Oh boy. There's not a fibre in my body that would have believed that, what has become one of the longest days of my life, would also be what will become one of the most memorable days of my life, considering the way it all kicked off in the wee, dark hours of this morning.
For those of you who have been following my journey along the Inca Trail as part of a larger month-long G Adventures tour of Peru and Bolivia, you would know that I signed off yesterday's entry, day 3 on the Inca Trail, crossing fingers hoping for good weather this morning. I mean, we've heard stories over the past few days about groups that have trekked all the way in dry weather only to wind up in an unidentifiable Machu Picchu covered in low, thick cloud – not something I wanted to encounter.
"All the finger crossing in the world, however, was not going to save us this morning."
All the finger crossing in the world, however, was not going to save us this morning. Up and at it before 4am, the nightmare reality of having to deal with heavy rain as we made our way up to Intipunku (the Sun Gate), overlooking the ruins of Machu Picchu, became all too real. By the time we had washed, packed, eaten and broken camp, there were already a number of groups ahead of us waiting at the park entry check point. Not too keen on lining up behind in the rain, we decided instead to take shelter at the campsite restaurant/bar building along with scores of others and wait for our turn to head down.
Patience paid off as we eventually had our credentials verified and we set off as a group, away from Wiñay Wayna and into the damp darkness with our head lamps on hand to light the way. Only a couple of hours hiking was required this morning through a forest of large trees and giant ferns, before a final push upwards towards Intipunku, where we would either be met with breathtaking views over Machu Picchu, or, being more realistic considering the current weather conditions, views over a valley filled with dense cloud.
Alas, although the rain had stopped by the time we reached the Sun Gate, the ruins that we so desperately wanted to lay our eyes upon, were blanketed in swirling cloud.
Intipunku (the Sun Gate)
"So what's this Sun Gate thing all about", I hear you ask? Well, for those of us who had taken up a resting spot near our guide, Nancy, we received a quick rundown on the significance of the ruin. Consisting of two discernable stones flanking a narrow passageway leading through a crevice in the mountain, the gate is consistently struck by the first rays of sunlight each morning. Hence, the name "Sun Gate".
Given the vast focus Inca religion placed on the worship of the sun and the essential role it played in all aspects of life, providing light, warmth and fuel to their crops, it's safe to assume that this place of worship would have played host to many ceremonies in ancient times.
Right now, however, we were just hoping that the sun was going to answer our collective prayers and burn off the cloud which, thankfully, looked to already be dispersing as we made the decision to start the descent along the trail that led directly into Machu Picchu.
About 300 metres down the gentle sloping trail, from the back of our group I began to hear a number of gasps as we approached the clearing of another, smaller temple ruin. Sure enough, in the short time we had taken to hike down to this next point, the screen of cloud that was obscuring any views we had of the valley lifted and there it was – the stunning, silent, mysterious, Machu Picchu drenched in sunlight.
It was really interesting to observe the split reactions of our group at this point.
On one hand you had a bunch who instantly reached for their cameras and set about madly snapping away, filling up their precious memory cards with their first glance of this ancient wonder of the world. On the other hand, there was a group of us who chose to take a moment, sit down, stare and just reflect on the magnitude of what we had accomplished over the past few days, and the significance to our lives of what we were about to explore and experience...
...then we TOO got our cameras out and started snapping madly! Haha!
After hundreds of frames had been snapped – panoramic shots, telephoto shots, individual shots and shots with friends (that's me and the big man, Sam, above), it was time to continue past the odd grazing Llama and into the actual grounds of Machu Picchu.
Although we had been hiking the same stone pathways as the ancient Incas for the past couple of days, there was something special and surreal about treading this final section.
With a few minutes up our sleeve to observe the magnificent stone walls and unfinished structures from a different perspective prior to assembling and meeting Julio down at the visitor centre, the cameras started firing again. In a little over an hour's time Machu Picchu was likely to be overrun by tourists traveling up to the site on day tours from nearby Aguas Calientas, so it was somewhat a priority to grab as many "unblemished" scenic shots as we could, while we could.
Reaching the visitor information centre, we were immediately met by the beaming, unmistakable smile of Julio, our lead guide on the Peruvian leg of this G Adventures tour. Julio was all ready to congratulate us all on completing the Inca Trail and propose a toast using a couple of champagne bottles that he distributed to the group.
Simon and Rob (above) took on the job of popping the corks, and the cool bubbly liquid was soon flowing into small plastic cups which were raised for multiple toasts in honour of finishing, of Nancy’s expert guiding over the past few days, and to the Incas, without whom we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be standing where we were.
Machu Picchu – A day of ancient exploration
With 20-30 minutes of free time allocated to take care of whatever "comfort" things we needed to do (change clothes, hit the loos etc) we also had a brief opportunity to check out the visitor centre, gift shop and snack bar to stock up on munchies in preperation for the next few hours that would be spent exploring every last square foot of the magical site.
It's funny, while we whole-heartedly appreciated the semi-sanitary pay toilets, have the opportunity to purchase drinks and put our daypacks into storage (allowing us to "take the load off" for the remainder of the day), I couldn't help but be a little dismayed with even the existence of the large visitor centre so close to the site. It undoubtedly impacts the romance of the experience.
I had the same feeling when I visited Stonehenge in England a decade ago. Had I been forced to hike over rolling green hills and descend into a hidden valley protecting the massive formation of druid stones, I probably would have appreciated the occasion more than I did. Pulling off the highway, getting out of the car and walking no more than 20m to stand at the foot of the circle kinda crueled it for me. Just saying...
Anyway, with Nancy's expert and informative guidance at our disposal, we spent the next 2 hours visiting and becoming familiar with the more notable sections of Machu Picchu. Features such as the "Watchman’s Hut", "Intipata" (Inca bridge), "Temple of the Three Windows", "Intihuatana", the "Main Plaza", "Condor Temple", "Intimachay", "Ceremonial Baths", "Temple of the Sun", "Royal Sector" and more.
I could literally spend the next 2 weeks writing all about each of the aforementioned ancient attractions in turn. Although I appreciate all my reader's thirsts for knowledge, I have neither the time, nor the literary stamina to indulge in that exercise right now, so the fairly comprehensive collection of images following will have to do you all this time around.
Just know that Machu Picchu is absolutely everything you would expect the ancient wonder to be, and more! As evidenced by the hundreds, if not thousands of shots I took over the course of the day, I was well and truly blown away by the experience. Hopefully you'll be able to absorb some of my amazement from the following shots.
It's hard to imagine any photo of the ruins without this iconic rock featuring prominently. While the hike to the top of this mountain is known to be quite treacherous, you can pay to be part of two regulated groups that make the climb daily. While the views from the top would no doubt have been quite spectacular, I wasn't about to devote a couple of hours of exploration time to yet another ascent.
Just like in the stone walls found throughout Cusco, the stone blocks are so tightly and accurately aligned that despite the lack of any kind of mortar, it's impossible to slide even a coin in between the huge bricks.
The three steps you can see to the bottom right of the entrance is representative of "Pachamama" (Mother Earth). The inside walls of the cave (roped off to tourists) are covered with perfectly united cobblestone bricks punctuated by four, door-sized trapezoidal niches.
I'm not sure why the above photo is one of my favourites from the day. Maybe it has something to do with the multiple elements – Huayna Picchu shrouded in cloud, terraced ruins of Machu Picchu under blue skies and a couple of birds in flight. Nice.
The view from the urban sector back up towards the "Watchman's Hut" where I had read presented one of the best all-inclusive vantage points over Machu Picchu. It's where the watchman would have been stationed, so I guess that makes sense.
This little guy (above), an Andean Rabbit, was spotted perched in one of the high niches in the walls of the "Principle Temple". I guess he feels safe since tourists are not permitted to enter the temple due to the danger the weakened rear wall (due to seismic activity) presents.
On the road leading to the top of the pyramid where "Intihuatana" is located, there's a stone (above) which has been carved to imitate the shape of the distant mountains behind. Can you see it? Neat huh?
The winding road, clinging tightly to the steep slope of the mountain that carries hundreds of tourists to and from Machu Picchu down to the nearby village of Aguas Calientes every day, is a modern engineering feat in itself.
Remember what I was saying earlier about the "Watchman's Hut" being perhaps being one of the best vantage points in the whole site? Here's the proof (above). Iconic profile picture anyone?
Back up to Intipunku
Despite the soaring heat and the fact that after 4 days of solid hiking my bad knee was no longer my friend, Rob and I made the decision to follow through on our earlier plans to hike back up to the Sun Gate in an attempt to capture the view "from the top" that we missed this morning because of all the cloud cover. Armed with an estimated amount of water to keep us going for the 1km hike back uphill, we set off at a relatively easy pace.
Once arriving at the elevated viewing position, the rewards were immediate. Machu Picchu in all its beautiful glory to our left and the soaring, vegetation covered surrounding mountains rising up from the Urubamba River, to our right.
With our agreed meeting time back down in Aguas Calientes rapidly approaching, Rob and I headed back down to the visitor centre, pausing briefly to snap a last couple of frames, grabbed our respective gear from storage and boarded a rickety old bus back down the mountain along the winding road we had spied from the ruins earlier in the day.
I'd love to describe what would have been a pretty hair-raising experience, I am sure. But the reality is I think I snoozed nearly the whole way down until the raging waters of the Urubamba were right alongside the bus.
I took a little bit of time to explore the banks of this powerful river before heading up to the tourist strip where I would meet the rest of the group for lunch. The power of the thrashing water was awe-inspiring.
I took a bit of video of what I was witnessing, and hopefully it will give you a bit of an idea of what I saw. Anyone got a kayak?
A little down time in Aguas Calientes
For all intents and purposes, the town of Aguas Caliantes is simply a tourist trap built around a train station, obviously constructed to allow visitors to be delivered on the doorstep of Machu Picchu.
Even the main restaurant strip sits directly on a section of the train platform. Filled with colour, music, activity and smells that would cause absolutely anyone to start salivating, it was the perfect place to meet the rest of the crew who had made their way down at various times throughout the afternoon.
I have to be honest, while the first full-sized meals on offer to us for a good few days was an attractive prospect, it was the "tallie" beers that I had my heart set on. I was hot, tired, and an ice-cold bottle of Peruvian Pilsen had been on my mind since climbing aboard the bus topside. I think my resultant smile (below) says it all.
As was the case for Rob up on the Inca Trail a couple of days ago, today was Simon's birthday – an occasion we were more than happy to celebrate. I mean it was the perfect excuse for more rounds of "Pisco Sours" and cake... let's not forget the cake!
The long wait
The process post-lunch was supposed to be real easy. Get our gear together, head through town to the main train station, board a train back to Cusco around 3:30pm, settle back into our Hostel Corihausi for a good night's sleep before some of us take off for the Amazon tomorrow.
Travel wouldn't be travel without a few hiccups to challenge the best laid plans, and this evening has been no different. As I sit here writing this, we still don't know if we're going to get out of Aguas Caliantes tonight. * sigh *
Let me explain.
There's no doubt that we had our fair share of rain on the Inca Trail, but we had no idea that there had been so much rain in the area over the past couple of days that a number of land slides over the train tracks has made it difficult for us to get back to Cusco by rail. I can't really tell you too much about what has happened because the flow of information from authorities to rail staff and then to waiting, anxious passengers here is pretty poor.
All that has been left for us to do is explore town a little, check out the markets, invest a few Sols at pretty much every bar in town (without getting TOO drunk) and play LOTS and LOTS of cards.
I think we all feel a little sorry for Julio. He's been glued to his phone for the best part of the last 4-5 hours trying to find out from the G Adventures office in Cusco what's going on and attempt to make alternative arrangements in case we do get stuck here (in a town with VERY limited vacant accommodation options). We're all starting to get tired and a little cranky and, bless him, he's shouldering all the frustration.
Nothing we can do at this point other than visit another pub, play some more cards and keep checking to see if there is any new developments. I guess I'll fill you all in on what happened tomorrow night from deep in the Amazon Forest (I hope)!
For those of you who’d like to learn more about Machu Picchu, check out this great article on the National Geographic website: Top 10 Machu Picchu Secrets
Links & Credits
- All images // Rob Masefield
- G Adventures // gadventures.com
- Machu Picchu // wikitravel.org
- Inti Punku (Sun Gate) // wikipedia.org
- Stonehenge // english-heritage.org.uk
- Huayna Picchu // wikipedia.org
- Aguas Caliantes // wikitravel.org
- Hostel Corihausi, Cusco // corihuasi.com
- Top 10 Machu Picchu Secrets // nationalgeographic.com