Sunday, August 4, 2013

Inca Trail: Machu Picchu

I would like to say that with all the sweat, vomit and tears I gave to the Inca Trail, my sacrifice was received and we were given such great weather the morning we arrived in the city of Machu Picchu. Whatever divine or natural intervention played a role - the day we arrived was spectacular and picturesque, which is good because apparently Machu Picchu is either cloudless and hot or rainy and wet. 

The final morning, all of the tourists who have walked the Trail are camping just before the final check point you have to go through in order to hike the final few kilometers to get to the city. The gate opens at 5:30 am, but people are let in on a first come, first serve basis. Everyone wants to get to the Sun Gate before the sun rises to stake out the best spots to watch the sun rise - though of course the time of the year we were there (just a few weeks after winter solstice) you have plenty of time to arrive before the sun rises. We woke up at 3:30am, were given a little hot water and a tea bag and some bread, then hurried down the hill to sit down in the dark and wait two hours for the line to start moving us forward. 

We played 20 questions and other games in the dark, huddled together for warmth in the cool, humid air of the cloud forest. We were probably the 5th group in line. Finally we started moving, and as instructed by our guide Rosa, we moved through the check point, then one by one turned on our headlamps and walked in single file along the skinny, treacherous ridge path, through the forest.  

Below us, you could hear the train whistles bringing the first morning groups of tourists up to Machu Picchu, and when you looked forward and backwards the whole ridge trail was a line of headlamps moving at a quick clip along the rolling hill of the mountainside. Hundreds of us rushed in single file - we had been warned about a young woman just a few months before who had tried to run pasted her spot in line and had fallen off the mountain to her death - as the sun began to light the world. We crawled on our hands and knees up the 50 "monkey stairs" at a nearly-90-degree-angle up the hillside, then finally reached the crown of the Sun Gate, where Rosa gave us each a hug and we got our first views of Machu Picchu City, an hour's hike still below us.

The Sun Gate - the place through which the sun rises on the summer solstice, right into the window of the Sun Temple below - was already bustling, and after a few quick photos, Rosa rushed us down the hill a little, to reach her favorite place to watch the sun rise, where there would be less people.

Looking through the Sun Gate down onto the city.  

The Sun Gate from down the Trail a bit. Already crawling. 

Slightly away from the crowds, we made our way to a spot where we could all sit and enjoy the unblocked views of the city as the sun rose, fierce and hot, over the eastern mountain tops.

The city from our view. The pyramid building was the sun dial, and below is the Sun Temple and other royal buildings. 

The end of the road. Another hour hike down the mountain (past several tourists who had clearly taken showers and done their makeup that morning in order to get the perfect photos) and we arrived at the edge of the City, where we took a few postcard photos (greatly helped by our forceful guide Rosa who asked everyone to step aside for us like we had earned it - which, let's face it, we kind of had). At this point we had to exit the ruins for about an hour (but there were working toilets and a place to buy coffee and food while we waited) before we could get the paperwork sorted and get let back in for our tour.

The big money shot.  

The whole group, not looking too smelly and greasy, really.  

You can read all about Machu Picchu, what they think it could have been used and built for and all the things they have no idea about the place, so I'm not going to put those details here. I'll just photo dump with all the details I loved.

 Aqueducts run through the entire grounds, 
though they don't allow water to flow through anymore because of erosion. 

 Ceremonial baths and fountains right beside the Sun Temple.

The Sun Temple (above) and Royal Tomb (below) 

The sun dial, or the "Hitching Post of the Sun"
Thought to be the most holy and central place of the ruin.
There were a lot of barefoot tourists dressed in white tunics around here,
soaking in the raw energy of the sun dial. 
I feel like we had enough of the raw energy of the place out on the trail. 

Llamas, of course.  

 The school, where elements and celestial patterns were studied in reflections. 

The Temple of the Condor. You don't see them around the city any more with all the tourists, unfortunately.  

After several hours in the city, we made the curvy, steep trip down the mountain to Aquas Calientes, a town made especially for tourists of Machu Picchu and all felt awkward in a fancy restaurant. Most people visiting the ruins stay in this city the night before or after, where they can shower and go out and eat good food. There are two roads by the looks of it - one where the buses up to the ruins drop tourists off and one of train tracks where the trains come through on their way to and from Cuzco. After lunch, the beautiful weather was disappearing and we grabbed our duffle bags before hoping aboard our train back to Ollamtaytambo, from where we took a bus back to Cuzco.

That night in Cuzco, we went out to sample all the dishes we were not given on the trail - guinea pig, alpaca steak and ceviche, a dish made with raw fish. We were exhausted and turned into the hotel early, all of us heading somewhere else new and exciting the next morning. Maybe I'm flattering us all, but I felt like the group I was with was excellent in a rare way. Even the guides commented on how much they enjoyed us as a group. You never know what you'll get with group activities, and G Adventures did an excellent job with the tour, but the group really made the experience. I hope that into the future I can run into these folks throughout the world, if I or they are passing through each other's homes. The whole experience was unforgettable, and I'm so glad I did it, and I'm so glad we picked G Adventures - really truly.

In retrospect, I'd even say I'd do it all again, though I'd probably give myself more time in Cuzco and do a trek or two from there to adjust to the altitude and get more ready for the whole trip - plus one could easily spend way more than a day in Cuzco. And I say I'd do it again from the comfort of my big, lovely bed in Pasadena, California. I'm sure if you had asked me on the way up Dead Woman's Pass, I would have given you a very different answer.

Rosa, the guide who took such good care of me along the way.  

Here are the details of our trek - the Inca Trail in red - with details of the altitudes below. Lares is another Andean trek nearby, which another group set out on the same day as us.

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