Thursday, October 12, 2006

In the foot steps of the Incas - a 4-day hike

The only thing we had booked and planned pre-hand for our SA-trip was the four day hike up to the lost Inca city Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was one of Incas most sacred cities - if not the most - and therefore very important to the Incas. Actually it was so important to the Incas that they succeeded in keeping it a secret to the Spaniards for the years the Spaniards were taking over the control of Peru.
Machu Picchu was first discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. At that point it had been deserted for more than 3-400 years, if you don’t take the two peasant families living there into consideration.
Anyway, for us it was a not to miss, and that is why we had pre-booked it. Surveys are showing that the Machu Picchu is sinking because of the huge tourist flow. Therefore the Government has set up restrictions meaning that only 200 tourists can start walking the famous Inca Trail pr. day, making it obligatory to pre-book if you want to get a chance.

We were picked up from our hostel 5 o’clock in the morning and met the group: Ireland, Great Britain, USA and Australia were represented besides us. 15 people plus 3 guides, 19 porters and 2 cooks. A two hours drive took us to Ollaytayambo, where we shopped wander sticks, coca leaves and water. Soon after there we arrived at the 82 km sign meaning it was time to start the hike!

So what is it like...hmm. Well you swing on your backpack, grab your wander stick and start walking…and continue doing that for four days until you finally arrive at the Machu Picchu. Sounds like fun?

All in all we had to walk 46 kilometers, which is quite a bit if you take into consideration the mountainous terrain you are walking in. Well you don’t need an axe or a rope, but you do need strong knees to be able to walk down and up roughly old made Inca-stairs several hours per day.
Why choose the hard walk and not go for the easy choice - the train? Easy question! On the way you meet the great beauty and variety in the landscapes you walk through, being the huge snowcapped mountains, the dense humid jungle, the grassing alpacas and llamas, the wild orchids in flower, humming birds, the Andean culture which is very much alive along the road and of cause the Inca-sites shattered along the trail, which give you better insight and understanding of the great people who once ruled this country in such a magnificent way and for whom Machu Picchu was so important.

First day was meant as a teaser compared with the following days. Slowly the group moved forward up and down the tortuous trail through the Andean mountain landscape. For one of us it did not seem that easy. Because of the heights you lost your breath quite fast going up. It was difficult to get a grip on the loose soil making the road seem even steeper. We passed wild tobacco plants and plants used for hallucinating purposes. Every other hour we passed small local communities whom had supplemented their agricultural income as vendors of water and chocolate to the tired tourists.
Forgetting why you are there in the first way, you just stop up and feel the mountains embracing you, while you fill up your system with a fresh portion of energy carried by the Andean wind. A powerful breeze. It is really beautiful, and even though 500 people (200 tourists + 300 porters and guides) are starting walking the trail per day, the landscape is huge enough for you to get your moments in solitude with the mountains.
Feeling lost there might be one of the best feelings you will get in life.

The site on day one:
Llaqtapata. “Terrace Town”. This settlement was taken over from pre-Inca people and expanded by the Incas, almost certainly as a center of food production for supplying the Inca Trail sites and Machu Picchu itself.

Second day was expected to be the toughest day. We had to reach a pass placed in 4200 meters, meaning we had to climb 1200 meters that day equal 5 hours walking up, up and up. Most of the walk was just about making it. Rather monotone walk in rain and hail.
A couple of times we did have some nice surprises though. One was when we passed the forest of the dwarfs and elves. A wonderful place with green vegetation and strange curly trees…. and well, tons of biting bugs (nothing is perfect). The other nice surprise was when we were greeted by a herd of llamas running down the trail towards us. They were all in different colors, stopping up in front of us at the narrow trail, trying to find their guts to pass us. They looked skeptical at us before they chose to continue on their journey to who knows where.
When we finally made the pass – also named the Dead Woman’s Pass after the shape of the pass seen from a distance, one of us were pretty exhausted. The other one pretty impressed. Well we were both pretty impressed. When we arrived at the top of the pass the weather chose to clear up and we could see the mountainous landscape stretch before us. We memorized the beauty of the snow capped Veronica-mountain, the eagle flying above us and the look down to on one side the campsite we came from and to the other side the campsite we were heading to – both seemed so far away.

At the pass we noticed several small piles made of stones. For the locals, a pass is a gift from the mountains in the form of a doorway. The collections of stones are the locals’ way of saying thank you to the mountains for the doorway. These collections we saw though were replicas made by other tourists.

The sites on day two:
No sites… Just tough walking :o)

Day three was a beautiful day! The walk took us through dense jungle, passing hundreds of flowers, including several kinds of orchids. We could sense we were getting closer to Machu Picchu, passing several smaller Inca sites always following the 500 years old Inca trail. At one point we reached a splendid look out point. From there we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. The last part of the third day was really hard though! Walking up is hard for your breath, but walking down 2 hours is extremely hard for your knees and legs. Reaching the camp that day was a great relief.

The sites on day two:
Runkuracay. A small site about halfway up the climb to the second pass, it overlooks the Pacamayo valley with an excellent view back to the first pass, Warmiwañusca (4200 m. above sea level). It was probably built as a lookout point for watching the highway, and perhaps also as a lodging and storehouse.

Sayaqmarca. “Inaccessible Town” in Quechua -- and the site fits its name. Built on a narrow rock formation, it gives a magnificent view of the valley and the route ahead all the way to the third pass.

Intipata. “Sun Terraces”. This is mainly an agricultural complex with a small residential sector, probably built to supplement the food supply to Machu Picchu. Intipata was also used to develop for example the best potatoes, corn and coca plants using the different climates from the lower terraces to the highest terraces.

To reach the sun gate on the fourth day having a good lookout point we got convinced to get up at 3:45 a.m... At 4:30 a.m. our group was ready as the first one, in line, waiting for the gates to be opened an hour later. The Sun Gate is another token of gratitude from the Incas to the Sun which is genius built in a way so that the sun passes through the gates only at solstice (June 22nd and December 22nd).
A weird energy created an urge to be the first ones to arrive at the Sun Gate. We ran (5:30 a.m.) along the trail through the jungle, barely noticing the great falls right next to the trail. We passed little wooden bridges and kept looking back... And we arrived among the first. But it turned out that the race was in vain, because there was plenty of room for everybody. :o)
From the Sun Gate we continued another 45 minutes and there it was - Machu Picchu. Finally – and well worth the journey. (To be continued).


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