Adventures in Perú
On the Royal Inca Trail.
Machu Picchu. The name itself conjures
thoughts of ancient mysteries. Pictures of the ancient city,
cradled among the mountain peaks, are breathtaking and world
famous, and indeed the city itself is a UN World Heritage Site.
It is a major attraction for tourists the world over, particularly
from Europe, Israel, Asia, and other countries in South America.
There are two main ways to reach Machu
Picchu. The first is the 4-5 day Inca Trail, which involves backpacking
over steep terrain at high altitude. Because of heavy use and
damage to the trail, the government now controls access and guides
are mandatory. The second, and far more widely used access is
by train from Cuzco to the small town of Agua Calientes, and
then by bus for a 30 minute ride up hairpin turns. The latter
method definitely held no appeal for us, but neither did we feel
ready to sleep on the rocks for 4 nights. Fortunately, there
was a compromise.
Example of the terrain,
Royal Inca Trail.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.
For our personal pilgrimage to Machu
Picchu, we rose before dawn and boarded the train to Agua Calientes,
which leaves at 6:00 am on the dot. The way out of Cuzco is so
steep that the train follows a series of switchbacks, going forwards,
then backwards, up the slope in a zigzag progression. We passed
within a few feet of houses and yards, with dogs, chickens, pigs,
and children running loose alongside the train. The children
waved and called out for money; the animals didn't.
We had been told to get off the train
at Kilometer 104, about 30 minutes before the scheduled arrival
at the town. We were to meet our guide there to hike the Royal
Inca Trail, a one-day trek that covers about 10 miles and climbs
nearly 2000 feet in altitude, arriving at Machu Picchu through
the famous Sun Gate. We told the hostess where we wanted to get
off, and when the train slowed, we jumped -- not onto a platform
or a station, but onto a 2 foot slice of ground beside the track.
Fortunately, our guide was there to meet us and help keep us
from falling into the ravine that bordered the tracks. After
crossing a stream, we climbed a short distance to the famous
trail. Access to the trail at this point is strictly controlled,
and we had to sign in with the guards, who checked to make sure
we had the proper reservations and guide.
The flight of 50 steep
and narrow steps, shortly before the Sun Gate.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.
I must tell you that this trail was
work. Hard work. Especially for Steve, who hadn't eaten
in 2 days because of Tupac's Revenge. At first the trail climbed
along a smooth dirt path, curving around the mountain, and I
settled in for a pleasant hike in the mountains until we came
to the stone stairs. From that point on, the trail was more stairs
than path, with the ascent getting steeper and steeper. We hiked
steadily upwards from 9:30 to 1:00, to the ruins of Winay-Wayna,
which had seemed tantalizingly close for the last two hours.
We then took a break for lunch at a shelter where the backpackers
hiking the full trail were gathered to spend the night. I am
so glad we had not decided to stay there. The trail and
the ruins along it were breathtaking, but the crowded concrete
shelter looked like a typical government monstrosity.
After lunch we hurried on, as we had
to pass through the Sun Gate before 2:30. Our guide had promised
us that the trail was fairly level from the shelter to the gate,
and then it was downhill to Machu Picchu. It turned out that
his definition of level was that there was a net gain of 0 feet
in altitude. We accomplished this by descending, then ascending
for an equal distance. The last portion of the trail to the Sun
Gate was a set of 50 very steep, very narrow stone steps. As
we passed through the stone portal at last, we definitely felt
we had earned the right to gaze on Machu Picchu.
"We made it to
the Sun Gate -- Machu Picchu lies below."
Photo: Marcia Brandes.
By the time we had hiked down to the
site, it was almost the closing time of 5:00 pm, so we saved
any exploration for the next morning. We had booked a room at
the only hotel on the site, the Sanctuary Lodge. Exorbitantly
priced, it nevertheless offered us the opportunity of rising
before dawn and entering the site at 6:00 am, a good hour before
the buses started arriving from the town below. We climbed to
a vantage point and watched, with a few other pilgrims from around
the world, as the sun rose over a mist-shrouded Machu Picchu.
It was worth all the work, and every penny. It was everything
we could have wished, and our photos are worthy of any travel
We spent the rest of the morning with
our guide, learning what is known, what is guessed, and what
is unknown and perhaps unknowable about this ancient place. Scholars
differ in their ideas of how the site was used by the Incas --
was it a hospital, a religious retreat, a festival meeting place,
or a town with permanent residents? How many people actually
lived there? Estimates of 500 are based on the number of bodies
found buried, but did they actually live there? We do know that
there are religious temples, domestic quarters, and agricultural
sectors. We also know that whatever Machu Picchu meant to the
Incas, it was so sacred that no one ever revealed its presence
to the Spanish conquerors. Machu Picchu owes its remarkable preservation
to the fact that it lay hidden from outsiders for hundreds of
Next month: Fresh jaguar tracks
Marcia Brandes. All rights reserved.