Dawn arrived all too early after a very fitful nights sleep at 3600m! We all arose well before dawn to scramble up to a small and rocky promontory just behind the tents to watch the sun rise slowly from behind the snow capped peaks of the Cordillera Vilcabamba Mountains that surrounded us. It was a sublime moment to bare witness to!
Some strong coffee was justifiably consumed and our porters and chef were then duly paid their well deserved tips and bonuses in the always looked forward to ‘thank you’ ceremony that happens on the last day of any expedition.
Decamping for the last time we broke camp and headed down the steep and damp steps leading out of the terraces of Phuyupatamarca and down into the misty jungle.
The trail from Phuyupatamarca onwards is the best preserved section of the route and stone step after stone step provide a very clear path through some thick jungle undergrowth. It is here that you can truly see how masterful the Incas were at engineering with embankments, tunnels, graded steps and retaining walls all built to exacting standards in very tough conditions.
We were headed for the ruins of Intipata at 2850m as we dropped steadily down from the high mountains and through the jungle canopy.
Intipata translated means ‘the place of the Sun’ and the ruins are one of the lesser known sites on the Inca Trail but are still absolutely magnificent. The site consists of countless terraces banked steeply above one another in an amazing mountainous setting. It is said that these constructions were connected in some way with the Machu Picchu Sanctuary possibly it was here that the Inca elite grew their own crops for the sanctuary but nobody really knows for sure.
We had the ruins all to ourselves an unexpected joy of the trip. Here we were in the middle of the Andes clambering around lost cities high up in the clouds just like explorers of old with no other tourists or travellers to spoil the spell we were under. It almost felt as though we could have been Hiram Bingham himself discovering these places for the very first time a century before us.
From the terraces of Intipata and across the valley below us we could see the ruins of Wiñay Wayna. Wiñay Wayna sits at 2700m above sea-level and was the next stop along the trail.
The name Wiñay Wayna (forever young) (win-yay-way-na) is used to refer to both a hostel, a restaurant and a camp site as well as the Inca ruins. Two groups of major architectural structures, one lower and one upper, are set among multiple agricultural terraces at this concave mountainside site. A long flight of fountains or ritual baths utilising as many as 19 springs runs between the two groups of buildings.
This settlement was the most impressive yet along the trail an absolute incredible place to have the privilege of seeing. Set in an almost perfect setting it was the quintessential lost city from fables and film. Complete with Llama’s relaxing on it’s terraces and a waterfall behind as a backdrop I could not imagine a more impressive setting that the Inca’s could have picked to build one of their cities.
The midday heat burnt down upon us and I dipped my head (as many before me must have done) in the tumbling waters of the fountains – still running strong after many centuries – in the main plaza. We briefly ate some lunch as the high heat passed dipping under some shade before turning our attentions to the path once more and the final slap to our grand prize – Machu Picchu.
From Wiñay Wayna the trail undulates below the crest of the east slope of the mountain named Machu Picchu. We reached the steep steps leading up to Inti Punku (“sun gate”) after approximately another 3 km of hard slog. The steps are a real killer after so many days of continuous walking and were a real obstacle to have to ascend to reach the gate.
However, when you reach the top you find to your dismay that you still have a way to go until you get to the actual gate proper and your mind takes a bit of a beating at this point. Eventually though you are duly rewarded with the view from the Inti Punku, the view you have trekked four days to see, the vista at the end of the journey, the grand reveal of none other than Machu Picchu in all it’s grandeur!
Well that’s how you are supposed to feel but in reality we all felt a sudden sadness. Sadness that the journey had come to an end, sadness that we were no longer alone but once again back on the tourist trail and surrounded by hundreds of day-trippers, sadness that the natural beauty of the place was somehow tarnished by so many people jostling and shoving to get their one photo of the place come hell or high water. Sadness that a switchback road had been carved into the hillside to ferry fat tourists up to the sanctuary unable to get their under their own steam.
But these are mere quibbles really and a result of our isolation on the trail for five days. We felt we had earnt the right to stand a stare at the fabled citadel but alas modern travel and tourism have put paid to such elitist ambitions and so we became submerged in the flood of other tourists as we all made our way through the gates and flowed on towards the centre of the sanctuary.
Machu Picchu is magnificent and well worth the trek, it is the zenith of Inca construction and something to be marvelled at. It’s position hidden high up in the clouds meant that it was never discovered by the Conquistadors and consequently was never ransacked or pillaged. Today it sits resplendent as a symbol of a lost civilisation.
Our time however on this day was short as we had trekked into the sanctuary purposefully late in the afternoon. Avoiding the crowds who flock to the Sun Gate at dawn we had opted for a later arrival and an extra day to visit the ruins giving us more time to enjoy them without all the rush and by being there first thing next morning we would also avoid the worst of the crowds.
We passed through Machu Picchu and descended slowly to Aquas Calientes in the valley below to spend the night in the relative luxury of a budget hotel. However, our adventure was not over just yet and we would visit the ruins again the very next morning for a much better in depth look.
Next in this series of travel dispatches – The Inca Trail – The Return Journey