Day 6: Winay Wayna-Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, PeruYou think you know Machu Picchu. You have seen it in guidebooks, in things to do before you die lists, in Facebook photo albums of various friends. You’ve seen it in high-definition technicolour. How can seeing it in person not be an anti-climax?

I thought all of these things, until I saw it. The lost city, that technically has no name, but is referred to by the name of the mountain: Machu Picchu.

And maybe it’s the altitude, and maybe it’s exhaustion, maybe it’s that you’ve been working towards this moment for so long: planning and training and fundraising and hiking — but either way, it’s a big emotional moment. I tell everyone the same thing: if you want to see Machu Picchu, you should hike the Inca trail to get there.

Sure, you can take a bus up the mountain from Agua Calientes, and arrive all fresh and rested, but where would be the sense of achievement?

The last day’s hiking started with an unexpected lie-in. When this became the plan, I don’t know, I was fairly sure it was meant to be an early start to be there for sunrise: but none of that mattered once we were awake and on our way. To tell the truth, the hike to get to Machu Picchu on the last day fades in my memory: because there was an enormous event waiting at the end, and everything else becomes over-exposed because of it.

 Inti Punku, the sun gateWhat I remember most is the stone steps up to the sun gate, from where you look down on to the lost city below. One more set of steps, except that lining the steps on both sides are the trip guides, the doctors, the porters you have become close to over the last few days. And they are all cheering and applauding. I raised an arm in triumph for a photo: I did it. On bruised and blistered and broken feet, I did it.

After the photo opportunities with mountain Machu Picchu in the background, we were encouraged to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection about why we were there and what we had accomplished. That’s about the time that the exhaustion and altitude combined to have almost everyone break down in tears. We were all there raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, and all had stories about how cancer had affected the lives of people around us — or us personally. My aunt would have loved Machu Picchu and Peru, and it seemed like a fitting tribute to her memory.

What I don’t often talk about is the pain I was in on this last day. I’d been on a prescription pain killers all week to deal with the pain in my injured foot and in my knees, and had foolishly decided for the last day to start reducing the dose. Looking back, I could have waited another couple of days, but I under-estimated how much of a hike the final day would be. But you know what? Look at that smile. I was genuinely happy. In that moment, it was all worth it.

Among the ruins of Machu Picchu there are wild llamas just wandering around, and once you have descended the long, winding path down to the city you yourself just wander among the ruins and the grass: marvelling at the pyramids and the buildings, and the ingenuity of this long lost civilisation. Everyone there probably wishes they were alone to experience it without the slightly grubby hikers, like me, or the fresh faced tourists just off the air-conditioned bus. Just the same, you remember the feeling of the city and try to memorise all the details to report back later.

Day 5: Pacamayo – Winay Wayna

Our last full day’s hiking began shortly after 5.30am, on a cold Andean morning above the Pacamayo river.  Joe had slept the night through, and the cheerful porters were greeting us all with bowls of hot water for washing in, and mugs of Coca tea.

But it was mornings like this that brought home where we were, and why we were doing it.  Sometimes at the end of the day when your knees were screaming and you were hiking the last few miles to camp in rapidly fading light, it was easy to forget.  Then you wake up the next morning with views of cloud-filled valleys, and you wonder why you don’t do this kind of thing more often.  Day three of proper hiking along the Inca trail promised lots more ruins, more altitude, and more cloud forest.

About a kilometre along the trail from the campsite, and a climb of about 150m we came to the first set of ruins of the day, the remains of Runkuraqay — at an altitude of approximately 3750m.

Discovered by the explorer Hiram Bingham, who was searching for Machu Picchu, like much of the Incan architecture the purpose of the tambo aren’t entirely clear.  While some historians claim it was a lookout post for the trail, others have said it was a guard house, a grain store or even a llama corral.

From here the hike just kep going up — and like the previous day, the air was thin, the trail was steep and the going was slow.  While we knew we were going up to 4,000m again, we’d spent the night at altitude and so hadn’t nearly as far to go this time — instead we had almost all of the rest of the day downhill.

And so from the highest point of the day, it was another 400m descent down to the town of Sayaqmarka.  Reached only by a steep, narrow staircase Sayaqmarka can be translated as “inaccesible town”.

Having spent the best part of the day so far not actually at the back of the group, I decided to forego a brief side trip up to the ruins of Sayaqmarka and instead press on ahead.  There was still a lot of hiking to be done, and I had some foolish notion that I might possibly be able to get back before nightfall without being eaten by a puma.  Though I expect for many it would be an honour to be eaten by such a revered animal, I figured that could at least wait until after Machu Picchu.

Speaking of Machu Picchu, I had come this far now and was now reassured in myself that I wouldn’t have to abandon the trail with one of the group leaders and instead take the train to the lost city.  In some of my darker moments the day before I had reassured myself that it would still be an adventure, even if that was the worst case scenario.  But it wasn’t me being carried up to Dead Woman’s Pass in a papoose, or giving the porters a fright by keeling over at the top.  So, surely, if I had come this far then I would just keep going?  The worst of the uphill was behind me, and we were at such a point that returning were as tedious as to go o’er.

As the day wore on, the trail levelled out and widened — giving us fine views and occasional patches of cloud forest.  The third pass was reached easily after passing through an Inca tunnel in the rock.  I can’t be sure exactly when it was in the day, but it must have been about around this time that one of my fellow trekkers had a small mishap with some strong pharmaceutical painkillers.

For reasons of her own, one of the trek doctors had given her two of these tablets, and she’d been instructed to take them something like four hours apart.  I can be fairly clear about these instructions, since I’d been given some myself — but never felt the need to resort to those on top of what I was already taking.  Many of you can probably guess what happened next — it got to halfway through the day, and Yvonne realised she had forgotten to take one of the tablets earlier.  Maybe she was feeling particularly sore, and that was what reminded her, but she obviously figured that she would need to “catch up” on what she had missed, and took them both at once.

Yvonne later told us that she didn’t realise this was a mistake until some time later.  We were at the top of a particularly steep climb, everyone was getting their breath back, and Yvonne noticed how the colours on all the plants seemed so unusually vivid, and thought to herself that she hadn’t known that was a symptom of altitude sickness.  Then she remembered the tablets she had taken, and realised all was not well.  Before long, she was giggling like an addict in the depths of an ether binge, and was unable to walk any distance completely unaided.

Luckily for everyone involved, Yvonne needed nothing more than one of the group leaders to support her as she walked and to keep an eye on her — no permanent damage was going to have been done, she just needed supervision and assistance.

On route to the last night’s camp we passed above the ruins of Phuyupatmarka (meaning Cloud-Level Town), a complex structure of protection walls and paths built on the uppermost side of a high hill.  It’s a sad state of affairs when by this point it is almost getting to a point where this elaborate Inca architecture is starting to seem normal.  It never becomes boring or uninteresting, but after a while you start to expect it — and know you are getting closer to the final day.

Before you can get to the final day, though, if you are like me you will spend most of the last hour of walking actually hiking in complete darkness with only a headtorch for light. While I wasn’t alone and the camp wasn’t far away, it was still not advisable to be walking the trails in the dark.  For me, it just added to the adventure — but I still didn’t want to get eaten by any wild animals.

The campsite of Winay Wayna was completely different to the previous two nights.  For a start it had toilets and showers — real toilets and real showers, that weren’t in tents.  It also had a dining hall, a kind of off-licence and a small shop that sold the tokens you needed to buy beer.  Most of the others had already been back at the camp for an hour or two already by this point, and had got on the beers without delay. Even Joe, who had made a lazarus-like recovery.

To celebrate the end of the camping, that evening there was a formal meal at real tables and everything — but for many of us, that was where the celebrations would stay, because the next day was the final hike to the lost city of Machu Picchu.