We’re finally getting this tent thing down pat. The nice thing is that at a lower elevation (about 8700 feet) it was relatively warmer and we slept well. Four o'clock wake-up came early, and it was a little difficult to get up, get dressed and pack in the dark. By 4:30 we presented ourselves at the breakfast tent and by five o'clock we had set off, wearing our headlamps.
Leaving our campsite, we walked down a slippery dirt path, occasionally encountering some uneven stone steps. Hiking was very tough for me in the uncertain light of the headlamps. Then we got on a stone path that initially continued to go down. There were many people in small groups strung out along the trail, since basically everyone in camp was intending to arrive at Machu Picchu for sunrise. When we went to bed last night there were patches of clouds, but this morning we were kind of excited because the sky was really clear and you could see lots of stars, so we were hoping for a good view of the sun this morning.
Eventually it got light enough to turn off the headlamps, even though the sun hadn’t broken the horizon yet. We were all pushing our pace because we were unsure exactly how long it would take us to get to Machu Picchu and we didn't want to miss sunrise. The last stretch of the trail climbed to cross a pass, including some very steep steps almost like the ladder. I wasn't the only one using hands and feet to get up those steps, and I was sweating and panting when we reached the pass at the top and found ourselves at an Inca construction called the Sun Gate. From there you could look down at Machu Picchu and at some distant snowcapped mountains. The sky was light, though the sun hadn't yet crested the mountains to the east. We lingered at the Sun Gate for a while with the rest of the people from camp, and then we walked forward along the trail for another 15 minutes or so to a spot where there was another outstanding viewpoint of Machu Picchu. It was closer to the ruins than the Sun Gate was, and there were only a few people there.
Vidal knew about this spot because in his career he has hike the Inca trail almost 300 times. Based on his own experience he told us that there were only a few other times that it was so clear that you could see the snowcapped mountains in the distance as plainly as you can today. I feel so incredibly lucky.
While we waited, the rays of the sun began to spill over the tops of the mountains to the east like a spotlight, hitting the highest peaks above Machu Picchu. As the sun continued to rise, the line of sunlight came down the mountains and finally Machu Picchu itself was lit. What a sight!
After the abandoned city was completely lit by the sun, we walked down the trail to the
ruins themselves. You enter near the spot with the famous view of Machu Picchu that you see reproduced everywhere. [see our version in the attached album] The weather was so clear and the early rays of the sun were so striking that it was a postcard picture perfect view. We even saw some wild llamas grazing nearby. We were so stunned by all this that we could only stare and stare. [see the album also to see our picture at this spot, after three days of no showers or blowdryers]
Finally, we were ready to continue with our
tour. We entered the immediate area of the ruins and Vidal gave us an excellent tour. He is very knowledgeable. The ruins have several clear sections: the agricultural section, the home of the nobles, the religious area, the homes of the lower classes, and a manufacturing/industrial section (weaving, pottery, making of chicha, etc.). Only in the religious buildings and in the royal residence do we see the best quality of Inca stonework. Archaeologists estimate that 1000 people once lived here.
We saw the Temple of the Sun, a rounded building similar to Inca temples to the sun we have seen in other cities here in Peru. In another area on top of a pyramidal structure is a large stone carved to have a post rising out of it. The Incas believed that as the shortest day of the year approached, the sun was running away from the earth. So on that day they held a ceremony to figuratively “tie the sun” to this post. The fact that days began to get longer was taken as proof that the ceremony worked. Incas did sacrifice men and women, and we saw a room where bodies were brought after the sacrifice, with channels carved in the stone for blood to run off.
Incan nobles were practically a different people than the commoners. They spoke a different language, which has since disappeared, and they worshipped the sun. The common people spoke Quechua, still widely spoken today, and worshipped the earth. Echoes of this can be seen in the way the present Quechua people pay honor to Pachamama despite their veneer of Christianity.
We spent several hours wandering Machu Picchu. We saw a series of channels that brought water from a spring in the mountains to the city. We looked at the steep peak called Huayna Picchu that rises behind Machu Picchu and saw a stone house perched precipitously near the top, with terraces just below it. It was amazing to walk through the ruins and get a different an exciting view each time you turned a corner. I couldn't believe we voluntarily walked lots more stairs in order to see the entire site.
After Vidal gave us a thorough tour lasting over 3 1/2 hours it was still only 10:30 AM, although it felt much later since we had gotten up so early. We split up and agreed to meet at the hotel at 6:30 PM to go out to dinner. I fell into a conversation with some American tourists – we haven’t seen too many other Americans here. Bob and I walked around a while, then it when it was almost noon we walked down to the entrance of the ruins and to the small snack bar located there.
As we were walking out, we realized that the tourist train must have arrived. At the earliest part of the morning only the trekkers are present. At some point a little later the tourists from Aguas Calientes, the town directly below, arrive by bus. Finally, the tourist train comes. A long line of people with designer clothes, fancy hairdos, and mildly impractical shoes were entering the sanctuary. They looked like people from another planet to me and I am sure that being four days without a shower, blow dryer, curling iron or even a real toilet, we must have looked equally bizarre to them.
We ate lunch, then took the bus down to Aguas Calientes where we are staying tonight. A bus sits at the entrance to Machu Picchu until it fills up, then it drives down to town. The terrain is almost unbelievably steep and the bus goes almost horizontally across the hill, making one hairpin turned after another. The ride is a bit hair-raising.
When we got into town, we started walking to our hotel, the Machu Picchu Inn. To get there you walk through a big tourist market selling T-shirts, wall hangings, T-shirts, rugs, T-shirts, carvings, T-shirts ... you get the idea. We walked very slowly as we browsed the wares. In fact, Bob bought a T-shirt and together we picked out a rug that cost about $20.
We strolled slowly through the market, across the railroad tracks, and on to our hotel. It is a modern and nice hotel, and as we came in from the midday heat it was cool enough that we thought it was might be air-conditioned. In fact, it is just well- insulated and as the sun began to go down and we got cold we realized that not only is it not air-conditioned, it is also unheated. But since we are at a lower elevation here it doesn't get too cold.
After we checked in, we went out to change money and we bought a 2-liter bottle of cold water. When we came back to the room I drank three glasses without stopping. It felt so good to have something really cold. I organized my things to get out my only remaining clean clothes (not much) and we took a brief rest, feeling almost jet-lagged from getting up at 4 AM. Then I had a wonderful hot shower. I'm so grateful to be clean! And my hair looks human again. I also put my contacts back in for the first time since I got blepharitis.
At 6:30 p.m. we met for dinner. Vidal had brought Miguel, an acquaintance, with him. We walked down by the railroad tracks. The line goes between Aguas Calientes and Cuzco, and trains come along about five times the day. So restaurants and small vendor stalls line the tracks and people walk on the tracks when they know that a train isn't coming. We ate dinner outside at one of the restaurants. I had a dish of quinoa, rice, cheese and vegetables, which was really good. Then we walked back to the hotel, as we were quite tired.