Machu Picchu: Breath-taking ascent to wonder

By Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade finds the Inca Trail climb to Machu Picchu adds to the excitement.

At 3800 metres, the second night's camp site is truly spectacular, and no place for sleep-walkers. Photo / Pamela Wade
At 3800 metres, the second night's camp site is truly spectacular, and no place for sleep-walkers. Photo / Pamela Wade

Nothing makes you appreciate an en suite bathroom faster than being four zips and 30m away from a chemical toilet halfway up the Andes in the middle of the night. But there are other good reasons to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

One of them might be that this world wonder was discovered 100 years ago in July. If they weren't too busy making a living trotting up and down mountains carrying towering loads, the claim of "discovery" would be disputed by the Indians; but it was the splendidly-named Hiram Bingham III who brought the news of this fabulous place to the Western world.

A chance encounter with a local farmer led him in 1911 to the complex of terraces and ruined buildings on top of a nearby peak. Though the terraces, filled with fertile soil from the river valley far below, were still being cultivated, the city was overgrown by jungle, mysteriously abandoned by the Incas 500 years before.

While historians and archaeologists are still arguing over its purpose - fortress, religious sanctuary, palace - its primary use now is to attract tourists to Peru. Most get to the site by bus up the 12-switchback road from the town of Aguas Calientes; but every morning several hundred arrive, panting, at the Sun Gate after spending three or four days walking the Inca Trail. About 40km long, the classic route (there are alternatives) can sometimes feel like a more vertical Queen St.

Even with a limit of 500 walkers, including the guides and porters, starting the trail each day, it can be hard to appreciate mountains, orchids and condors against a background of multi-lingual babble and the constant slap of porters' sandals on the stone steps.

Cunning timing by our company, Explore, however, meant we had the track virtually to ourselves: beginning at midday, our little group slotted neatly between the mass morning departures, spending our three nights near the deserted lunch-stops, and not encountering other walkers until almost the end of the trail.

I was glad to be spared the sight of lean youngsters loping up the track ahead of me; although, as it happened, the 70-year-old in our group was so determined not to be the weakest link he managed to channel his inner mountain goat and stay in front all the way.

Tail-end honours were shared with Ian, from Lancashire, who was puzzled that climbing Kilimanjaro 15 years earlier hadn't set him up better for this challenge, but dismissed the idea that spending most evenings since in the pub might have had something to do with it. "Time for another blow," he would say at frequent intervals, and we would stop to survey the steep valley behind, the snow-capped peaks and the lush cloud forest.

Of course we blamed the altitude. At 3000m and above - 4200m for the highest point - the lack of oxygen can't be ignored, even after several days' acclimatisation in Cusco; but taking things slowly allows most people to cope.

It also gives opportunity to enjoy the riches along the way: darting hummingbirds and soaring condors, delicate orchids, tree trunks scarred by bears and astonishing works of masonry.

Never hire an Inca to build you a set of garden steps - "uniform" and "even" clearly didn't feature in the Quechua language then - but when it comes to walls they were magicians.

We stopped to inspect buildings and retaining walls fitted around the contours of the hillsides, the unmortared joints between the massive blocks such miracles of precision that centuries later they still defy the roots of opportunist wild begonias.

The trail's not all about exertion: there's also sitting on sun-warmed granite terraces in a remote mountain valley and listening to water trickling in a fountain built 600 years ago, lying comfortably under canvas listening to frogs, and waking in the morning to a cup of hot coca tea. Best of all, though, is the slow build of anticipation that explodes with the first sight of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate.

It's spine-tingling. Simply being there, seeing this classic sight in person, is exciting enough; but having walked there gave us much more than a smug sense of superiority over the day-trippers. We truly felt we had earned this fabulous view, that we had invested something of ourselves in Machu Picchu; so, next day, after hours exploring every inch of the city, not one of us wanted to leave.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Airlines flies from Auckland to Santiago daily with connections to Lima.

Getting around: Adventure World, local agent for Explore, offers a variety of tours around Peru, and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of rediscovery is offering a 9-day/8-night Special Inca Trail to Machu Picchu package priced from $1429 per person; and a 6-day/5-night 100 Years of Discovery package including a guided tour of Machu Picchu for $1305pp: phone 0800 899 111.

Bookings for the Inca Trail need to be made many months in advance.

Pamela Wade went to Peru as a guest of Adventure World and with help from LAN Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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