I have been waiting some time to write this particular blog. Leaving all my avid readers all in dying suspense cruelly and heartlessly (are there any left!?) whilst I attempt to gather the words and phrases that will truly do justice to the undoubted highlight of my entire trip...yes that´s right, my entire trip. A tall order I´m sure you´ll agree for a blog entry summary. Alas, it has been long enough. We begin...
I had journeyed to Cusco after crossing the Bolivian/Peruvian border late in the evening and arrived in the designated Historical Capital of Peru early the next morning after yet another freezing cold night bus. They were getting no easier for me! My friends Steph and Nat, who I had met in Brazil and Argentina, were also in Cusco and we had arranged to meet and embark on the Machu Picchu trek together. An excitable bundle of Anna hopped round to their hostel and creeped up, unbeknownst to them as I had planned to arrive a day later but hadn´t told them, and screamed "SUPRISE!", receiving some high-pitched screaming in reply. The troublesome trio had entered the building! Steph, Nat and I had not spent time just as the three of us but it turns out it was a match made in Inca heaven! And the perfect combination for our upward journey to Machu Picchu. The girls had been in Cusco for a while before me but I just stayed for the two nights before the trek began. A shame of sorts as the city is idyllic and picturesque, with cobblestone streets lining grandiose church doorways and history steeped in every nook and crevice. The Spanish conquistadors that dominated the city adopted the Quechua name (Quechua is the Native American language family spoken primarily in the Andes of South America) for the city, but transliterated it into Spanish as Cusco. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire but the Spanish invaded the city in 1533. The many buildings constructed after the Hispanic invasion have a mixture of Spanish influence with Inca indigenous architecture. The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces. They used the remaining walls as bases for the construction of a new city. As a result, wandering around the quaint city an atmosphere of rich colonial history fills the air, yet stamped with an indelible mark of Inca tradition. Nat, Steph and I enjoyed the delights of the city that first day as we nattered away about the incredible amounts of news we had to share with one another. A beautiful thing to be back with these girls and the promise of an incredible experience ahead filling our hearts with enthusiasm and our smiles with vigour!
The Machu Picchu trek we had chosen to do was 4 days long, taking us on downhill mountain biking, through coca plantations, jungle scapes, over train tracks, aside rushing rivers and finally, up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Day One started with the usual amount of hilarity, the three of us giggling girls laughing uncontrollably in our people carrier van about Graham the Dog and his concerned, expressive face (don't ask!). In our van we had an English couple, an Aussie couple and one German guy and so, once everyone had been picked up and the mountain bikes had been loaded onto the roof we set off on our adventure! As we journeyed higher and higher into the mountains (the biking was to be downhill only...thank god!), the clouds began to shroud our vision and blanket us in a thick sheet of fine rain. The type that doesn`t seem that threatening but will absolute soak you, through and through! We relucantly got out of our warm van seats and cowered in the rain, donning helmets and gloves and trying to cover all parts of our already chilly bodies with any available waterproof material. Already soaked, our group and another van group began our painfully cold, windy and wet downward ride through clouds of rain and lack of visibility. As I tried to shield my raw face and hands from the biting wind and see through the waterfall of drips that fell across my eyeline, I suprisingly managed to have a good old chuckle to myself. I had actually paid for this experience! The irony was overwhelming and thankfully made me laugh, not cry! We stopped for lunch once we were entirely soaked and shivering with the cold, and were given the option to stop riding the bikes and ride in the car instead. I jumped in to the van before you could say "frozen fingers". The lads of the group all soldiered on and sods law being what it is, the sun came out on the second leg for them! Grrrr! We arrived at our first accommodation spot later that evening, in a sleepy little town called Santa Maria. Santa Maria had once been a wealthy, busy, vibrant town but two landslides in the 90`s had destroyed a large proportion of the place. We settled into our clean, spacious room, attempted to dry our sodden boots and clothing, and had a delicious dinner with our entire group in a small restaurant in the town. An early night was called for as an early morning awaited us.
Day Two of the trek was the toughest day by far. Steph, Nat and I were truly chomping at the bit...ready for some real walking action and keen for a challenge. We ate breakfast, wrapped our socks in plastic bags (the walking boots were still squelching with water from yesterdays' wash out!), and started out on our epic day of walking. After yesterdays` endurance of chills and goose-bumped bodies, we were welcomed past Santa Maria with the warm arms of the sunshine. A blue sky ruled fair above us and the sun beamed with force. We were like excitable puppies meandering down the dirt track that hugged the powerfully flowing river to our right side. We trekked through the Urubamba Valley for the entirety of the day, (and for the whole trek), always looking down or across to the Urubamba River, flowing beside us like a benevolent guardian. The sights were stunning at all times, encouraging all us walkers to make efforts to look up from our boots and take in the landscapes we were being treated to. The path was a little hairy at times - at one point in the morning we scrambled along a cliff edge, the sheer drop below us plummeting straight down to the gushing river. We clung on to precariously crumbling rocks as we edged along the half-metre wide path, finally making it to the end and snapping the feat we'd just achieved! We visited a coca plantation and were educated on the cocaine trade in Peru and then we proceeded further into the jungle, painting our faces with red dye from a fruit our guide had picked, becoming true tribal trekkers! The sweat pouring from our brows soon washed away the dye, although leaving remnants of orange, giving us all the appearance that we'd been "tangoed"! It was absolutely boiling hiking higher and higher up through the undergrowth, thanking each leaf for the shade it provided from the searing sunshine. Before our lunch stop we reached the highest point from the day and we all stood, invigorated, pulsating and tinged with orange, gazing down through the Valley we had just conquered like a kaleidoscopic tunnel of lush mounts dropping dramatically into rocky depths and frantically snaking water rhythms. It was truly more-ish. Truly exhilarating. I wanted doses and doses of this drug. Lunch was much needed and appreciated. We had already walked for five hours and the damp in my shoes was lingering and had afforded me with some kind of trench-foot issue. Nice. After lunch we continued along the Urubamba Valley from a lofty, birds-eye view, hiking up sharp inclines that really got the heart pumping, being heavily dusted by passing trucks on the dirt track we sojourned, blisters and aches beginning to complain noisily throughout my weary body. When we finally reached our rest place for the evening, Santa Teresa, we had been walking for ten hours. I could barely drag my limbs into the shower...but it was hot...so I made sure I made it. A hot shower has never been so relished in the history of the world! Steph, Nat and I were sleepy, content, if not slightly achey, bunnies when we went for dinner. The other people in the group were intent on drunkenness and all we wanted to do was eat and go to bed! We're getting old (even though we were the youngest on the trek!).
Day Three was another tough day of trekking - not so many ascents to tackle but a gaggle of physical ailments to try and ignore as we continued to soldier on. We sat smugly at breakfast, feeling fresh in mind and well-slept, in comparison to those who had gone out the night before, and were feeling less than ready for another full day of exertion! I'm sure we were highly annoying flouting our bubbly demeanors at a volume that probably hurt the hungover ears like a sledgehammer to a brick wall! Ah well! The day was even hotter than yesterday, and the start of the walk was completely unshaded. The raw, arid heat bore down on us like a demon as every tree or slight piece of shade resembled a heavenly oasis to our overheating bodies. Finally, we made it to some prolonged shady patches and that also brought the most entertaining part of the day - the cable car! This cable car was entirely manual and entirely unstable, traversing fifty metres above the rocky, fierce Urubamba River, the tiny car holding a disproportionate amount of weight considering its' size. We watched a dozen cable cars make their unsteady way over and back, over and back, until Steph, Nat and I were up (well, we were the first in the group by choice...we resembled eager children trying to be the first in line at the sweet shop!). Truly ridiculous! The experience was a lot of fun and much less frightening than I had expected, although we still did our fair amount of screaming. It would be rude not to! Afterwards, our route lead us past a hydroelectric power station that had 150 people working inside the rocky caves. A huge cascade of water rushed from a gaping hole and was dumped into the river below. Such an incredible natural force to behold. The last part of the trek that day was along unused train tracks, over bridges, and always always beside the paternal, omnipresent river. We walked through the most stunning scenery, zebra-print rocks stained from rain and weathering, enormous milky white boulders placed precariously along the path, lush greenery sprouting in all directions, and the unblemished blue sky always above us. At points we could see some of the Inca ruins peeking over the top of the mountain that loomed above. We were directly below the point we would be gazing down from the next day and it seemed an impossible feat for us to achieve, especially considering how many hours and how far we had walked already. As we reached Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of Machu Picchu, we had been walking for eight hours. We were exhausted, but feeling satisfied and excited. We were at the feet of the legendary mount, at the precipice of giant, at the base of the beast, and we were within hours of conquering it. Aguas Calientes was an odd little place, entirely focused around the influx of wealthy Western tourists and their waving wads of cash (I was certainly exempt from this group!). We spent the evening showering, stretching, eating and being given a preliminary introduction to the Mountain, what to expect, what time to meet, what to take, and so on and so forth. The tension and anticipation within the group was palpable and I was in for a short night of disturbed sleep before the final day arrived.
Day Four. The final day. The day we had all been waiting for, trekking for, sweating for and aching for. It was upon us and I was as keen as a bean to get up and go when the alarm clicked on at 3.30am. Ouch. All three of us had struggled sleeping and so we sleepily dressed and readied ourselves to meet the others at 4am downstairs. Unfortunately, none of the others were there when we arrived on time - not late, not early - on time. Not even our guide or the person who had knocked on our door at 3.40am to wake us were there. Hmmmm. We decided to carry on and get to the gate for the steep ascent up to the Lost City, a little concerned that we were leaving people behind, but we had waited long enough. In the darkness of that Tuesday morning, the giggling trio began the incline...perspiring, panting and pushing ourselves up the hundreds of rocky steps that lead to the treasure of Machu Picchu. We shocked ourselves by how quickly we stormed up, barely stopping, supporting each other through the breathless exertion, our bodies and minds so focused on the task before us, our lungs and hearts and blood pumping like well-oiled machines. Each step was placed meticulously and methodically in front of the other and all thoughts concentrated on that effort. It was liberating and testing and truly truly enjoyable. As we rose in altitude the mountains surrounding us began to show their forms through the eerie, dull light and through the shroud of gently sleeping clouds. Every time we looked up from our feet we realised how high we were, holding hands and bumping heads with the mountains. We reached our goal at 5.30am, drenched with sweat and pride. We had made it! We found the rest of our group at the top - they had left without us after all. What a lovely bunch. Well and truly in our bad books! But that was not to ruin our day at Machu Picchu. Nothing could ruin this day!
We had climbed up to the base of Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain" in Quechuan) which is 2,430 metres above sea level. Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian Inca site believed to be an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", it is perhaps the most familiar icon of the Inca World. The Incas started building the estate around AD 1400 but it was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction. Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place. As we were given our tour around the Lost City, the mist transformed the landscape from second to second, shifting mysteriously around the rocks, revealing in places the fascinating ruins whilst keeping some secret from our eyes. Our group wandered in and around the polished dry-stone walls, learning more about the Inca traditions, their faith, and the way they lived within this city under the mountain. Layers of structured rock settlements stretched out before us, tantalising and baffling. Small houses, temples, guardhouses, observatories, all maze round one another creating a world to truly get lost inside. There were condor birds soaring and wheeling in the sky, signifying for the Incas messengers from the next life. One landed on a rock just where we were stood listening to our guide, providing a really special moment for us all. We absorbed and respected and appreciated the lessons that were afforded to us and after the tour had ended, the three of us sat atop the highest point in the City and just breathed in the energy and the atmosphere around us. Poor Nat's feet had literally fallen apart, blisters covering all her toes and the sensation of walking on glass as she walked. Steph and I decided to really push ourselves, as we weren't in as much discomfort, and trekked up the steep Waynapicchu, or "Small Mountain", which faces Machu Picchu. This really was the piece de resistance. We literally rock climbed up the sheer "steps", slipping around from the moisture and feeling the burn in our tired muscles. But my lord, it was worth every strained breath. From Waynapicchu we were treated to an aerial view of the entire Lost City and the path we had taken to climb the mountain early that morning. It felt surreal and fantastic. I truly was on top of the World- the condors circling and the jigsaw pieces of the Inca structures below becoming pieces of me, pieces of myself and the feat I had achieved. Steph and I sat atop that mountain for hours, putting the World to rights, allowing emotions to flow free and embracing the natural elements that ruled supreme within this beautiful creation, within our truly mind-blowing World.
And so, Machu Picchu was conquered and will be loved, cherished and remembered forever in the realms of my mind as one of the most bewildering, exhausting, impressive and wonderful experiences I have ever had in my life.
Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Seeing the beautiful Natalie and Steph again, realising the true potential of my laughing capacity, and being absolutely ecstatic that I experienced Machu Picchu with them.
- Achieving what I had gone to Peru to do and getting to the top of the Mountain!
- Soaking up the magic and mystery of the most amazing place on earth atop Waynapicchu. On top of the World!