That night we cook
with water drawn from the ceremonial baths below, still burbling
after a half-century.
The contrast between the ancient and the modern trails testifies to the dedication and mastery of the Inca craftsmen.
Step after ragged step we push our aching bones upward. The crest lies a short distance ahead, but our legs falter and our cement-filled packs keep our eyes to the ground.
It's been a long day. As we reach the final rise, the clouds lift like a curtain before an opening performance; a view of unparalleled beauty spreads before us. Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, shimmers amid jade grass and feathered cloud. Fatigue washes off like dust from a deluge, words catch in our throats, and we stand silent before this miracle.
From its commanding perch, the ancient city of Machu Picchu flows over the mountainside and through the mists with alluring mystery. The perfectly honed stones amid the lush landscape invite us into a forgotten world of natural harmony.
With a thousand visitors each day it is obviously an attractive invitation. Remarkable in its isolation, Machu Picchu astounds all the more when seen in its original context as the capital of a network of surrounding cities.
The Inca Trail, 43 kilometers of inspired engineering, twists sinuously through mountain cloud forest and over high passes, across barren puna and through verdant jungle, carrying the traveler on a pilgrimage envisioned more than 500 years ago.
Any decent guidebook gives a comprehensive trail description, and maps are widely available in Cusco. Though not long by trekking standards, the trail covers more steps than an Empire State Building marathon and scales three passes of 4,000 meters or more. Throw in schizophrenic weather and slippery stones and you've got a serious undertaking.
The trail start varies depending on whether you come via train or the bus used by tour companies. Regardless, you will spend your first hours adjusting your pack, shaking the vestiges of morning, and wondering what you forgot to bring.
Llactapata, contouring along the Cusichaca River at the valley entrance, is the first ruin you meet along the trail. Summarily dispatched in the guidebooks, the town probably supplied other sites with surplus food and is the only site along the trail occupied before the Incas.
Llactapata impresses in and of itself, and were it not on the Inca Trail it would merit lengthy visits, scholarly discourses, and Inca Kola vendors. As it is, most groups gaze briefly and move on up the trail.
Huayllabamba, the Town to Come, is the destination for the heavily burdened porters who've been passing you all day and where most parties make their first camp. We camped in a lush green meadow on the left just before leaving town, with the snowcapped Veronica (5,750 meters) filling the head of the valley below.
Some hikers camp an hour further along at Tres Piedras, a small site alongside the Llullucha River, where the next day we passed Quechua women setting out buckets of cold sodas and chocolate bars for the morning rush.
The trail here crosses the Llullucha and wraps around the hillside before climbing under the lush canopy of cloud forest. This is Hobbit country, passing through stands of gnarled orange trees draped in epiphytes and tangled vines.
Bird calls bubble through the forest as you climb toward Llulluchapampa, where the forest abruptly empties out into puna, a high-altitude grassland.
Some parties spend their first night here anticipating the morning's climb to the first pass, but most find it uncomfortable and sleep little in the cold, thin air. The trail bends toward Warmiwañuska — Dead Woman's Pass — deceptively close in the view ahead.
We fell into lockstep with the crowd moving inexorably upward. While not steep, the climb tests your acclimatization. Don't worry, frequent stops provide ample opportunity to marvel at the exploits of porters latched to moving-van cargoes.
Leave the convalescing crowds and descend toward the river below. Although stones appear, they are set with the elegance of a backyard patio. Save your excitement for the real artistry to come.
Campsites appear as the Pacamayo Valley bellies out, but why not head on? You've been looking at the climb to come for the last hour.
Runkuracay, the ruins for which the second pass is named, has been mistranslated as "egg-shaped hut." After your ascent you will agree "Stairmaster to Hell" is a more accurate translation.
Regardless, the ruins make a great stop to admire the superb view over the valley and to rest your knees. The pass itself is just beyond the false summit ahead, honest.
An hour after the second pass, Sayacmarca gives you a chance to admire the Inca practice of building in the most scenic locations imaginable. The walls of the ruins wind in tight bands embracing the ridge. At the far extreme a grassy landing would make an ideal meditation spot. Ideal, that is, when not squinting through torrential rains. We moved on.
Across the valley the trail passes through potential campsites in a broad meadow, gradually ascending to the third, and final, pass. Along the way graceful rises, buttressed walkways, and tunnels enlarged from the natural cleft of rock evidence some of the finest stonework along the trail.
The climax is aptly named Phuyupatamarca, Cloud-Level Town, with spectacular camping along the ridge. From our tent door we gaze into the Urubamba Valley and the range's mountainous spine. That night we cook with water drawn from the ceremonial baths below, still burbling after a half-century.
The morning mist makes for fine exploring amid the ruins, and sets the tone for the descent to come. Recently excavated stairs spiral downward before eventually joining a dirt trail to the hostel complex at Wiñay Wayna. The contrast between the ancient and the modern trails testifies to the dedication and mastery of the Inca craftsmen.
The ruins of Wiñay Wayna are not visible from the hostel. To reach them take a short trail running from behind the building. It is a shame more people don't bother, as the ruins are among the finest along the route.
Extensive terracing sculpts the natural amphitheater, cascading to a complex of buildings below. Steps lead through the roofless edifices and into the jungle below. The trail continues on to the river and is the entrance for hikers of the shorter Camino Sagrado de Inca, beginning at kilometer 104.
Most guided groups spend their final night at Wiñay Wayna and, as a result, the site is often crowded. If this thought doesn't appeal, I suggest heading on to the trail's end and, camping in Puente Roto or Aguas Calientes. In either case, try to enter Machu Picchu as early as possible the next morning; certainly before the tour buses arrive at 10:30.
The morning mists drape the ruins in a cloak of mystery. The perfect atmosphere to commune with the ghosts who have planned your pilgrimage.