Day 3 – Pacamayo to Machu Picchu (21km)
I’ve spent most of the night shifting from side to side seeking comfort from the hard gravelly surface for which my rollmat has been no match. Marco’s wake up call with hot tea at 4.45am comes as a blessed relief. After the heavy rains overnight, everything is cold and damp, but at least it’s not raining now.
Guide Manny is keen to make an earlier than usual start today. Normally this is a 15km day to the campsite at Wiñay Wayna, where groups overnight before walking the final 5km up to the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu at dawn to catch the sunrise. However recent heavy rains mean than some of the camping sites, including the one we’ve been allocated, are no longer in good condition, and the current weather patterns are bringing heavy cloud and rain at Machu Picchu most early mornings. Chances of that romantic sunrise over Machu Picchu are slim. Instead the guides reckon our best chance of sun will be mid-late afternoon, and if we make good time, we could get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu today. That’s enough of an incentive for us, and after yet another hearty Benedicto-blessed breakfast of veggie omelette and plantain, we’re all packed up and on the trail by 6am.
Manny sets off uphill at a cracking pace, it takes quite some willpower for this girl to keep up. A 45 minute climb takes us to the ruins of Runkuracay, an Inca control point halfway up the hillside that we could see on the trail yesterday, with great views back across the Pacamayo valley. The climb gets steeper. I’ve smuggled coca leaves from breakfast into my pocket, and as I become more breathless with effort, I roll them up and have a good chew along with another coca-muña sweet. It really does help! Another hour of steadily rising stone steps, past a friendly hummingbird who politely sits on a branch for a photo, flitting away as soon as I walk on. Magical. We pass two small lakes, one natural and one rectangular reservoir, and finally reach the top of the pass – the Abra de Runkuracay, at 4000m almost as high as yesterday! Who said that was the hard day?! I’m starting to get used to the altitude now.
We’re told that this part of the trail is 70% original Inca path, we’re now walking on an ancient crazy pavement. With the occasional spot of llama congestion! From the pass, the first part of the way down is incredibly steep, the rocky steps are slick from days of misty cloud and rain, it takes solid concentration on where to put your feet. But with every carefully placed step forward, I am in total awe of the engineering of this stone pathway, cut deep into the hillside, with sheer drops below, and brilliantly constructed embankments holding it up. How did the Incas do it? We know they got the labour through ‘mita’ and ‘minca’ forms of labour exchange introduced by Inca Pachacutec whose reign revolutionised the empire: forms of taxation on the people, paid in work to the Inca chiefs. Work was also exchanged for corn, potatoes, quinoa and other foods, produced in abundance with terraced farming across the mountain sides. With everyone expected to provide labour to pay tax, no wonder the expansion of buildings and pathways happened so quickly.
At lunchtime, Benedicto produces delicious empanadas for starters, soup and vegetable frittata. Then, just when we think we’ve seen it all he appears in his chef’s whites at the tent entrance brandishing a large cake, decorated with ‘Feliz Viaje Amigos’ iced on the top! We know there’s no oven, it’s just a camp kitchen – but it’s freshly baked and still a little warm – how on earth has he done it? Manny whispers that it takes three hours of slow steam-style cooking in a large pot over a fire – some of the porters will have had an even earlier start to get the fire going and the cake mix on! Wow.
After lunch, we clamber down another steep set of steps and come to the Inca ruins of Sayacmarca – which means ‘Inaccessible Town’. Well, only five of us are willing to climb back up another set of steps to access it – the others loll at the bottom taking a rest. But for me it’s well worth the effort – a veritable warren of passageways and rooms, with a great view of the valley below. What it was used for is not exactly clear, but it could well have been a good resting place for those travelling. From this point we enter a wonderful cloud forest, rich with orchids, trees, mosses and bird calls. I spot a wonderful flash of blue and yellow in a tree – is it a kind of tanager? I’m not sure. The path twists and turns through a tiny tunnel in the rock face, and climbs once more up to 3700m. All around and below us are swirling clouds – we’re told that on a clear day you can see the peaks of Salkantay and Veronica from this pass – there’s no chance today, but the misty surrounds and dripping greenery still have an ethereal charm of their own.
Phuyupatamarca, which we reach next, is therefore well named – the Town in the Clouds! Actually the cloud is slowly starting to lift to reveal the majestic heights of this lofty terraced ruin, with immense staircases, once a ritual worship place with several bath houses. It’s easily the most breathtaking site we’ve walked into so far and the path leading out of it is also jaw dropping – a spiralling 1000 steps down, including another Inca tunnel.
It’s just after 2.30pm when we reach Wiñay Waynu – which would normally be our final night’s campsite. Indeed, porters for many other groups are already setting up camp. After 15km of walking up and down stone steps it would be so tempting to stop here. But, just as predicted, the skies are now clearing and there’s still almost 30 minutes before the checkpoint closes, so we all agree we want to go on. It means my tired knees and throbbing feet must now walk another 5km but the views around the mountain side are so spectacular, the route is fringed with lovely orchids and far down below we can see the Machu Picchu engines winding around the valley like a tiny Hornby train set.
We’re almost there, and just when I’ve decided that’s enough steps for one day, there’s a final hurdle – an almost vertical stone staircase about 50m high. I take a deep breath and grip my poles for the last climb. Jono and Emma have a better idea, and go puma-style on all fours, scaling the steps in half the time!
But there! We’ve arrived finally at the Sun Gate! And the sun is streaming like a furnace onto our glowing faces as we gaze in wonder at the incredible citadel laid out before us, and the sheer dark olive green jagged mountains like sugar loaves all around. I blink in sheer speechless wonderment – I would have cried, if I’d had any breath left!
What a place to build an Inca palace and town – what imagination and bravado to even conceive of doing so. I don’t want to move from this spot, but just drink it in, but there’s still a final kilometre to arrive into Machu Picchu itself from here. Thankfully it’s downhill all the way to the Watchman’s hut at the top end of Machu Picchu itself for the victorious group photocall!
We’ve arrived at the very end of the day, the setting sun is casting delicious shadows across the ruins. In fact, both the sun and moon are visible in the sky, and we virtually have the whole site to ourselves, apart from a few llamas grazing amongst the ruins, for just those few minutes. It’s a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Day 4 – Back to Machu Picchu
Instead of a cold, wet night camping at Wiñay Waynu, our group descended down to Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Pueblo, and spent the night in comfy hostel beds. As dawn breaks on the final day, rain is pouring from the sky and the mountain is encased in thick, thick cloud. We feel so lucky we made it yesterday, and get to lie in until 7am today! We later hear the groups we left behind were up at 3am, queuing at the control gate, only to arrive soaking wet at the Sun Gate for a view of… nothing except clouds.
For us, it’s a half hour bus ride back up the mountain, and we enter Machu Picchu for the second time – it’s still raining, and the ruins morph in and out of the mist as Manny tells us the story of Hiram Bingham’s discovery of the ruins guided by Pablito, the son of a local farming family – a story told in Bingham’s own book Inca Land. We hear of the inspiration behind the location, the alignment with the sun and moon at times of solstice, the views of the great Mountains of Veronica, Salkantay and Ausangate, whose prefix ‘Apu’ also means protector. We wander through the vast site, exploring the temple of the sun, of water, of earth (the tombs) – Andean Quechua traditions today are still rooted in the Incas’ three realms of existence: Hanan Pacha (world above, the sky, represented by the condor), Kay Pacha (world around, the earth, represented by the puma) and Uku Pacha (world below, the underground, represented by the serpent). Hesven, earth, and hell. The three levels are represented everywhere in the stonework and architecture. I’m particularly taken by the temple of the condor, with placed stones on the ground for the head, but soaring natural rock formstions carving the spread of the wings.
The whole city is so developed, with narrow aqueducts channelling water from place to place, store houses and temples and agricultural terraces below. Imagining the civilisation that once occupied it is mind boggling. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the Spanish had never rampaged through the Inca empire. If Francisco Pizarro hadn’t killed Atahuallpa at Cajarmarca, or if the rebellion led by Manco Inca had succeeded and the Inca world had survived further. What would Peru be like today?
Above us the mountain of Huayna Picchu swirls in and out of the clouds, until they finally start to lift again towards midday. This morning, however the site is filled with thousands of visitors, swarming like ants across every part of the ruins, taking selfies with llamas, and now queuing for that classic photo at the Watchman’s Hut.
For me the wonder of Machu Picchu will always be that moment I first saw it from the Sun Gate, with feet aching and knees trembling from the effort of scaling up and down thousands of steps, zig zagging breathlessly up those mountain passes, chewing bitter coca leaves, along the path first carved by the Incas, my footsteps following in theirs.