Yet this vision of Machu Picchu as a secluded palace is misinformed. Studies have revealed it as the center of a network of breath-taking inhabitations each linked to the capital by a road of awe-inspiring engineering — the Inca Trail.
Each year thousands of tourists flock to Cusco with the intention of walking the 45 kilometers of stone highway to Machu Picchu. We were no different.
Most set off with any one of the dozens of companies offering tours. But a year of road-tested camping experience and muscles carved from thousands of biking kilometers gave us the confidence to forge ahead on our own.
Our one concession to organized tourism was to forego the local train and board a bus in the bleary-eyed morning for transport to the starting point: km 82 (train passengers disembark at km 88 and backtrack to the "trailhead").
As luck had it a landslide blocked the make-shift road and forced us out at km 72 — a fact cleverly disguised by the guide for the other tourists who announced, "We're at the starting point. Get out now."
A downpour erupted as we began walking, but no matter; this was the Inca Trail. We were psyched.
Three hours later I was holding my rain-soaked trail guide convincing Nancy that the rock across the river is a holy shrine. I forced my imagination to adapt the description to the non-complaisant landscape. But the cactus were in bloom — a rare treat of beauty excusing them for their spiky ugliness of the preceding eleven months.
We met the "trail" after three more hours, a fact confirmed by a group of 20 tourists gazing out at the ruins of Llactapata (Town on a Site). After that, however, we walked alone or with the heavily-laden porters, learning such useful Quechua phrases such as "jacuchu uskayta" (Hurry up, quickly!) and "munacuyki wawa" (I love you baby!).
Two hours later we arrived amid a speckled sea of tents flowing over the hills of Wallabamba. We camped on a farmer's open terrace with another group, our weathered tent sticking out like a black sheep in a family portrait.
There we met Mike and Jill, a British couple in their mid-60s, walking the trail as part of a six-month tour through South America. They became Nancy's inspiration through the trying sections ahead.
The next morning's first steps began a relentless three-and-a-half hour ascent up 4,000 feet to Dead Woman's Pass; aptly named judging from the expressions atop the nearly 14,000-foot slot in the mountains.
We left the crowd convalescing and began the StairMaster routine from hell. Five hours and two passes later we were about to collapse into the muddy ground of the campsite at 12,500 feet. Nancy is delirious from fatigue.
"I'm an Inca, I'm an Inca!" she laughs dancing along the slippery rocks. It's been a wet day over an infinite number of steps and our bodies ache to crawl inside our warm bags.
I fill my bottle from the ablutional stream, shaking my head at the wonderment before me: Phuyupatamarca, Cloud-Level Town; its stones are shrouded in mists, its graceful contours flow organically like a spiritual celebration on the earth itself.
The Inca Trail, we learn, is like that — each striking ruin glorifies the earth's forces. The monuments stand like an audience before nature's theater — a continuous dance of mists and light, shadow and star.
As Peter Frost writes, "Walking the trail, it is impossible to doubt that the entire experience was planned ... its intended purpose to elevate the soul of the pilgrim on the way to Machu Picchu."
Crossing the last threshold of Intipunku, the Sun Gate, as mornings rays strike the Lost City of Machu Picchu, you can only agree.
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