Retracing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Rising before the sun in Cuzco, I was on my way to retracing the footsteps of the Incas. En route, I started thinking about the significance of the journey I was about to make. The original Inca Trail was the royal highway connecting the Incan empire, a stone-paved path reserved for the nobility and royal messengers. At a time when overland transportation was slow and communications could take weeks, along the Inca Trail messengers travelling by foot were able to deliver messages from Cuzco to Quito (a distance of over 1000 miles) within a week.
The section of the trail between Cuzco and Machu Picchu is particularly noteworthy. When the Spanish Conquistadors came to Peru they relied heavily on the Inca Trail as their main road system. Wishing to hide the sacred city of Machu Picchu from the invaders, the Incas destroyed a large section of the trail closest to Cuzco. Their plan was successful, and it wasn’t until the arrival of Hiram Bingham in the early 20th century that the outside world discovered the lost city of Machu Picchu.
Arriving at the trailhead, Km.82, Piscacucho, the porters loaded up their massive packs, and we took the requisite picture under the “Camino Inka” sign. Our first ruins, Llaqtapata were breathtaking. Looking down from the cliff top, the semicircular terraces appeared like a work of art, leaving me with the impression that the Incas were truly masters of architecture. Continuing to our campsite at Wayllabamba, we passed through verdant valleys framing the Cusichaca stream, and frequently passed by local ranchers herding their stock. Receiving cool passion fruit juice and seeing our tents already setup upon reaching camp gave me great appreciation for this new, comfortable style of trekking. During the Happy Hour and Dinner (yes, there was a happy hour!) our new group bonded and devoured the exquisite cuisine.
Waking up early on Day 2, the hardest day of the trek, was definitely softened by the hot water and coca tea brought to our tents. Encompassing about 3,000 vertical feet of steps to Warmiwañuscca (Dead Woman’s Pass), it was going to be a big day. Once we were within 1,000 feet of the pass, the altitude started to take a hold, and the last 500 feet became an immense challenge. The new pace became 10 steps–breath–breath–breath, 10 steps–breath–breath–breath, but upon reaching the top it was all worth it. A panoramic view of the opposing valley awaited us, and the feeling of accomplishment was tremendous – we had definitely earned some celebratory chocolate! Descending into the next valley, the campsite at Pacaymayu awaited us.
Day 3, covering almost 5,000 vertical feet (mostly downhill), was packed with an incredible diversity of terrain ranging from high Andean plateau to high jungle. This section of the trail was also special since it initiated the beginning of the original inca trail stonework (the section of the trail that was not destroyed) and featured an incredible number of picturesque ruins. Wiñaywayna (Forever Young) was our final destination for the day and the site did not disappoint. On our way to camp from the ruins we took advantage of the hot showers, and got ready for our big next day, taking the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu!
By 5:30am, the gatekeepers opened the last section of the trail, and the race was on to reach the Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) in time to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, the clouds were still obscuring the citadel when we arrived at the Sun Gate, but we felt such a feeling of accomplishment, that it didn’t bring us down. We continued to the ruins, and around each bend of the trail, the clouds seemed to lift more and more until we arrived awestruck, gazing in wonder at the massive mountain top city. Touring through the intricacies of Machu Picchu, passing through temples, houses, and amphitheaters, our guide took us back in time to the advanced civilization of the Inca. As I departed from the ancient city and passed other tourists looking and smelling much cleaner than me, I couldn’t help feeling an incredible sense of pride. I took the hard way to Machu Picchu, and 4 days of anticipation made the prize well worth it!
Credit to Ian Armstrong and Shriram Rajagopalan for the images used in this blog.
Thanks to Apollo for the title image of this blog.