Introducing Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of the most famous sights in South America and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It is a 15th-century Inca citadel, located in southern Peru, around 80 kilometres northwest of Cusco. It sits on a 2,430 metre (7,970 ft) mountain ridge, close to the Urubamba River which has created a canyon with a tropical mountain climate.
Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). It was built around 1450 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest. While known by the local Quechua people, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.
Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give visitors a better idea of how they originally appeared.
Why hike to Machu Picchu?
The most popular hiking trail leading to it (commonly called the Inca trail) is also one of the most iconic hikes in the world. There are other ways to reach Machu Picchu including The Salcantay Route (5 – 8 day hike), the Lares Route (3 – 5 days hike) and the relaxed option (train and bus from Cusco, a 3 hr and 20 minute train ride and 15 minute bus ride).
I chose to undertake the multi-day hike, to challenge my boundaries. I had never hiked for more than 1 day or at altitude! In order to have a good chance of making in one piece, I had to undertake several months of preparation in the form of treadmills and stairclimbing at the gym. While I didn’t manage to be completely diligent in preparing for the hike, I was still glad for the preparation that I managed and happy that the tour had included some time at altitude.
The Inca Trail – Day 1 (Piskacuchu to Wayllabamba)
My hiking adventure started with a 3.30 am wake up call in Cusco and a bag check. Each hiker is allowed a duffel bag which must contain a sleeping bag and any personal items with to a maximum of 7 kilograms; which carried by the porters. Anything needed for that day and any additional weight is carried by the hiker. At 4.30 am, the bus started to wind its way through the pitch-black mountain roads with only the occasional shack visible through the diffused beam of the bus’ headlights.
Our first destination of the day was the last provision shops that we would see for the next few days, a chance to pick up that last chocolate bar, a packet of chips or a bottle of soft drink.
Before we could begin the hike, it was necessary to brief the hikers and porters and organise the supplies. For our group of 16 hikers, we had 2 guides, 3 cooks and 16 porters! The duffle bags, individual, communal and kitchen tens, tables, chairs, food and cooking gas had to be weighted and distributed among the 16 porters with each carrying a maximum of 25 kilograms. The porters were from the same local village, their main job was farming and to supplement their household income, they would complete the Inca trail hike once a month.
As the Inca Trail has a maximum of 500 people are allowed on the trail each day, (200 trekkers, the rest being guides and porters), the starting point was a hike of activity with all the different groups of porters and hikers getting organised and National Park officials checking each package.
Finally, around 10 am, we finally ready to kick off the Inca Trail hike!
Our starting point was the 82-kilometre mark Piscacucho at 2,600 metres (8,500 ft) altitude; where our passports were checked by the National Parks staff.
The trail wound its way through farmland, rising and falling with the contours of the land. We shared the trail with donkeys laden with produce on its way to the market or returning with the farmer from the nearest village.
After a few hours of hiking, we stopped for lunch in a small village. The cooks and porters had overtaken us on the trail and prepared our lunch which we ate in a dining tent… Now let’s be clear, lunch was not a sandwich which had seen better days after being transported on a porter’s bag, it was pan-fried fish with rice and vegetables! After lunch, cutlery and crockery were washed and packed and we set off for our overnight camp.
Patallaqta (or Llaqtapata) is a site used for religious and ceremonial functions, crop production, and housing for soldiers from the nearby hilltop site of Willkaraqay, an ancient pre-Inca site first inhabited around 500 B.C.
I was the last to arrive at camp, around 5 pm… The porters had of course, not only overtaken the group but had set up our tents as well as the dining tent (which they would later sleep in). A pitched and dry tent was certainly a welcome sight and when I took off my hiking shoes; I could almost hear my feet thanking me!
We camped under the shadow of the mountain we were climbing the next morning, the famous Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”). At 4,215 meters above sea level, it would be the highest point I had ever hiked at and was definitely in the altitude sickness territory, not an experience I was looking forward to.
Eventually, I summed up the courage to brave the toilet facilities, a “long drop” toilet (a facility without the benefit of solid floors, walls, lighting and running water)… I will leave you to imagine the rest.
The Inca Trail – Day 2 (Wayllabamba to Paqaymayo)
The second day started at 5 am, with a gentle tap on the tent flap. The porters were up long before us and provided us with a pan of hot water and a warm breakfast before starting just before 6 am on the hike. The day’s objective was to ascend just over 1,000 metres, cross Warmi Wañusqa and descend approximately 600 metres to Pakaymayu.
Initially, it was possible to just walk up slowly without getting too out of breath, then it became harder and harder. With the power over the mind becoming more important than the legs and lungs, I forced myself to count the steps, only allowing myself to only stop when I got to 50. About a hundred metres below the pass, this dropped to 20.
Finally, after 5 hours of a constant and steady uphill climb, I finally made it up to Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”)! It was an achievement that I am proud of the highest that I ever climbed on foot, and one I remind myself of when a city street feels a bit steep….
Almost immediately, the 600m vertical descent began. The way down was via large stone steps dating from the Inca period around 1400. While the hiking poles were useful, my knees (and two blackened toenails) have never been the same since.
That night, the cooks managed to “bake” a gluten-free birthday cake for one of the hikers with the rudimentary cooking equipment. It was delicious and one something I expected to eat on the Inca trail.
The Inca Trail – Day 3 (Paqaymayo to Wiñay Wayna)
The third day of the hike was to be the longest, around 15 kilometres; ascending and descending across a number of valleys, high cloud forests, passing a number of Inca era towns and tambos (Quechua: tampu). A tambo was an Incan structure built for administrative and military purposes which contained supplies, served as lodging for itinerant state personnel and were depositories of quipu-based accounting records.
The lunch stop of Day 3, was a viewpoint from which we could see Agua Calientes and the mountain which hid Macchu Pichu; so near and yet so far!
As you can imagine, it was a popular stop for lunch with quite a few other hiking groups also sharing the lookout; which makes for a temporary and bustling place.
I took the opportunity to carry the porter’s 25 kilograms pack, just standing up and walking a few steps was a challenge; one of the girls stood up and instantly fell backwards with the weight! The shoulder straps were slightly padded with no strap around the waist to distribute the weight and towered above. Most of the porters did the hike with flip flops or second-hand trainers with little or no sole.
Wiñay Wayna (2650 m) (Quechua for “forever young”, Hispanicized spelling Huiñay Huayna) is just 3 kilometres before Machu Picchu. It is built into a steep hillside overlooking the Urubamba River and consists of upper and lower house complexes connected by a staircase and fountain structures. Above and below the houses the people built areas of agricultural terraces or andenes, which are still visible.
While Wiñay Wayna was on a much smaller scale than Macchu Picchu, we had the place all to ourselves and were able to wander through the buildings at will.
The campsite at Wiñay Wayna was the most populated and busiest, with access to alcohol and a hot shower!
The Inca Trail – The Final Push!
After a short sleep and a 4 am wake up call, we queued up, in the chilly early morning air with thermals. hat and gloves waiting for the gates to open at 5.30 a.m. As soon as the gates opened, there was a surge towards the Inti Punku or Sun Gate. There were some reckless people trying to pass us on the narrow path which had a rock face on one side and a several hundred-metre drop on the other.
The view of Machu Picchu from above was amazing! Even though Machu Picchu looks small in distance and I look as if I was photoshopped it, I can assure you it is really is me!
The previous three days of hiking, the months of training before really made the first glimpse of it in the soft morning light a truly magical experience. Although, it was one of the most physically challenging experiences in my life it was totally worth it!
I did it! I completed the Inca Trail!
From the Inti Punku or Sun Gate, it was a relaxed downhill stroll to the actual site of Machu Picchu. Being a hiker, meant that we were one of the first on-site and got to enjoy some of the buildings before it got too crowded.
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Travel date: 05 – 08 May 2011