Machu Picchu is considered the most sacred site of the Inka Empire. While there is convenient access via train/bus to the site, to truly pay respect to this heritage, I decided to follow the hardest path, considered a pilgrimage at its time, hiking the Inka Trail.
The starting point for the trip is Cusco, hidden high in the Peruvian Andes, at 3326m above sea level. On arrival into the airport, it appears to be another modern, regional city, yet this impression changes quickly. The drive through the city ends at the central square, surrounded by Spanish colonial style buildings. A walking tour of the city reveals its Inka foundation, quite literally: Some of the main buildings are built on top of much older, Inka foundations, some build with the stones of older structures. Yet there are no complete buildings from the earlier empire.
Machu Picchu is located in a national park, requiring a government guide for the trip. Our group meets before sunrise for our modern pilgrimage. We are outfitted with modern hiking equipment, tents and food for four days. We board a bus for the first part of the trip. It takes us first to Ollantaytambo, the last town on our way to Machu Picchu: Our last chance to fill up with essentials: Rain ponchos, walking sticks or koka leaves. Soon after our departure, the road comes to an end and our ride continues on gravel and across potholes, higher up into the valley, until we reach our drop of spot: KM 88.
We have a quick breakfast, make use of the last restroom and get on our way. After showing our pass for the National Park, we cross a looong hanging bridge, swaying high above the Rio Urubamba – a quite symbolic departure from the world as we know it into the magic world of the Andes. Our trail leads along the valley, steadily climbing into the mountains. Yet it is an easy warm-up, with only a few hundred meters of elevation difference ahead of us for the day. We have lunch time, overlooking Inka ruins built into the hillside. Not only have the walls, built without mortar, held up for more than 5 centuries, they have done their job of holding erosion of the mountain behind, leaving us in amazement of their skills and achievement. We continue our hike wide-eyed, enjoying every step, reaching our campsite tired but happy.
The morning comes, offering the biggest challenge of our trip: Dead Woman’s Pass. At 4198m, it is not only the highest point of the pilgrimage, but very steep, 1200m elevation difference we will cover in less than two hours. The Incas certainly didn’t believe in switchbacks, but rather led the trail straight up the mountain, building countless steps were the terrain is to steep. The mountain is shrouded in clouds, presenting the approach a piece at a time, but finally we can see the ridge line that gave the pass its name. Like a last effort of nature to stop us, the wind is blowing over the pass, into our face. The air seems to be so thin; no oxygen seems to make it to our lungs. The last steps are harder and harder, pushed forward by the sight of the ridge – and we finally see into both valleys. We are exhausted, yet proud that we made it and amazed by the sight. The term “pilgrimage” is starting to gain in meaning. It’s cold, raining and windy, we are sweaty, and so we get on our way down. What we thought to be the easy part turns treacherous quickly. More Inka steps, slippery of the rain, with water streaming down the hill around our feet, we watch every step and have to stop to take in the views. Sun shines on our lunch and we regain our strength for the second pass of this day. Its a few hundred meters less, yet no cakewalk either. We have several stops to take a closer look at the ruins that seem to be glued to the mountains, hard to see from below, yet with a commanding view of the valleys around. The characteristic, stepped terraces surround the main buildings. By nightfall, we have reached our next campsite. The appreciation of the Inka culture is growing as the rush of the hike subsides. We have earned our rest and are only 36 hours from our first glance at Macchu Pichu.
The third day promises to be much easier and we enjoy some sunshine and a well maintained “Camino Inka”, which seems more accurately translated with road or street than trail. It is mostly paved on this stretch, while the stones on other parts of the way have been used for construction by cultures following the Inka. Looking at the speed of the porters and the loads they are carrying, it is easy to see how the Inka empire could function without wagons…Like in preparation for what is to come, the ruins seem to become grander as we go. Terraces with 100s of steps, connected fountains distributing water throughout the site and impossible seeming constructions with large boulders right on the mountain side are heightening our anticipation and anxiety for our last day.
It is an early start; we get up at 4:00am in pitch-black darkness. We are alert nevertheless, fueled by adrenalin and ready for the highlight of our trip. We stumble down the mountain, in the faint light of our flashlights through the rain. We are determined to catch the first glance of Macchu Picchu from the Sungate by sunrise. Our speed seems to increase as we are making our way towards that point – and we are not disappointed. We can see the arches and walls of the gate ahead and hike the last few steps towards it. We took 40km of hiking through the Andes upon us to experience this moment. Prepared by many stories from our local guide, introducing us step by step, ruin after ruin, to the history of the Inka, the background of this trail and the story of Macchu Piccu. Each one of us with their own thoughts and anticipation. Macchu Pichu has grown with every minute of our hike, with every step through the mountains and every story we hear. Finally, we step through the gate and are rewarded with the first look at Macchu Pichu, mystically appearing out of the clouds, fulfilling the promise of the trip.
We make our way down into Macchu Pichu to see the complex in all its glory, learning even more about the Inka culture and the grandious architecture they left behind for us to admire. We are joined by groups of other tourists, who took the train to Macchu Pichu, here to admire the ruins. I watch them for a little bit and think how different it might feel to enter the site without the preparation and strain of our hike. I feel certain that our hike, crowned by the experience of Macchu Pichu, delivers on the promise of the pilgrimage the people in their time must have felt.