Thursday, 1 August 2013

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

The March to Machu Picchu

‘Agua caliente!’ It was just 3.30 am as the porters roused us from our slumbers and we rose in pitch darkness to break camp for the last time. Every group has the same intention. The porters rush to pack up all the kit in time to descend to Aguas Calientes where they must catch the early ‘local train’- government-subsidised and for Peruvians only; the trekkers, to be at the head of the queue which forms at the final checkpoint that opens at 5.30 am, in order to ensure that they arrive in time to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Our group failed miserably and we found ourselves close to the back!

After what seemed an eternity and one last visit to the truly dreadful pit toilets of the camp, just as the first glimmer of dawn began to chase away the purple night sky, the queue surged forward as the checkpoint opened. Once through, a very fast pace was set for the 1½ hour hike to the final pass – Intipunku (the Sun Gate), above the city. The 6 km trail contours a mountainside with precipitous drops subject to landslides, passing through luxurious cloud forest alive with bird song and insects, before coming to an almost vertical flight of 50 steps. Like penitents approaching a shrine, many trekkers climbed these impossibly steep steps on all fours, gasping for breath in the warm, tropical air. A short ascent then brought us right to the Sun Gate where we finally got our first view of Machu Picchu, the fabled Lost City of the Incas, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.
Some things you see in life are destined to remain indelibly etched on your memory forever. This was one of them. Since early childhood, Machu Picchu has fascinated me. Now, right before my very eyes, lay one of the most famous scenes depicted in my first historical atlas. Choked with emotion, I watched mesmerised as a shaft of sunlight streamed down from the mountain behind me, falling softy on the upper edge of the city to gradually illuminate an intricate jigsaw puzzle of reconstructed buildings, partial ruins and the distinctively shaped Huayna Picchu rising majestically behind. It felt unreal to be witnessing the sunrise over this spectacular ancient city built in a saddle between two forest-clad Andean peaks that seem to guard it like a secret. The weather was picture postcard perfect, not a cloud in the sky, the deep green tropical vegetation blanketing the surrounding mountains whose peaks receded into purple grey infinity.  

We toured the city as a group, reunited with our Argentinean friend who dropped out on day two, Elistan taking obvious pride in our awestruck reactions to his cultural heritage. As I sat on one of the grassy terraces with swifts whirling overhead and the warm April sunshine on my shoulders, I felt truly grateful for the opportunity to be at a site that is on virtually every international traveller’s bucket list. I pondered the purpose of this place, now a World Heritage Site, built nearly 2,500 metres high in the mountains, which was never discovered by the Spaniards and only brought to the world’s attention just over a century ago when it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham.

It is believed that Machu Picchu was a laboratory that attracted the finest minds from across the vast Inca Empire: astronomers who came to study the heavens and agricultural scientists who made use of micro-climates afforded by the location and the deliberate construction of irrigated terraces that ripple in parallel down the mountainside, to test innovative methods of food production. It is also believed to be a sacred religious site due to its location, built on, and around, mountains that command high spiritual and ritual importance in both Incan and pre-Incan cultures, a place where priests and nobility rubbed shoulders. There are a trio of impressive religious structures dedicated to Inti, the Incan sun god and greatest deity: the Torreón, or Temple of the Sun, a massive tower which may have been used as an observatory; the Intihuatana (‘the hitching post of the sun’), thought to be a ritual astronomical calendar and the Room of the Three Windows. Whispers of a mysterious past seem to swirl around the ashlar buildings of this incredible place, constructed to withstand earthquakes, and so well built that it is impossible to place a cigarette paper between the huge masonry blocks.
After wandering amid crowds of other tourists for several hours, exploring every nook and cranny of the city despite our tiredness, it was finally time to leave. A minibus conveyed us rapidly down a dusty trackway via a series of heart stopping hairpin bends, to Aguas Calientes, where, after a meal taken together with our fellow trekkers and Elistan, we made our farewells. We took the Vistadome Train to Ollantaytambo along a route that snakes up the deep valley carved by the Urubamba River. Hemmed in by lofty mountains, the large windows that curve up to the very roof of the train create the impression that they are bearing down on you. We lay back in our seats admiring this epic scenery, celebrating the extraordinary events of the last four days with a glass of cold beer. 

There is no better way to arrive at Machu Picchu than via the Inca Trail, which combines the most popular backpacking trek on the South American continent with its top tourist attraction. Even with the expense, the bureaucratic restrictions involved in doing the hike and the almost constant presence of other trekkers and porters, it is possible to enjoy moments of unbridled solitude and peace. The prize at the end of four days’ of sweat and effort are the sublime and magical dawn views of Machu Picchu. Yes, it is crowded, but once you see it, you begin to understand why you simply cannot have this special place entirely to yourself.

Watch the YouTube video of our trek at:

1 comment:

  1. 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.