First to the Sun Gate
09/15/2008 - 09/27/2008
Machu Picchu as seen from the Watchman's Hut after hiking the Inca Trail
"Nukan chayani lluypa naupaq Ninta Intipunkuman." That is a Quecha, or Incan, phrase that I learned in Peru. I'll come back to its meaning later.
I had finally arrived in Peru. My previous three attempts to visit had all been cancelled for one reason or the other. Now, though, I was in Cuzco -- the ancient capital of the Incan Empire and the gateway to the world famous Machu Picchu. Jenny and I were going to hike the Inca Trail, a four day, three night trek through the Andes Mountains that ends at the Sun Gate -- the mountain pass that opens onto Machu Picchu. It is a difficult hike, sometimes nicknamed the Inca "trial." We'd been instructed by our trekking company, Llama Path, to arrive at least two days early to acclimate to the altitude. The highest pass we would climb to would be 13,779 feet above sea level, and hikers had been known to suffer severe altitude sickness on the trail.
Cathedral in Cuzco's main plaza
So, our first order of business in Cuzco was to check in with Llama Path and let them know we'd arrived, and to pay for the balance of our trip. They told us there would be a briefing with our guide at 6pm the next day. As we'd planned to book a Sacred Valley tour that day, we immediately began making the rounds of the various tour companies that line virtually every street in Cuzco, looking for one that would get us back in town in time. Walking up and down the steep, cobblestone streets of the Andean town, I could feel the effects of the altitude. It wasn't just an out of breath feeling. There was a tightness in your gut that came along with it, a feeling much worse than you'd get from running up several flights of stairs quickly. I seemed to feel it most on the uphill slog to our hotel, a couple hundred yards north of the main square.
Eventually, we located and booked a tour that was scheduled to end at 5pm. So, it was finally time to begin our first day's sightseeing. We climbed back up the punishing stone streets out of town into the hills overlooking Cuzco. There, on a hilltop, sprawled the Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman. The Spanish conquerors thought it was a fortress, but it is actually a ceremonial center with such massive walls that it could be used for defense. The zig-zag walls are an excellent example of Incan stonework, which is smooth and whose blocks are tightly joined without mortar or cement. The blocks are all of different sizes and hand carved to interlock so well that Incan engineering withstands earthquakes that topple colonial and modern buildings to this day. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and we wandered among the ruins which sprawled all around us. The views of Cuzco in the valley below were wonderful, as well as the sight of the white "Christ the Redeemer" statue on the opposite hillock.
After an hour or so of exploration, we hiked back down into town to check out Cuzco's sights. Our first stop was a Spanish Dominican convent which had been built atop the huge Incan Temple of the Sun. The Incan foundations were clearly visible and contrasted sharply with the colonial building materials. Next, we checked out a couple of churches on the main plaza. The cathedral provided an audio device for visitors which explained various chapels, altars and artwork within the cathedral. Its commentary was fascinating. We followed the discussion from point to point within the cathedral, and spent more than an hour there. The fusion of native artistic concepts with European religious ones was particularly interesting, and we admired the paintings, carvings and gold and silverwork all the more for knowing its story.
Gluttons for punishment, we then headed to the Inka Museum, as darkness began to fall. It had an excellent collection of ceramic and textile artifacts from not just the Incas, but the various Andean cultures that preceded them. I particularly enjoyed the Nazca artifacts, with their exotic and imaginative imagery. Nazca artwork depicts great, winged beings with feline faces and human heads which sprout from their tails, claws and even tongues. These creatures are the gods for whom they carved their lines and images in the desert -- but then I'm getting ahead of myself. Nazca came later in our trip.
Inca Villa at Pisca in the Sacred ValleyAfter the museum, I was starving, and felt I could eat a llama. We picked a restaurant recommended by our guidebooks and did the next closest thing -- ordering dishes with alpaca meat (the smaller, furry cousin of the llama). Both of us enjoyed it. I thought it tasted like a cross between beef and pork. There was even a good, dark Peruvian dark beer to wash down the meal. We then called it an evening, to rest up for our busy schedule over the next several days.
Terraced hillside in Pisac
The Sacred Valley
A van picked us up the next morning for our Sacred Valley tour. The valley was the Incan heartland and featured a number of agricultural and religious sites. It is extremely narrow and bordered by huge mountains that seem to rear up directly from the valley floor with no intermediate foothills. On the mountain slopes, you can see lighter colored foot trails, many of which were made by the Incas and are still used by villagers today. Centuries old Incan ruins can be spotted by their accompanying stone terracing of nearby slopes. The terracing gives the hills a stepped rather than smooth appearance, and demonstrates the Incan understanding of engineering fundamentals combined with aesthetics. The terraces were used either to augment agricultural space or to reinforce hillsides against the weight of stone buildings further upslope.
Our first stop was the Incan site of Pisac, which is spread out on a series of neighboring hilltops. Some of the scattered collections of buildings have been identified as temples, while others are thought to be villas for the elite. We followed the pathway that wound along the hillsides, sometimes climbing, sometimes dropping, until we came to the highest point in Pisac. The final ascent had been a stiff 15 minutes of exertion that left us all panting. Our guide joked that we should imagine four days of that, if we wondered what the Inca trail was like. He pointed out the Temple of the Sun, a feature of nearly every Incan settlement, it seemed. From its rounded walls, we had an amazing view over the valley plunging away on all sides. As we caught our breath, we enjoyed Pisac's panorama and listened to the guide's explanation of the site.
Incan site of Ollantaytambo
After a tasty and somewhat ritzy lunch, we were off to Ollantaytambo, which incidentally is the closest town to the Inca Trail's starting point. It is mostly made up of Incan buildings, which are still in use by Quecha speaking inhabitants. The town is dominated by a massive collection of walls and terraces that spans the saddle between two steep hillsides. The rebel Manco Inca holed up here in 1537 for months. The walls helped him defeat two Spanish armies sent to capture him. So much of Incan architecture is so strongly built, and positioned on such steep slopes, that you can see why temples were easily converted into fortifications in times of war. We climbed the stone steps and visited temples perched among the upper reaches of the ruins. Gray skies threatened rain, and perhaps that is what caused our guide to cut short our visit (way too soon for my liking). We were soon bouncing along rough roads towards our final stop of the day. The colonial church of Chinchero was built by the Spanish in the 1600s. Inside, every inch of the attractive building's walls and ceiling is painted with centuries old, brightly colored frescoes. After yesterday's visit to Cuzco's cathedral, we were able to pick out decorative fusions of Andean and European religious art. For example, the bare breasted women repeated all over the walls would probably scandalize a European monk, but to an Incan villager, represented the providence of Mother Earth.
Incan ruins at OllantaytamboThe sun was leaning low in the sky as we tardily made our way back towards Cuzco. There was no way we'd be back by 5pm, and Jenny and I worried if we'd miss our 6pm briefing. As we drove, the setting sun illuminated a gorgeous landscape of snow capped mountains, stark brown hills and golden plateaus with widely spaced farms, fields and corrals. Traditionally dressed villagers went about their daily routine, often trailed by dogs, llamas, pigs or alpacas. Although this part of the day wasn't listed among our tour's sights, it was a special treat to see the beating agricultural heart of the highlands of Peru.
The Inca Trail: Day One
Our alarm was set for early, early the next morning. Llama Path would be picking us up by 5am, our guide had said the night before. A knock on the hotel door meant the moment had finally arrived. I have planned, waited and been frustrated in my desire to hike the Inca Trail for more than a decade. Now, as we followed two of our "Red Army" porters down the cobblestone streets toward the main plaza, it sunk in. I would finally hike the Inca Trail, and see its highlight, Machu Picchu.
Llama Path's porters are nicknamed the Red Army for their company supplied jumpsuits, vests, hats and rucksacks -- all sporting the company logo and trademark bright red color. I'd chosen Llama Path to be my trekking company (one is required to hike the Inca Trail) partly due to its reputation for treating its porters the best. Park rules limit porter loads to about 60 pounds, but Llama Path reduces this further to 44. The Red Army also hikes together as a group and their enthusiasm and upbeat attitude as they trek by you, laughing and joking, is a stark contrast to some other companies' porters who you pass up alone, grunting and struggling uphill, often overloaded with a rustic, jerrry-rigged sack tied around their necks.
As we were lead onto the company bus, our 13 porters broke out into applause as Jenny and I took out seats. The other five hikers were already there, so the bus was soon rolling forward. The applause would become a standard greeting between us hikers and the Red Army. They would cheer us as we started off each morning. We would return the favor when they invariably passed us up within an hour or so. And they would come rushing to greet us with more cheers and high fives when we struggled into the camp they'd set up for lunch or the evening. Prior to starting off that day down the Inca Trail, our guide Casiano had each porter step forward and introduce themselves. He then had us do likewise, translating between Quecha or Spanish and English. Our fellow hikers were a fun and young group. Jenny and I were easily the oldest at 45. There were three Aussies: Doug and Monique, from Brisbane, were in their late 20s/early 30s; Monica was the youngest of our group, in her mid-20s. An English couple of Indian descent, Jay and Dee, rounded out the group. We all hit it off immediately and spent the first morning's relatively easy hiking laughing and joking, trading travel stories and filling each other in on our backgrounds.
Incan ruins of Patallacta
When we came to a scenic overlook around noon, we spotted our first Incan ruin on the trail, Patallacta. In the distance behind it, a column of dense smoke rose into the sky. Casiano said it was likely a villager's fire that had gotten out of control with the day's high winds. As we admired Patallacta's terracing and buildings below us, the smoke began to slither into our valley. As we continued hiking, it followed us, masking the sky with its smoky haze. Flecks of black ash began to rain down upon us. Casiano said there was nothing to worry about. We would soon be going uphill and leave the smoke settling in the valley behind us. He was soon proven correct on both points. We did begin to climb, and our easy morning's hiking turned into a difficult afternoon. We began to sweat freely as we ascended more than 1,000 feet in altitude, and rest stops became more frequent. Casiano had nicknamed today's stretch of the trail "Inca Flats." That became our group's running joke for any stiff uphill section that he hadn't warned us about.
Dinner and our camp were great. The porters had set up five, four-person tents (one for each couple, another for Monica and a final one for Casiano). The meal they prepared in camp conditions, backpacking in all stoves, gas and supplies, was simply amazing. There were heaps and heaps of tasty food. There was so much that a standard problem at lunch or dinner time was finding room on our folding tables for the platters of food. We all joked that we'd end up putting on weight rather than burn it off during the hike. I was reminded repeatedly of the food you'd find on a Caribbean cruise -- particularly the small touches like napkins folded into flowers and vegetables carved into ornamental shapes like birds or roses. Another regular feature of camp was the 4pm "Happy Hour." The table would be loaded down with tea, hot chocolate, popcorn and crackers (or "biscuits," as the Brits and Aussies say). On our first night, the stars shone down brightly on us. I could see the Milky Way easily, and could even pick out the dark patches in it which feature prominently in Incan astronomy. Nevertheless, Casiano predicted rain for that evening. After we'd gone to bed, he was proven right as we heard it pattering against the nylon walls of our tents. By trip's end, I would be convinced he was part Incan shaman, able to control the weather at his whim.
The Inca Trail: Day Two
Day Two on the Inca Trail began early, and we all knew it would be the longest and most difficult. We would begin the day at 10,829 feet in altitude, and climb to 13,779 -- Dead Woman's Pass. It would be a punishing two hours of straight ascent to the highest point on the Inca Trail. We knew it would be our toughest challenge. Afterwards, we would descend for 2,000 feet where we would break for lunch. After lunch, it would be back straight up again for a little less than 2,000 feet, followed by a long, long stretch of downhill. We would camp that night in a cloud forest at 11,800 feet about sea level.
Clouds greeted us as we emerged from our tents on that chilly morning. They would remain with us throughout the day, though the rain had stopped. As we set off uphill, Casiano did his best to inspire us, referring to us as "Super Hikers" and pronounced himself convinced that we would "break the record." We quickly fell into an order of march that remained fairly constant over the four days on the Inca Trail. Casiano would take the lead, soon outstripping us. Jay would be next, gamely trying to keep up with our guide. Doug was our next strongest hiker. Following him would be a group whose order would shuffle, but was invariably composed of Dee, Monique and I. Jenny would be next, just ahead of Monica, who cheerfully brought up the rear on our climbs.
The first hour uphill was tough. My breath soon came in gasps, and I fell back on a trick I use in my running. I counted each exhalation so that it would hopefully focus me on the numbers rather than the exhaustion. Unlike the others, I had chosen to hike without a walking stick, and I soon learned why the others had rented one. Walking sticks allow you to push off and use your arms to help climb. The best I could do was place my hands on my knees and force my legs downward like pistons. It wasn't 15 minutes, though, before the engine would run out of gas. Casiano selected a rest stop every 20 minutes or so. We could hear him as we approached -- first, by the sound of his flute, then his voice calling out (as he caught sight of us), "You can do it!" He would high five each of us as we gasped and wheezed up alongside him on the path. During the ascent, we would have stripped down to t-shirts. However, we would cool off quickly during the breaks and pull our jackets out of our packs. The air was cold in addition to being thin. The wind, which felt great cooling our brows as we struggled upwards, was ice as we panted and caught our breath.
The Group and Red Army porters atop Dead Woman's Pass
Slowly, we neared the top of our climb. On the last leg to Dead Woman's Pass, it seemed I needed to stop every five minutes. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. No matter how long I rested, seconds after I started upwards again I was gasping. Behind me, I heard the steady "tick, tick" of Dee's walking stick. Foundering, I leaned up against the rock wall of the mountain and waved her past. I had honestly hoped to be third in our group, but my strength was spent. Hanging my head, I put my hands on my thighs and forced the legs downward with each step. I wheezed as if I were the most out of shape person on the planet -- not someone who runs regularly. Up, up, up. Every time I looked up to see how much further I had left to go, my spirits sank. The fog continued to shroud my destination. Would it never end? I resolved not to look up anymore. I focussed on the trail immediately in front of me and kept plowing uphill.
Then, I heard it: Casiano's flute! I kept climbing and climbing the steep stone stairs, telling myself, "Don't look up, don't look up." I heard a burst of applause and Casiano shouting Dee's name. Then, I heard him calling mine, along with his trademark, "You can do it!" I staggered the final steps, nearly crying out in relief and joy and appreciation as the Red Army clapped in approval. I wobbled towards a wall and set my pack down. I had done it! The hardest part of the Inca Trail was conquered! I tore into my pack and devoured the apple the porters had given me for a snack. Atop that misty mountain pass, its taste was as sweet as the feeling of my triumph. As each remaining member of our group staggered in, we cheered them: Monique; Jenny; Monica. We took a group photo with the porters, as the wind chased a succession of clouds past us and up and over the mountainside. We savored our success as Casiano pronounced himself amazed with our time: Llama Path's brochure details four hours for the stretch that we'd just completed in two. Casiano assured us we were going to "break the record."
Next came a jarring descent for more than an hour. The Inca Trail consists of various types of surfaces. The most complete sections are stone steps that are spaced higher than a normal stairway. I'd read that was to focus the pilgrim on his sacrifice of sweat and toil. Other sections were composed of irregularly shaped and pitched stones that form more of a ramp than a stairway. These are the most difficult to pick your footing on. The best method is to zig-zag, taking the trail whether going up or down in a slalom like fashion. And finally, there are the most worn sections of the trail which are nothing more than a dirt patch with occasional stones. These sections are the easiest on your feet. My toes were soon hurting during the descent to our lunch spot. Uphill is harder on lungs and legs, but downhill is tougher on the feet and toes.
Way Station of Runcu Raccay
We actually accomplished this section of the trail so quickly that the porters were still a half hour away from serving lunch. They improvised by spreading out a tarp and placing the foam cushions we used for our sleeping bags upon it, so that we could stretch out and rest. We dropped off one by one for a nap, despite the chill of our sweat-soaked clothes. I pulled out both my fleece hooded sweatshirt and my windbreaker and huddled beneath them on my pad.
As we ate lunch, all of us dreaded the next uphill portion. Casiano pointed out an Incan ruin we could see from our lunch table, informing us that it was the halfway point in our climb. We would take a long break there for sightseeing. And though the climb was brutal at times, it did seem easier than Dead Woman's Pass. Perhaps it was the confidence we'd gained that made it seem less difficult. Or maybe it was the other hiking group that became intermingled with ours on the ascent -- "Super Hikers" couldn't show weakness in front of the others! The excitement of touring the Incan ruin, Runcu Raccay, made us forget our weary legs for awhile. Casiano explained that it was a combination watch tower for defense -- guarding this side of Dead Woman's Pass -- and a way station for Incan pilgrims on the trail to Machu Picchu, who could sleep within its walls. The view was impressive, despite the clouds which hung close, masking every summit, it seemed. Casiano was disappointed that they hid what is normally an excellent view of Dead Woman's Pass, a place where you can actually see that it is named for being shaped like a woman lying down.
We completed our climb and began an even longer descent than the previous one. I lagged behind, partially to watch and see if Jenny's knees were giving her trouble with the constant jarring, and partially because it was easier to zig-zag my path when no others were close by. We came upon another ruin, Sayac Marca, which Casiano explained as a combination of fortress and ceremonial center. Sayac Marca was much larger than the way station had been, and we dispersed to explore its castle-like passage ways, walls and rooms. The view of another Inca ruin in the valley below was sometimes cut off by the mist and at other times opened for us as it momentarily cleared. As Casiano pointed out details of our castle, darkness began to fall. Though I wanted to explore more, we knew it was time to leave our perch and trudge down the trail to our campsite.
Walking by the ruins of Concha Marca at end of Day 2
The Inca Trail: Day Three
One of my first memories of Day 3 was the sound of Monica unzipping her tent behind where Jenny and I lay inside ours, and exclaiming, "Oh my god! It's so beautiful!" Day 3 had dawned crystal clear. Yesterday's clouds were gone, and formerly fog-shrouded mountains stood out in sharp, green relief. I had read that the scenery of this day on the trail was the best, and our group was blessed by the most pleasant weather we'd had yet. I took more pictures of the ever-changing panorama of trail, mountain and valley that the previous two days combined. That, plus the fact it was mostly downhill (with only the occasional "Inca Flats"), meant I usually brought up the rear of the group. I did come to appreciate the photographic eyes of my companions. I already knew Jenny was a good photographer, but both Monique and Monica impressed me with their skill, as well. I'd see them pause on the trail and snap a picture. Invariably, when I came upon their location I was greeted by a postcard view.
The mists clear and the view opens up at Phuyu Pata Marca
My favorite moment of Day 3, though, was at the ruins of Phuyu Pata Marca, which means "Cloud Level Town" in Quecha. A rare (for that day) patch of mist cloaked the valley below the ruin, and obscured the mountains beyond it. Casiano sat us down and explained more about the Incan town. He said that normally you can see another ruin in the valley below, and what's more, Machu Picchu mountain beyond it. He bowed his head over his flute and said if we wait two minutes, it would clear up. He began to play. The haunting sound, the Incan walls and towers around us, the mist shrouded valley and the hidden mountains created a magical moment. Suddenly, I sprang up and pointed, "Terraces!" Beneath us, the mist was clearing. Slowly, the terraced slopes of the other Incan settlement sharpened before our eyes. The sky's gray was flooded with blue. And there, opposite us, stood an impressive ring of mountains. All the while, Casiano continued playing his flute as if stopping would cause the mist to return.
If we had thought we had taken a lot of pictures earlier in that day, our cameras whirred, clicked and beeped as we descended into that magical valley. Although I never grew tired of looking out over the ring of mountains, the same could not be said of the constant downhill slog. I almost found myself wishing for an uphill stretch to break the monotony! My toes throbbed as the momentum constantly squashed them into the tips of my hiking shoes. Civilization, of sorts, greeted us at our final campsite, Winay Huayna: Electricity! That meant two things for us hikers -- beer and showers. We soon congregated in the local pub/restaurant and cracked open a mildly chilled Cuzquerna beer. The dramatic setting inside Winay Huayna's towering ring of mountains doubtless enhanced the taste!
After Happy Hour, Casiano took us to visit the ruins of Huinay Huayna. They are perched atop a long, terraced hillside, their gray buildings running up its slope and crowning its summit with sprawling walls and towers. Casiano sat us down and broke into a fervent discussion of Incan history and the town's origins. His love of Incan culture and history cast a spell upon us as we looked out over the most dramatic scenery we'd seen yet on the trail. Then he turned us loose to explore Huinay Huayna in the fading late afternoon light. Casiano said he prefers to visit it late in the day, when the crowds of other hikers have dispersed to their camps (or the bar). Our group nearly had the site to itself. The atmosphere of solitude and quiet sharpened the experience. I have always preferred ancient ruins without crowds. It seems you can commune with the site better and listen for echoes of its vanished people that way. We were all deeply moved by the ruins and their storybook setting.
The Inca Trail: Day Four
We all knew our final wake up call would be early. For the first time in our trip, though, we'd actually urged Casiano for an earlier departure. You see, for whatever reason, there is a drive to be first when it comes to seeing Machu Picchu. Our group wanted to be the first to the gate of the dozen or so hiking groups in camp. From there, we could scamper the last several kilometers to Machu Picchu's Sun Gate, Intipata. I don't know why this drive to be the first to lay eyes on Machu Picchu exists, but it does. And we felt it strongly.
So, our group let out a quiet whoop when we arrived at the camp gate at 4:30 am and found ourselves first. We had an hour to sit and wait, while other groups shuffled up behind us in the dark. We laughed about the previous evening's ceremony with the porters. They had sung a song for us and we had returned the favor. My companions had composed "Go Red Army" to the tune of "Greased Lightning" from the musical, Grease. As the light slowly brightened, we chuckled about the various lines in our version.
And then, the moment arrived. The park ranger arrived to unlock the gate. As Casiano went over the list of our group's names and passport numbers with him, he motioned us on. If he had shouted, "Go!" at the top of his lungs, I doubt the effect would have been greater. The seven of us hustled forward at an urgent pace. We had a head start on the other groups and were determined to make the most of it. From the beginning, I did not intend to run. I would walk quickly like we were, sure, but running...well, that seemed a bit over the top, didn't it? We soon heard footsteps behind us and Casiano appeared with a cheery, "Super Hikers, you can do it!" He made his way up our line at a trot. When he reached the front, he accelerated, and Jay took off after him. Later, Jay related that he had tried to keep up with Casiano. However, our guide had once run the full 27 miles of the Inca Trail in just over five hours during the trail marathon, and he soon left Jay behind. The rest of us fell into our usual order, but with Doug joining Dee, Monique and I in the middle group. At one point, Doug caught sight of Casiano and Jay and shouted, "Let's catch them!" We broke into a run as one. I was at the back, right on Dee's tail. Eventually, she waved me forward and I darted up behind Monique and Doug, all of us still trotting. Doug slowed and slipped off his backpack, handing it to Monique so he could strip off his jacket. I slipped past them. Jogging along, I fully expected them to catch up and overtake me. Instead, I caught up with Jay as he was taking a breather. We ran together for awhile and he told me how Casiano had seemed to vanish in thin air in front of him. At one point, Jay stopped for a drink of water, and I kept going.
The view from the Sun Gate
I was no longer running, but surging forward at a half walk, half jog. It dawned on me that I was in the lead -- the first hiker down the path to the Sun Date and Machu Picchu, that morning. I resolved to maintain my lead. After all, at home, I run 4 miles every other day...it was time to use that conditioning! I decided not to stop no matter how badly I thought I needed a break. I would also try not give the appearance that I was flagging. The wolves would sense weakness, overtake me, and seize my win! Rounding a corner, I came to an incredibly steep, stone staircase that I guessed was what Casiano had called the "Monkey Steps." I clambered up them on all fours, gasping for air. When I made it to the top, though, I did not see the end of the trail as I'd expected. I saw only more inclining pathway and stairs ahead. I shouted back to Jay, who I could hear climbing behind me, "Aren't these the monkey stairs? I thought they were supposed to be at the end!" He agreed in wonderment, and I'm sure both of us were worried that if these weren't the Monkey Stairs, just how brutal would the real ones be?
I tried not to show it, but those stairs took a deep gouge out of my energy level. I stumbled along, doing my best to maintain my surge. My pace definitely wasn't a run, couldn't be qualified as a jog, and it would be generous indeed to call it a fast walk. My breath came in deep wheezes. I gave up on zig-zagging and merely plodded straight up the stairs. My backpack threatened to pull me off balance. Up, around curves, up some more, and still the path went on. Then, as I turned the corner, I caught sight of Casiano's red vest. Sweat poured down my face and back as I surged up that last set of stairs. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen. Casiano played a burst on his flute and shouted my name, "You can do it!" I burst up the last steps and stumbled as my wildly aimed high five nearly missed his outstretched hands. I continued past him exhaustedly and saw the panorama, that living, breathing postcard that is Machu Picchu. I stripped off my backpack and let if fall to the ground, and drank in that magical air: Nukan chayani lluypa naupaq Ninta Intipunkuman -- which in Quecha means "First to the Sun Gate."
All around me, other hikers...Hell, sprinters, appeared. There was plenty of Machu Picchu for us all, and the joy of the shared moment erased all competition that had existed before. We were the few -- sweat dripping from our faces onto that sacred ground -- that had labored a long, tiring path on a four day journey to one of the Wonders of the World. Our group gathered for photos -- individuals, couples and the entire group. All wanted to remember that pristine moment. Casiano marveled at our luck with the day's startlingly clear skies. He said his groups normally must wait 20-30 minutes at the Sun Gate for the clouds to clear and the world-famous view to appear. Today, the sky was cloudless and the air as fresh as if the world had just been created.
The Watchman's Hut at Machu PicchuMachu Picchu
We finished with our photos and collected our backpacks, starting down the path which wound along the mountain to Machu Picchu. The sun rose, its rays fully illuminating ruins of the city. I could hear Casiano moving further ahead by the notes of his flute, but I couldn't seem to tear my eyes from the view. Eventually, we came to the Watchman's Hut, which marks the entrance to the site itself. Even the burgeoning crowd of day-trippers, who had arrived by train from Cuzco and ridden the bus up from Aguas Calientes far below, couldn't spoil my euphoria at finally being at Machu Picchu.
We took more group photos from the excellent vantage point of the Watchman's Hut, chuckling at the German yoga group posing in their skimpy lavender outfits, as if energized by the "nexus points" of the site. Of course, we probably looked a little odd ourselves -- grubby from four days on the trail and shouting weird slogans like "Super Hikers!" as pictures were snapped. Soon, it was time for Casiano to lead us on a tour through the ancient Incan site. He sat us down along one of the terraces, and spent 20 minutes or so explaining various aspects of Machu Picchu. Our eyes wandered over the site while he spoke and the warm sun beat down on us. We sat back and listened, drowsy from the sun and long trail. Then he lead us forward on our tour, which though scheduled to last only two hours, stretched much further than that. He certainly didn't shortchange us, not stopping till we had seen all the main temples and buildings of the site. Then he turned us loose to explore further, giving us our bus tickets down to town, and telling us which restaurant to meet him at before the train ride back.
Machu Picchu in its glory
Jenny and I spent another hour or more circling the site, mainly looking for atmospheric photographic shots. It was hard to go wrong with your camera in Machu Picchu, though. Its mountain stands alone, nearly encircled by the Urubamba river. Across the steep valley, sheer mountain peaks rose all around us, creating the effect of a bowl. The enormous green fangs of these mountains were covered by tropical vegetation, giving a "lost world" appearance. The sight of a dinosaur prowling along the slopes would not have seemed out of place. Beyond our jagged green bowl, further rings of mountains faded into the distance, some of them with snow capped peaks. We meandered slowly through the site, the crowds seeming to swell then disperse. Machu Picchu is a big place, and despite the thousands who visit every day, it is possible to find yourself alone in an ancient Incan room, or along a wall contemplating the incredible scenery around you.
Finally, the day's heat began to wear on us, and we made our way slowly towards the exit. The 25-minute bus ride to town was a dizzying series of switchbacks and loops. It makes you realize the enormous a feat it must have been to build a city so high on a mountain top. Occasionally, I'd catch sight of the Sun Gate, perched on the rim of the mountains, and marvel at the heights we'd climbed on our trek. We found the restaurant, and Casiano, and were happy to have a chance to thank him for all that he had done for us on the trail. I made him write out the Quecha phrase "First to the Sun Gate" for me, and took his e-mail address, promising to send him a link to this page when it was up. During lunch, our weary crew knew it was likely the last meal we'd eat together, and with beers we toasted the wonderful four days we spent together. Most of us dozed later on the train back to Ollantaytambo, and the van ride back to Cuzco. We'd all exchanged e-mails and Facebook addresses, and promised to keep in touch. One thing was for sure, though, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail would always be with us, and the memories of those we spent it with would surely remain dear.
So, after six days of steep climbs and rocky pathways, Jenny and I needed a rest. And that is precisely what we got -- though, I can think of more enjoyable ways to do it. First, we took an early flight back to Lima, then an eight hour bus ride from Lima to Nazca, which is in a desolate, coastal region in the south of Peru. We had the front seats on the second level of a double-decker bus, so we had a good view of the scenery and the driver's somewhat suspect skills behind the wheel. He didn't stop at the usual "pass going uphill on a blind curve" that you find in your travels. After dark, he also blazed away at other cars with his high beams -- no matter how many times they flicked theirs at him. All in all, though, I'd been on more dangerous rides, and we came through safely.
Nazca is famous for the lines and pictures that were drawn on the pampas -- the searing, featureless desert north of town -- between 300 BC and 700 AD. The indigenous Nazcan people created drawings that can be recognized only from the air. They are of animals, people, geometric shapes and other things that are hard to identify. They weren't discovered until the 20th century, when aircraft began flying over this region of Peru. This has spawned numerous theories about why the lines were created, including the obligatory "as landing strips for alien spacecraft." Some have even theorized that the Nazcans had invented hot air balloons so that they could go aloft and view their creations. The most likely hypothesis, though, is that the lines and figures were created for religious ceremonies. The Nazcans would dance along the paths of the lines to honor their gods. The gods, looking down from the heavens, could see the figures and be pleased with their devotion. Researchers have determined that the lines were relatively easy to create. All that was required was to remove the rocks and surface level of the desert, revealing lighter colored earth beneath. The extremely arid climate of the pampas has preserved them for centuries.
View of Nazcan desert out the window from our Cessna
The only way to view them is from the air, and that is the main business of the Nazca tourist industry. There are a number of companies conducting aerial tours, so we booked spots on a 6-seater Cessna aircraft for a 30-minute flight over the lines. The very next morning, Jenny and I were at the aerodrome waiting for our flight. They plopped us down first to watch a Josh Bernstein "Digging for the Truth" episode from the History Channel about the lines. This was good because I had been wanting to see his show, as I recognize in him a fellow Indiana Jones wannabee (he even wears Indy's trademark brown hat). A short time later, we were buckling ourselves into our seats, ready to be launched into the clear blue skies above. I attached the map they'd given me, illustrating our route and the 13 pictograms we would fly over, to the seatback in front of me.
As we took off, I eagerly scanned the ground below, straining for my first glimpse of the lines. We flew northward, and after a few minutes, all traces of vegetation vanished and the ground below turned various shades of brown. I could see the wavy tracks of what little rainfall Nazca received, along with curving roads and pathways. As we climbed, I spotted a long straight line pointing towards distant hills in the east. This was an example of the lines that are thought to have astronomical purpose, marking perhaps the rising or setting of a particular star on the winter or summer solstice. I saw the cleared triangular areas that the loonies called landing strips for spacecraft. Then the captain called over our headsets "Whale, whale, whale." We banked to the right and I looked down, searching desperately until I made out the figure that is called the whale. We then banked to the left, so those on that side of the plane could have a good view, as well. After the whale, were more triangles and trapezoids, then the "Astronaut," "Monkey" (my favorite), "Dog," and so on. I kept had my telephoto attachment in one hand, and the camera in the other, ready to screw it on or off as needed. Some of the designs were much larger than I expected, and some were smaller. Generally, it took only a few seconds of looking to spot the design, though for really large ones needed you to visually "step back" and widen your focus. The small craft was buffeted by the light winds, and the constant banking back and forth might have made me reconsider my breakfast, were I not so busy spotting and photographing the designs. They were really cool to see after reading so much about them.
After we were finished, there was a feeling of anti-climax. We still had a day and a half left in Nazca, and we'd just completed the main reason for going there! We decided to scout out other local tours and book a couple for the next day. We ended up reserving one to the ceremonial capital of the Nazca people, Cahuachi, for tomorrow morning, and another to a mummy-strewn cemetery built by the people who supplanted the Nazcans. After lunch, we visited the local museum which features artifacts from Cahuachi and the nearby archeological site of Pueblo Viejo. The day was warm and sunny, which I guess is what you'd expect from a desert. We shopped, hit up the internet cafes, and generally enjoyed taking it easy after the go-go-go of the Inca Trail.
The next morning, we were the only two on our tour to Cahuachi. It is an active archeological excavation, headed up by an Italian team. They've reconstructed about a third of the central, stepped pyramid, which dominates the site. It'll be another couple of years, our guide guessed, before it is actually open for the public to tramp around on. So, we had to stay about 50 yards away from it, but we could get closer to some of the other store rooms and mud brick walls that the Italians had uncovered. It was hot, windy and dusty, and the weather stayed pretty much during our late afternoon trip to Chauachilla cemetery. An Australian couple joined us on this tour.
If you are the type of person who is bothered by skulls or dead bodies, then this would NOT be the tour for you. The cemetery was discovered by grave robbers about a generation ago, and they have wreaked havoc on the site. Strewn all across the surface are bits of bone, fabric from burial wraps, skulls and even random teeth and bones. The Peruvian government has taken over the site now, so it is more protected. They have excavated a number of graves and placed mummies in them as they would have been at the time of their burial. The grave pits are covered with a wooden roof, but the mummies are otherwise in the open air and unprotected. They are of all ages -- from babies to elderly. You can see tattoes on their exposed, withered skin, checkered headbands are wrapped around skulls, and even the remains of their long hair wrapped around their shoulders. Truly, Chauachilla is a grisly sight, at times.
As we were walking along, our guide would spot a random tooth or bone protruding from the ground, and hold it up for us to examine. The mummies were wrapped in layers of colorful textiles or bundled in cotton before being buried. The colorful textiles and valuable grave goods like jewelry were what the grave robbers were after. After they'd exhumed a mummy and rifled it for valuables, they would toss it aside, leaving it exposed on the surface. There were moments when I felt awful for touring such a macabre place. However, tourist dollars help, our guide assured us. She has worked at Chauachilla for more than a decade, and each year sees the facilities get better, the mummies are more carefully preserved, and the government doing a better job protecting the site. Nevertheless, it seemed an ominous way to end to our sightseeing in Peru.
However, all trips must end eventually, and all that remained of ours was the return bus trip to Lima and a flight out. The 10 days in Peru had seemed to blow by, like the clouds scudding over Dead Woman's Pass. We had seen some amazing sights, though, and met wonderful people. I had been challenged on the mountain paths of the Inca Trail and triumphed. I had seen Machu Picchu, a wonder of the world, and will always know that, for one day, I was first to the Sun Gate... Nukan chayani lluypa naupaq Ninta Intipunkuman.
YouTube videos I took in Peru: