This is a more concise account of my 4 day hike over the Andean Mountains from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. Some of this is in my book but maybe only about 3 pages.
I hope you enjoy it!
After arriving in Cusco from the jungle in Puerto Maldonado, I was quickly brought back to reality when I started to feel a bit nauseous, breathless and had a bit of diarrhoea. Then I remembered - altitude! The receptionist at the hostel recommended drinking lots of coca leaf tea. The hostel didn’t have facilities to make tea so I went to cafes for coca de lattes. I started talking to a young guy who was selling paintings on the street and mentioned my sickness. He recommended chewing the coca leaf and a special resin which was available at San Pedro markets which was many blocks away. He bought the leaf for me. He showed me how to use it by taking six leaves and putting them on top of each other and then scraping a small amount of the resin onto the leaves. Then wrap the resin in the leaves to make a small parcel which is then put in the back of the mouth between the big molars. The trick is to put pressure on the parcel with your teeth and suck. I was told to continue this as I was doing whatever I was doing until the leaf and resin reduced to a small mushy mix (about 10 minutes) then it was OK to swallow it.
Apparently, the coca leaf combined with the resin formed a reaction that supplied oxygen. I was told that the more I used it, the quicker and longer the effect would be. I told him that I was going to walk the Inca trail so he recommended using it every hour while walking the trail.
PS - I will add here that a year after this trip, I found out that Coca-Cola worked incredibly well for me when I had altitude symptoms. A waiter in a cafe told me he uses it when he goes climbing in the mountains. If I had known this before my hike, I would have taken cans of coca -cola in my back pack. After 10 minutes of drinking it, I was all good! Much better than coca leaf.
As a matter of interest: the coca leaf is the leaf used to make cocaine but grown at a lower altitude. The leaf used for cocaine is grown at a higher altitude which makes it very potent. The lower altitude leaf is legal on the streets in Peru.
Later that afternoon, I had a visit from the group who were taking me on the Inca Trail trek commencing the following day. They gave me a briefing on what to expect and check that I was prepared because I was an ‘extra’ included in an organized group. Because of this, I had to get myself to Ollantaytambo to meet up with the group. I had one day and one night to get there.
Early next morning I caught a bus from Cusco to Pisac and then a taxi to Ollantaytambo. The scenery was out of this world as we drove around mountain sides overlooking the sacred valley. We drove around the mountains on narrow roads with sheer drops down to the valleys and you would think we were on major highways by the speed the drivers go. We stopped at places worth a photo and locals dressed in traditional costume complete with alpacas were always there to pose for a few cents.
I found a taxi, or should I say driver in a clapped out little car, to take me to Ollantaytambo and what a ride it was! He did not say one word from start to finish and the red light was on the petrol gauge before we left Pisac!
The roads here were so narrow that if a car came in the opposite direction, one car had to pull over to the side or back up to let the other car pass. My driver was not giving away anything. He just kept his ground and forced everyone else to do the giving — unbelievable!
Eventually, we did arrive at Ollantaytambo where I stayed the night in a small hostel right on the station platform for the train that takes people to Machu Picchu. It was quite nice; it had a garden with seats so I could sit outside and look at the mountains.
I took a quick walk up to the mountain to see the megalithic pink granite blocks, some weighing 67 tons. They were very large, very smooth and again the question arose - who, how, why are they here. The stone was different from any stone in the area. Of course they were very impressive like all the ruins here; always spectacular, hanging onto the side of steep mountains with aqueducts still working with water coming from who knows where. It made me feel very insignificant.
DAY 1 -Early next morning, I had to pack a small day back pack with water and snacks ready for my Machu Picchu trek. The trek people who visited me in Cusco were taking my big back pack on the train to Aguas Calientes, the little town at the base of Machu Picchu. I must confess that I was a little worried about handing over my big bag and not see it for four days.
I had a porter to carry a 6 kg bag with extra clothes for the trek and I had a money belt on me at all times with my money, passport and flight tickets so no matter what happened to my bag, I could still get home. I had to pay an extra 60 sols for a porter because I was an add-on to another group. His name was Larry, about 19 years of age, very Andean looking and shy. He gathered up my bag and we set off to meet the rest of the group in the main square of Ollantaytambo. I was introduced to everyone and we all climbed into a very old rickety bus which took us to the start of the trail.
The other people in the group were a German family - father, 3 teenagers and a 10 year old boy, 3 Japanese teenagers, a Peruvian business couple, another German couple, 2 guides and 6 porters. The porters made lunch for us while we bought walking poles from locals who rushed to meet us. These locals were Andean farmers who tried to make a few sols from tourists like us. Most of them had children from newborns to 8 year olds. I was told that any older children would be working on the farms. Here was a local woman with a baby in her arms sitting next to us and it was obvious that the baby had a bit of a cold with snotty nose and coughing. The mother was very attentive to her baby and I tried very hard not to stare when she licked the baby’s eyes and mouth and then sucked the mucus out of its nose. She didn’t spit it out so I presumed she swallowed it. I guess tissues are a luxury to these people but the result of all of this was that I handed her S/:2 soles before I left. I didn’t know how else to assist her.
As soon as we had finished lunch, we headed off to the swing bridge where we had to register and show our tickets to a government officer. They only permitted 500 people each day to be on the track from start to finish and was closed for 2 months every year to give the environment a chance to rejuvenate and also for repairs to be made.
Before we knew it we were off, across the wooden walk bridge which crossed the Urubamba River and started our 4 day trek to Machu Picchu. We would need to walk for 4 hours the first day on a one person track which had a slow incline so it was not too bad. After about 2 hours we climbed a steep hill which took us to a high ridge looking down into a huge valley where 2 rivers ran either side of a large mountain and joined to become one. The protruding mountain had layers of stone walled terraces which wrapped around and up the sides of the mountain.
This site was called Llactapata and was the remnants of an agricultural community and also had temples and ceremonial areas. The local farmers still farm there very successfully using the old water systems made centuries ago. Some say it was a resting place for the Incas on the way to Machu Picchu, others say it was an observatory and ceremonial site. No-one knows for sure because there was no written history ever found and no stone drawings so everyone has their own ideas. I thought it looked like a settlement built high to avoid flooding waters and raised terraces were high enough to avoid flooding too. Apparently the site was built in perfect alignment with Machu Picchu for the June solstice sunrise. Interesting to speculate isn’t it? It was just beautiful to sit and look down upon it.
With great reluctance we pushed on to our first campsite before it became too dark. The gradual rise became very tiring as the oxygen was getting sparse. I longed for the end of the day.
The track we were on was just a single goat track used by the many locals we passed who were going about their daily chores. I was very surprised to see that the women were dressed in the beautiful colourful clothes with their babies strung across their backs in brightly coloured woven rugs. Our guides told us that they were not dressed to impress us; they dressed like this every day like true Andeans. They travelled in small groups with their animals, donkeys and alpacas going home to the comfort of their homes which were very rough wood and clay one room buildings shared with their animals. The animals did not need harassing , they were as eager as the people to get home and they often ran ahead using the same tracks that we were using so we needed to stay alert and step aside to let them run past.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, I too quickened my pace as the air suddenly became very cold.
We spent our first cold night on the trail camping on the property of a small farming family in an area called Wayllabamba. They had built a small flat area with a thatched roof with a bench and stools under it. It was a place to eat and rest while the porters set up our tents. The family had some homemade corn alcohol and soft drinks brought from Ollantaytambo on the backs of donkeys. They made a small profit from the sales to tourists. Our dinner was soup and pasta again but I was so hungry I would’ve eaten anything. I realized quickly that others in our group were just that - groups. And I was on my own. They did not appear to want to include me in the conversation so I sat there like an outcast until a couple of late arrivals from Lima showed up. They had been held up in Ollantaytambo where they needed to get permission to continue without passports. They got it and had to hire a guide to accompany them to our camp. They also got the cold shoulder from the others in the group so that was good — they spoke to me!
Despite my tent being on a slope, I found a comfortable position and quickly slept like a log that night; weary from the days trekking.
DAY 2 - I was awoken at 5.00am when Larry brought me a steaming hot cup of coca tea. It was the most delicious cuppa I had ever had. My legs were so sore I had trouble climbing out of my tent and found a place for a pee. There were no luxuries like toilets out here! We had walked on a gradual rise for 5 hours yesterday along a creek coming down from the mountains. I found the walking OK but the breathing was getting harder so I was beginning to question my abilities to complete this day. We were told that it would be the hardest day in the walk with an all day ascent to the top of the mountains. We were advised that if we felt nauseous and head-achy we should stop to let our systems acclimatise to the slow, steep rise to Dead Woman’s Pass.
After a breakfast of oats in a cup; made like a hot drink with flat bread rolls with jam we finally headed off again. Larry and the porters stayed to pack up the tents and wash dishes before following us. We walked for about half an hour to see the sun slowly creeping over the mountains at the high end of Cusichaca valley. We stopped and looked back where we came from yesterday —wow! What seemed like a gentle rise the day before was obviously a serious climb. It was magnificent to see. The creek was more than a creek and the valley was very narrow with steep sides rising sharply. From here we had a good view of the snow capped Mount Veronica which was 18,745‘high. This mountain is very sacred to the Andeans — like Pachumama (mother earth) looking over them. I felt so exhilarated. I was here! Yes me, on the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu!
After about 2 hours of uphill trekking, we rested at another small community called Huayllabamba. When I say community, I mean home of 1 or 2 families and we pass right through between their mud huts. It was great; the families joined us sitting around, pigs sniffing us and chickens everywhere. I got talking to our guide called Pancho, asking about his life and if he was married with kids. He said no but he had a girlfriend named Amanda. I asked if she was Peruvian because the name was not. He said “no, you met her in Cusco - she and two others came to your hostel to brief me about the Trail.” I thought about it and the only girl was a pretty young blonde Canadian girl. I said to Pancho “The Canadian girl?” He said ‘Yes’. I punched his arm and said “You cheeky devil”. He laughed a lot and said that many international girls like the guides, he didn’t know why. She was a trekker on one his groups about a year ago and she visits him on Uni holidays. He was a nice guy and reasonably good looking, about 28 years old but there are lots of good looking guys in Peru so I guess it must be love.
After our rest, Pancho said he hoped we enjoyed our rest because now we had a 2,000mtrs climb ahead. Thanks for that Pancho!
As we walked on and round a big bend we passed through a beautiful cloud forest with Quenua trees indigenous to the Andes. There were lots of small orchids, mosses and bromeliads in all the trees - spectacular. It all ended quickly as we climbed up and out of the cloud forest and there in front of us was this huge, mother of a mountain which went up forever. The plants had suddenly stopped like a line had been drawn where the baron mountain began.
Pancho told us we should continue at our own pace remembering to be aware of the signs of altitude sickness and we would all meet at on the top at Warmiwanusca Pass also known as Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200 metres. It is about 1,800 metres higher than Machu Picchu. Encouraging hey!
I filled my pockets with coca leaf and resin and some little tablets of concentrated coca leaf. I reckon I’ll need them! Pancho told us to take our time to give our lungs time to acclimatise and suggested taking 20 steps, stop and take 20 quick, short breaths and repeat for about 5 times.
OK off I went! All the younger ones took off quickly but I decided to take Pancho’s advice. Larry said he would follow me in case I needed help and Pancho had a small cylinder of oxygen and mask in case anyone got into trouble. I stuck to the plan and plodded on step by step and kept my mouth full of coca leaf.
After 2 hours I was exhausted but OK. We stopped at a small dip in the track where locals were cooking food for sale with Inca cola and water. I was at the back of our group with only the Lima couple behind me. The younger ones were out of site ahead of us. My little mate Larry and I sat for 10 minutes before heading upwards again. The views from here were incredible with Mount Veronica in all her glory glowing with browns and orange colours with a crown of snow. I just love these mountains, they feel alive and breathing.
A big surprise was just around the corner as we hooked up with the track again; we passed through a mini cloud forest with all the plants, moist air and believe it or not, there was a family of three small deer feeding on the moss. Yes! Deer half way up the mountain! This place is full of so many surprises but I was amazed by my fellow trekkers who did not stop to appreciate these little guys. Not even a glance!
Larry and I did eventually leave them and proceeded up the mountain and once out of the cloud forest, I had a clear view of the rest of the climb to the top. Holy cow! There was still about two thirds of the climb left and it was very steep and went on forever. It was very hard mostly on the lungs; breathing was getting to be laborious. I took all the rests and breathing exercises I needed. Larry told me to never walk directly up — he said even if the path was very narrow, I should walk in a zigzag way even if each zig was only three steps. I told him to walk in front of me and I would copy his step and pace. Brilliant! It was much easier even though it took more steps than going straight up.
He also told me to take short, shallow breaths, not long deep ones — yes! After another hour of ascending, I caught up with the younger mob. They were sitting and laying on the track and were very surprised to see me. They immediately jumped up and started walking ahead of me again.
About twenty minutes later, we came across Pancho and the German couple who were very distressed, angry and yelling at Pancho saying that they were going to die on this mountain and demanded Pancho do something to get them out of there. Pancho told them the only way out was to go back down the track or continue forward. The couple became very abusive and demanding saying they could not take another step either way. Pancho was very calm and suggested they stay where they are and when Pancho reached the next camp site; he would organize for a local person with a few donkeys to come and take them back down the mountain. They then realized there was no easy solution so agreed to wait. Pancho reassured them someone would come because it was a good job worth a few dollars for a local person. We all continued the trek for another 4 hours to reach the top to Deadwoman’s Pass and just as a matter of interest, I beat the young ones. Yes! They showed up about half an hour later totally buggered and I reckon they went out too fast and too hard and they did not have coca leaf or Larry.
Once I rested my lungs for ten minutes, I saw the extraordinarily mind boggling view and I could not believe I had walked all the way up there. The track we had walked on was visible all the way down to the bottom only because the bright collared jackets of other trekkers leaped out against the harsh baron mountain side. There in all her magnificence was Mount Veronica congratulating me for a great effort. Well, I think she would have congratulated me if she could!
Now we had an equally steep descent to our overnight campsite and from here on, we were walking on Incan steps all the way. They were very narrow and rough but it was such a relief to be going down after a torturous climb. After a bit of a rest and photo taking, Larry and I had a handful of lollies from my day bag and headed down. Half way down, I could see a river which was the Pacaymayo River and across the valley to another mountain with a pathway going right up to the top. EEEK! Larry said that was tomorrows track. Great! By the time we reached the valley below where our camp was already set up by the porters, my poor legs were like jelly even more so that the trek up to Deadwoman’s Pass. What a workout this day had been. Pancho assured us that the worst was over but at least the worst was absolutely worth it, pain and all.
After a rest I had a good look around and discovered that what I thought was a valley was actually a dip between two mountains. The river went on down to a much deeper valley - it was awesome. I sat and watched the sunlight move up the mountain as the sun disappeared below the peaks and the mists started to settle into the low areas leaving only the snow capped peaks glowing in the last rays of the sun. I know I was exhausted but the whole experience was overwhelming me and I felt a bit teary, an expression of my feelings that I had not felt before. Pachumama had captured me with her pure beauty.
We had our dinner - yes soup and an omelette. I was learning that soup was a part of every meal in the Andes and I must admit that it was very nice, warming and comforting. Can you believe that the porters’ carry six or seven trays of eggs (30 eggs in each tray) held together with plastic bags and string wrapped around them all the way over these mountains? They carry a large gas bottle, cooking stove, crockery, and cutlery, fold up table and chairs and a large tent so we can eat out of the weather. They set all of this up three times a day and also carry tents, sleeping bags and our backpacks for us and then pack it up after we leave but the amazing thing is — they run past us on the track so that they are all set up again before we arrive at each rest site. They are the unsung heroes on these tours.
After dinner, I wandered off to find my tent which Larry had pitched on a high mound away from the others in our group. The view went right down to the river in the bigger valley. Larry said he thought I would like it there. These people are amazing, show a little kindness and you get it back 200%. (Years later, I had a different opinion!) I sat outside all rugged up because it was absolutely freezing up there and Pancho came and sat with me and talked for a while. He had noticed that the others did not mix and asked if I was lonely. I said of course not - I was travelling solo so I didn’t expect anything else. I lied because I really thought a sole traveller would be invited into a group.
I asked Pancho more about his girlfriend Amanda and how they got together considering that it was a strict rule not to fraternize with tourists. He said it started with just talking a bit of flirting on his part when no one was watching. He said he was besotted with her on the first day but she did not return the flirting until the last night of camping but he still did not think anything would happen. On the last day before parting he gave her his email address and thought that was ‘it’ but she contacted him and said she wanted to come back to Peru on vacation to visit him and that was ‘it’. I know it was cheeky but I asked him if they had sex but he just laughed. No harm in asking hey?
Larry brought me a big cup of steaming coca tea before bed and I sat there in the dark, cold listening to the faint chatter of other groups settling in and thought about how close we were to Machu Picchu — just two days and one more night. Wha-Whoo! So close. I had been walking where ancient people had walked; on their real steps.
I finally climbed into my tent and snuggled into my sleeping bag and started dozing off feeling very happy, content and excited about the next two days. Then I heard a sound. It was a flute of some sort playing the tune of El Condor Pasa. It was single flute but it was played with a gut wrenching feeling and emotion to it. I felt like crying, it was so sad. It stopped after a minute or two; not long enough.
I finally went to sleep but my feelings had gone from happy to sad.
DAY 3 - Next morning I asked Pancho who played the tune last night. He said he didn’t know, maybe a tourist in another group. I asked Larry if he had heard it and what it meant, was there a story?
He said yes on both counts. The tune was from the days when the Spanish invaded Peru. The mining of silver was promoted by the Spanish. The indigenous folk were forced into slavery to work the mines. The only way out was to die or escape and escaping was just about impossible. They could only watch the Condors; large birds with 10 ‘wing spans fly into the valleys where the mines were. The birds would then rise with the thermals to disappear over the top of the mountains. The song is about being taken by the condor and lifted to freedom. They sang about dying and being carried by the condor back to their homes and Cusco.
Years ago Simon and Garfunkel wrote their own words to the tune but they are not the traditional words.
On that note I set off again with a different but more real purpose to Machu Picchu.
About one hour later we came across the ruins of Runkuraqay which was thought to be an overnight post for the messengers taking news to Machu Picchu. It may have been a place where messages to the Inca were passed from one runner to another like a relay to keep the messages moving. Pancho said that every year there is a competition to see how quick individuals and teams can get from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu as in the Incan days. Pancho said that he used to do it on his own in 12 hours but a relay team can do it in 7 hours. The mind boggles — I mean this is the ultimate tough terrain!
From there, we progressed up another mountain (the one I saw yesterday from Deadwoman’s Pass) it was tough on the old legs after yesterday but I could see the top of this one. I tackled it the same way, slow, steady, zigzag, short breaths and coca leaf. Once we arrived at the top I could see that we were on top of the mountains and I could see the track ahead of us, across the top of the snow capped mountains, winding around the edges of the peaks and into small dips.
The views were to die for — looking across the peaks and the sheer majesty of the snow capped peaks dropping off into steep valleys with glimpses of alpacas using the same tracks. The alpacas were not shy and gave way to no-one so I always made sure I was leaning against the high side of track and stood still when they appeared. We reached more ruins called Sayacmarca which was perched on the side of a steep ridge. It was very basic and had not been restored but it was easy to see that it was a look out. It had a180 degree eye view of valley stretching into the distance. No one could pass through the valley unseen. We could see our lunch site over on the other side of the valley but we needed to go down into the valley and up the other side to get to it. Down in the valley was the ruins of what looked like a small residence with a few terraces running near a small creek. We didn’t see the building until we were right on it because the valley was veiled in mist. It was a magical surprise of lush greenery and bromeliads hugging the stumpy trees. All of these ruins have the original water ducts in them and they all still work with beautiful mountain fresh water flowing through. I could have easily stayed there all day but we still had half a day’s walking to do before our last camp site of the trek.
We only had an hour to eat lunch and rest before heading off for our last four hours of the main Inca Trail but it was going to be a great afternoon with a sneaky peek at Machu Picchu Mountain which would keep the site from our view. Realizing how close we were to the site, no-one complained about the short rest as we were all eager to get going again. We ended up on a pathway which literally wound its way around the steep edge of the mountain on paving that had never been touch. I was re-energized by everything I saw and every step I took.
We passed through 2 tunnels dug into the cliffs to get past huge rocky outcrops. They were only about 10 metres long but just incredible to go into knowing the Incans had been through them. I didn’t realise it but Larry told me to slow down; he said I was running along the paths.
All of a sudden we arrived at a very high peak overlooking a huge valley but right in the middle was a single mountain which appeared to be standing alone, not attached to another. It looked like a large crater surrounded by mountains with this mountain in the middle of it and a river appeared to wrap around its base. Pancho waited until we were all there and told us that the mountain in the middle cradled Machu Picchu. My heart leapt to my mouth; I couldn’t believe we were so close. I was not disappointed so far but the best was yet to come. Pancho said we were very lucky that no cloud was in today as it is usually shielded from view. He asked us to walk an extra 500mtrs off the track to a small ridge and pointed out a glimpse of another small peak behind the mountain. This was Huayna Picchu, the small peak that sits on the site of Machu Picchu but the site was out of site. Ah, so close! I was very excited, amazed and happy to be here right now and thought that this view was enough for me.
For the last few days I felt like I was standing on and walking amongst a living entity— this confirmed it—the mountains were surrounding Machu Picchu as if to hold and protect it. I could feel its heartbeat and its warmth, I wanted to stay and watch the sun set here but we still had 2 hours to walk to our last campsite which was downhill. I pressed on but my eyes were looking for glimpses of the mountain at every turn. The track was 100% Incan now and ruins were everywhere. We passed through the ruins of a water catchment, baths and water duct area called Phuyupatamarca which were very impressive with waters still flowing through them. Pancho showed us how to make a coca leaf offering to Pachumama in thanks for the waters continuous flow. We now had to go down 5000 steps into the cloud forest surrounding Machu Picchu. It was the last descent before our ascent to Machu Picchu the following morning. Phew! I could hardly breathe from anticipation.
It took me 2 hours to get down to our last campsite at Winay Wayna where there was an organised set-up with toilets and hot shower if you were willing to wait in the queue. We had our dinner and a chance to thank our incredible heroes, the porters who worked their arses off looking after us and still had strength to run past us up hills with huge loads averaging 50kgs on their backs. Supermen! They are paid pittances so a hat is passed around for tips for the porters to share between them. I put in $20 USD which was an OK tip.
Later I noticed Larry was very upset so I called him side to ask what was wrong. He told me that the other porters did not share the tips with him because he was with me, a private add-on to the group. Rotten buggers! I had a few watches and Ozzie bits and pieces which I was going to give as gifts throughout my trip so I took one of the watches and $40 USD and gave them to Larry as a thank you from me. He was so happy and was the envy of the other porters who then treated him with respect. I did notice the next day that Larry had the watch on and had his long sleeves rolled you so that everyone could see it, he was so proud.
DAY4 -We had to wake at 4.30 am the next morning to get to the sun gate overlooking Machu Picchu before sunrise. Amazingly, I slept very well that night and Larry had to unzip my tent and wake me. I jumped out really quick knowing that in 2 hours I would be at Machu Picchu — I was so excited, I felt like I was going to be sick! (But, I wasn’t!) We had a quick cup of coca tea and a bun with jam for breakfast before we headed off for our final day. Our porters would now go down to the small town called Aguas Caliente where we would join them later to say goodbye.
We headed off in the dark through more cloud forest on narrow paths with steep drop off towards a passport check point which indicated that we were at the end of the Inca Trail. We walked for another half an hour before Pancho told us that just around the next bend; we would see 50 steps going straight up to Intipunku, the sun gate. Everyone raced up there but I stayed back until there was no-one between me and the sun gate. I wanted to walk the last 50 steps alone with no other human in sight. As I walked I tried to imagine the Incan people walking in all their traditional costume and carrying their tools, weapons and babies on their backs. It was just starting to get light before dawn, the sky was clear and it was cold. I was hoping it would be all that I expected. Did I expect too much?
I put that out of my mind and kept stepping up to the last few steps and admired the stones which formed the sun gate. I took a deep breath, stepped through the gate and looked down onto Machu Picchu. I was immediately mesmerized by the view. There it was, a magnificent stone city wrapped over the top of the mountain like a saddle under the watchful eyes of a circle of other higher mountains. I felt someone’s arms around me and turned to see Pancho. He said he stayed up here because he knew I would be overwhelmed. He was right! I felt so small and weak and insignificant in these surroundings. I felt the strength, power and solid stability in these surroundings. Pancho took my hand and started walking me down the half hour walk to the site. I was crying for most it; like I had come home or reached a long awaited destination— or something I don’t know. Pancho was amazing; he just walked with me in silence like he knew I needed the silence.
When we arrived on the site, I found a place to sit and watch the sun rise and touch Huayna Picchu and then the stones on Machu Picchu. Everything here far exceeded my expectations. Pancho gave us a tour over the site giving us different versions of what different experts thought the history was. I had settled my emotions down by then and listened to the stories of the Inca society’s attempts to escape from the Spanish conquerors, sacrifices to the condor, puma and snake, royal residences, religious and sacred sites. All seemed relevant but I sensed they were all wrong. I don’t know what may be right and I reckon we should not know; it is a secret that belongs to the mountains and should remain secret.
After a few hours on the site, the rumble of buses coming up the mountain disturbed the atmosphere and dust rose with them as the onslaught of tourists began. The road up the mountain was a long zigzag dirt track. In a matter of half an hour, the site was crawling with a thousand people. I felt sad but I was also a tourist so …? I felt the energy leave the site as it was invaded once again. Actually, the Spanish did not reach this site but the tourist invasion is real. It was like the energy withdrew and hibernated: it just did not feel the same. Now it was just a bunch of old rocks.
I left the site with Pancho and the others before lunch time as most of the group were leaving on an afternoon train back to Cusco but I was staying another day. We met our porters for lunch at a Pizza place in Aguas Calientes and took the opportunity to thank Pancho. I couldn’t resist asking the question again: did he have sex with Amanda? He laughed and winked at me and whispered “Of course Halle.” He was a lovely man; Amanda is a lucky girl.
It was a quick lunch for me because the others in my group didn’t acknowledge me but my little mate Larry was sad to say goodbye and carried my bag to my hotel where I was staying for one night. We had a big hug and said our goodbyes.
Everyone else in the group was travelling back to Cusco that day but I planned to spend more time at Machu Picchu the following day. My room was very nice but the hot shower was the best ever. After having no shower for 4 days, I soaked it up and washed my hair before having a short nap in the lovely bed with clean sheets and blankets. Wow, what a day! It had been a great 4 days and was worth coming all this way just to stand on the mountain covered in ruins.
I went for a walk around the small village and sat in the main square in front of the obligatory church when two young boys named Marko and Jorje aged about eight or nine approached me with their shoe shine box and promised to make my very dirty shoes look like new for only one sole. After one hour of scrubbing and continuous conversation, my boots did look new. I told them I was going back to Machu Picchu very early the following morning to try to beat the tourists. They told me I couldn’t go from this village before 9.00am and it would cost me another $50 for a pass. I thought “Oh bum! I hadn’t researched that bit.” However, the boys came up with an alternative: they would take me at 5.00am and walk up to the site on a track they knew which bypassed the checkpoint. It sounded like a good idea and they suggested that I could pay them whatever I thought was fair when we returned. Sure enough, they were waiting outside my hotel the next morning at 5.00am with a small sack full of snacks and water which made me confident that they had done this before.
We started by walking along the railway line which goes to Cusco and took a track off into the bush and began a climb up the mountain. It was very steep but the boys carried my backpack so I had no extra weight to carry. They took me to a cave which they said was the Temple of the Moon thought to be a tomb but I did not want to go inside—I am not comfortable being in caves! From there we continued climbing around the side of the small mountain called Huayna Picchu. We climbed a very scary narrow section up to the site. The drop to the river was incredibly steep and the path was dirt and rocks. I drew courage from the boys who were trotting along very confidently as they chatted to each other. We sat amongst the rocks at the base of Huayna Picchu and waited until trekking tourists began to arrive before we stepped out of hiding. It was only at this time that I realized that we had entered the site illegally and I felt like a criminal. The boys did not appear to be concerned and said many locals enter the same way. We found ourselves a good place to sit and waited for the sunrise.
Yes, it was magical how the first rays peeked through the mountains hitting the mountains surrounding the site. The sun rays slowly reached down the mountain sides until it hit places on the site almost like a planned sequence. I must have been there at the right time of the year when the sun hit the giant sundial before creeping over the rest of the site. It amazes me that the Incan society obviously had knowledge about the movements of the sun and engineering skills to build this place but there is no trace of a written history or major events that happened. Of course, there may have been records which may have been destroyed by the Spanish invaders but all the history of this place is mostly speculation and I kind of like that. It keeps it private and despite all the pillaging in the past and now by and tourist invasion, it remains secret Incan business and it is nice to try and guess what all the different sections of the site were used for.
One section in a deep pit has a condor carved into the rocks and has what appears to be a drainage hole on it. The story is that it was a sacrificial area and the drainage hole was for the blood of victims to drain away. Close by is a row of square holes set into the side of the walls where mummified remains of women were found? I like to think that the condor rock was a morgue where dead people were prepared for burial or mummification of people who were high in the hierarchy of the society. The boys took me to a place where they pointed out three different styles of building which they explained by saying it was three different civilizations —the last two using the previous foundations to build on. The lower section was large rocks buried in the ground side by side with flat surfaces on the top section above the ground. The second layer on top of them were quite distinctive because the masonry work did not appear to be match the base even though they were very neat fitting with no mortar to hold them in place. The third layer was the least precise of all layers with signs of wear and tear and did not look permanent structures. I am inclined to agree with the boys about different civilizations using the same foundations which are similar to the Spanish buildings on Incan foundations in Cusco. I have heard that in the event of an earthquake, the Spanish constructions crumble but the Incan foundations don’t move. Now that is a legacy of the engineering skills!
The rumble of tourist busses coming up the mountain reminded us to get started on our climb to the sacred peak of Huayna Picchu before the monitored entry began. I now felt sorry for the site which was about to be invaded again.
The climb to the peak was very strenuous and quite dangerous with most of it just single person tracks clinging to the edge of the steep mountain side. Some places had a few pegs hammered into the rocks with ropes attached as a rail to hold onto. The drop would kill you if you were unlucky enough to fall straight down to the river. One section had a ladder going up though an open tunnel between the rocks and then a scramble to pull ourselves up onto the peak which was a small area with stone paving and a small wall. After catching my breath, I walked to the edge and looked down onto Machu Picchu. It was so sad to see the site covered with swarms of tourists and after half an hour we began our descent to become a part of the swarm. The boys then suggested exploring the structures down the sides of Machu Picchu as we took the long way around to get back to the village of Aguas Calientes. This was fun walking along terraces and into the remains of old buildings, stopping to lay in the sun and think of the old civilizations walking the same steps. By 2.00pm, we were back in the village where I bought the boys lunch and gave them $50 USD to share. They were very happy and so was I. They carried my backpack from the hotel to the train station and we said goodbye.
The train ride back to Cusco was spectacular. The track weaved through the valley alongside the Urubamba River between huge mountains for hours before we began our descent into Cusco. The train did about 10 zig-zags down into the city lights which were something to see at night time. The descent took about 40 minutes and I thought about my 4 day trek through this beautiful country with snow capped mountains, deep canyons and valleys, cloud forests, sunsets and rainbows in the valleys every morning. Add to this many archaeological sites all along the trail. The complexity of the buildings and agricultural terraces, irrigation channels sacred places and then culminating with Machu Picchu. A better script could not have been written if they had tried. The Alpaca and the little deer in the cloud forest with the bromeliads, orchids, begonias and cactus all along the track were pleasant surprises. The Moonya plant picked fresh for altitude sickness was helpful but the coca leaf and resin was priceless. The Incan cultural heritage is alive and well and I love it! Who was it that said “I’ll be back?” Little did I know that I would be back every year for 8 years!
I finally arrived at my lodgings in Cusco very tired and emotionally drained but satisfied with my journey so far.
Every year I returned to Peru which was for 8 years, I visited Machu Picchu. It was a little gift I gave myself. One year I climbed Machu Picchu Mountain which overlooks the site. You need a special permit to climb it but I promise you – it is worth it. The daily climbers allowed are limited so I would suggest getting a permit before you go to Peru.