People and Places
The Lost City
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for the sight of Machu Picchu at dawn. You may have read about it. You may have seen pictures of it. You may even have tried to imagine what it feels like when you first catch sight of it. But the reality is beyond your dreams.
The first day of the four day, 42 kilometre Inca trail had been easy - a gentle climb, not unlike a ramble on the English Lake fells. We followed the rushing Urubamba river, lunching after our first short climb by a waterfall, among four foot high cacti and trees bearing fat, pink pods. By 5 p.m. it was dark and we had pitched our first camp in a muddy field, where enormous wild turkeys stepped haughtily amongst us. Sipping hot chocolate and nibbling popcorn, we discussed the dreaded second day: the hard, steep slog up Dead Woman’s Pass. We crawled in to sleep at 8pm, tired and inwardly trembling.
The climb had started easily enough. After an hour or so, my breathing became more laboured. A woman passed me on horseback, and I was appalled to see porters, carrying several heavy packs each, running nimbly in sandals, whilst the rest of us struggled to walk. The track rose steeply, so I made my way very, very slowly, concentrating on rhythmic breathing, and placing one foot directly in front of the other, up and up through the rainforest.
After nearly five hours of effort, I had reached the col, at 4,500 metres, but although my body was crying out for a rest, the wind was bitterly cold. I could not linger. I immediately began the descent, of almost the same distance as the climb. This was worse, as the path was uneven, consisted of small boulders, and included steps of over 1 metre deep. After a brief rest at one of the many Inca sites, the trail rose again for 400 metres, which by now felt easier. I was fortunate to have had two weeks to acclimatise, including a walk to a literally breath-taking 5,300 metres in the High Andes, one week before. Others were finding this second day a real trial, arriving at the camp several hours after the main party.
"Laydees and gentlemens, peek up ze laggages!" cried Mauro, our small but neatly- put-together guide, lifting his peaked cap to wipe his golden brow. The snow-capped peaks gleamed in the sunlight, whilst clouds rolled in at ground level between our tents. I watched the porters, cocooned in multi-coloured ponchos, crawling into caves to spend the night.
At first light on the third day I managed to get speared by a piece of frozen grass as I attempted to pee between five layers of clothing. After a hurried breakfast, we plodded for fifteen minutes up near vertical steps to terraced ruins. This original path led us on over log bridges, through natural tunnels in the rock, and through the cloud forest, clinging possessively to the mountains.
Ancient steps were covered in lichen, and lined with yellow orchids. The air was sweet with the scent of wild lupins. Bottle brush shrubs, fuchsia and hyacinths flourished. The only sounds were gentle birdcalls. The weather was perfect for walking, the sunlight caressing the landscape with maternal pride, whilst the trail itself was cool in the shade. The Urubamba snaked far below, as bright blue humming birds hovered in the emerald green of the vegetation. There are times when beauty is so overwhelming that the brain cannot find words to describe it adequately.
Here, it was easy to believe you were in heaven.
We had to negotiate 5,200 steps down before we could rest our limbs at Winaywayna (Forever Young) hostel for the last night. En route Mauro had expertly explained the purpose of each site and had related the engrossing story of the last days of the Incas. Despite several theories, it seems that no-one can be exactly sure why Machu Picchu was built, nor why the skeletons found there were almost exclusively female. What is known is that the main gates are in line with the peaks of the greatest mountains. These were worshipped, along with Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), water, and Inti, the Sun.
In the hostel, after washing in what felt like liquid ice, I stepped over the exhausted bodies of dozens of walkers, huddled on the floor amidst empty beer cans and crisp packets. I was grateful for our precariously perched tent, pitched on a metre wide ledge, with a three metre vertical drop to the terrace below.
At 4.30 am I struggled out of my sleeping bag and crawled out cautiously into the blackness, under thousands of stars, the tip of my nose tingling with frost. The porter had banged a spoon against his tin mug to rouse us. It was bone cold at minus 5 Celsius.
Today was the final day of the trail. After half an hour my ‘mag’ light’s pencil beam was proving completely inadequate for the narrow, uneven path. Although there may be hundreds of people on the trail at any one time, for the most part you walk it alone, prey to doubts about your physical strength and receptive to the soul-soaring moments of achievement. I had taken a supply of the popular coca leaves to chew, plus Inti Raymi granola, chocolate bars and plenty of water. On this last morning I needed them all.
The highlight of the Trail is seeing the ‘Lost City’ at sunrise from the Sun Gate, about one hour’s walk from the hostel at Winaywayna. I was keen to set off early, in case my pace was not fast enough to reach the gate by first light. Now, as I stumbled along in the darkness, I began to fear that I had somehow trailed behind, as there was no sign of another torchlight.
I quickened my pace, hoping to make out the shadow of someone up ahead. The path was wet with dew. I shuddered at the sight of a sheer drop of some 15 metres to my right. There is a story that a lone walker had slipped from here, to be found eight days later with a snake nesting in his skull. By now I was seriously panicking, and I began to jog. In the half-light the torch was no longer needed, but it was this very light which worried me. How far was I from the gate? If it was already light, surely I wouldn’t be there for the sunrise?
I ran, perspiration pouring, taking huge gulps of air. I had managed to get this far, still weak with amoebic dysentery, and I was not about to miss out on the climax. At times there was no path at all, or the trail disappeared into a log bridge, strung precariously from the mountainside. Breathless, but determined, I rounded what I was convinced must be the last bend, to face a 10 metre stone ‘ladder’. I crumbled inwardly.
I barely had the strength to lift my head, let alone force energy into my knees. But there, at the top, was a man squatting for a rest after the exertion of the climb.
"If he can do it, so can I"
I started up, breathing slowly. From the top, I could make out the shape, far ahead, of a pillar of stone, and shadows flitting about. One last effort and I’d be there. The group was smaller than I expected, a dozen or so, staring silently out over the panorama. After panting for several seconds, I asked someone how soon the sun would illuminate the ruins, as yet still invisible below, in the shadow of the mountain.
"Oh, about half an hour. Plenty of time to rest"
I fell backwards in relief, laughing at myself secretly. I had run the last hour of the Inca Trail, to no purpose. I could have strolled and been there on time. Suddenly, the light changed. Beams began to stretch down from the sky, marbling the mountainsides. A blink, and there it was, the famous silhouette taking shape before our eyes. Everyone drew breath, and stood transfixed. In the silence, peace descended, enveloping us and uniting us in rapture, wonderment and veneration.
We set off down the path to spend a morning revelling in the glory of this truly mystical site. It is deserted until around mid-day, when the tourist train arrives. Only the infirm should consider this latter option; trekking the Inca Trail brings not only the rewards of the walk itself, but avoidance of the tourist hordes, who began seething in through the gates as we took one last look.
It is true. You feel the energy, you sense the magic. You leave, as Mauro said,
‘con las piernas muertas, pero con el espíritu vivo’
(with dead legs but with living spirit)