After our lunch break, we donned our backpacks and started to leave the Deli. Ken and Sheila had moved off to the side, talking in whispers. Sheila had some bad news. She was experiencing significant knee pain. She and Ken decided to go back to the hotel. We had been climbing for the last three days around Cusco, exploring the ruins of Saqsaywaman, Pisaq, and Ollantaytambo. These sites built on hills and steep slopes had taken a toll. We said our good-byes and promised to meet up later for dinner at one of Aguas Calientes hotspots(Aguas Calientes must-dos to come).
My husband and I re-entered the park presenting our passports(required to enter the park) and our second set of tickets stamped for the afternoon. The Ministry of Culture regulates the flow of tourists entering Machu Picchu by imposing half-day visits. Tickets grant access from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon or 12:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. We wanted to visit Machu Picchu for the full day and so bought tickets for both the morning and afternoon. Because tourists visiting Machu Picchu has grown exponentially, preserving the ruins has become a concern for the Peruvian government. A maximum of 2,500 guests per day has been instituted by the park. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture has the following site online for information on purchasing tickets https://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/inicio.
Jim and I zigzagged our way through the hordes of tour groups that hit in the afternoon. I found myself saying “con permisso” (with your permission to pass) many times as groups blocked sections of walkways. We got bottle-necked at a set of stairs that led to the Sun Gate Trail. As Jim and I politely waited for a group to pass, a woman from the States said, “Go ahead and jump in! We’re 40 strong. You’ll be waiting a long time.” I thanked her and we cut in. Once we got on the trail to the Sun Gate, the crowds diminished. We were leaving the citadel frenzy.
Granite flagstones paved the way between ascending and descending terraces that were cleared from the encroaching jungle. For a while, we enjoyed a relatively flat, straight trail. As the path steepened, the lush undergrowth rose and pressed in on both sides. I kept my eyes open for the white boulder Jimmy had talked about. It was believed to be a monument marking a grave. These huacas (sacred boulders) were common in Peru. Usually placed to honor the founders of a tribe according to Hiram Bingham, they were sacred areas for worship.
The town of Machu Picchu became a tiny image of building blocks as we climbed. As we pushed forward, a clearing appeared on our right. The slopes gave way to level ground. Broad-faced boulders broke through the dirt. Steps had been chiseled out of one large piece of granite that led to a low stone wall. The wall created a barrier in front of a towering huaca that rose at least 30 feet above our heads. How could an ancient people with no power tools upright this rock? The white stone was marked with rivulets of black stains flowing down the face of it. As if the boulder was mourning, I wondered what was causing this unnerving sight. As my gaze scanned this unusual monolith, my breath caught unexpectedly. A protrusion stood out on the left. Was it a natural creation or had it been carved by a skillful craftsman? Out of the stone was a manifestation of a warrior looking over the valley, a grim expression on his face. The image was incredible. A cape fell from his shoulders. A breastplate covered his torso, a skirt his legs. There was nothing in my guidebook about this. If there was such a thing as living rock, I believed it today. The indigenous people were still here, eternalized in the Earth.
The jungle is dense on the lower part of the trail. It creates deep shadows and hard to see areas on slopes and in crevices. Hidden under trees and sprawling bushes, I got glimpses of large boulders strewn haphazardly where cavern-like openings formed between them. Could they be part of more ruins? My husband, stronger and faster, had pulled ahead of me, intent on completing the journey as quickly as he could. He wasn’t thrilled climbing on a mountainside, but hey, sometimes you got to “bite-the-bullet” and go along with it. Alone and curious about the boulders, I stepped off the trail to take a closer look. The ground was damp and trampled down. As I lowered my head slightly avoiding hanging branches, I heard a hiss. I froze. I quickly scanned the ground and saw nothing. My heart raced though I held my breath. I needed to hear from what direction the sound was coming from. I couldn’t see anything move. I frantically tried to recall what snakes were common in Peru. Vipers, boa constrictors, Fer de Lance? Then it occurred to me to look up. Tree branches were creating a canopy overhead. Highly venomous tree snakes are common in Peru. I slowly moved out of the stretch of overhanging branches. There wasn’t another hiss. I decided to keep moving along the trail. Needless to say, I didn’t deviate from the path again.
I eventually caught up to Jim sitting among a set of ruins along the trail. Walls surrounded him on a promontory that stood on the side of the mountain about halfway along the trail. A stone altar, rounded and uneven, hung on the side of a ledge.
Coca leaves weighted down with smaller rocks sat in tiny piles on the altar. We wondered if these leaves were offerings. I later discovered that coca is indeed a typical offering used by the local indigenous population. Hikers also seemed compelled to offer their own coca leaves as they passed by. No other altar in the Machu Picchu complex showed signs of offerings. This temple was special so we added our coca leaves in gratitude for the journey, our safety and the beauty of the mountain.
After a brief rest, we continued. I enjoyed the long stretches of solitary trekking but also appreciated the comradery of fellow hikers who passed by with a congenial nod or hello. The age range in and around Machu Picchu did not cease to amaze me. There was the bare-chested athlete, in running shorts and shoes who buzzed past us, giving us a quick salute. (Yes! He did get my attention)
Later, I observed a Shaman, sitting in purposeful prayer with his followers behind the Sun Gate. His long grey braid hung down his back, a black bowler hat topped his head and colorful vest draped his shoulders. Had he and his group just completed one of the multi-day hikes on the Inca Trail? I watched a gentleman who seemed lost in thought, head bent, as he descended with slow deliberate steps, his cane helping him. And a group of excited, young Europeans who in their exuberance forgot that they were blocking the narrow trail.
Knowing that this may be my only visit to Machu Picchu, I paused on the trail while Jim marched on. I needed a moment. To allow the dream that had turned into reality sink in. I took a deep breath and noted the mountain air mixed with the moist smells of the jungle. I closed my eyes and heard the buzz of a legion of insects and the absence of human voices. I gazed across the valley that followed the trail and noticed some of the mountain tops stood at eye level, while others were shrouded in clouds.
The Urubamba River below looked like a piece of ribbon carelessly dropped from the sky as it wound around Machu Picchu mountain. I wanted to remember the mountains covered in the vibrant greens of ferns, bromeliads, bamboo, laurels, pines, and flowers.
I had finally arrived! My inner voice rejoiced. In the midst of the Andes, the longest mountain range in the world, by the most celebrated archeological discovery in South America, the teenager who had been inspired by a photo spread in National Geographic was now experiencing the dream she never gave up on. As I brought my gaze back, it fell on an orchid, tucked about 20 feet on the slope in front of me. What a gift! A rare sight since I had been told by the locals that it was not yet the season for orchids.
Narrow steps cut into a very steep slope as you near the Sun Gate. Only one person at a time can use them. My husband was on all fours, climbing them. Caught up in my own enthusiasm, I bypassed him, with a keen balance like the Big Horn sheep that scale the cliffs in my home state. I was almost there. The steep slopes transformed into a series of terraces. Two stone columns flanked the trail in front me and a wooden sign inscribed with the words “Intipunku” stood off to my left. I had reached the Inca Trail milestone. A room made of stone blocks sits on the pass. Niches in the walls tell us that something of importance was placed there. We can only guess today. Idols? Provisions? Who knows?
The view puts Machu Picchu in perspective as it sits on a saddle between two mountains. Off to one side, the bus route zigzags up the slope like a child’s scribble. I glanced at the 30 or so hikers that were taking a break, sitting on stone walls, steps or precipices that jutted out over the valley.
We had all achieved our personal journeys. My husband soon came into view, completing the last few steps as he passed through the doorway of the Sun Gate. Breathing heavily, he leaned against a wall. I grabbed him and said, “you made it buddy. Let’s take a photo!”
The park closes at 4:30 p.m. When we showed up at 3:30 to go back to Aguas Calientes, everyone seemed to have the same thing in mind. A long line formed along the road. We waited for an hour to catch a bus. It began to drizzle. I was thankful that the rain had held off for most of the day. October is near the rainy season that starts in November. We brought rain jackets and they came in handy. People were patient and polite including the local dogs that greeted us while we stood in line. This was life at the edge of the Amazonian jungle.