The sights in and around Cusco only served as appetizers to the region’s main delight – Machu Picchu. However, we had to first contend with a 4-day 3-night hike before reaching Peru’s Shangri-la. We had signed up for the hike with United Mice, paying about US$300 per pax (note: prices in recent years seem to have risen by quite a bit, to at least US$450 per pax). The fee includes the trail and ruin entrance fees, as well as food, tents, sleeping bags and mat, and the guides and porters. Our trail group of 16 departed for the trailhead on 27 Dec ’05 and thus began our journey along the Inca Trail.
The Inca Trail: 4 days, 3 nights of walking
The Incas built one of the most extensive road systems in pre-Columbian South America, traversing the Andes mountain ranges and reaching heights of over 5,000 m (6,500 ft) above sea level, from Quito, Ecuador (to the north) past Santiago, Chile (to the south). The road system covered roughly 22,530 km (14,000 mi) and provided access to over 3 million sq km of the Inca Empire’s territories. The Inca kings would dispatch messengers, who literally ran (!!!) from point to point, upslope and downslope to deliver messages! Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, horses were not native to the region, and llamas were only deemed fit for carrying loads (not passengers) slowly.
The portion of the Inca Trail that we hiked on was the segment that led from next to the Urubamba River, past three mountain peaks and various Incan ruins, and on to Machu Picchu, holy city of the Inca Empire. The trail begins at 2,750m (9,000ft) elevation before scaling to a high of 4,200 m (13,776 ft) at Warmiwanusqa, otherwise known as Dead Woman’s Pass. We gained 1,300m on our first day and set up camp just short of Dead Woman’s Pass, before crossing it on our second morning past Runkuraqay and into the Cloud Forest. Our third day saw us passing the third mountain pass at Phuyupatamarca, before arriving at the Sun Gate in the late afternoon. The entire trail stretched across 48km (30 mi), and although we were scheduled to complete it in 4 days, our guide pushed us so hard we had reached the Sun Gate a whole day earlier! This was no mean feat, given that we had covered much of the distance under our raincoats. I guess it helped that the entire group was relatively young. We were also hiking in the midst of the monsoon season and was accompanied by persistent drizzles throughout much of days 2 and 3. Still, on top of the 20 lbs of load in my backpack, I had brought with me an additional 20 lbs of camera equipment. By the end of the hike, my right knee was extremely sore.
Initially, the view from the Sun Gate was nothing short of catastrophe – Machu Picchu was wrapped in a cocoon of rain clouds. Tired and dirty, everyone in our group gave up after 15 minutes of waiting in vain for the clouds to clear. I lingered around, not wanting to join the group in its descent to base camp without my money shot. As the last member of my group turned the corner of the first switchback down towards our camp for the night, a gust of wind swirled into the valley and blew the clouds away. I snapped furiously and thanked the Incan gods for their grace.
Machu Picchu – majestic ruins lying 7,872 ft above sea level
The next morning, we took a bus back up to Machu Picchu. After giving us a guided tour of the place, our guide unleashed us upon the ruins. We were among the first few groups to reach the ruins that morning, and thus pretty much had the entire place to ourselves. I silently congratulated ourselves for visiting Peru during the off-peak season – between the months of June to July, tourists would descend upon Machu Picchu like swarms of locusts and show up on everyone else’s pictures.
Machu Picchu laid forgotten for centuries until it was rediscovered by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911, in his quest for the ‘last city of the Incas’. Machu Picchu was divided into three sectors – the Sacred District, the Popular District and the District of the Priests and Nobility. This city was picked and built by Sapa Inca Pachacuti such that if you had sailed along the Urubamba River (which runs beneath it) and looked up, you would not be able to see the city itself. This was the key reason why Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish.
Many theories exist with regards to the purpose of Machu Picchu. Some suggest the city was the holiest city of the Inca Empire – the Intiwatana (hitching post of the Sun) was used to tell the start of the the annual equinoxes (built in such a way so as not to throw a shadow during the start of the Equinoxes). Equinoxes were viewed as a sign from Inca’s Sun God on when the people should sow and reap their harvests. Other theories propose Machu Picchu as a retreat for nobility with astronomical observatory purposes. Theories aside, the ruins are significant because it displays the best of Incan architecture and engineering in a breath-taking and awe-inspiring setting.
Our four days away from civilization ended with our train-then-bus ride back to Cusco, where we spent New Year’s Eve recuperating from muscle aches and sun burns before heading off for our final destination – Puno.