Anxiety of anticipation is a terrible thing. We were told that our wake up call would be at 4 am, with no mate de coca this time because we had to quickly get our things packed before our 4:30 am breakfast. Naturally that meant that I woke up around 3 am, not actually knowing what time it was, and not being able to go back to sleep.
Dave woke up around 3:30 am, so we started getting dressed and getting our bags packed up. For once we were the first and not the last of our group.
Breakfast was the most basic meal they had given us the entire time (actually a reasonable amount of food instead of mountains of it), but I couldn’t really eat anything. My stomach isn’t ready to receive anything that early in the morning. I sipped some mate de coca and waited until we were told to get our packs on.
Finally we headed out of the campground at 5 am, and walked downhill for about 10 minutes to the gate that opens onto the final leg of the Inca Trail. The gate was to open at 5:30 am, and we were maybe the 3rd or 4th group in the line.
From that point on, there was still a good deal of walking to be done. I managed to stay up with the group for maybe half an hour, but after so little sleep and so much hiking for the past three days, I was exhausted – body, mind, and spirit. I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but it was very, very slow. I found myself again being the last member of the group, by quite a bit. (Even Jose had gone ahead with Leo at the head of the group.) Dave had originally said he would go ahead with the group to try to catch photos of the sun coming up over the Intipunku (Sun Gate) and over Machu Picchu. I tried to get him to go on ahead, but he said he wanted to stay with me. When he told me this, after an hour of exhausted hiking, it of course made me cry. It was good to get it out, and I was able to hike much better after that.
Five or ten minutes before we got to Intipunku there was a set of stairs that were basically at a 90 degree angle to normal ground. I don’t know how anyone could just walk up them standing straight up; in the state I was in at that point, all I could do was crawl up them. As I crawled, I cursed the Incas out loud. “Stupid Incas, with their stupid vertical staircase, and their stupid purification ritual!” Dave was pretty entertained, and I think I was as well.
Right after that we got to the Sun Gate, and the group immediately took off for the last bit of trail to Machu Picchu. Leo told me that I should give up my backpack so that I could walk faster. “Better for you, better for everyone,” he told me. I was pretty upset about it, but I let him take my pack and I wore his for the rest of the trail, which seemed to have absolutely nothing inside it. Jose waited patiently as I rested at the Sun Gate and looked over the valley to Machu Picchu. He took a picture of me and Dave (in which I am quite obviously completely thrashed) and then the three of us headed down the trail.
It was 30 to 45 minutes to get to Machu Picchu, and the three of us weren’t alone for too long – we managed to catch up with Jenn, Chris, and Julie before too long. They stopped to check out some small ruins right before we got to the city, but Dave and I pressed on and actually beat them to Machu Picchu, getting there around 7:15 am and just in time for the sun rays to start hitting the city.
We all took a bunch of photos from our vantage point at a high point at the edge of Machu Picchu city, and then Leo gathered us all together to give us our entrance tickets and then take us down to the entrance to the site (which is, after all, a national park). Here some people in our group took advantage of the restrooms (at 50 centimos per visit) and Dave and I checked our backpacks (only day packs are allowed inside the site).
They also gave us snacks, which a few of us ate on the patio next to where the concession stand was selling food and drinks. Dave, Aisling, and I were calmly eating the ham sandwiches when Rich decided to break into the fruit that was also included. Aisling and were completely grossed out by it. Apparently it was passion fruit, which we had never seen in person before. Someone later accurately described it as looking like frog spawn. Rich insisted that it actually tasted good, but Aisling and I couldn’t get past the appearance. We were happy when Rich decided to stop eating it and take artsy photos of it instead.
Finally the group got back together and Leo took us into Machu Picchu to a spot where he could start his lecture/walking tour. He talked to us about why the Incas left the city, how they managed to keep it hidden for centuries, and about the various explorers who had discovered the ruins.
Then he took us walking around Machu Picchu for a while, showing us some important sites in the Upper City. He started with the “Royal Mausoleum”, the Sacred Fountain, and the Temple of the Sun. In the process he told us more about the Incan beliefs regarding the four elements (earth, wind, fire, and water) and their belief in the three levels of the world represented by the three sacred animals: the heavens (from the mountains up, represented by the condor), the earth (from the mountains to the river, represented by the puma), and the afterlife (from the river and below into the earth, represented by the snake).
We then hiked up to the rock quarry, where Leo explained how the Incas had managed to split huge granite boulders using very primitive technology. It was quite impressive actually. It was also amazing to see evidence of how they had managed to transport these huge chisled stones to get them into their places as walls and roof columns.
Right after that, the group was distracted by the llamas grazing in the plaza, and particularly the baby llama that was very close to us. Leo had to really get our attention to get the group to move forward into the Sacred Plaza. He showed us the Temple of Three Windows and the Principal Temple.
We then hiked up to the Intiwatana, where the explorer Hiram Bingham supposed the Incas had “tied” the sun during religious rituals. Other archaeologists have surmised that this sculpture is an abstract replication of the mountain Huayna Picchu to the north behind it. Nearby was a more obvious “echo stone” that mirrored the mountains Yanantin and Putucusi to the east on the other side of it.
After the Intiwatana, we went down some stairs to the main plaza level, where Leo finished up his 1 1/2 hour tour, and we took one last group photo. After that, Leo turned us loose to do some exploring on our own.
The group didn’t really know what to do, but fortunately Dave and I had brought along a guide to the site, The Machu Picchu Guidebook, complete with photos and maps. Suddenly Dave, with the book in his hand, turned into the new guide. We checked out a site near where we had ended up, which featured another “echo stone” that supposedly also mirrored Mt. Yanantin, but we couldn’t see a strong resemblance.
We remembered from reading the book that there was a very cool site called the Temple of the Condor, so we followed the map and headed in that direction, which was of course at the diagonal opposite side of Machu Picchu. The entire group, even chronic hike leader Luc, was groaning from sore thighs and calves as we went down and up more stairs. We passed through a good bit of the Lower Sector of the city to get to the Temple of the Condor, and were helped out as we got close by a sign that said “Condor”, pointing down.
When we got there and saw how the condor was laid out, it was pretty cool. The head, ruff, and body were carved in stone on the ground, and the huge wings were the two huge boulders that rose up as the wall behind it. We also discovered a “secret passageway” that led out to the path behind the temple, which a few members of our group tested out.
At this point, with much less direction, the group split up. Aisling, Patrick, Helen, Luc, and Rich went off and apparently ended up climbing back up toward the top of the city where we had started out. Dave and I were with Simon, Inge, and Ron (while Jenn, Chris, and Julie had split off some time ago, though we did catch up with them briefly to show them the Temple of the Condor), checking the book to see if there was anything else interesting that we shouldn’t miss.
We wandered not too far from the Temple of the Condor over to the place called the “mortars”, which were probably actually used for something other than milling grain, but the name had stuck for a hundred years.
We were getting pretty tired at this point. We could see a spot over to our left that required some climbing to get to, and we weren’t sure if there was anything up there worth climbing to. At this point Inge wandered off to rest in the sun, but Simon saw a park ranger and asked him if there was anything at this high point worth seeing. The ranger gave us a brief description, and told us to follow him – a mini personal tour.
It was completely worth it, and was actually one of the more amazing things I saw at Machu Picchu. I was so glad that Simon got the guide to show us this spot, because the guidebook glosses over the spot without explaining it. We went up the stairs to a spot where there was a large rock jutting out above the level ground (apparently the rest of the rock was actually beneath the level on which we found ourselves). The rock had been carved so that an observer on all four sides could see how the rock mirrored the mountain behind it. We stood on the first side and noticed how the rock echoed Machu Picchu mountain to the south, including the agricultural terraces at the upper parts of the city; then we faced east and saw how the rock mirrored Putucusi mountain; then we looked at the rock facing north and saw the echo of Huayna Picchu mountain to the north; and then we went again to the other side (where we might not have though of standing, since the walkway was narrow and prohibitive), to see how the rock was a replica of San Miguel mountain on the western side of Machu Picchu city.
It takes an inventive and artistic culture to make one rock look like four different mountains.
We were duly impressed and glad we had taken the effort go up there. We took a few photos from this vantage point, and then Simon went to go looking for Inge. Dave, Ron, and I wandered among the different rooms on the way down, taking more pictures, and admiring the views of the plaza and the llamas from this spot.
Finally we decided that we had seen about as much as we had the mental and physical energy for, and we headed for the exit. As we walked, i suddenly heard a couple speaking in what must have been Dutch, and I turned around to see that Inge and Simon had caught up to us.
We got back to the entrance, got cool Machu Picchu stamps on our passports, used the restrooms, and got our backpacks out of hock. While we were waiting for the bus, Rich caught up with us, as did Chris and Jenn. We were all happy to get on the bus and sit quietly in comfortable seats. By this time it was about 12:30 pm – we had been at Machu Picchu for about 5 hours.
The road down from the ruins to the town known as Aguas Calientes (though some argue that it should be called Machu Picchu village) is dusty with lots of switchbacks. As we drove down, there was a small boy, dressed in native garb, that ran straight down the mountain, greeting the bus at each hairpin turn with what seemed to be a warrior cry. We weren’t sure if this was a greeting or a curse. At the bottom of the mountain, the bus driver let this boy on the bus, and he did a full rebel yell in both Quechua and Spanish. Then he went through the bus collecting coins. Fascinating.
We arrived at the Viajeros Hotel in Aguas Calientes, where SAS groups always gather for their final lunch, around 1:15 pm. Luc, Patrick, Helen, and Aisling had been there for quite some time, and informed me (unfortunately) that Argentina had lost their World Cup match by penalty kicks. The fact that they had lost made me feel less bad about missing the game.
There was a bar selling drinks, and a few people were having beers. I asked the bartender if he had any whiskey, and he and his co-worker looked at me with a tinge of consternation. Unfortunately they had no whiskey, so I ordered a Pisco Sour. It was 10 soles, which was about three times as much as my friends paid for their beers. I thought that was suspicious unti they brought it out to me – it was about 5 times as much Pisco Sour as I had yet seen. It was 10 soles well spent.
We all relaxed and watched endless replays of the Germany vs. Argentina match, until finally the Italy vs. Ukraine match started at 2 pm. Lunch started at pretty much the same time (a buffet with pasta, yuca, beans, and a salad bar with all kinds of veggies), so all the guys had to sit making sure they had a good view of the TV.
We had some time to kill, so the girls went shopping, but I wasn’t walking another step. I stayed with the guys and watched the game. I also touched base with Jose, who had told me that his cousin (a girl) has a massage business in Cusco. I was very interested in getting a massage – just about every single muscle in my body was tight and sore. He said he had tried to call her but her cell phone was off. Instead, when we arrived back in Cusco, he would try to track her down, and would send her to our hostel at 10 pm. It sounded like a good plan.
The match ended around 3:45 pm with a win by Italy, leaving us to do nothing but make fun of the telenovela that ensued (which nobody could understand besides me). Finally at 4:15 pm Leo came in to tell us all (except Patrick & Aisling, who were spending the night in Aguas Calientes) to gather our things and head for the train station. When we got there, Leo and Jose said goodbye, and we were all left to our own devices in the train station. We were pretty confused about what to do, and after about 10 minutes we suddenly figured out that we were supposed to head to the opposite track and get on the train that was waiting.
The train ride was pretty annoying, actually, because there was no room for any kind of real baggage, which meant that you either have to sit with it on your lap, or pile it into the center aisle. The latter worked out pretty well except when the service cart came through passing out drinks. The reason the train was designed this way was because it was a “vistadome”, with picture windows at the top so you can see the mountains above. I’m still torn as to whether it’s really worth it.
We arrived back in Ollantaytambo around 6 pm and had just a short walk to find the SAS bus. We all piled into the bus and waited for the last little bit of our trek. Julie, Chris, and Jenn were actually only on the bus for a few blocks – the bus dropped them off at a hostel there in Ollanta. The bus ride back to Cusco was long and dark, and most of us slept. I slept quite soundly and was very sleepy when we finally arrived, around 8 pm, in the Plaza de Armas back in Cusco.
After so much walking, Dave and I had previously determined that we would take a cab the 6 blocks uphill to our hostel. It was 3 soles well spent.
We got to the hostel to find that although we had been given the same room, it had been turned into a triple. At first I was bummed to have less space, but when we were packing it was actually quite handy to have some extra horizontal space.
Having learned a tip from Leo about the showers, Dave and I each took our turns in the bathroom, and enjoyed nice hot showers. It was lovely to be warm and clean.
Just before 9 pm we went out for dinner, returning to the same restaurant we had enjoyed the first night, Sabor de Casa. We again had alpaca meat (I had a different dish this time, while Dave stuck with what he had enjoyed last time) and it was again delicious.
We took a taxi back to the hostel in order to make it there by 10 pm. The taxi turned the wrong way and ended up a block away from the door of our hostel, unable to turn against the one-way street. Dave paid him only 2 soles instead of 3 and we walked the rest of the way. We got there right at 10 pm.
We hung out in our room, packed as much of our stuff as was reasonable, and read our books for a while. It was far too relaxing and I started to get very sleepy. Finally I went downstairs for a bit to use the internet, and then told Javier that we were giving up on the massage girls. I was in bed and asleep by 11:15 pm.