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The looong trail to Machu Picchu


“We walked for eleven hours today” sputtered Michelle exploding into another fit of giggles. “That’s not normal”. The convulsions of laughter intensified – We were unable to catch our breath, unable to control ourselves. “And we paid for it”, she just managed to get out before all power of speech left her and we were locked into a contagious cycle of hysteria that we couldn’t get out of. We could feel the rest of the group (predominantly male) silently willing us to shut up from their tents, and this only fuelled us further. In case we weren’t already tired enough (because as Michelle had astutely pointed out we had been walking for eleven hours straight) we finally exhausted ourselves to sleep.

There’s no doubt about it, the four day trail to the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is a hard walk – up and down slopes with crazy gradients, battling mountainsides furnished with huge steep Incan stone steps. Altitudes of up to 4200m hinder breathing and bring out strong sloth-like tendencies that make climbing next to impossible. Backpack straps dig into sunburnt shoulders. Muscles you didn’t know you had keep you awake at night, pain seeping through your entire body as you lie shivering in your tent. And just as you’re getting to sleep, someone comes to tell you it’s 5am and time to get going for the day.

But in case you think this sounds like pure masochism these hardships are incongruously combined with great touches of luxury. You actually get your hand held the whole way. Early morning wake-up rounds are accompanied by mate de coca in bed. Amazing three course meals are served up with silverware by porters who run along the trails wearing sandals made out of old tyres (carrying kerosene, tents, food and cooking equipment on their backs) and arrive at camp with ample time to conjure up these magnificent feasts. And of course what’s really driving you forward is the awe-inspiring Andean scenery along the way, the Incan ruins scattered through the mountains, and the promise of Machu Picchu at the end.

So, despite being exhausted, cranky and sore when we got woken at 4am on the last day of the trek, we were also fuelled with excitement at the prospect of reaching our final destination. Minor physical impediments such as eyes not wanting to open and brittle tendons creaking ominously made the walk to the Puerta del Sol a slow and painful process. But, when I got there to find someone from the group opening a celebratory bottle of wine (it was 6.30am) and the clouds parted to give me my first view of Machu Picchu, suddenly everything seemed achievable. I stuck a wad of the bitter tasting coca leaves into my mouth and ran off down the mountain.

Sometimes, if you’ve heard too much about a place, seen too many pictures, built it up in your imagination, it can be a disappointment when you finally get to see it. Other times it is as special as you imagined it would be. It is very rare indeed that it actually exceeds all expectations, but that’s how it was with Machu Picchu. Walking through spectacular jungle-shrouded mountains folding steeply in and out of each other, watching the sun peek its head over their summits and cast its mystical glow, witnessing the clouds shift from their resting points in the valleys, my anticipation grew. And then it was suddenly there in front of me – the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu perched amid this rolling panorama, the dramatic peak of Huaynac Picchu jutting up in the background. A group of llamas lazing in the early morning sun nonchalantly raised their heads to acknowledge our arrival – sentinels at the entrance to this magical site.

It’s funny how a bit of pain – a few aching muscles and three days of sleep deprivation – can make you feel so virtuous and undeservingly proud. I felt almost proprietorial over the place as, an hour after our arrival, we were fighting our way down busy paths, confronted by queues of fat American tourists who had just arrived off the bus from Aguas Calientes and were left out of breath by the few steps from the car-park to the site. I’m sure Hiram Bingham, the professor from Yale who ‘discovered’ the jungle-hidden city in 1911 during his search for Vilcabamba (the last Incan stronghold), would have felt the same irritation and smugness towards us (the pampered four-day Inca-trail walkers) were he to somehow stumble across us with the aid of reincarnation and a touch of time travel. And, I’m even more certain that the Incans who built the city would view the lot of us (including Hiram) with a mixture of scorn and patronising amusement – they after all, in the second half of the 15th century, under the Incan ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, built the two-hundred or so buildings that comprise Machu Picchu. Over 1200 people (mostly women, children and priests) made their homes in this important religious site, negotiating the colossal mountains on a daily basis.

Wandering through the amazing structures, the maze of sturdy stone walls, the enormous carved sculptures, and the places in which people lived, worshipped and congregated, you can’t help but wonder how such a grand city could have fallen into leafy oblivion for almost 400 years. By the time Pizarro, the Inca’s conqueror, arrived in Cusco in 1532, Machu Picchu had been completely abandoned. Subsequent explorations have uncovered about 170 mummies on the terraces around the city, most of them women. More recently, the ashes from a big fire were discovered. Did the fire occur naturally and cause the inhabitants of Machu Picchu to flee? Or did they themselves raise the city to the ground as diseases such as smallpox and measles (introduced by the Spanish conquistadors) took their deadly toll on the population. Maybe somebody knows the answers to these questions, but with the scant evidence provided by the guidebooks and by our guide Jose with his active imagination and skills for embellishing stories, we could only speculate. And sometimes speculation can be more satisfying than certainty – to me, it seemed somehow appropriate that a place such as Machu Picchu retain its aura of mystery and buried secrets. 

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