Finding the Lost City of the Incas
Like the previous two days, we woke up at the crack of dawn. The last leg before reaching Aguas Calientes, the majority of day three was spent walking along railroad tracks. Trains going to Machu Picchu (for those less inclined to hiking) traveled along the tracks and we saw them pass by once or twice. These tracks also happened to be the very same ones that were washed out in the March 2010 floods, about a year after I passed through.
I had never walked along train tracks so this was a new experience. It turned out to be a lot more challenging than I expected. The tracks were built on a foundation of rocks. In between and perpendicular to the tracks were wooden planks which were spaced out about a foot or two from each other. Once in a while, you’d find a gravelly side path but most of the time it was jungle/forest on both sides.
There are three ways to walk on train tracks and none of them are very appealing. If you walk on the rocks, it gets very uncomfortable after a while because they cut into your shoes. If you walk on the tracks, you are constantly tip-toeing and trying to balance yourself. If you walk on the planks, it is mentally exhausting because you have to look down to adjust every step so you land on the planks.
Hollywood romanticizes walking along train tracks as something fun and adventurous. Having actually done it, I can undoubtedly say that it SUCKS. It drains you mentally, physically and is a pretty mind-numbing experience overall. But Machu Picchu wasn’t coming to us so we continued slogging ahead.
With my iPod jammed in and blasting music, I started crushing the miles. If walking the tracks was going to suck, at least I could make it go by faster. Throughout our trek, we had been relatively separated from other groups. But since we were now on the final stretch to Aguas Calientes, every group from every trek (not including the official Inca Trail) had come together along these tracks. A line of people stretched behind and in front of me. Some looked like they were on their last straw, others hadn’t broken a sweat. There were big German-looking dudes, tiny British girls, Peruvian guides, rastafarians, hippies, people with tents and pots hanging from their backpacks, Europeans, North Americans, South Americans, big people, fat people, small people, skinny people. The whole spectrum was covered.
It was fascinating to see such a range of people in the same place yet, as different as we were, we all had something in common. This cornucopia of people, from all corners of the world, from all walks of life, walked on the same railroad, saw the same sights, and had the same goal of reaching Machu Picchu.
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Aguas Calientes was the classic tourist trap, full of stores that sold llama knick-knacks and other worthless chotchkies. It was small but it was saturated with hotels, guesthouses and restaurants. And all kinds of tourists were here: 60 year old retirees that had jetted into Cusco and taken the train, tired and weary trekkers, camera toting Asian tour groups, loud American families who made sure everyone knew they were there, and just about everything else in between.
Thankfully, we only had to stay here for a night: we’d be making our ascent early tomorrow morning.
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We awoke in the pitch black. It was 4am. Machu Picchu was within our grasp but we still had one final climb. We got dressed, had breakfast and gathered our group. As we were getting ready to roll out, we realized that two people had not shown up. After 30 minutes of waiting, I headed off alone. I’m fairly impatient to start and with Machu Picchu in sight, there was no way I was waiting any longer.
The ~20 minute walk to the foot of the climb takes you along a river bank flanked by a tall mountain on the right. I was walking on a dirt path lined with trees and didn’t see signs, at least not in the morning darkness. There was also no one ahead or behind me and for a moment, I thought I was lost. What a shame it would’ve been had I gotten lost the morning of the final climb and never made it. Trying to avoid that, I started running. My fears were unfounded because as I rounded the next bend, I made out a few dark silhouettes ahead and settled back into a brisk walk.
I soon reached the foot of the mountain and looked up. Scores of people had already begun climbing and each of their headlamps glowed like little fireflies in the early morning. Our climb cut through the windy road leading up to Machu Picchu and hundreds, if not thousands, of big stone steps guided our path. It was a tough climb, think stair-master on steroids, but the excitement and anticipation pushed me on. With my iPod once again jammed in my ear, I raced ahead and finished the climb in about 45 minutes.
By the time I had gotten to the top, I was drenched in sweat. The cool morning air made me shiver a bit and I felt goosebumps forming on my skin. I looked around and saw mountains in every direction shrouded in the morning mist. It felt almost surreal. I wish I could tell you that I instantly fell to my knees and cried out of sheer beauty, but then I’d be lying. To be perfectly honest, as thrilled as I was to have finally made it, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bittersweet moment.
For you see, being on top of Machu Picchu meant the end to the Jungle Trek. The past four days had taken me through some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes I’ve ever seen. We had passed through steamy jungles, awe-inspiring mountains and thrashing rivers. We had shared beers in the freezing night while looking at the stars, told stories of our home countries, played soccer with local kids and shared our lives to each other. Now that we were here, our goal finally achieved, it meant the end of our journey. And as cliche as it is, I found that I enjoyed the journey as much, if not more, than the final destination.
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There were a good hundred or so people in front of me already in line. One of the reasons why I wanted to make sure I got up there early was to get the Wayna Picchu ticket. In the classic Machu Picchu shot, the mountain in the background is Wayna Picchu. The park gives out permits to climb it but only to the first 400 people per day.
I got my ticket and waited for my group. Once they arrived, our guide gathered us together and we were taken on a tour through the complex. In typical Incan fashion, the stonework was simply amazing. You couldn’t fit a single piece of paper in between and even after all these centuries, they still stood. It was also mind-blowing to see just how much man power it took to erect the complex. Despite the fact that a lot of the rock was mined at a local quarry, it still must’ve been a herculean task to chip away at solid rock and build an entire freaking city on top of a mountain. We all ooh’d and ahh’d at the various sites and eventually made our way through most of the complex.
Post-tour, we had free time. And free time is always my favorite at places like this. Being able to explore what you want at your own pace is much more interesting to me than a tour that tells you the significance of every single statue and temple. Let there be a little mystery in the world and have a sense of adventure. Personally, I’ll take ignorance over confinement any day of the week. I spent the hours lazing around in the grass, hiking up Wayna Picchu and taking a ton of photos.
Probably my favorite activity was hiking to the top of Wayna Picchu. It wasn’t a cakewalk but the vistas from the top were simply amazing. You could look down and see the entire complex as well as the surrounding roads and mountains. Looking around makes you really understand just how remote Machu Picchu is: in every direction were mountain ranges stretching as far as the eye could see. It’s a shame only 400 people get to do it each day because it was definitely well worth the climb.
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Before I knew it, late afternoon had arrived and it was time to head down to Aguas Calientes and catch our train back to Cuzco. Anna, Angie, Michael and I descended the same steps we had climbed hours before and headed to the train station. We boarded and I settled in my seat. As I slowly drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied.
Machu Picchu? Check.