Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle’s thickets
until I reached you Macchu Picchu.
The Heights of Macchu Picchu
(N.B.: Neruda’s spelling of Machu Picchu)
Door to Neruda’s Wine Cellar
There are three ways to reach the fabled Machu Picchu: by train, by bus, or by foot. And within each of those choices, there are several options.
You can take a Backpacker train, a Vistadome train with refreshments included, or the luxury Hiram Bingham train á la the Orient Express — with cocktails and fine dining, plus afternoon tea at the sanctuary lodge.
A bus can transport you from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, where most travelers spend the night.
“By foot” means walking the Inca Trail, either for four days camping in tents or hiking for one day.
This is the story of one of those ways. . . .
I am crawling on my hands and knees up fifty very, very steep stone steps. They are so steep they are practically vertical—and so narrow my hiking boots barely fit on them sideways. The niches are slippery from the intermittent misty rain that began falling half an hour ago. The shade of the jungle makes them difficult to see.
I lean over and experiment with placing both my hands and my feet on the ancient stairway, moving up one step at a time with my left side leading. My nose is six inches away from the rocks and my rear is high in the air as I ascend, inch by precious inch.
All at once, I hear the voice of my eldest daughter drifting up from a few paces below.
“Mom, I really think you’d do better if you put your rear end down,” she calls helpfully.
I am using every ounce of concentration remaining in reserve after seven hours of hiking and little sleep as I try valiantly not to lose my balance and tumble downward through the Peruvian jungle into the Urubamba River, headwaters of the mighty Amazon.
“It’s working, Amy,” I pant in answer, my rear waving defiantly. “Think I’ll stick with it.”
The roar of the river had receded hours ago as an almost unearthly stillness replaced it in the cloudforest. My tired body now slithers over the top step and lies there under an arch for a moment, gathering steam.
Slowly I realize I am flat on my face under the Sun Gate of Intipunku, the entrance to Machu Picchu at 8,859 feet above sea level — the end of the Inca Trail. I raise my face in silent supplication.
The misty clouds have parted, and even though the sun is not out, I can clearly see that I have arrived at our destination. It is unmistakable. There is no other place in the world that looks like this.
We had arisen before dawn in the beautiful city of Cuzco at 11,300 feet above sea level to catch a PeruRail train to Chachabamba.
I had gazed longingly at the Hiram Bingham train at the Poroy Station. Eighty-four passengers at a time journey to Machu Picchu via that luxury mode of transportation, named for the explorer from Yale University who made public the “Lost City of the Incas” in 1911. Travelers on the Hiram Bingham train ride in glorious splendor for three-and-a-half hours enjoying gourmet meals, and then drink afternoon tea in the sanctuary lodge next to the ruins. On the return train, they recover from this arduous journey over predinner cocktails, including the wonderful Pisco Sour popular in both Peru and Chile.
I had long hoped to go to Machu Picchu. After my youngest daughter finished a semester of study in Chile, I decided to join forces with her for this expedition. My oldest daughter, her husband, and his parents decided to join us. I wanted to take a train (any of them) to the fabled ruins. My son-in-law had longed to do the four-day tenting hike, which reaches 13,780 feet at Dead Woman’s Pass. I balked, figuring the pass got its name for a good reason. In the end, our stalwart band of six came to a satisfactory middle ground—the one-day hike. Since the year 2000, only five hundred trekkers have been allowed on the Inca Trail each day, so we made our reservations several months in advance.
We had taken the scenic Vistadome Train to Kilometer 104, where we entered the Inca Trail. Making our way across the Vilcanota River by means of a swinging wooden footbridge, we began walking the intricate network of trails constructed over four hundred years ago in the Sacred Valley. Inca messengers ran between towns surrounding the capital city of Cuzco then, bringing a rapid exchange of information to connect this highly developed civilization in an ancient form of today’s Internet.
A six-mile hike along level ground would not be nearly as exhausting as the constant up and down of this trail, with narrow stone steps all along the way. Those Inca feet were obviously small. My trifocal sunglasses were put to the test as I repeatedly moved my head to locate just the right angle to discern the proper placement of my hiking boots, determining literally where on earth to put them. A trekking pole in each hand helped me maintain my balance, along with the trusty arm of a son-in-law behind me when I veered too far afield.
Thus we proceeded for seven hours amidst striking views of sharply rounded soaring green mountains. Vibrant orchids and jungle flowers lit our path. We hiked above the clouds, and stopped at a beautiful waterfall.
Summer had arrived here in December, yet I wore gloves to protect my hands from mosquitoes. I had doused my clothes in DEET. The skin that remained uncovered had been slathered with suntan lotion of the highest SPF I could find, since we were at a lofty altitude near the hole in the ozone layer. I had obtained a prescription for Diamox (acetazolamide) from my doctor to ward off altitude sickness, and began taking it the day before we departed for Lima from Santiago. I had been imbibing coca tea, the ancient Peruvian method of acclimatizing to the heights, ever since we reached Cuzco – and chewing coca leaves as well. The combination of modern and legendary remedies worked. I experienced no headache or nausea at all, merely a need to gulp air with a vengeance every few hundred yards.
We had stopped for snacks and water occasionally along the path, cheering each other on. We had a native guide named Flaminia from Cuzco, as well as a local porter named Ramón. He was bearing the food as well as a mountain of our goods on his back – and not panting one bit. That’s probably because he was a descendant of the people who laid this trail. Ramón had no need of trekking poles. His swift sure feet traversed the stairstep-laden path as easily as those of his predecessors. His lungs filled easily to capacity in the thin air. Ramón’s blood had been oxygenated to this altitude for centuries.
As I studied his calm demeanor, I had wondered how fast his great12 grandfather might have traversed the well-worn stone upon which I had just placed my hiking boot. What message might that ancestor have been carrying as he put his bare foot onto the same stone on a previous sunny December day in 1532? How swiftly did Ramón’s progenitor run along this trail?
Did he perhaps stop to gaze upon the beauty of an orchid on that occasion, or did he with pounding heart careen down the steps to tell his people about Francisco Pizarro’s false offer of friendship to their ruler, Atahualpa? Could Ramón’s Sun Worshipper family member have had any inkling of the ambush planned by the Spanish? What would that distant relative have thought if he could have envisioned the tourists on the Hiram Bingham train approaching this world heritage site centuries later with their digital cameras?
My pondering had been interrupted as we came upon the ruins of Wiñay Wayna, meaning “Forever Young” in the Quechuan language. We had climbed what one explorer called the “precipitous staircase” of these ruins, which may have been a lookout site for Machu Picchu. Then we had eaten our noon meal a bit further down the trail at the Intipata ruins, relieving Ramón of the lunch sacks on his back. They contained the most delicious avocados I’ve ever tasted. A ban on the import of Peruvian avocados to the United States was lifted in January 2009.
Then our party pushed on through the Sacred Valley toward the day’s destination. Numerous times, I had found myself thinking we were almost there, but then I would hear Flaminia saying, “Just another hour to . . .” or “Just around the next bend, we’ll find….” I numbed my mind and placed one foot in front of the other, thinking there might be a mantra there: “One step at a time.” That would not be a bad philosophical talisman to take home from this adventure, I told myself for inspiration around the next corner.
And indeed it had worked, for here I am at last, looking down upon the most amazing sight of Machu Picchu. A peek is all we get, however. The day is growing late, and we need to hurry to catch the last bus headed back to the nearest town of Aguas Calientes for the night.
The next morning, we zig zag back by bus along muddy dirt roads to explore the ruins with Flaminia. Llamas, those very social Andean beasts of burden, stroll around the terraced levels munching grass. What were the ancestors of these peaceful animals doing the day the Spanish strode into their well-hidden community? Today the llamas look up at us in amazement, as if we are the unusual sight—gringos in their midst.
As I slip and slide around the muddy ruins after lunch, skinning my knees in the process, I realize how glad I am that I had hiked up to this secluded refuge rather than arriving by train. I am much more in tune with this sacred place having approached it the way I did.
My son-in-law entices his father to join him in climbing Wayna Picchu, the taller mountain rising over Machu Picchu on which an Inca trail leads to the top. He returns smiling broadly, his sweating father in tow, exclaiming, “That was better than sky diving!” He’s happy. I’m happy.
I want to keep this place in my memory forever, but how do you etch the enormity of its significance? Every time I turn another corner, it becomes a different experience as the view changes. Photos simply cannot capture Machu Picchu, at least not the ones I’ve seen my entire life. They never prepared me for the marvel I witness all around me now.
I want to stay, I want more time, I want to explore, I want simply to sit there pondering! Yet I know in my heart that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Machu Picchu is not an easy place to get to, even if one rides the Hiram Bingham. And in my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be standing here.
So I drink it all in during the brief time I have. We take the Vistadome train back to Cuzco, sipping Pisco Sours.
I cart with me my personal Incan mantra: “One step at a time.”
by Elaine F. Tankard