Dramatically dripping over the precipice of a ridge at the edge of the Andes, the World Heritage site of Machu Picchu is a stunning vision to behold as you descend into it. Ever since its accidental re-discovery by the Yale University professor, Hiram Bingham lll in 1911, this mysterious ancient wonder has continued to capture the imaginations of people around the world.
Constructed around 1450AD under instructions by Inca Emperor, Pachacuti, it is believed to have been a royal retreat and ceremonial centre. The priesthood, using their astronomical knowledge, conducted farming experiments, as evidenced by the terraced hillsides. The site was also chosen as a military outpost to keep an eye on enemy tribes. To support the city, an infrastructure of roads, storehouses, buildings, drainage systems, etc. was built. The occupants deserted Machu Picchu around 1572, believing the Spanish would attack them as had occurred in other parts of the Inca Empire.
The three day trek I joined was with the socially and environmentally conscious Australian company, Geckos Adventure Travel. It was led by two excellent local guides and twenty hard-working Quechua porters, descendants of the Inca. Tents and all meals were included with special dietary requirements well catered for. The Trail we followed was the middle path, constructed for priests, VIPs and nobility.
We left the beautiful city of Cuzco before dawn to commence trekking from Piscacucho passport control, near Ollantaytambo on the Urabamba River. Following the Camino Inca, “Classic” route, we ascended through cloud forest and past the ruins of Llactapata, probably built to service travellers long ago. Our first night’s campsite at Ayapata was nestled beneath breath-taking views of the snow-capped Andes. At an altitude exceeding 3000m, the effects of oxygen deficiency struck different trekkers in diverse ways, regardless of fitness, age or medical conditions.
Our beautifully prepared gourmet breakfasts usually consisted of fresh fruit, a cereal such as quinua (pronounced: kee-NU-a) or oatmeal, eggs, bread, jam, tea and coffee. Both lunch and dinner started with soup followed by a main course with large platters of vegetables, a meat dish and a carbohydrate of either rice or bread. Dessert varied from fruit to a delicious cooked or cold dish.
The chilly second morning started with a pre-dawn wake-up call at our tents with hot mate-de-coca tea, a local remedy for altitude sickness and cash crop for more nefarious purposes. Even in January, the nights can reach below freezing, so it is recommended to take a good quality down sleeping bag, or hire one with synthetic fill before the trek.
This was our most brutal day trekking to 4215m under the pitiless silhouette of the naked breast of “Dead Woman’s Pass”. Head down, weaving in a tactical zigzag motion up the steps, each of us withdrew into our own headspace. Nothing existed beyond the next breath, the next step onwards and upwards towards that heartless breast looming high above. Finally summiting the pass, we were cheered on by other trekkers who had made it earlier.
After a significant rest, photos and much swilling of water, we descended into the next valley in the direction of lunch. The new challenge was the steep descent due the incline of Inca steps ranging from 15 to 40cm in height. I would thoroughly recommend hiring trekking poles before you go.
The porters, who carried all our supplies and camping gear, etc., of a legal weight up to 25kg, would speed past us on a deadline to reach the next rest stop. While we struggled with only light daypacks, we marvelled at the porters’ strength and agility. Fit they might be but many of us were worried about the long-term effects the gruelling conditions had on their health. Work-related problems include damage to knees and kidneys, for example. Most of these men are farmers from mountain villages but make a very meagre living. A porter’s job allows them to earn extra money to support themselves and their families.
After the trek, I was introduced to the Second Secretary of the Porters’ Union in Urabamba. They are campaigning tour companies to include an extra $USD1 contribution by trekkers into a fund to provide for porters’ welfare. This simple donation will go a long way towards providing these hard working men with a health insurance scheme.
Upon reaching the second day’s lunch site at Pacaymayo under the snowy Andean pinnacles, we dipped our aching feet into icy pools fed by a waterfall some distance above. Painful as it was, the freezing water definitely helped.
Lunch finished, there were more downward steps before ascending the second pass of Qochapata at 3950m. On the way up, we took a break at the ancient military fort of Runkuracay. From here on, the stone steps and pathways were original, barely touched, except for maintenance, since the days of the Inca Empire. Not far from the second night’s camp at Chaquinqocha, we stopped to marvel at the remains of the town, Sayaqmarka, hanging off the edge of a cliff.
Day 3 was greeted with our welcome mug of coca tea and more brilliant views of snow-capped crags. From this point, the old Inca road was not so arduous in terms of terrain but psychologically challenging by its narrow gauge and precipitous drop. The rolling trail descended through several tunnels carved out of solid rock, as well as climbing to the last pass, at 3670m before lunch at Winay Wayna. After exploring its terraced hillside, we set off through lush rainforest, abundant in exotic butterflies and flowers, to the passport control barrier.
Due to safety concerns, trekking groups until recently, used to rise very early and queue here in the dark before ascending the steep steps to the Sun Gate. At dawn, the first glimpse of Machu Picchu could be spotted as the sun rose. Our first sight of the famous lost city of the Incas was in the afternoon light. It was only a short walk down, arriving after the day trippers had left. And what a magical spectacle it was to behold!
We caught the bus down to Machu Picchu Pueblo, also known as Agua Calientes (hot spring) to spend the night in the comparative luxury of a hostel with en suites and a real bed. Early next morning, we returned to Machu Picchu by bus for a half day tour by our guides with free time to explore. A must-see is the engineering wonder of the Inca Bridge.
The train ride back followed the gushing torrent of the Urabamba River. We alighted at Piscacucho and returned to Cuzco by mini bus, although the train also runs all the way to Cuzco, as well.
As there is a strict limit on the number of trekkers allowed, the trip needs to be booked at least 6 months in advance to ensure adequate time for the issue of the permit. The trail is closed during February for maintenance.
If you go:
- Tour companies: Geckos Adventure Tours, 6 days for $1075, including 3 day trek to Machu Picchu.
- Flights: Multiple airlines with at least 2 stopovers fly from Sydney to Cuzco via Buenos Aires and Lima from $2651.
- Accommodation: Hotels, hostels, tents.
Visas: Required. Your travel agent will arrange these for Peru and the Inca Trail Permit. The visa for Argentina can be applied for online.