Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru
Cold and early we boarded our bus in the dark, empty, streets of Cusco and headed out into the Sacred Valley as the sun rose. We passed the railway bridge that had been washed away in the January floods, and parked up in a sports field just short of ‘Kilometre 82’, now the farthest extent of the trains from Aguas Calientes. From here the train follows the river up the valley to Aguas Calientes which is the modern town that sits directly below Machu Picchu. The train is the only method of land transport for the town of Aguas Calientes, and the buses that they have there for shuttling people to MP have to be brought in on the trains!
With the sun on our backs, we set off at a brisk pace, steadily climbing as we went. Our altitude training soon began to tell as some of the others in the group began struggling at the inclines. Ritchie dished out some coca leaves for chewing to help them, but the effects seemed marginal. Unperturbed we marched on, having plenty of time at the front to chat with our guide.
For our group of 16 hikers, we had 3 guides and we reckon 21 porters who carried all our tents, food, equipment etc. When we had set off in the morning they were busy packing up all our stuff and then, an hour or so later, they had snaked past us with all the gear, practically running up the mountain. When lunchtime came around we arrived at a lonely farmhouse where our porters had been busying themselves erecting a small marquee with table and chairs and cooking up a fantastic lunch. In what became an embarrassing habit, the porters all assembled as we arrived, panting and wheezing, and applauded our efforts – these the men who had overtaken us hours ago, with all our kit on their backs!
At this stage on the trail we were still near (very scattered) human settlements, so every now and again we’d have a herd of goats coming the other way, or have to stop and be overtaken by a donkey train taking supplies up into the mountains. We had some scattered rain on that first afternoon, but overall the weather held out and we arrived at our evening camp (tents and everything already assembled), exhausted but exhilarated, and ready for the popcorn and mint tea that were being served up as hors d’oeuvres. Dinner was, again, plentiful and surprisingly varied, and delicious. It was worth paying the extra to come with these guys.
We awoke very early for the dreaded day 2. Officially the hardest day, it involved traversing the pleasant-sounding ‘dead woman’s pass’ (we were told that this was due to the shape of the rocks resembling a lady lying down, but we’re not so sure). We were woken by a ‘knock’ on our tent door, which was followed by two hot cups of coca tea being pushed through to us. Bleary eyed we peered outside to find a bowl of hot water on the ground for us to wash with. These porters were rapidly becoming our favourite people ever.
We pushed on for many hours that day. A lot of the group were still struggling with the altitude, and the mountains weren’t helping. We conquered all 4215m of Dead Woman’s Pass, but there was still more climbing after that. Another epic lunch kept us going, and right at the end of the day, in fading light and with a thick fog over it we came to the most impressive Inca ruins yet; a huge complex perched on an outcrop that was amazingly intact. With no-one else around (all the other Inca-trekkers follow an slower schedule than SAS) and with the dim light and fog it was very atmospheric. We lingered, hoping to soak up some of the history, before turning and shuffling the remaining 500 metres to camp.
A glorious morning awaited us the next day, and the fort ruin from the previous evening was visible today sitting up on the mountain free from fog with commanding views over the valley below. After breakfast we set out on what was probably our favourite section of the walk. Flat (!!), with the glorious sunshine and spectacular views, both of the valleys below and the flora surrounding us, we spent a very pleasant morning. A steep 2,000-step downhill section took its toll on everyone’s knees, but by now the prospect of our 3rd night camp, within striking distance of Machu Picchu and replete with hot showers and cold beers, was forefront in everyone’s minds and we soldiered on, arriving mid-afternoon for a late lunch, but hours ahead of the other groups that would be joining us that night.
We promptly drunk the place out of beers, but at least we did it early so that we could get to bed on time and ready for our early morning start the next day. We were 8th in line at the entrance to the Machu Picchu national park at 5am the next morning, and from there it was still another couple of hours climb until we finally reached the Sun Gate, and could look down on the lost city of Machu Picchu, bathed in a glorious sunrise. Except it was cloudy. We waited as a crowd gathered, the morning mist gradually evaporating under the sun’s rays. There were several false cries of ‘there it is!!’ as the clouds shifted, with people pointing wildly at piles of rocks in completely the wrong direction. When the mists finally did part there was no mistaking where it was.
We wandered down, taking pictures every other step, and did our tour of the city. Needless to say it is an amazing sight. It is sooo large, you can wander the streets, houses, and temples for hours. With the tour completed we were given a choice: depart for Aguas Calientes where we had a buffet lunch waiting at our hotel…. or we could do the extra hour-long ascent of Wayna Picchu, one of the mountains that towers over the city. For some reason, after four days walking and climbing we thought it might be nice to do a bit more so we huffed, puffed and sweated our way up to the top, where we realised that maybe it wasn’t such a clever idea. Never mind, we were there now and so we sat around admiring the view and trying to picture the Condor shape that Machu Picchu is supposed to have when viewed from above.
We enjoyed some off-piste exploration of parts of the city as we made our way slowly to the entrance to catch the bus down to our hotel, every now and again running in to a stray Llama wandering around. Aguas Calientes (the new town down in the valley) has a hot spring complex which is particularly appealing after a 4 day trek so we made straight for there and a good soak. We slept well that night and in the morning caught the Inca Train back to Kilometre 82 where we had started from.
On the way back from Aguas Calientes we were dropped at Ollantaytambo, in the sacred valley. We were nearing our limit for being able to be absorb Inca ruins, but weren’t quite there yet so we took another tour around this spectacular location. Set at a junction between the sacred valley and a smaller joining valley you could see from the top of the hillside ruins why they had built there as it gave you great views in all 3 directions. After the tour (where we felt we had been able to ask some very advanced Inca questions as a result of what we’d learned at MP), we headed into the very quaint town on the valley floor. Various streams flowed beside the streets as we wandered through the low grid of simple houses looking for somewhere to get lunch. Eventually we found a pretty little courtyard and settled for the afternoon… it was dark before our shared taxi (i.e. someone’s private car) got us back to Cusco.