I wake earlier than usual this morning, and Marco, Bill, and Brenda V. and I hike up above our campsite to a high hill to watch the sun rise. The mountains spread out all around us, snow-capped peaks rising high amongst the shifting clouds. Salcantay, 'the wild one,' rises high and white and majestic into the blue sky, so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.
After breakfast, we pool our money together for the tips for the porters. Our fantastic chef, Miguel, gets 200 soles; the head porter gets 150 soles, and the other 11 porters get 100 soles each. We gather for a few group pictures before heading down, and down, and down the trail. Today we descend 3,000 feet and 3,000 stairs to Machu Picchu.
It is hardest on the knees. I've inherited my mother's family's bad knees; they generally don't bother me unless I put undue strain on them. Descending 3,000 stairs, for instance. My walking stick comes in very, very handy, and I take those unending stairs slowly and steadily, pausing often to look at the flowers and birds and greenery around me.
We stop for lunch at Winay Wayna, the last campsite before Machu Picchu. Many groups like to camp here, so that they can get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to hike down and reach Machu Picchu by sunrise, but I am just as glad to have gotten a good night's sleep, and I wouldn't have missed camping at Phuyapatamarca for the world. We have only a couple more hours to go before we reach Machu Picchu . . .
There is a long flight of stairs leading up to the Sun Gate. We are almost there, and we climb the stairs slowly. Even when we reach the top we do not look--we wait for Marco, who gathers us around, handing us each a sprig of muna, Andean mint. We roll the plant between our palms, crushing the leaves so that the spicy mint fragrance covers our skin. Marco lifts his hands to his face, breathing in the scent, and we all the do the same. Then, following his example, we brush our hands down our arms, torsos, legs. It is an act of preparation, of purification, before reaching this special site.
\"Now we are ready,\" Marco says, and we turn towards the gate, walking through to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. I see green stretching out, and the mid-afternoon sunlight hitting the grey-green stones of these magnificent ruins. We all stand transfixed for 3 or 30 minutes, watching the light play golden over the green and grey.
We do no more than walk along the edge of the ruins on our way down to the waiting shuttle bus--this, so that we do not have to pay to re-enter the ruins tomorrow. But we pause at the Watchman's Hut to take a few pictures and gaze a little more on the complex combination of cut stones. The bus takes us down the the winding road to the town of Aguas Calientes, nestled in the valley below.
I barely wait to check into our hotel, the Machu Picchu Inn, before making a mad dash for the shower. The hot water feels wonderfully cleansing after these days on the trail. I then meet Marco in the lobby and we head up to the hot springs--they cost 10 soles to enter--and spend a couple of hours letting the aches of the day wash away in the hot water. We all eat dinner at the restaurant directly across from the hotel, toasting our success with pisco sours.