Peru: Hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu
In truth there are dozens of Inca trails in South America but there is one which captures the imagination more than any other and that is in Peru, the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, also known as the Lost City of the Incas. The famous archaeological site is tucked away some 70 miles north of the ancient city of Cuzco in Peru. You can visit the old ruins by taking a train for just a day trip, but a more rewarding experience can be gained by walking the Inca trail for three days and arriving like the Inca people themselves at the most mysterious of locations.
Along with two companions I took an early morning train out of the great city of Cuzco and we got dropped off at the head of the Inca trail. Our backpacks weighed heavy enough with all our camping equipment but we had to face up to the fact that walking the 20 miles of Inca trail would take us up to mammoth altitudes in excess of 15,000ft in the next three days. The weather was cloudy which meant a high humidity, giving added stress to a tough first day’s hiking. Our first day was a slow plod, uphill through cloud forests all the way to almost the top of Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman’s pass). We pitched our tents and contemplated as to how we’d cope with the next couple of high mountain passes tomorrow, having barely conquered the first.
We awoke at dawn to clear skies and a light frost. A chill wind ripped through us as we crossed the top of the pass and descended a rocky trail into a barren valley not dissimilar to a Scottish glen complete with swirling clouds. Along the trail we chatted to people from a variety of countries, mostly all part of organised trekking tours, privileged enough to have their backpacks carried for them by groups of local nimble porters. We made surprisingly good progress crossing the second and third passes, leaving us within a couple of miles of arriving at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. By 5pm and darkness rapidly approaching we made a decision as to whether to keep going and camp at the Sun Gate. One of the most notable features of the almighty Inca trail is that the nearer you get to Machu Picchu, you encounter increasingly more impressive Inca ruins, as displayed by the ruins of Huinay Huayna on our penultimate stop.
In the shade of the cloud forest and with the onset of twilight our hearts were racing as the trail made a sharp left up finely cut steps to the Sun Gate. We’d had made it to one of the most impressive and mystical locations on planet earth, Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. In an eerie twilight we peered down from the Sun Gate down towards the ancient ruins. We camped down near the ruins themselves and awoke to a breathtaking dawn, with complete peace and quiet before the arrival of day-trippers. Without doubt it is the geographical location which enhances the experience. The view of the ruins is so distinct with the razor sharp peak of Huanay Picchu forming the backdrop. Either side of the ancient site is a steep drop-off into the valley to the raging Urubamba River, making the location a steely fortress.
My friends and I spent a good few hours exploring Machu Picchu. The perfect stonework foundations of the Lost City were discovered by accident by an American called Hiram Bingham in 1911. He found the buildings to be massively overgrown by cloud forest and so his team spent three years at the site clearing it back. Despite intensive study of the ruins, knowledge of their origin remains sketchy. It is thought that as well as the site being inhabited by over a thousand noblemen, priests and workmen; it was an important ceremonial site to the Inca people. Around Machu Picchu lies evidence of the Inca interest in astronomy, and their praying to the various gods of the sun, moon and the stars. One particular stone I found was called Intihautana, which was a large sundial, able to indicate solstices, equinoxes and lunar movements. I continued to wander around the site admiring the finely cut stonework of the buildings and vast terraces cut into the hillsides. It was a great mystery as to why the site became abandoned, since Spanish conquistadors never found the place. Perhaps it was a war amongst the Inca people themselves.