After spending more than a month in Peru, I thought I might become accustomed to Cusco’s more than 11,000 feet of altitude. But, alas, this is not the case. Cusco is a city of stairs, with its many neighborhoods clambering up the sloping sides of the mountains that surround the center of the city. Every day I have to pause at the top of each stairway I navigate and search greedily for air to fill my lungs.
It’s now been over three weeks since Lissa and I climbed through the Sun Gate on October 11th awaiting our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Then, as now, I paused to let my heartbeat slow and to find my breath. We moved through the growing crowd of other trekkers to the edge of the platform perched high above the ruins and were assailed by the site of a huge grey cloud covering the entire valley. Machu Picchu was completely hidden.
Three days earlier, after successfully crossing over Incachiriaska pass (see Part 1) near Salkantay we descended into a beautiful valley that would lead us to the official start of the Inca trail. We passed tiny villages, green stretches of potato fields and walked under lush vegetation and exotic flowers drooping high over our heads. As we got closer to the village where we would camp for the night, the turquoise gleam of the river to our left contrasted deeply with the burnt orange of the sculpted rocks jutting up above the water. From our viewpoint, we could see small bursts of red and purple and blue moving about the landscape. Upon closer inspection we realized these were local women wearing their colorful attire to work in the fields alongside the men.
We encountered many smaller ruins along our trek before reaching Machu Picchu and camped right under one the night before we entered the Inca Trail. The following morning it felt so luxurious to be the just the five of us sitting on our ‘Inca sofas’ (large rocks) inside the ancient walls listening to Julio skillfully take us back in time. A few hours later we showed our permit and passports at the official checkpoint. From this moment on, we would encounter only stone stairs. Unending, never-ceasing, unbelievably steep stairs. Almost a month later, my knees still feel the effects of navigating these killer steps. This part of our trek was the hardest hiking I’ve ever encountered. All I can say, is thank God for my Pacer Poles. Without them, I’d still be in the Andes, letting the vegetation grow over my exhausted corpse.
As we slowly made our way up to Dead Women’s Pass at 13,828 feet we would be overtaken by porters from all the expedition companies that offer trekking on the Inca Trail. Whereas we were able to use horses and mules on the first three days of our trek, on the Inca Trail they are not allowed. Porters take over carrying food, tents, stove, and any additional items needed to keep their clients comfortable and happy. This includes any of the clothing and gear we were not carrying in our own smaller daypacks. It was truly humbling to be inching my way up (or down) the mountain and watch these men run (yes, run) past me with loads 3 times their size perched on their backs. Peruvians are small people, but oh, they are mighty. Most of these porters are from tiny villages in the mountains and Quechua is their first language. They are very shy, but quick to smile or laugh amongst themselves. Whenever we would stumble into camp at lunch or at the end of the day, they would be there, clapping and cheering us on; celebrating that we had made it. I always wanted to cheer and clap for them instead, knowing they had arrived hours before us in order to prepare our meal and set up our tents. I don’t really have words to express how hard-working these men (and in many cases – boys) are. I did manage to learn one Quechua word, which I used over and over. The word is ‘solpayki.’ It means thank you.
After four days navigating these infamous stone stairs, we finally reached the Sun Gate. I was elated to arrive, but trying to swallow my disappointment at the missing view. Julio suggested we wait for a bit, so wait we did. After about ten minutes the wind benevolently pushed aside the clouds, and the thick grey mist parted to reveal the stunning ruins of Machu Picchu; a distant and mystical jewel nestled amongst the emerald green shadow of Huayna Picchu.
I love this description by Hugh Thompson in the introduction of Lost City of the Incas, a book written by Hiram Bingham about his discovery of Machu Picchu.
Most first-time visitors to the site are already aware that Machu Picchu lies on top of the mountain ridge and dominates the valley below. If you necessarily appreciate that the city is itself ringed by a set of yet higher mountains. Presented by that first ‘pack-shot’ view from the Watchman’s tower, while surrounding by the Urubamba and Vilacamba ranges, the overwhelming effect is of looking down from the top of a roller coaster and yet simultaneously being at the bottom of a vast amphitheater, a visually kinetic knock-out punch. No wonder that even the most stolid of visitors should go weak at the knees and reach for the widest of wide-angle lenses, just as Hiram Bingham did.
It was a very slow descent into the valley, because every bend and turn on the path offered up another incredibly breathtaking view of the ruins. We stopped every few minutes, cameras at the ready, trying hopelessly to capture the essence of this magical place.
After we actually reached the entrance to Machu Picchu, we were able to sit in the grass on one of the many magnificent agricultural terrraces and listen to Julio share more of the rich history, legends, and contributions of the Inca civilization. I honestly felt like I was sitting on an elaborate and expensive movie set. As we later wound our way through the temples and houses and grand sweeping plazas of Machu Picchu, I tried in vain to take it all in. Lissa and I would stop and stare at each other and then look out over the vibrant landscape trying to be present in the moment. The noise and bustle of the crowds was overwhelming after being in the quiet of the mountains for six days. With the thousands of tourists that arrive every day, it’s hard to get a true sense of the place. I kept closing my eyes and re-opening them to make sure what I was seeing was real.
The incredible craftsmanship evident in the stonework of the Incas is surreal and almost hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it in person. Not only are these stone walls constructed without any mortar or mud of any kind, each piece is beveled and intricate in its structure and design. Some of largest rocks found in Inca ruins weigh 300 tons! This description in Hiram Bingham’s book of the Sacsayhuaman ruins above Cusco will give you a better understanding at what the Incas accomplished:
There are no clamps. There was no cement used in constructing the wall. The gigantic polygonal blocks cling so closely together that it is impossible to insert the point of a knife between them. And they were brought from quarries more than a mile away where they were fashioned by people using stone tools. They were moved over an inclined plane by levers. The Incas had no iron or steel, but they had bronze crowbars of great strength. They had no derricks or pulleys or wheels but they had thousands of patient workers. The determination and the perseverance of the builders staggers the imagination.
The October sun magnified the beauty of each structure, moving in and out of the clouds, adding drama to our already otherworldly day. As we finished our tour and headed to catch the bus down to Aguas Calientes where we would take the train back to Cusco, the rain began to softly fall.
Our trek was over, but I know I will remember our time in the Andes with gratitude, humility and an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe.