What’s that? Singing? It’s 2:45 in the morning for heaven’s sake! The group in the next campsite over is up very early, before the sun, so they can get to Machu Picchu, spend the day and then head home, wherever that may be. But that’s not us. We were, up until 2 minutes ago, sleeping soundly with a 6am wake up call. For a moment it bugs me, all this singing of Happy Birthday in both French and English, but in between songs is laughter and a general jovial spirit. How can you be angry at people just being happy and doing the best with what they have, in this case, getting up probably at 2am? I find out later from the conversation around the breakfast table, that I’m the only one who isn’t grumbly about the early morning singing.
Before breakfast, after the singing and before my fellow trekkers awake I rustle out of my comfy, warm sleeping bag at quarter after five just before the sun comes up. The rains from the night before have stopped and the refreshing smell of ozone and wetted grass greets me outside of the tent. Grabbing my camera and nodding my buenos dias’es to the porters and kitchen staff already busy with the day’s agenda, I head up the hill behind our camp which was covered in fog when we arrived last night. The clouds have lifted from the valley below us and hang a few thousand feet above the towering peaks to the East, South and West, affording me a view of at least 3 mountain ranges if not more.
Reaching a knoll, I notice a small path leading to another hill still further and taller. I then proceed to soak my legs on the switch grass dampened from the rain and morning dew. Atop this higher knoll I find a few odd remains of stone walls and as this is the highest point for a mile or two around, I guess at what has taken place here or what purpose this spot served. Sheer cliffs guard its West side and expose grand views of many unknown and glaciated peaks beyond.
Glaciers. How I love glaciers and the mountains to which they tend to cling. Most of my travels take me to locations with peaks and valleys and slowly advancing and retreating glaciers. I sit and stare and instinctively start picking out a route up the nearest glacier to the summit. The mountain is at least five miles away but closer when viewed through my camera’s zoom lens which aids in charting an accent up and around the crevasses and rock outcrops. Something I’ll likely never climb with so many options in this stretch of the Andes, but it’s a habit to map a path up to know it can be done. I do this with a lot of things in life without thinking and I’m not sure why.
Later, when we most are awake Rene leads us to the first, lower knoll and drapes the mountains with unfamiliar names. The largest one I was mentally climbing is Salkantay and is part of the Vilkabamba Range. To Salkantay’s right is Omantay and still further right, far to the North is Korakayros (sp) and another range who’s name slips by my note taking. The clouds come and go again, dancing around the mountains and never allowing for a fully unobstructed panoramic view of them all at once. I know, you can’t actually SEE a panoramic view all at once no matter how fast you spin around, but now it’s time for French Toast for breakfast. Alice, who lives in France, informs us she’s never had toast like this in her life and certainly not in France. She probably hasn’t had french fries either, but I don’t ask.
Alice and Tiffany become indispensable just a bit later as we present trips to all the hired help who have assembled before us where our tents used to stand, packed away while we ate. First Rene explains the what life is like for most of the porters, coming from local villages and usually involved in farming in one form or another. Long days and hard work and it shows in the faces of those carrying our loads, cooking our food and generally taking care of our well being. Alice and Tiffany are employed to pass on our gratitude for all the effort and superb service. None of us are really sure what either of them say as our Spanish is just passable enough to order a beer or ask where the train station is.
The day’s trekking is easy compared to the last batch of up and down. The heat returns and my shirt is quickly spotted with sweat as the lush forest returns. Leaves the size of car doors reach down from above as the “squak, squeeeeek” from strange birds slice through the humidity. At one point, before the hillside agricultural ruins of Winaywayna, we are passed by a group of porters, one of them carrying a tourist with a bandaged ankle. A gentle reminder to watch our our steps or face a rough ride home.
Winaywayna was once used to grow the food needed at Machu Picchu, which did not have large enough fields close by. Medicinal herb were also grown here and we are shown another one of the double entry ways representing a religious temple beyond. Behind this temple are two wells or pools, one emptying into the other. The water then takes a course around the temple and continues to cascade over seven more pools. The pools served a number of purposes, some ceremonial and some practical, with the higher classes utilizing the higher pools. The lower in the society a person was, the lower the pool and the more run off. It’s easy to imagine the last pool being murkier after a day of washing and bathing.
After lunch it’s time for one last uphill push. One huge set of steps stacked virtually on top of another. And then, Intipunka, or the Sun Gate. This is the moment we have been trekking days to relish. Cresting the last set of steps the valley is laid before me and there, on a promontory jutting into the valley, with Waynapicchu standing guard behind, is Machu Picchu. I’ve seen the pictures taken from this very spot a number of times but nothing has prepared me for experiencing it for myself. The location could not be any more scenic with the slender eel of the Urubamba wrapping Machu Picchu in a horseshoe of steep cliffs. Beyond the sentinel of Waynapicchu are more valley walls with infinite shades of green, more than any location I’ve ever experienced.
There it is, larger than life. Little ants milling about the rock structures (oh wait, those are people and some llamas). It’s grander than I had imagined as it dominates and covers all the available land in front of Waynapicchu. I was not prepared to really be here, I guess, as it seems almost dream like. A lot of this is in my mind, I know. Things I’ve projected on the place from lore and stories. Growing up in suburbia in Washington state areas of South America always seem exotic. It didn’t help that Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of my all time favorite movies, opens in the jungles of Peru, adding credibility that it’s a place only Indiana Jones would dare visit. Not some kid from Lynnwood High School, whose big adventures were heading to the mall at lunch sometimes. My perception definitely plays a part in how I view the ruins now. All of ours does. Even Rene, who has been to this spot scores of times before.
Jubilation. Excitement and a bit of tiredness mix through our crowd. Giddiness too of having made the trek. Sometimes in life it’s really good to have a goal and reach it. Sometimes.
After the photos and video are done we still have to get down to the city itself and the busses waiting for us. We won’t spend much time in the ruins today and we won’t actually enter the city walls, just the outskirts. Tomorrow will be our day for exploration. Tonight is our night for celebration (ok, as it turned out, tomorrow night is ALSO a night for celebration) and after the busses drop us off at Aqua Caliante, the main town just below the ruins, we hoof it just a bit further to our reward for the day’s walking: Hot Springs. A dip in these large, naturally fed pools does us good, so do the margaritas and beer. The jubilation of earlier in the day returns, go figure. The sweaty, ragged people are left on the trail and now replaced there are bathing suit clad party goers. Well, except for the odd “Dodgy Guy In The Corner”. That dude was weird.
Walking back to our camp on the Urubamba River we pick up more wine to keep the party going, and go it does. I’m up until 3:30am talking with Rene and Alice (and later Jeff) about life situations. Three of us, growing up at least 6,000 miles apart from each other. And yet, I find comfort in the similarities of our life situations. Comfort from friends who were strangers just days ago, but closer now for having made the journey and shared time together. Sharing empathy and advice as well as laughter and exuberance. Writing this seven moths later I feel compelled to thank them again for their time and advice. And to tell them to put out the damn cigarettes!!
Tomorrow we will tour Machu Picchu all day. Not the best thing to do on 1.5 hours of sleep and slightly hung over, but, ehhh, we’re here already, might as well. 🙂