Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, April 2013: Day 3

Two More Passes and the ‘Gringo Killer’ to Wiñay Wayna

A riot of birdsong ushered in a beautiful cool, crisp morning. We were to cover 18 km and had to climb another two passes, one of which attained a height of 4,000 metres. The cloud inversion still blanketed the valley below, but it was churning, great columns of white vapour rising from it as the air warmed in the rising sun. The mountain we were to climb blushed pink, then gold in the dawn and the sun finally exploded in a ball of fiery light from behind the ridge of a mountain opposite. A shy smile across the breakfast table from our Argentinean friend told me that she was feeling better.
The hour-long pull up over a very steep section of steps from Pacaymayo to Runkurakay, a semi-circular stone structure built on a promontory of rock, is best tackled before the sun gets too hot. Constructed as a look out point and traveller’s resting post, it offers incredible views of the valley below and Dead Woman’s Pass opposite. Joining a steady flow of porters, perspiring profusely and bent double under their heavy loads making them resemble giant beetles, we headed slowly upwards past gorgeous blue lakes concealed in corries towards the second pass: Abra de Runkuracay. The steps are steep and uneven, each one increasingly hard won in the growing heat of the sun.
At the pass, we were met with yet more breathtaking magnificence, as Veronica and numerous other smoky blue, snow capped peaks floated into view to ravish the eye, the mountains this side of the pass greener, the vegetation lower down turning to jungle. The awesome beauty and remoteness of the Andes has shaped the lives and beliefs of the indigenous people, for these high places are watched over by powerful deities, custodians of eternal ice and life-giving water and the all-supreme Pachamama. Ritual seems to run through the people’s DNA. Gathering together a fan of oval shaped coca leaves, we did as shown by Elistan. Clutching them between fingers and thumbs, we bowed, raising our hands above our heads three times in this ancient ritual of reciprocity between the material and the spiritual, before blowing our prayer into the wind, then concealing the leaves under a tiny cairn of stones. 
The start of the descent from the pass traverses a step section of steps, and the route thereafter is mostly original. One can only marvel at the ingenuity of the Inca who constructed such incredibly well engineered pathways across some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. Although the wheel was known to them, the nature of the terrain made carts practically useless. These roads were built for man and beast! Clinging obstinately to the sides of steep valleys with tunnels passing through solid rock, I wondered how many feet had passed before mine on this seemingly timeless trail?

Moving swiftly, we soon spotted Sayaqmarca, which means ‘Inaccessible Town’. Perched on the tip of a very prominent ridge protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, it is aptly named. An incredibly steep stairway of steps, 98 to be precise, snakes its way up to its entrance. The precise function of Sayaqmarca is unknown, but it had a Sun Temple and over half of it was residential, served by an ingenious canal system that also filled ceremonial baths before disappearing into the jungle. Far below were the rectangular outlines of the terraced ruins of Conchamarca, a resting place for travellers en route to Machu Picchu, and we were soon walking in the shadows cast by its stone walls.

A veritable feast was served by our cook for lunch before we began the next section of the trail along an undulating pavement gently rising and falling as it wove its way high up the side of valleys just above the cloud forest, heading towards the third pass. The air was alive with birdsong and stunning vistas flashed in and out of view, including the first sight of the town of Aguas Calientes and the silvery serpentine coils of the mighty Urubamba River far below. At Abra de Phuyupatamarca (3,700 metres), a flat granite plateau with views of a yawning amphitheatre of mountains in fifty shades of smoky blue, you get the first glimpse of the top of Huayna Picchu, the distinctive hill overlooking Machu Picchu, and a welcome sense of drawing ever closer to achieving your goal.

Porters, some in just sandals, ran by us on the ridiculously steep steps of the descent towards the ruins of Phuyupatamarca. These were not living up to their name at all – ‘Town in the Clouds’ – for the neat outlines of the terraces formed by their impressive stonework were etched in perfect detail in the brilliant afternoon sunshine. Passing by groups of grazing llamas and a series of ritual baths still fed by cool, crystal clear water, we paused to explore the ruins, the most intact so far, before beginning the infamous descent to the final camp at Wiñay Wayna.


Dubbed the Gringo Killer, this descent of almost 900 metres incorporating what seemed like thousands of steps, is gruelling. Again, we decided to move rapidly, passing those trudging slowly downward, concentration etched on weary faces, many leaning heavily on their walking poles, obviously feeling the pain in their knees and feet.

Despite its reputation, the path is a delight, descending into a mysterious cloud forest full of hummingbirds, orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and exotic flowers. It passes through an Incan tunnel carved straight down through the rock and over rustic wooden bridges. Eventually the rusty tin roofs of buildings at the Wiñay Wayna campsite come into view and the impressive agricultural terraces of Intipata on a mountainside above. We took a path that passed right through the centre of the terraces, eventually descending down over a teeth jarring set of steep, ridiculously high steps, which wrought havoc on tired limbs! Passing a trio of llamas, who arrogantly brushed by us on the path, we finally arrived at the camp to applause from our porters. As dusk fell, Elistan arrived with all the others.

A bottle of wine was produced at dinner that night to celebrate our safe arrival at the final camp. Our Argentinean friend, who came close to quitting on the second day, made an emotional and moving speech to the porters as she presented them with the tip money we had collected. The noble faces of these Quechua men, some prematurely aged by the harshness of life on the Altiplano, who had been deprived an education and have known little other than hard graft since their childhood, will linger long in my memory. It was mainly due to them that we had enjoyed a comfortable trek, for everything - camping equipment, gas bottles, cooking utensils, provisions, stools, table and personal belongings - had been painstakingly hauled every inch of the way by them. What heroes! Had I not been so tired from the exertions of the past three days, I don’t think I’d have been able to sleep that night, so excited was I by the thought that in less than eight hours, I’d be seeing Machu Picchu


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  2. Salkantay Trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.