The Andes Mountains & Cusco
I wake up in the bus to my ears popping because of the altitude. It’s about to get daylight and all around me, I’m surrounded by lush mountains and clouds. The Andes Mountain – I’m finally back! All my life I’ve been drawn to these mountains, like a strange, inexplicable pull, and this time I’m about to do my big dream: 4 days Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Slowly and steady the bus works its way up the sides of the mountains. At an altitude of nearly 4.000 meters we find the old Inca capital Cusco. This is my first stop in the Andes. An old and beautiful city with colonial houses, big plazas and churches all over. To begin with, I spend 4 days here both to enjoy the city and acclimatize so I’ll be ready for my trek.
But as I find out, Cusco becomes the city I keep coming back to. In total, I end up spending more than 2 weeks in the city. I guess it’s because of its perfect location for exploring big parts of the area around.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Day 1: “A Walk in the Park”
I get picked up at the hostel at 5:20am and meet my hiking group for the first time, consisting of 5 couples and 4 girls traveling together. Apparently, I’m the only one doing the trek on my own. Well, I guess that just means more time to connect with Mother Nature. A 2-hour bus ride takes us to our breakfast place. After that, there’s only half an hour left of the bus ride before getting to the starting point of the Inca Trail.
From here we start the 8-hour trek of the day. This day should be the easy one out of the 4 days, almost like a “walk in the park”. This is not completely true but the day’s trek is durable and definitely beautiful. We walk along the Urubamba river through lush and green mountains. We learn that the first part of the Inca Trail isn’t the real Inca Trail. Apparently, the train company and the government thought it was an excellent idea to destroy part of the trail in order to built train tracks (I can’t believe that we as human beings never get smarter).
From our trail, we can see the real Inca trail, we can see how it leads straight to the old Inca ruin Anabamba which was a resting place for the Incas, sort of like a hotel. An hour more, and we are at the second Inca ruin of the day, and this place is just incredible. Wayllabamba. We spot it of a top of a mountain. It’s placed in a valley. The Incas build terraces because they already then knew about the El-Niño phenomena which gets the rivers to run high. The terraces prevented flooding. And these terraces look amazing.
Day 2: Dead Woman’s Pass
The day already starts at 4.15am. At least I’m woken up to a good cup of coca leaf tea and a huge breakfast. I’ve been dreading this day. The toughest day of the hike. And to spice it up a bit, we are even adding an extra peak to the day. Like the highest peak wasn’t enough. We do this because of the big amount of rain that has fallen lately and caused the camp Winay Wayna to flood. In all, this means that we’ll have to do the hike in 3 days instead of 4.
Trying to make the second day easier, our guides divide the hike into sections, like one and half hour to the start of the peak, 2 hours going up 3.000 stairs, another 2 hours climbing the rest of the peak (to an altitude of 4.200 meters), 2 hours going down the peak, 2 hours getting up the next peak and one and half hour going down the second peak. I don’t know if this strategy actually works. No matter what or how they say it, it sounds like suicide, that’s for sure!
During the first and highest peak of the day, altitude sickness starts showing its ugly face for several people in the group. Like the 3.000 stairs wasn’t enough! And to add a little extra, we now have to fight with a low amount of oxygen during the last 2 hours of the first peak. My guess is that, this is why they call it The Dead Woman’s Pass, but I’m actually wrong about this assumption. Apparently, the rock formation on the highest peak looks like a dead woman laying down if you use your imagination.
For me, the toughest part is knowing that I’ll have to get back up and continue after lunch for another 3 or 4 hours. All I feel like is saying leave me alone, I already did 7 hours of hiking!
So what makes it worth it? It might be the mystical cloud forest we pass on our way, or the view over glaciers and huge mountains. It might be the many waterfalls and rivers we pass on our way, or it might be the fact that we, doing this stretch, are walking in exactly the same footprints as the Incas and that we’re witnessing the unbelievable way, they were able to built the path and stairs in a way that it all connects with nature. The Incas didn’t believe in destroying nature, for them it was sacred. And because nature was their religion, they built around it. Never taking down a tree or removing a stone. They simply added these elements to the trail and build around them.
Day 3: The Sun Gate to Machu Picchu and Agua Calientes
We get up at 5.00am. My feet are crying when I make them wear the trekking boots again but after a while they settle for another day of hiking. This day soon becomes the most spiritual of them all. The trail is just beautiful and at the same time quite dangerous.
All around us, we got the incredible mountains and this morning, the glacier Salkantay is shinning more than ever with its covered snow peak. On this part of the trail, I feel an amazing energy which materiales into beautiful butterflies all around me. I decide to take advantage of the energy and find a perfect spot for a meditation. This day I really get an understanding of why the Incas considered the trail as sacred and why they only allowed the most sacred people as the shamans and kings to walk the trail.
At the same time as I feel this energy, the trail is narrowing down and there’s a slight chance of falling. Without a railing and approximately 2 to 3 kilometres down, there’s a risk that this could end badly, and I’m at that point in my hike where I do not trust my legs anymore. I smile at myself as I find myself clinch against the mountain wall. At one point, I got 5 people from the group screaming “Sara, watch out”. This is not the thing you want to be hearing just before passing a small wooden bridge hanging over a cliff where falling down would mean death. Apparently, one of the wooden pieces is loss but, as you can probably guess since I am writing this, I made it!
Just before our lunch break at the campsite Winay Wayna, we pass one of the most impressing Inca ruins, I’ve ever seen. Phuyupatamarka. You already spot it from far away. It is located on a mountain side and consists of a big amount of terraces and small stone houses. Together with the dramatic scenery with mountain views and views over the Urubamba river and Agua Calientes, this place is almost as beautiful as Machu Picchu.
After lunch at Winay Wayna, we got another 3 hours left of hiking before getting to the Sun Gate. A place I’ve been dreaming of arriving to a million times. But before getting there, we have to climb the crazy so called monkey stairs that leads to the Sun Gate. And if I said climbing, I really meant crawling. These stairs are so steep that I’ve never seen anything like it!
Arriving there, I get my first glimpse of Machu Picchu and my eyes fill with tears. I can’t believe I’m finally here. After been dreaming of this place for 20 years and after been crossing 3 mountain passes to get here.
Slowly, we make our way down from the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu. The closer we get, the more beautiful it becomes. The ruins of the old Inca city and in the background, the majestic mountain Huayna Picchu which takes form of a face of an indian.
But because it’s the end of the afternoon, we have to come back the next day to get a closer look at the ruins. Instead, we make our way down to Agua Calientes for a dinner and a real bed (sleeping in tents with thin madrases has been though on the back).
Day 4: Machu Picchu
This day we are out of luck. It’s just pouring down as we make our way back up to Machu Picchu from Agua Calientes. At least, we are in a bus and not walking through the Sun Gate. That would just have been too sad if our first view of Machu Picchu would have been through thick clouds and rain.
Our guide Darwin takes us on a 2 hour tour around the ruins and tells us the most amazing stories about the Incas. How they were able to form the stones in amazing shapes, how they worshiped the sun, the moon, the stars and the mountains and how they build the temples and the city in a way that captured this believe in nature. Apparently, Machu Picchu was a holy city, build to worship the nature. This shows in the many temples. But the city never got finished. The Incas had to leave the city when the Spaniards arrived. They moved deep into the jungle and to this day, there’s still a belief that Machu Picchu is actually not the lost city of the Incas. They believe there’s another one, even bigger, tucked away in the Amazone.
Leaving Machu Picchu this morning, I get the weird feeling you get when you realize that your big dream just came through. It’s a mixed and ambivalent feeling of both gratefulness and anti-climax. Because now what? Well, the adventure is not over yet…