This is another one of those afterthought photos that turned out pretty well. I was on a tour that included the salt mines of Maras and the Inca ruins at Moray, which I wrote about in the second chapter of my Peru travel journal.
On our way back from Moray the bus drove through the village of Maras, a town comprised primarily of old colonial buildings, most of which are still in use. We didn’t have time to explore the village since it was only a half-day tour, but when the bus briefly stopped I stuck my camera out the window and quickly snapped this photo so I would have at least one clean shot of some of the buildings. In the process I captured this local woman sitting in the shade, away from the heat of the sun.
This is a video montage of my August 2012 trip to Peru, including my visits to the Sacred Valley and my hike of the Inca Trail. This is the same video that appeared in my journal, so you may have already seen it, but I wanted it to have its own page in my videos section. The background music is In the Lap of the Gods by the Alan Parsons Project, which I thought was a fitting piece to accompany the visuals.
At long last, the day had arrived to make the final trek to Machu Picchu. We awoke around 3:30 am to get in line with the other groups for admission into the final stretch of the trail. This turned out to be quite a long wait, but eventually we were on our way.
As usual, the younger members of the group raced off ahead, leaving me behind with Uncle Kipp and our guide Alex. However, unlike previous days, I was feeling good from the start of the hike, so I raced off ahead by myself (carrying my own backpack for a change), eager to make it to the Sun Gate (Intipunku) by sunrise.
I didn’t take any pictures during this stretch of the hike, opting instead to leave my camera in its case so that I could concentrate on reaching the Sun Gate as quickly as possible. The hike turned out to be a bit longer than the roughly hour or so I was expecting, but I’m sure the faster hikers made it to the Sun Gate within that time frame. However, I did a much better job of keeping up on this day, so I was usually among other hikers, either passing them or being passed by them.
I eventually came to a set of narrow stone stairs so vertically inclined that ascending them was almost like climbing a wall. It was such a difficult climb, in fact, that the guides referred to it as the “Gringo Killer” and there was a logjam of hikers waiting to climb it. Some people hollered in triumph when they reached the top, which led me to believe that this was the end of the trail and that the Sun Gate awaited me at the top, so when my turn came to climb, I went all in, rapidly climbing on all fours like a monkey, making it to the top in record time.
I looked around. No Sun Gate. No Machu Picchu. Doh!
I still had about another 20-30 minutes to hike and I had just expended all of my energy and muscle reserves racing up the Gringo Killer. Additionally, I started noticing a pain in my shin that worsened with each step. It felt like a stress fracture or shin splints or something. Although it was probably the result of the cumulative effect of walking/running and climbing/descending on stone steps for three days, there’s no doubt that the Gringo Killer was the final nail in the coffin. Had I taken my time with it instead of flying up like a bat out of hell, I might have saved myself a lot of pain.
Anyway, I hiked the last stretch of the trail and finally arrived at the Sun Gate, where I got my first spectacular view of Machu Picchu.
When you stand here you are seeing Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains as the Incas did when they emerged through the Sun Gate all those centuries ago. This is the view that the bus tourists never see unless they make the hour-long trek up to this spot. As it turned out, I didn’t reach the gate by sunrise but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because the sky was overcast all day, which unfortunately resulted in some dulled photos, though I was still able to get some nice ones. However, in my excitement over finally gazing down on Machu Picchu, I neglected to take any of the Sun Gate itself.
Shortly after arriving I encountered the guys from Argentina and we exchanged some high-fives. I then walked down a bit from the Sun Gate and found a quiet rock overlooking the trail, where I sat down to eat breakfast while enjoying the pristine view and basking in the feeling of being at the top of the world in the middle of nowhere.
Although I still had another 45 minutes of hiking before I would actually get to Machu Picchu, this moment really felt like the end, the culmination of my four-day struggle. Everything I had gone through had been worth it just to be sitting here.
About 20 minutes later Uncle Kipp and Alex arrived.
After a few more moments of relaxing it was time to make the final trek down to Machu Picchu.
When we finally arrived, we waited in line to get the classic photo taken.
We then had to actually leave the park, meet up with the rest of the group, and then re-enter. On our way down we began to pass all of the bus tourists entering the park. I couldn’t help viewing them a bit like intruders, like “How dare you enter this sacred citadel that we have expended so much of our blood, sweat, and tears to reach? Be gone!” Or maybe I was just jealous that they looked so clean, well-dressed, and rested in comparison to us. 🙂
After hooking up with the rest of the group (and sadly abandoning my trusty walking stick, which was not allowed back in the park) we re-entered and followed our guide Freddy on a roughly two-hour tour. Rather than detail what I saw on the tour I’ll just let a few of the pictures I took speak for themselves.
My leg pain had gotten progressively worse as we toured Machu Picchu. By the end of the tour I could barely put any weight on it, so when Freddy asked which of us wanted to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu (the taller mountain that looms over Machu Picchu) there was no question that I would be opting out of that excursion. Everyone in the group except for Uncle Kipp and me went on the climb.
We still had about two hours left to explore more of Machu Picchu before we needed to leave, but since I could barely walk, we decided to leave early and head down to the city of Aguas Calientes. We had seen most of the major points of interest during the tour, but there was much more we could have seen (such as the view from the guard house), so having to leave early was a major regret.
We took the 20-minute bus ride down to Aguas Calientes, a town that gives you a taste of both the beautiful (being surrounded by majestic mountains) and the tacky (the touristy shops and restaurants). The pictures below are a couple of panoramas I took with my cell phone, so they’re a bit messed up due to the quality of the cell phone software, but they give you an idea of what the town looks like.
The portion of the Urubamba River that runs through town is filled with giant boulders like these:
We headed to the restaurant where our group would be meeting. Uncle Kipp and I got there first since the rest of the group was still climbing Huayna Picchu. Alex had one of the waitresses show us to a locked room upstairs where we could access our large duffels, which had been carried here by our porters, once again proving what a great decision it had been to hire personal porters. It was a huge relief not to have to lug those massive things through the last part of the Inca Trail, up the Gringo Killer, and all day through Machu Picchu. Overall, I was very pleased with the Dos Manos tour company—they had everything down to a science. Even when I realized that I had left my train ticket back at my hotel in Cusco, they were able to easily secure me a new one, and the various drop-offs and pickups to get us home ran smoothly as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Since we had some free time while waiting for the rest of the group, we decided to try the town’s hot springs. Alex joined us and showed us the way. Unfortunately for my injured leg, it was a very painful, 15-minute uphill walk. We eventually got there and jumped into the hottest pool they had. Words cannot describe the glorious feeling of sitting in that hot spring after four days of relentless physical exertion. We relaxed and enjoyed some cocktails that had been delivered to us at poolside.
Later we returned to the restaurant and joined the rest of the group for our farewell lunch. After lunch we said goodbye to Freddy and Alex, who were getting an early train home, and tipped them very generously for everything they had done for us–they truly went above and beyond. Alex, in particular, had been like my guardian angel during my struggles on Days 2 and 3. Here are a couple of photos in tribute to our intrepid guides:
We then said our goodbyes to the rest of the group and exchanged contact info. Here’s a shot of the group from the previous night enjoying our final dinner on the Inca Trail.
So after four days of living among a group, it was down to just Uncle Kipp and me. We had a few hours to kill before our train left that evening so we walked around town, had some ice cream, did some shopping, etc. Finally we got the train back to Ollantaytambo, where we transferred to a bus back to Cusco. The bus dropped us off in a square in the middle of town and for a minute I thought I was going to have to walk uphill to my hotel carrying all of that luggage on my bum leg, but the bus driver hailed a cab, gave him some money, and instructed him to take us to our hotels. I said goodbye to Uncle Kipp after the cab dropped me off and then checked back in to the Hotel Rumi Punku. Finally, at around 11:30 pm, I walked through the door of my room and, just as promised, found the luggage I had left behind with the hotel waiting for me.
After unwinding and unpacking I collapsed into bed and slept until noon the next day—longer than I had slept in the previous few days combined. I decided to treat myself by renting out the hotel spa, complete with jacuzzi and sauna—I’d earned it. Between the hot springs and the spa, my leg, while still sore, was starting to feel better. I dropped off my rented sleeping bag and duffel at the Dos Manos travel office in the afternoon and then met Uncle Kipp and his friend Yuri that evening for a final dinner. Uncle Kipp was staying for a couple more days to stand as godfather to Yuri’s baby, but I was leaving the next afternoon.
The hotel was nice enough to give me a late checkout to coincide with my afternoon flight without charging me extra. I took a cab to the airport and was soon homeward bound. I won’t detail my misadventures getting home except to say that I will never fly American Airlines again if I can help it. I finally got back to Newark airport the following afternoon and back to home sweet home later that evening. And just like that, my adventure was over.
From the Sacred Valley to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, it truly was the adventure of a lifetime. I don’t know if I would ever again put myself through four days of roughing it like that, but I’m glad I did it. I challenged myself both physically and mentally in a way many people never will. It is an accomplishment I will always look back on with fondness and pride.
After surviving the trials of the previous day I awoke with a new lease on life, not quite refreshed, but feeling much better. Uncle Kipp and I had to wake up extra early to get a head start on the rest of the group since we had been lagging so far behind, so we had to skip breakfast, though they did provide us with a sandwich in a bag to eat along the way. There would be no time to ease into the hike on this morning–we had to immediately begin climbing the steps toward the second highest pass of the trail at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level.
Our guide Freddy accompanied us while the rest of the camp slept. Although I felt better, it was still a slow slog due to my ongoing altitude sickness. About halfway up the mountain we came to the first of many Inca ruins we would see on this day: the tambo of Runkuraqay.
We explored the structure for a few minutes and took a break to eat. By this time the rest of the group had caught up with us and it was time for Freddy to give another history lecture. However, Uncle Kipp and I were not able to stay for the lecture because we needed to press on in order to keep pace, so we once again left the rest of the group behind (unfortunately, we missed out on a lot of Freddy’s history lessons because of our slower pace).
This time we were accompanied by Alex, the assistant guide who had basically saved my life on the previous day by carrying my backpack for me. He picked up my pack with the intention of carrying it again, and although I was reluctant to make him haul it for a second day, he was insistent, so I gave in. It was probably a good thing since I was still suffering the effects of altitude sickness, which slowed me down to the point where I once again lost sight of Uncle Kipp as he went off ahead. The rest of the group eventually passed me again as well.
So I was on my own again, struggling my way to the summit. Well, I wasn’t entirely on my own because Alex, as he had the previous day, hovered within viewing distance ahead of me, occasionally stopping to let me catch up. He would be my constant companion for the rest of the day, which was nice because it gave me someone with whom to share my adventure, as well as someone to photograph me at various points along the trail.
Finally, I reached the top, and unlike the previous day when the sleet storm forced me to high-tail it off the mountain, I was able to take few minutes to enjoy my accomplishment and snap some photos under the warm sun.
On the way down the guys from Argentina and their guide caught up to us (they had gotten off to a later start), so we stopped for some photos.
Although I was now able to move faster, going downhill presented its own set of problems. I had to keep my eyes focused on the dangerous rocks to avoid tripping or breaking an ankle, and the constant staring down at rocks flying by my field of vision added a bit of motion sickness to my altitude sickness, so by the time I reached the lunch site, I felt like I was in the midst of a massive hangover. However, things would get better later in the day.
The trail next took us past the impressive Inca ruin of Sayaqmarka, nestled on top of a cliff. The name apparently means Inaccessible Town, which makes sense when you see that the only access to the site is a steep set of narrow stone stairs located to the left of the ruin in the photo below. The steps are much steeper than they appear in the photo, and I was still pretty sapped of energy at this point and pressed for time, so I skipped the ruin and remained on the Inca Trail, which veered off to the right.
I regretted not being able to spend more time at the various ruins I passed along the trail, but that’s the price I paid for constantly lagging behind the rest of the group.
Then it happened.
At some point during our descent my energy came flooding back. I could breathe again, my heart stopped racing, and my headache vanished. It was as if somebody threw a switch and deactivated my altitude sickness in an instant–it literally happened that quickly. I felt so good that I even started jogging for large stretches of the trail, in much the same way as the porters did for the entire trail.
We passed by several more Inca structures, including an Inca tunnel carved into the rock and the ruin of Phuyupatamarca, known as the Cloud Level town.
I was able to walk through the outskirts of this ruin but I once again didn’t have time to linger. Eventually we came to a pass where I had my first good view of Machu Picchu Mountain, the peak of which can be seen in the center of the photo below, just beneath the top of my walking stick. To the left of (and just below) the peak, way off in the distance, can be seen the agricultural terraces of the Inca ruin of Intipata. It looks in the photo as if it would take forever to get there, but I would actually be standing at that site by the end of this day’s hike.
As we wound our way toward Machu Picchu Mountain the town of Aguas Calientes became visible in the valley below. This is the town where people come to take the bus directly up to Machu Picchu (i.e., the lazy way to see it :-)). It was from here that we would catch our train home at the conclusion of the hike.
Also visible along this stretch of the hike was the Inca ruin of Wiñawayna. We would be camping later in the evening nearby this impressive site but I unfortunately would not have time to visit it.
I moved much more rapidly through the trail for the rest of the day as it was primarily a downhill hike interspersed with a few uphill stretches. We passed by a few smaller ruins, interesting plants and wildlife, the second Inca Tunnel, and gorgeous vistas of nature everywhere I turned.
Toward the end of the day we came to a crossroad where Alex told me we could either head down to camp or take a detour up to the Inca ruin of Intipata. I decided to visit the ruin since I had been forced to skip so many during this hike, and I’m glad I did.
Intipata, which wasn’t discovered until the 1990’s and has only been open to the public for a little over a decade, offers some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the valley below. In a way, it was actually more special to be here than at Machu Picchu itself because the only way to get to it is by hiking the Inca trail, which means there are no buses dropping off boatloads of tourists every twenty minutes. Along with your fellow hikers, you basically have the place to yourself. I believe that most of my group never made it here (probably opting for Wiñawayna instead), so it kind of felt like my secret place.
My favorite part of hiking the Inca Trail was discovering sites like this along the way that are basically hidden from the rest of the world. And for the first time in two days, I actually had time to relax and soak in my surroundings, to enjoy the serenity of being in the middle of nowhere, that feeling of isolation from civilization that you always picture in your head but are rarely able to duplicate when visiting the ruins of an ancient society.
So we stayed for about a half hour, resting and snapping photos. Even after jogging my way through much of the second half of the day, I felt better than I had since the early part of Day 1.
Then it was time to head down to camp, where I exchanged high-fives and congratulations with some of the other group members before heading to my tent. Our tents were set up so close to the edge of a cliff that it would have been quite easy to fall over. The space was so tight, in fact, that at one point, as I was squeezing past a guy who was leaning into his tent, I knew that if he chose that exact moment to back out of his tent, he would have knocked me right over the cliff. The upside of the setup was that we had amazing views from our tents–not a bad way to spend our last night on the trail.
That night we had our final dinner and a goodbye ceremony for the porters, who would not be accompanying us to Machu Picchu in the morning. They would be heading back home for a couple of days of rest and then turning around to do the whole thing all over again. The porters were truly amazing, running through the entire Inca Trail on shoes that were basically no better than sandals, hauling heavy loads on their backs, always having everything set up before we arrived at camp, and serving us delicious food. We collected money from everyone in the group to tip the porters, and one of the Argentinean guys gave a speech, but since he spoke in Spanish, I don’t know what was said.
There were a few times during meals when the group would all speak to each other in Spanish and I would feel a bit left out, but that’s my own fault for being the only group member who didn’t speak any Spanish. Overall, everyone (my fellow hikers, the guides, and the porters) was very nice and there was a feeling of us all being in it together and pulling for each other . . . even if I didn’t see them for most of the four days 🙂
After the ceremony we tried to get some sleep because we would have our earliest wakeup call yet the next morning (I think it was around 3:30 am). We needed to begin so early in order to have enough time to reach the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu by sunrise. That final part of this story will be told in the next chapter. In the meantime, you can see more photos from the Inca Trail at the link below.