usual scattering of tourist shops selling mostly the same souvenirs and trinkets and a couple of decent cafes as well as those hot springs to bathe in.
Our train was due in 30 minutes to take us back to Cuzco so after a quick coffee and spot of location scouting of my almost forgotten 5 kilo bag, helpfully dropped off by our porters at the café this morning, we had to hop the dual gauge track running down the middle of the street and await our carriage back to civilisation.
Sitting in a plush seat that would put any British commuter rail journey to shame, surrounded by beer cans and wine bottles, we were contemplative. Machu Picchu had been a dream for all of us for so long and now it was over. It was time for us to find something else to aim for.
What makes people want to walk in the footsteps of the Incas?
For some it’s the romantic notion of walking through history. For others their choice is limited by a physical disability and I am all for allowing access where it can be supported but the Trail is not one of those places. The bus route up the mountain should be maintained for those that are physically unable to endure the 3 night hike but to truly experience what it was like for the Incan people and understand what it meant to them, the only way to truly experience Machu Picchu instead of just visiting it, is to hike the trail.
Along the trail you will discover surprising things about yourself, you will be amazed by the ingenuity and forward thinking nature of this fascinating culture. You will be equally shocked at some of their barbaric customs (by our modern day understanding) but so deep was their belief in Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) you will learn to understand the world as they saw it.
They overcame so much to tame the inhospitable high Andean mountains while fighting off other cultures trying to invade their way of life only to be brought to their knees finally by Spanish invaders is 1572 and diseases such as smallpox, typhus, influenza and measles introduced by these westerners ravaged the population ultimately reducing the population by over 90% following the fall of the last Inca stronghold in Peru.
They learned to live in harmony with the Earth instead of trying to tame it as we do now. You only have to look at the grace with which settlements such as Sayaqmarka, Runkurakay, Intipata as well as the most famous settlement, Machu Picchu itself blend in seamlessly with the thousands of kilometres long trail snaking its way through much of the South American Continent. In contrast you only have to look at the ugly access road used by so many thousands of people every day, thoughtlessly carved into the mountainside. In our current wealth obsessed society money talks and sometimes it isn’t pretty.
You will only walk the smallest 26km section of the Inca Trail like thousands of people before you and after you, but in that short distance you will learn to live without today’s trappings and appreciate what you have all the more. You will feel more alive than you have ever felt before.
To me that is priceless.