Thursday, June 05, 2008

Machu Picchu

It was four am. The door bell to our hostel rang. We were ready with our backpacks to go. Quickly and quietly we walked to the door of the hostel where we were met by our guide. Groggy and tired we stepped into the mini van and were surprised by a sudden round of hand clapping from a bunch of men all dressed in red. This was how we started our 4 day trek along the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu otherwise known as the Lost City of the Incas.
Meet the expedition crew starting from the left: Rob form Ireland. The New Zealanders, Karen and Robert. The Yanks Jarred and his girlfriend Lindsay and of course, us.
Keen observers will note the distinct lack of backpacks on the JeTZ. Both of us cite medical reasons for not carrying our own stuff which our lawyers say we are not obliged to divulge.
The stone path we would be following was made by the Incas and is aptly called the Inca Trail. "Path" is not really an accurate description as that doesn't really conjure up the right picture. Staircase is probably a better word. We only ever seemed to be walking upstairs for hours on end or downstairs for hours on end. Even the word staircase is not exactly right. That might imply an evenness in the space between stairs. These kinds of stairs were arbitrarily spaced and shaped. Sometimes you needed to tip toe up them as there was not even space for your foot. And sometimes a giant step was needed to make it up to the next stair.
This may seem arduous especially as we were at altitude but don't be fooled. Initially we stopped every 5 minutes to hear about a particular plant, have some water or take some photos. Until our guide got to know us better, he basically treated us like obese American tourists. We suddenly realised why it takes 4 days to get to Machu Picchu!
The good news was that whenever we walked for hours uphill, there was always a reward at the top - breath taking views. We kept oscillating our feelings towards the Incas. Generally during the harder parts of the trek, we considered them insane masochists. When it came to discovering their wondrous sites, we just marvelled at their ingenuity.
Below was the first Inca site we came across called Q'Entimarka.
The even better news was that normally after descending for many hours we were rewarded with a lunch. Take a good look at the photo below. Neatly folded serviettes, stainless steel cutlery and food fit for Inca royalty. And all of it was ready for us when we arrived! Before eating, we could wash our hands with soap and water and dry them on a towel. Did we really deserve all this? And who was doing all the work behind the scenes? Read on to find out.
Nicknamed, "The Red Army", we had 10 porters (including a chef) travelling with us carrying our tents, food, supplies and now you know, the JeTZ backpacks.
These guys truly humbled us. Unlike many other porters that we saw along the way, our porters always travelled together. Each one carried a maximum load of 17 kg. But if they had to, they could carry much more. What do you think would happen if someone injured themselves and could no longer walk? There were no animals allowed on the trail, no helicopters could be called out. A porter would have to pick that person up and carry them back to the base.
Below is a photo of a lone porter from another company. Many times during our trip we were glad we had chosen to go with a company that treated the porters well.
On the first night, we arrived at our campsite with a round of applause and high fives from our favourite Red Army. The clapping was now commonplace. Every time we arrived at our campsite or for lunch they would clap for us. Every time they overtook us on the trail, we would stand aside and clap for them. It really was a great way to keep up the moral!
At the campsite, we could not believe our eyes. Not only were our comfortable dome tents set up and snacks served (hot popcorn and Milo!), but hot water and soap was provided too. What luxury! That said, our portable shower (wet ones) were still very handy for those harder to reach places...
Our chef was masterful making the most amazing three course meals complete with interesting adornments made out of vegetables.
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The following morning, we were woken up by a crow. Or so we thought. Actually the porters come around with a crow sounding alarm. It might as well have been a crow though considering how early our starts were. But we were not in the least bit grumpy. After being woken up we got a wonderful surprise. The porters came to our tents with bowls of hot water to wash our faces with and offered us coca tea or coffee on a silver platter!
On day two, we were in for a bit of a shock. A promised 3 hour uphill climb to the highest point of the Inca trail called "Dead woman's pass". This is a rock formation that looks like a woman lying on her back. One can only speculate why she is called dead and not sleeping. Our guess was that she probably died from the walk up!
Here we are elated to have arrived at the top in less than the predicted 3 hours. Form then on, Jorge stopped treating us like obese Americans and sped up the pace. Our elation was tempered by the fact that ahead of us lay a 2 hour steep decline.
Note the walking poles. Normally we are adverse to such things but if you have read our Torres Del Paines blog, you will know that there was no other way to do the hike unless TZ was prepared to be carried back to base on the shoulders of a porter.
Along the way, we hardly saw any animals. And definitely no llamas! But we did see this buck of sorts and so he should make it into our blog!
After lunch, we set off again in the direction of up only to Runkuraqay, another Inca ruin. This ruin was discovered by Hiram Bingham, the same person that discovered Machu Picchu. He was searching for the entrance to the Lost City when he found this site. Possibly a fortress, put perhaps more likely a resting place for hikers along the Inca Trail.
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And then it was more uphill for us rested travellers. Jez a little more energetic than the rest of us today, went on ahead of the group and enjoyed a few moments of serenity at the next vantage point which offered wonderful views of the snow peaked mountain Veronica.
Meanwhile, TZ stopped for a chat with a old American man whom we met several times on our hike. Each time we saw him, he was sitting. We could not understand how he made any headway. He said that at his age, he needed a plan. The plan for him was to walk 10 minutes and then sit for 5 minutes. This seemed like a good plan until we later found out that he was hours behind his group and basically had to be assigned his own guide to ensure he was safe and knew where to go.
What goes up, must come down. We headed for another interesting Inca site. You can see it in the distance in the photo to our right.
Just a little climb uphill now and we would be there...
To the left of the photo below you can see the staircase leading up to the site called Sayaqmarka which apparently means "inaccessable on top of the mountain". Well it wasn't entirely inaccessable but it was hard work getting there.
At the top, our guide explained a few things to us. Unfortunately he was not good at working out where the shadier parts were to have our chats and so we sweltered in the heat. It took a little imagination but he showed us a flat rock with a few random looking holes in it. They were supposed to be markings to indicate the Southern Cross.
From this configuration of the stars, the symbolic Andean Cross was derived. The Chakana as it is otherwise called, takes its shape from those stars. The 'steps' in the cross also symbolise the three tiers of Inca life.  The lower, temporal and higher world. Each tier has a symbolic animal associated with it: The snake, puma and condor respectively.
Seeing stairs in their religious symbol was very interesting. Suddenly our pilgrimage took on a whole new dimension...
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We had time to explore the rest of the ruins but by this stage of the day we were knackered.
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We could barely believe Jorge when he said that our campsite was only 15 minutes away! We were delighted again to arrive at our ready made tents, hot water and snacks.
That night Jez and Rob had another star gazing chat. It had started the night before when Karen pointed out a dark patch in the sky saying it looked like a llama. And if we looked closely we could see its baby. Jez and Rob searched for more answers in the sky while the rest of us when to sleep.
The temperature descended well beyond zero degrees in the night. Despite wearing every layer of clothing possible and snuggled deep into our sleeping bags, we still froze.
Day 3 of the trail started at the more reasonable hour of 7am. Today we were going to head into the cloud forest. The scenery was promised to be the most impressive yet. We were not in the least bit disappointed.
The first part of our hike was relaxing with Jorge pointing out various flowers to us. Below is the world's smallest orchid.
We climbed through some interesting rock formations.
Then up up and away until we reached this significant pass. It was exhilarating to know that just beyond the mountain range you see behind us, lay Machu Picchu!
What was even more amazing, was that our guide wanted photos taken. Considering he has done the Inca Trail 600 times, one would wonder why on earth he would want more photos? He told us it was because it was so rare to have this kind of visibility. We had no idea how lucky we were!
We made our way to another Inca site called Phuyupatamarka which means cloud level town. We may have been at cloud level, but there were no clouds to be level with!
As we descended we saw the Red Army marching together down below. While we had been resting our wary bodies, our boys had been forging ahead to ensure our campsite would be set up and ready for us.
The scenery had changed dramatically. We were clearly now into the cloud forest...although luckily for us there was neither cloud nor rain as is highly characteristic for this stage of the hike regardless of the season.
We stopped to rest at Intipata which is not actually that impressive up close. It is just basically terrace upon terrace making it nicer to view from afar.
That said, we all took time out to enjoy the peacefulness and soak up the beautiful views. We wondered if life really could get better than this.
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We arrived at our campsite earlier on this day. We were so excited to find out that Jorge had managed to secure the very best location for us on the very best camp site just before the entrance to Machu Picchu. This meant, barring any extenuating circumstances, we would be the first group to make it to the Sun Gate entrance of the Lost City!
And just around the corner from our campsite, was this most amazing Inca site called Winaymayna meaning "Forever Young".
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We had a big window of opportunity to explore the site and take photos.
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Despite the fact that we had been hiking up and down stairs all day, we just could not help wanting to play around this wondrous set of ruins.
Jez on the other hand, could not help stripping down to nothing and being one with nature.
Many readers have asked why they never see nudey shots of TZ, well we dont like disappoint so to see nudey shot of TZ :

We tried to have an early night as we would have to wake up at 3:30. This would ensure we would be the first group to make it through the entrance gate which was now only 5  minutes away! But Jez and Rob had other plans. They still wanted to cram in one last star gazing session. To be fair, it really was the clearest we had ever seen the stars and who knew when next we would have such a treat?
Coming up, we finally make it to the end of our journey...or so we thought...


gideon said...


it's a wonderful pics and sights, next time when my trip be to south america,i wish that you'll be free to to be our head of porters.

The JeTZ said...

Hey Gideon,
That is only fair. Last time somebody carried all my stuff, so next time I should carry yours!

Anonymous said...

hey! as you mightve guessed, i got to your blog by doing research of my trip to machu picchu. May i know what company you were using? it looked fab!