Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Mar 7, 2006
|We awoke at 5.15am eager to set off on the Inca Trail. The company that we were going with was picking us up at 5.45am so we waited in the foyer for them. We waited until 6.30am when they finally arrived after losing the list of names and hostels of the members of the trip - not a good start.
The bus took us to a small village on the way to the start of the Inca Trail where we could buy more provisions and have breakfast. We decided to purchase a bamboo cane each to help us down the slippery steps if it rained whilst we were on the trek.
After handing our bags over to the hired porter at 9am - carrying our own bags would have meant more effort in walking - we headed to the check point were our passports were stamped. A photo of the starters was taken and off we went, first crossing the river by a suspension bridge at Cusichaca ("Bridge of happiness" - the names of many of the places along the trail are Quechua names invented by Hiram Bingham, who led the expedition that (re)discovered Machu Picchu). When Hiram Bingham actually first saw Machu Picchu he discarded it as unimpressive only to return years later realising his mistake.
We came across our first small Inca ruin after walking on mainly flat ground then ascending a rather steep slope. It was daunting looking up at the slope as we were ascending in the midday heat but when the porters laden with 25 kg of gear whizzed passed us we knew we couldn't whinge about the climb up.
We stopped for many a breather, as it's difficult to get a full lungful of air at the high altitude.
We didn't have lunch until 2pm; we were behind other groups because of our late pick up. Lunch was a very tasty trout with rice and salad. Not long until after we'd eaten we had to set off again to ensure that we would reach the first campsite before sunset.
We never actually made it to our intended campsite, again because of the late pick up in the morning. The intended campsite was full (the guy at the next check point allocates campsites to groups) so the porters set up camp for us at Huayllabamba ("Place of Good Pasture"), a flat grassy area along the banks of a river at an elevation of around 2000m, with toilets that beggared belief - one of the toilets had blocked causing all the filth to overflow all over the floor - not nice!
Each day the aim is to climb high and sleep low to avoid getting altitude sickness.
Coffee, biscuits and popcorn was served as a snack in the dining tent while the chef cooked up dinner which was served at 8pm and involved more rice and beef this time after which everybody fell into their tents to get sleep before tomorrows early start.
We knew that day 2 was going to be the most difficult, they give you plenty of warning before you sign up for the trek but nobody realised how difficult it was actually going to be.
Leaving camp Huayllabamba behind, we climbed slowly through fairly dense sub-tropical vegetation. The terrain changes with altitude, so that a little beyond Llupachayoc ("Place of Offerings") it gives way to light woodland where we met with other 'faster' members of our group for a breather. We continued to climb the trail upwards beyond Llupachayoc.
The trail gives way to scrub, then to puna, bleak grassland and bare slopes where the ascent becomes increasingly steep, and the terrain increasingly rugged. Looking back from above Llupachayoc in the general direction of Huayllabamba shows the river valley far below and how far we had walked.
This was the killer ascent, Jim, having not had much time to acclimatise to the effects of altitude slowed his walking down and we passed him to meet him at the first pass, the Abra de Huarmihuanusca ("Dead Woman's Pass") later on. Quite an appropriate name for the first pass as you feel like death when you reach it. We thought we had reached the top when we reached a wooden sign but it was there just to fool us as the trail turns to the left behind the mountain and continues to climb even steeper to finish us off.
A green and white sign that shows it to be 4050 metres above sea level marks the actual first pass and the cold air was rushing between the pass because of the elevation making a stark difference to the stifling heat of the midday sun during the gruelling ascent. Here we waited an hour and half for Jim who was walking slowly with Sonnel and Alex who were also not acclimatised to the altitude.
It was on the trail that John Peel died in 2004 and if we had to guess we reckon it would be the climb just described that finished him off.
After the Abra de Huarmihuanusca and chance for Jim, Sonnel and Alex to catch their breath we descended steeply towards the valley of the Pacamayo River. At the bottom of the river valley is a campsite where the other members of the group had had to wait for us before we tucked into lunch alpaca (related to llama) meat with rice. So the faster ones of the group, the over achieving Americans, achieved nothing by racing on ahead!
More walking to do after lunch, the trail climbed steeply up the opposite side of the valley wall, towards the second pass. We stopped about halfway up where there is a small round roofless stone building. This Inca ruin is known as Runkuracay ("Pile of Ruins"). The building is thought to have been a tambo, a kind of way post for couriers following the trail to Machu Picchu. It contained sleeping areas for the couriers and stabling facilities for their animals. This was not to be our resting place though; we had more walking to do. It was here that our guide 'Bill' told us of the annual Machu Pichhu race, where unladen porters race each other on the same route that we were walking over these 4 days to prove that it can be done in around 4 hours, and so to prove that the Inca's used it as a route for couriers. The record set by one porter is 3 and half hours!
After Runkuracay, the trail continues to climbs up to the second pass, the Abra de Runkuracay, which is at around 3500 metres, there were a few mountain lakes spotted about that looked tempting to ease our aching muscles in. On the far side of the pass, the trail descends towards a valley. The trail changes from a dirt path to a narrow stone roadway so we had to watch our weary steps so as to avoid cockling over. This is apparently the beginning of the true Inca Trail; what had we been walking on before? The stones of the roadway were laid by the Quechua people of the period of the Inca Empire; they could have laid them a bit more evenly to make it easier for us!
The trail leads to a second, larger Inca ruin, Sayacmarca ("Town in a Steep Place"). Sayacmarca effectively controls the trail - which passes beneath it - at this point. It is built on a promontory of rock overlooking the trail, and is accessible only via a single narrow stone staircase. We decided to decline the offer to climb the staircase to peer at the ruins, as we could not face climbing any more.
Instead we continued the descent to the valley floor where we had spotted our camp for the night. The roadway takes the form of a long causeway leading across what may once have been the bed of a shallow lake - it was dusk so because of the humidity of the valley mosquito's were on the prowl.
The campsite was supposed to be really cold at night but it really wasn't that bad maybe we were feeling the effects of the hot pisco toddy that we were given to warm our cockles after dinner of chicken and rice, or maybe these South Americans aren't as hardy as us Brits!!
Again the toilets were very ropey - squat toilets and those that didn't have torches had real trouble hitting the hole, need we say anymore?
A bit of a lay in that morning until 7am. We began walking again at 8am. The Inca roadway that we were following represents a considerable feat of engineering, including an 8 metre tunnel section where the Inca engineers widened a natural fissure in the rock into a tunnel large enough to allow the passage of men and animals. It was just after this tunnel that 'Bill' showed us a newly discovered Inca site that was in the same state that Machu Picchu was when it was first discovered. The site had moss and overgrown trees over it.
We then continued on the original trail, which leads up to the third pass and, just beyond it, a third Inca ruin, Phuyupatamarca ("Cloud-level Town") where we stopped for lunch.
This site appears to have had some ritual function; the rectangular structures along one side are baths, which were apparently fed from a spring higher up. The highest bath was reserved for the nobles, while the lower classes performed their ritual ablutions in the water, which had already been used by the aristocracy.
Below Phuyupatamarca, the trail spirals and descends steeply towards Huinay Huayna, ("Forever Young"), the site of another Inca ruin and where we camped for the night. It took us ages to reach the campsite, as the descent was not only very steep but also very long.
The campsite benefits from having warm showers that you can pay to use, and a bar where we purchased a well deserved beer after visiting Huinay Huayna, this was agricultural land for the Inca's. To form agricultural land on a slope the Inca's built platforms of flat land - quite clever of them.
The fourth and final day was a much easier walk. We set off at 5.30am when there was enough light for us to see. The trail follows a broad level path, which winds comfortably through scrub and light woodland.
After about two hours, the trail comes to a narrow flight of steep stone steps leading upwards into a small stone structure with a grass floor a few metres square. This is Intipunku, the Gateway of the Sun, and through the rectangular doorway, we caught our first glimpse of the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Intipunku is located high above the city of Machu Picchu. A path leads down from Intipunku towards the city, giving some impressive views over the ruins especially as people weren't scurrying around the ruins yet.
The city of Machu Picchu is located on a saddle between two mountain peaks, with deep valleys on either side. One side of the site overlooks the valley of the Urubamba River so the scenic views as well as the sight of the Inca city were truly amazing.
We had to leave our trusty bamboo canes behind as they are not allowed into Machu Picchu, without these bamboo canes the trek would have been even trickier. The canes helped us negotiate the steep steps and provided a resting post for when we were just too tired to walk any more.
'Bill' gave a guided tour of the city showing us that the buildings at Machu Picchu were built with drystone walls, the joins between the stones were so straight and hairline. The buildings were topped with a roof of thatch. The Incas did not use tile for roofing until after the Spanish conquest.
The Incas were accomplished stoneworkers, as can be seen from their constructions. They were also knowledgeable astronomers: the principal sundial, Intihuatana ('Hitching post of the Sun'), was used to track both time and date.
Overlooking Machu Picchu ('Old Peak') is Huayna Picchu ('Young Peak'). The sides of this sheer mountain are extensively terraced, and a temple was constructed near the summit. Due to renovation Huayna Picchu couldn't be climbed - what a shame we would have loved to have walked some more!
We caught the tourist bus to the town of Agua Calientes where we tucked into lunch before heading to the thermal pools to ease our muscles (even though we had to climb a hill to get to the thermal pools). Aqua Calientes doesn't have a road link to Cusco so we caught the backpacker's train back. The train journey took 4 and half hours mainly because it makes many switchbacks down the hills to reach the bottom of Cusco, it would have been quicker to get off and walk down the hill but we had no energy left. It is supposed to be one of the greatest train journeys but we were all so tired we couldn't even muster up enough energy to appreciate the views.
After showers we met up with other members of the group in the trusty Irish bar for celebratory drinks and a wholesome dinner in the Italian below that didn't include rice!