Awake 4am for a 5am departure. It is dark, cold and still. Today we reach Machu Picchu on the final day of the Inca Trail.
Packing up camp Allison decides to donate her Ugg slippers to the Inca gods. To this point Allison had snuggled her feet into this little luxury every night for the entire trek. And, knowing full well they were literally on their last legs, intended to discard them when we were done trekking. So appropriately deposited the slippers in the cleanup bag at the close of camp. Now, it may have been a mistaken claim, but if you ever walk the Inca trail and notice a young wiry porter sporting a pair of pink, wool lined, slip on Ugg slippers, those my friend are Allison’s.
Before leaving I was in dire need of the makeshift facilities. It was a rather sheepish grin I gave another porter who was tasked with removing the toilet tent from camp and carrying the contents with him off the trail. Perhaps I could have included a slightly higher tip for that service…
We descend the dreaded 5000 stairs carefully, first in the dark, then in the early morning light with a foggy mist enveloping the mountain. Eventually the stairs gave way to a twisting trail which was a blessing compared with the relentless stairs. Descending a significant distance, the heat and humidity increased steadily and was now quite hot. Arriving at an empty campground we are glad we were not staying here last night, so characterless than our mountain retreat.
The trail is flatter now. It winds along the mountain behind Macchu Picchu before rising sharply over the ridge to the Sun Gate. At 1km to go before the entrance to Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate there is a section known as the ‘gringo’ stairs. Presumably as gringos (whities, tourists) are the only people who use this section. The gringo stairs involve a 50m section best described as a rock ladder as it goes directly upwards. An appropriate way to end the trail as it is a fitting final push to the finish.
We arrive. Looking through the Sun Gate to the valley below. Your gaze naturally follows the ridge line down the valley until you spy the unmistakable ruins of Machu Picchu. The cigar shaped mountain of Huayna Picchu completing the backdrop of this picture postcard vista. Often these first sightings of tourist mecca are underwhelming at least in scale (the Mona Lisa for example). However Machu Picchu is massive, impressive and given we have spent 4 days of blood, sweat and tears to get here, emotional. The view from the sun gate is quite distant from the ruins so most postcard shots are taken closer up. These shots miss the expanse of ruins leading up each side of the mountain, instead focus is placed on the more manicured ruins at the very top of the ridge.
Now we had a decision to make. In our trek booking we had included a separate pass to climb the before mentioned Huayna Picchu. One of those ‘because it’s there’ moments I suppose. Due to our ‘arrival strategy’ into Machu Picchu it meant we only had 10 minutes to validate our ticket to the restricted trail up Huayna Picchu. This trail doesn’t do crowds too well, as we were to find out, so they regulate visits by the hour.
Considering 1) The trail was an hours hike away and we had 10 minutes to get there; 2) We’d been walking 5 hours since 5am; 3) Huayna Picchu is a tough hike on its own; 4) We had limited time to climb it before catching our train back to Cusco. It seemed the odds were against us. Dave and I however were keen to give it a go! We left the ladies in Leo’s capable hands to do his tour of the ruins (I suspect he’d been waiting all trek to do this though).
Now at race pace Dave and I were hurtling down the trail getting peculiar looks from day trippers walking up to the sun gate from the day tour entrance down towards Aguas Calientes. We were running and laughing all the way to the trail head. Jumping around tour groups gathered around some particularly notable piece of ruin. Laughing harder when we realised we were unlikely to actually ‘see’ much of the ruins because of our quest to hike up Huayna Picchu. Laughing harder still as it would be the second significant tourist site in as many years that Dave had missed. Having missed the Taj Mahal one year earlier after a particularly long massage. No lewd suggestions thanks, Dave just didn’t have his watch and lost track of time. Yes we actually bought that story.
We arrived at the entrance to the trail 5 minutes after 11am and handed over our ticket hoping the sleepy attendant wouldn’t realise we were 5 minutes outside our allotted time. He couldn’t have cared less. So we signed in at 11:05am and proceeded up the trail. It didn’t take long until some very steep narrow stairs appeared with a thin cable the only thing from preventing us tumbling upwards of 200m off the mountain. The traffic was two-way which resulted in negotiations as to who would take the outside line risking life and limb to pass each time.
Up and up and we were blowing pretty hard as we were in a race against time to make it both to the summit and back down to rendezvous with the girls and Leo at the tourist gate in an hour and a half. We pushed onwards to the top. I arrived shortly before Dave and took perhaps a wrong turn at the summit in my hastiness. Before I knew it I was crawling on hands and knees through a tunnel so tight I needed to take my back pack off and push it ahead of me to fit through. Arriving out the other side I had to catch myself from falling out over the other side of the mountain! The trail wound back on itself sharply here and precarious is an understatement as to the scale of the trail as the mountain narrowed to a peak.
On top of the peak I encouraged someone in my best Spanish to take a picture of me in between labored breaths. They were very likely ‘of English tongue’ however Spanish is what I went with followed by the appropriate hand gestures. That’s when I met Dave coming up the other way. We shared the last of our water supplies and headed down again, signing out of the Huanya Picchu trail exactly 1 hour after signing in. While not intended, I’m sure that has to be some sort of record?!
A frustrated run/walk back through the ruins to the entrance gate negotiating masses of tour groups. Tourists attired in freshly pressed slacks and spotless safari-esque shirts. Contrasted with my sweaty, dirty, haggard look having not showered for 4 days. My shirt clinging to me with sweat and unshaven wild hair added to the fact I was giving off a mild case of crazy eyes as I rush through the Incan maze of ruins.
Eventually, we all meet at the entrance. We all get our passport stamp. The girls got Leo’s tour. Then we take the most trecherous activity on our entire trip thus far. The tourist bus from the entrance gate down to Aguas Calientes. A dozen or more switchbacks, descending 600m with no barriers and countless buses passing each other with mere millimeters to spare. We somehow safely arrive in Aguas Calientes meaning ‘hot water’ due to the thermal pools. Sadly we weren’t to experience any of that goodness until we got back to Cusco.
We had a farewell meal with Leo and a number of Casquenas (grande). Leo was a great guide despite his quirkyness and addiction to Inca Cola. He was very informative, looked after us, bonded us with our crew, paced us and kept us informed, even after the 1000th ‘Are we there yet?’.
Leo departs on his train and we head to the tourist platform, meandering through the market stalls. Aboard our train, it is filled with some familiar faces from the trail. The train follows the Urubamba river, my last viewing as darkness descends. The train now winding it’s way back up the valley on the 3 hour journey towards Cusco.
Appreciate a pick up from Torre Dorada hotel at the train station just outside Cusco. Appreciative once again as when we arrive they order in some pizzas while we take a much needed shower. Sitting back devouring pizza and finally cracking our triumphant trivia bottle of red we won before we left Cusco and begin to feel on the right side of normal. When by tomorrow we descend to sea level the proper sense of normalcy shall no doubt return.
About The Author
Ever since venturing out the back gate into the bush as a kid, I've had a curiosity to escape and explore as often as I could. It's fair to say that my curiosity has continued to grow instead of fade as the years go on. It eventually came time to turn a few scribbled notes into some legible stories and travel tips for anyone with a similar curiosity as me.