South America

On The Gringo Trail

Episode 9: To Machu Picchu and Back

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Read Previous South to the Incas

Tuesday March 18, 2003 Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Our last day before the Inca Trail hike we joined a small bus tour of the ruins close to Cusco. This would have been a great half day trip in the sunshine, but we did it in the pouring rain. At one site our whole group elected to look at the ruins from the comfort of the bus and at another one, Ray and I were the only ones brave enough to walk around the site with our umbrellas and rainwear. It was interesting anyway. At the huge Sacsayhuaman complex, I broke down and paid some children to take their picture. They were so pitiful holding their animals in the rain.

Children posing for photos, for a tip

We almost cancelled our plans for the Inca Trail because of the bad weather in Cusco. The high season is June through September and we were there during the rainy season. We called Juan Sixto, with whom we had reserved the trip, to see if we could switch to a two day hike instead of a four day hike. We did not look forward to hiking four days in cold rain. Juan told us it would be very difficult and expensive to change our plans. Furthermore, he said we would miss all the best scenery if we opted for the two day hike. Do you know, he was right.

We had three lovely days of sunshine and only one day of light rain. It did rain overnight but we were safe and dry in our tent. It was not an easy hike, but we had no problems and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The scenery was glorious, somewhat reminiscent of Nepal, and there were many Inca ruins, besides Machu Picchu, to explore along the way.

Runmay Ranquay ruins, Inca Trail

Valentine, Andrea, Wonder Jimenez, Cecilia

We were a small group of five hikers, Ray and I plus three young women from Salvador Bahia, Brazil, Cecilia, Valentine and Andrea. We were bussed with our porters and our guide, Wonder Jimenez, from Cusco to Km 82 next to the rail line that services Machu Picchu. The girls took one look at us the first day and asked if we knew that the second day of hiking was very difficult. We did, but they were the ones who were not prepared. We knew they were in trouble when they showed up with new boots and small, inexpensive backpacks. They had to attach their sleeping bags, foam mattresses, water bottles and extra food parcels to the outside of the pack and tie their rain jackets around their waist. They did not look comfortable.

Ray and I got smart from day one. We had all our clothing and sleeping bags in one large backpack and hired a porter to carry it. That meant we only had a day pack to carry with our rain jackets and water. We were always way ahead of the girls and they were the ones totally pooped at night. So much for youth. After the first day we advised the girls to pay to have their bags carried. They admitted that was the best decision they made.

The famous second day of our hike was our rain day. Luckily it was not cold and it never poured. The trail was 1200 M uphill to the first pass at 4200 M, so we were soon warmed up. Ray took off his raincoat and hiked protected by his umbrella. The trouble with high altitude climbs like this one is that there are no trees to hide the trail from view. You can see your destination right above you but it takes forever to reach the end. We huffed and puffed our way up the last section and cheered when we reached the top. A porter arrived at the top of the pass soon after we did and took out his flute to play. We got to rest accompanied by the haunting sounds of Andean music. Then it was 700 M down stone steps to our campsite. It even managed to stop raining soon after we made it to our tent.

Musical interlude provided by porter on Dead Woman's Peak

Intipata terraces

Our third day of the hike was advertised as eight hours, but it wasn't that long for us and we had lots of breaks during the day. We felt good enough at the end to take a side trail past several Inca ruins, including a huge terraced area, the Intipata complex. It is incredible how many huge stone structures the Incas managed to construct during their relatively short existence and then abandon.

The highlight of the Inca Trail hike is supposed to be the sight of Machu Picchu at sunrise. That meant our wakeup call came at 3:30 AM! It had rained overnight and it was still raining lightly. I did get up, grudgingly, but I was not truly awake for several hours after that. During a very early breakfast, Ray doctored up Cecilia's blisters, for which she was eternally grateful. Flashlights ready, all the groups assembled to walk the trail to Intipunku, the Sun Gate. There were a lot of people gathered and this was one of the least busy times. I can only image the crowds during the high season.

We did not get very far before the line of walkers stopped dead. A woman at the head of the line had slipped off the edge of the trail in the mud and had to be pulled out. The line moved even more slowly after that. The rain stopped and the sun rose before we got to the Sun Gate, so there was no spectacular revelation of Machu Picchu, but it was still impressive. The cameras were snapping continually, including ours, getting better and better shots of the huge complex as the clouds disappeared and the sun illuminated more of the buildings.

Machu Picchu from Sun Gate

on top of Wayna Macchu

We were soon down in the site and discovering more and more aspects to explore. We wandered around on our own and then joined a tour guide for an hour and a half visit of the main buildings. Our guide, an older gentleman of Inca descent, was extremely proud of the accomplishments of his ancestors. He explained that Machu Picchu was actually named after the mountain peak behind the complex, meaning Old Peak. He suggested that Wayna Picchu, the Young Peak, rising 300 M straight up from the complex, was just waiting to be climbed. We took him up on it.

The first 200 M was over a well maintained path and up stone steps with a rope or cable banister to ease the ascent. The last section was a little more difficult. The stairs were no wider than the width of one medium sized shoe and the incline was so steep that you had to climb it like a ladder with your hands gripping the upper steps. Ray, who does not like heights, kept saying that he didn't know why I was leading him astray, but he kept on going. Near the top was a stone guardhouse, built by the Incas. They seemed to pick the most inaccessible spots to build their stronghold. At the top of the stairs was a small flat area filled with successful climbers, all basking in the sun. We still had not reached the pinnacle, though. The last 10 M was either up a crevasse or over a smooth rock face. We went up the crevasse and down the rock face.

We stayed long enough for me to persuade Ray to have his picture taken next to the painted marker to prove he was there and then we descended to the relative safety of the sun bathing area. Ray was a little miffed later as he was cautiously crawling down those stone steps. He let a young Japanese girl pass him only to see her walk down face first as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

condor shape of the complex

From there it was an easy and pleasant walk back to Machu Picchu. On the way down we looked over Machu Picchu to see the reputed Condor shape of the layout of the complex (use your imagination). We had elected to stay the night in Aguas Caliente, the small town in the valley below Machu Picchu, rather than go right back to Cusco on the afternoon train. We could have paid US$4.50 to take the bus, but we were still feeling good and the trail to town looked interesting. That meant another 400 M down but we had the trail almost to ourselves. One hour later we had walked down winding switchbacks through jungle vegetation to the Urubamba river, and then along another 1.6 Km to the town.

The first thing we did there was find our hostel, grab our swim suits and head for the thermal baths for which the town was named. They weren't the best or the hottest thermal baths we have been in but they were nice and relaxing after four days on the trail.

Boy were we glad we had finished our walk when we did. By midmorning the next day it had started to pour rain. We were safe inside, but we felt sorry for anyone out on the trail. It had stopped by the time we got on the return train later in the afternoon. The tracks follow the Urubamba River all the way back to Ollantaytambo, where we had visited the ruins on our Sacred Valley tour. That gave us a chance to see some of the trail we had followed on our way to Machu Picchu and to admire the mountain scenery once more.

We stayed in Cusco overnight and flew back to sunny, warm Lima the next morning. We were in Lima long enough to do a little more souvenir shopping and to tour the historic downtown area.

Skulls arranged in a circular design

Lima does not have a good reputation as a safe city, so we asked our hostel owner for a tour company recommendation. His nephew, Enzio, was visiting and offered to take us himself. He proved to be a good guide and showed us around many of his favourite spots. We drove around several of the historic downtown streets and visited the main Cathedral. The most interesting visit was to the Iglesia San Francisco with its weird catacomb filled with the carefully arranged bones of 25,000 of Lima's former citizens. I guess if you didn't have a lot of money for an elaborate tomb, the city deposited your remains in deep pits under the city churches.

We also drove through the suburb of San Isidro where the Spaniards planted hundreds of olive trees. Lima also has its share of ancient ruins so we visited one of them, Huaca Pucllana briefly. Finally we had seen enough and returned to our hostel for our final night.

All in all, it was a great trip, but now we are home getting our summer lives planned. We hope to get in a lot of bicycling and hiking plus visits with our families and friends. Then it will be time to take off for another extended trip. We hope we inspire others to take the plunge and explore the world. It is worth the effort and the rewards are many.

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