October 11, 2018.
A friend asked when I got back from my trip to Machu Picchu, “did I encounter any surprises while visiting the Inca site.” I asked, “what do you mean, surprises?” She replied, “oh, things that you didn’t expect.” My husband and I, along with our long-time friends, preferred to travel on our own. So, without the expertise found in tour companies, I had to do a lot of groundwork familiarizing myself with our destination. I enjoy a leisurely pace that pulls the maximum experience possible while touring a place. I do my research before arriving, who doesn’t these days with the abundance of “information sharing” over the internet. The itineraries I strive for are seamless, enjoyable and as low stress as possible(I don’t think that you can ever eliminate stress when you’re in new, unfamiliar surroundings). So, when my friend asked this question, I have to admit there were a few surprises.
Jimmy, our guide, arrived at the hotel at 8:00 a.m. sharp. Our friends were already in the lobby when I came down with my husband. Enthusiasm was bursting from every part of my body. I was finally going to visit one of the most exceptional city ruins in the Andes. Jimmy, tall, lanky and of both Quechua and Spanish ancestry, met us the prior afternoon to coordinate our hike. We had taken Peruvian Rail’s, Vistadome, from Ollantaytambo which had the last train station available going into the narrow Urubamba Valley to Machu Picchu’s nearest town, Aguas Calientes. We wanted to have a good night’s sleep before our all-day hike the next day.
We were staying at Hatun Inti Boutique Machupicchu. I read reviews online and felt confident that we would have clean, comfortable accommodations. It turned out to be a great hotel. The six-story hotel overlooks the Urubamba River. It is ideally located between the train station and the buses that drive up the switchbacks to Machu Picchu. The staff was exceptionally helpful. They had a porter waiting for us at the train station to carry our bags. They recommended great restaurants and called our guide to notify him of last-minute changes we made in our schedule.
As we began our walk to the bus terminal down a narrow road that ran along the river, my excitement erupted, and I grabbed Sheila’s hand swinging it back and forth like a child. She glanced at me surprised but knew the reason. She had been my partner in crime in convincing our husbands that this trip needed to happen. It took 20 hours, four modes of transportation, and a lot of patience from our beginnings in Las Vegas. October was considered “off-season” for Machu Picchu. I was all about avoiding crowds and saving money, but when we arrived in Machu Picchu, I began to wonder was there really a “slow time”? According to Jimmy, we were lucky to have a relatively “light-traffic” day.
The bus from Aguas Calientes deposited us in front of the Snack Shop adjacent to the Machu Picchu Lodge. We had just experienced what had to be the most spectacular mountain excursion ever taken. In the misty, grey morning, we watched from the comfort of our sturdy, Mercedes Benz bus, soaring tee-pee shaped mountains pass by stacked tightly together. Valleys plunged below us while wisps of clouds hung on verdant, green covered pinnacles. I was in a world that I had never seen before. The window fogged up as rain began to fall. I took a quick look over the side of the bus and saw how close the wheels were to the edge of the road. I hoped the rain would not cause us to slip on the muddy track. Everyone on the bus seemed to be engaged in excited chatter, oblivious to the steep switchbacks we were taking. I decided to concentrate my gaze on some distant horizon, telling myself that the driver did this all the time. I had to be in competent hands. And I was.
Exhilarated by the drive up the mountain, I eagerly scaled the narrow, ascending path behind the park’s main pedestrian entrance. Visitors were strung along the trail. Most were keeping a steady pace up the mountain. I skirted around an older woman, holding tightly onto the arm of her daughter. A young couple stopped to catch their breath, and two teenage boys waited respectfully for their parents.
With each labored breath, I pushed forward on the steep, uneven stone steps. The rain had become an intermittent drizzle that finally ceased. As I made a turn along the path, I still couldn’t see the city of Machu Picchu. The trail cut into the slope. Embankments clad in tropical vegetation hid the ruins from view. I turned around and glanced at my husband, Sheila, and Ken who had fallen behind. They were concentrating on their footing, taking slow, intentional steps. We were embarking on one of the most sought out destinations in the world.
The trail finally stretched out into a straight, flat, pathway with guardrails. We had reached one of the wide, agricultural terraces. I took a moment to catch my breath and regroup. Our guide, Jimmy, was waiting for us. A 2000 foot drop to the Urubamba River separated us from a range of lush, green mountains on the other side of a winding valley. Jimmy explained how important the mountains were to the Incas. Their religious beliefs stemmed from their presence. Standing amidst these giants, I could understand their views.
A thatched-roof hut stood just ahead of us. The locals called it the Guardhouse. We veered off to climb an additional set of granite stairs that ascended further on a hillside. Taking our time navigating them, we reached a viewing platform and got our first full look at Machu Picchu, spreading out below us. Symmetrical, precise, peaceful, otherworldly and beautiful were just a few of a jumble of words that popped into my head.
As we stood on the ridge overlooking the city, Jimmy seemed to give us a measuring look and then asked, “Are you interested in seeing a secret back entrance to Machu Picchu? It’s about a 25- minute walk. It leads to the Inca Bridge, which is an engineering feat in itself. Few tourists take the trail because of the time involved.”
My “Indiana Jones” instincts kicked in. I knew nothing about this part of Machu Picchu. Were we going to go where few had traveled? I immediately responded, “yes!” But there were three other people in my party I had to consider. My husband was not a big fan of heights, and my girlfriend faced physical challenges with her knees. If they said, “no,” I would have to defer. The trail was rated “easy” on the range of difficulty hiking it, Jimmy explained as more questions were asked about this particular route. Cutting through the jungle, drop-offs were tempered with encroaching vegetation. Jimmy felt that it was well worth our time, and eventually, everyone was in for the extra mile. Phew!
The Inca Bridge Trail takes you out of the park. A park custodian’s hut sits along the trail. Once you have passed the ranger, you are officially out of the park. Your entrance ticket for Machu Picchu must be stamped in order for you to get back in and your names are written down in a ledger. This made us a little wary. It seemed like a lot of formality! What were we really getting ourselves into? Jimmy explained that this trail was thought to be the route to Vilcabamba, the last stronghold for Manco, the Inca ruler who eventually fell to the Spanish conquistadors. Inca forces used this route for sneak attacks and were able to retreat behind an impenetrable draw bridge.
We maneuvered between large rocks, walking on compact dirt at times and granite flagstone at other times. As we wound our way through the jungle, my heart rate increased, breathing became strained. Needless to say, the trail rated as “easy” was still a workout. Machu Picchu is at an elevation of 8,000 feet. We were above the city. The altitude was taxing. I was grateful that the day was overcast. The morning remained relatively temperate.
Jimmy walked out in front, his hands intertwined below his green backpack. He was at ease in his surroundings. As we rounded a bend in the trail, the right side fell away to a deep canyon below. Low stone walls alternated with guard rails along the edge, but at times there was nothing to guard against the sheer drop-off. We were scaling the side of a mountain. I glanced back at my husband to see how he was managing. His mouth was grim, and he looked a little pale, but he didn’t say anything. Jimmy stopped at a wide turn out in the path so that we could take in the view that stretched out before us.
We found ourselves suspended between a sheer rock face wall rising behind us and tropical foliage descending below us. The mountains split open to reveal a myriad of ridges, slopes, and sheer cliffs. A river meandered thousands of feet below looking like a thin ribbon of brown against the gigantic base of the towering mountains. No wonder the Incas believed that gods presided here.
The trail rose and fell, expanded and contracted. It was a good thing that few tourists cared to visit this side of Machu Picchu as we found ourselves walking in single file on some parts of the trail. Finally, we came to a promontory and stopped. A few hundred feet ahead and below us stood the bridge. From our vantage point, the view was spectacular. Like popsicle sticks, tree trunks had been cut into uneven, swollen planks, spanning a 20-foot gap in the trail. A sheer rock wall towered over the bridge, and a 1000-foot drop fell below it. A tall, wooden gate, recently installed, blocked the entrance to the bridge. Age and deterioration made it unsafe to use.
As we gazed on this spectacular work done by the Incas who had chiseled away granite to create this breach in the trail, Jimmy asked if we wanted to turn around or finish our journey to the gate. The trail descended rapidly. Uneven and interspersed with jagged rock it hugged tightly against the cliff wall. On one side of the trail, there were no guard rails and on the other, iron stakes were hammered into the rock face with a cable strung along to create a type of hand railing. I was going the distance. The rest of my party stayed behind.
Jimmy walked with an ease that said that he had done this 100 times over. I grabbed onto the cable when the trail became narrow and steep. Some workmen were at the gate reinforcing the door. Jimmy explained that a tourist recently slipped through the wooden slates and crossed the bridge. Fortunately, he didn’t get hurt. But a German tourist had fallen to his death standing too close to the edge to get a photo.
Later, I watched a video my husband had taken with his cell phone of me reaching the bridge. I wondered if he was recording me because I had managed quite a feat or did he feel that he had to document the possible last moments of my life? He never confirmed one or the other when I asked.
Walking to the Inca Bridge was unplanned and a nice surprise that our guide was instrumental in creating. I was glad that he showed us this important part of Inca life.