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Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes, Peru

The final day of the Inca Trail was one of such heightened emotions and vivid, surreal moments that I know I will never, ever forget it. We woke at 3.15am and quickly stuffed ourselves with a pancake before making our way to a checkpoint. The large wooden gates were closed and would not be open until 5.30am but it was important to get to the front and we had managed to be the first there. We sat huddled in the cold darkness, looking up at the clear sky and the billions of bright stars which covered its entirety. I could see why the Incas were such passionate astronomers with that over their heads every night.

Eventually a bulb broke the darkness and the wooden gate was opened. Floating head torches filled the path as we marched excitedly along the rugged trail. As we moved, the stars began to disappear and a faint glow crept up from behind the mountains. Josh and I were near the front of the group and I heard Selsa approaching behind us. In a low voice, careful not to excite the rest of the group, he whispered:

“Anda now we are gonna ron.”

It took me a moment in my sleepy state to work out his accent and in that moment he was gone. Running away from the group. The excitement as we ran off in the dark towards Machu Picchu was incredible – it wasn´t an easy path and we ran up and down treacherous steps with our torches flashing across the path in front of us. Gradually the glow from the mountains grew stronger and we were able to see without torches – the path was narrow and to our right hand side a sheer drop fell to the valley below where the early morning train clunked its way up, filled with tourists. This spurred us on.

Then, disaster. From behind me I heard Josh shouting desperately. I looked back to see the contents of his backpack strewn across the path. The zip had worked its way open. But Josh was only interested in one item. The single item which had gone off the edge.

“My fuckin passport..!”

His voice was filled with fear and panic. I felt it rushing through me. It felt like the worst thing that could have happened at the worst possible time. We were all in shock. Selsa repeated our swearwords and it was clear from his expression that he was as traumatized as we were as we peered over the edge into the bushes.

The path was built into the mountain side and was reinforced with a stone wall of around 8 or 9 feet. Below this wall was a small mossy platform around two feet wide which dropped into bushes and trees. The vegetation made it unclear how steep or how far the drop was but it was clear that the slope was far to steep to attempt climbing down. It was almost vertical. The ledge seemed a long way down but Selsa was already starting to lower himself off the Inca trail and down onto it, with the ominous words, “This is my first time.”

He seemed to think he could see it in the bushes. We were all terrified. The longer I saw him down there on his own the more useless I felt and when he asked me if I would come down and help him, I didn´t hesistate. I climbed down, ripping my trousers as I stretched desperately to find the mossy patch where I could secure myself. Adrenaline pumped through my whole body. I was still scared that Selsa would fall as he crept further and further towards the bushes but now at least I had hold of him. I held on to the wall with my other hand and, lying back, dug my heels into the ground.

He reached further and let out a cry. He had it! He pulled it out of the trees and we all shouted with unrestrained relief! It was an amazing feeling. We pulled each other up to safety. There were no words. Strangely no sooner were we back on the Inca trail than I was thinking of the time we had lost and wanting to get going again. Others from the group were catching us up! We dusted ourselves off and the run to Intipunktu continued. With my heart pounding and my head spinning I dragged myself up the last few steps to Intipunktu (The Sun Gate). I sat down heavily, laughing and dizzy with exhaustion. When I looked up I saw Machu Picchu.

Taking photos every few steps, we walked gently down towards the ruins. Along the path Selsa showed us a huge boulder reaching up into the sky like a mountain. Beneath it were piles of stones – offerings left by those who had arrived safely to Machu Picchu before us. We dutifully drew out our stones and created a small pile along with some of Selsa´s coca leaves. He prayed out loud and in English, thanking the Pachamama for helping us to reach Machu Picchu and although neither of us said a word, we both thanked her too. Whatever you want to call those invisible forces of nature which are beyond our control, there was no doubt that they had worked in our favour and we were extremely lucky to be there on that clear morning. Especially the passport.

With more button pressing than an Australian casino, we snapped our way down into the ruins. I will not attempt to describe them as everyone knows what the famous Inca city looks like but I will say that they were more beautiful than I had imagined and in the dim light of the morning they looked calm and undisturbed. For a while. Then I noticed the tourists. I do not mean to sound arrogant but after three days of trekking, sweating, broken sleeps and undesirable toilet experiences you feel a million miles away from the clean and colourful groups with their North Face fleeces and elaborate bumbags who come puffing up the stairs from the bus stop. To rub salt in the wounds which these people- with their confused and pitiful glances towards the flapping crotch of my filthy trousers- had opened up, we were told that the 400 tickets to climb Huayna Picchu were already sold out.

It was 6.50am. We had been up since 3.15am and had RUN along the Inca Trail risking life, limb and passport to get here first – now we find we had been beaten to the ticket office by 400 Americans wearing matching tour group t-shirts who celebrated by jumping or pretending to push the mountains in order to get the ultimate facebook profile picture. Selsa went to get a drink, Josh went to the toilet and, left alone, and I suddenly found myself in a very real state of depression. I stared in disbelief at the extravagantly expensive hotel, built only 100 yards or so from the ruins. I watched more and more tourists climbing complaining off the buses and I found myself in disbelief, hating everything around me.

In retrospect this was clearly the result of a comedown after the massive release of adrenaline that morning combined with the exhaustion of the early starts and I do appreciate that not everyone who wants to see Machu Picchu should have to walk for three days and do chilly, scenic poos. I do think, however, that a small percentage of tickets should be reserved for those who invest time and money in the Inca Trail. And there I will end my beef. Incidentally, my depression didn´t last long. As we climbed back up p the top of the ruins for our first lesson of the day my mood lifted immeasurably. This was no doubt helped by the well timed appearance of the sun which, as it climbed slowly from behind the jagged mountains, cast spectacular beams of light onto Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. As Selsa taught us about the history of the city, it lit up slowly behind him.

We toured the various points of interest and significance, waiting patiently for other tour groups to finish taking photos before we moved in to take our own. Luckily the city is interesting enough that the swarms of tourists do not detract too much from your appreciation but after a couple of hours, with more and more groups arriving by the minute, we had seen everything and were ready to leave. We thanked Selsa for all his knowledge and passion and for going, so dramatically, beyond the call of duty as our guide. Our tips seemed pathetic but he seemed moved and genuinely thankful for our time together. It was a sad goodbye but his final words “Look after your passport!” were well chosen.

We got a bus down to Aguas Calientes where we ate well and relaxed in the hot natural springs which give the town its name. Then we hung around waiting for the big group and the three hour train ride home, every now and then reminding each other exactly what had happened that morning. Ironically it had been the expensive Berghaus backpack which had been at fault while my ridiculous Peruvian manbag (I was dressed completely inappropriately as ever) handled the challenge without any complaints. On the long journey home, tired from the days emotions, I thought about my life back home and especially Shion. I had never wanted a bed and a cuddle so much in my life. I couldn´t wait to talk to her and tell her what we´d been doing.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 8, 2009 from Aguas Calientes, Peru
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Tourists, IncaTrail, MachuPicchu, Passport, Selsa and HotWaterSprings

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