Inca Trail: Machu Picchu and Back (Part 2 of 2)
The worst is over.
That’s what our guide, Carlitos, told us. Our second day hike lasted over twelve hours, and we didn’t get to camp until night time. Thankfully today isn’t a very early rise and we got enough sleep and rest. The sounds of the frogs and rain drops outside our tent the night before was surreal.
After our typical breakfast, Carlitos told us that we’ll spend some time to meet our incredible porters, without whom this trek would not be possible or nearly as bearable. Javier, the youngest is only 19 and he carries just as much weight as the more experienced men. Santos, our chef also does double duty by both carrying our supplies and cooking our meals.
It’s incredible really to think that right after this trip, most of them will probably turn back around and hop on another trek. Just like the sherpas in the Himalayas, they really carry most of the load for the turistas and gringos that comes and visit here in throngs. And just like the sherpas, portering is probably one of the better paying jobs in this rural part of the country.
We were told that our travel company, Llama Path, is one of the few companies that treats their guides and porters really well; as the founder himself was a porter back in the day.
The rest of the hike from here on out is relatively easier, no more steep mountain passes, and shorter hiking days as well. We are to see even grander Inca sites and will have more time to take the views in too.
But the climate once again changed, we are entering a sub-tropical part of the Andes; and drizzling rain is pretty much the norm for the rest of the trek.
Between the much more laid back pace and the Inca sites that we passed along the way, it gave me a bit more time to reflect on the Incan culture and what remains of it. It was a relatively short empire, just over a hundred years by most accounts; compared to the 600 years rule of the Mayan, and the 2-3 centuries long Aztec. But within that short amount of time they built some of the grandest constructions in an extremely difficult terrain.
"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 Spanish Conquistadores alone isn’t responsible for their downfall, but you can’t disregard the impact they have and how much they bear the burden of the near-complete eradication of their culture. Forceful conversion to Christianity, destruction of idols, temples, and relics; and that’s on top of killing their king, exploiting their resources, and enslaving their people. Sure, it was a much more different time back then, but it seems that some of the basic intolerances and imposition of one’s own belief to another without any sensitivity, or regard of the inherent culture still persists nowadays. Both in less developed and more developed countries alike.
Francisco Pissaro in Peru, Hernando Cortez in Mexico, Christopher Columbus in the Caribbeans, Europeans in Easter Island, Dutch in South Africa… I’ve come to the conclusion that whenever people who regards themselves as an ‘enlightened intellect’, makes landfall to a ‘primitive’ culture, the indigenous natives are always one to suffer.
It makes me wonder what impact does visitors and tourists like me have on these people and country now.
From our last campground, we took a short hike to see Winaywayna, another ruins thought to be used as an agricultural center. The Incas were supposedly accomplished horticulturists, gathering different crops from the regions they've conquered to build a more robust agricultural supply and varieties.
The construction is again impressive, as we stared down the seemingly endless terraces. Our guide also took us to a waterfall nearby, but it started to get too dark and rainy to linger for too long. I took a cup full of water with hand at the fall and splashed my face, a sort of purification I thought, before our visit to Machu Picchu tomorrow.
Our last day started early again, we were up and ready to go by 3.30AM to get in line at the last inspection gate just below our campgrounds. There we waited for a couple hours until the gate opens, and trekkers all comes rushing out of the gate to try to get to the Sun Gate as early as they can. It’s kinda like a 10K race where everybody starts out strong and fast… eventually they all slow down a bit though, especially when you hit the wall of a staircase right before the Sun Gate.
But alas, our sprint was that of a hollow victory, by the time we reached the top the heavy fog prevented us from being able to see Machu Picchu in a distance. So onwards we go.
After another 45 minute easy hike, we finally reached Machu Picchu, but it was still covered in thick fog. It was still kind of rewarding to finally get here after 3 days of hiking. But at this point we've started seeing the other tourists who come up from the nearby town of Aquas Calientes via train and bus. I doubt their trek was as rewarding though.
After another mandatory check-in and bathroom break. We came back in for a guided tour through the different sections of the site. You really don’t get a sense of how big and extensive this site is until you’re actually in it. It’s understandable how Hiram Bingham mistook this place for the last Incan city, Wilkambamba; especially when this placed was purposely hidden from the Spaniards.
After the fog cleared up, we climbed up to higher elevation to get a better vantage point of Machu Picchu. And there’s our reward, finally.
"It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be? Why had no one given us any idea of it?"
Though we’ve come by other large sites on the trail, it’s still inspiring and perplexing to see this wonder. Nestled high up in the mountains, you can see 3 of the holiest peaks from a single spot, and the sacred Urubamba below. A lot of conjectures about why the Incas built Macchu Picchu, as a summer palace, holy place of worship, agricultural center… whatever it was for, it must've been a very special place for them.
After we came down from Machu Picchu, we gathered again as a group in the town of Aquas Calientes.
Collected our belongings, had our celebratory lunch, and finally said our goodbyes to our guide.
After a train ride and a bus ride, we arrived back in Cusco in the evening. Straight to our hotel to have a nice, long, very long, relaxing hot shower. Sleeping on a bed in an air-conditioned room felt awkward somehow… but didn’t take me long to adapt.
We had planned on spending the next couple days in and around Cusco, trying to take in as much as we can of the local vibes and food.
We woke up late the next morning, had breakfast in the hotel, returned our gear, and walked around Cusco for a bit. It's unbelievable how light it feels to be walking around without a pack on your back.
Cusco is generally quite lively from morning all the way through the night. Street vendors and shopkeepers, tourists making their way around, and kids going to school.
We took a cab ride over the mountain to Pisac, a little town in Vallejo Sagrado (Sacred Valley). Known for its bustling market; which nowadays sells mostly the typical tourist knick-knacks. But it was still nice to walk around leisurely on a very nice day.
And came back on a ‘Combi’, or people carrier that does to-and-from rides between the towns. Many locals take this and it only costed us 4 soles ($1.50).
On our last day in Cusco we had breakfast at San Pedro market, they have a big ‘food court’ section where there’s an aisle for each type of food vendors. There were the soups stalls, rice stalls, ceviches, and juices. Simple stuff, but very hearty and filling for just a few Soles.
We also found a cute little ice cream shop called ‘el Hada’ (The Hut), that makes the ice cream fresh in their open air ‘kitchen’ behind the shop; ran by a couple who transplanted to Cusco from Lima.
As we soaked in the last bit of Andean sun in the main square, with the view of Machu Picchu still fresh on our minds, I looked around and see all the different kinds of people walking the streets and alleyways in Cusco.
The Conquistadores did their worse, but they did left behind a few wonderful architectures. And in the end the Peruvians persevered.
Just as I had trouble acclimating to the altitude when I arrived here a week ago, living up in the mountain region of Peru is by no means easy. Being away from the capital also means away from the attention and progress that is concentrated in Lima.
But there’s a lot of pride here.
I think people here do realize what a treasure they have right in their backyard, and it is a kind of symbol of national pride. It’s a sad reminder of a former glory that once was and may never will be. But also, I think, a reminder that even in the harshest of conditions and the most difficult of terrains, you can still build great things.
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges - Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"