¡Hola a todos!
I preface yet another entry with the notification that this is my second blog-post of the day and that both follow hot on the heels of a post that I put up yesterday – just for those of you that I am sure continue to read each and every entry devoutly. Onward and upward!
The morning of my birthday dawned mellow and clear, full of promise for the hours ahead. Our group had convinced the guides that it was a worthwhile sacrifice to wake up extra early to ensure that we found a good spot in the inevitable queue at the head of the guard station standing sentinel over the final day of trail. The trail to Machu Picchu from Winay Wayna only opens to foot-traffic at half-past five every morning and every group wants to be towards the head of those waiting, impatiently, for the grand opening. Before this we enjoyed one final breakfast, as good as that experienced on our first day, thanks to our devoted chef. I was in for a lovely surprise: despite having been informed of my special day only the previous evening, our chef had somehow contrived to bake me a birthday cake of sponge and icing, with little more than a remainder of ingredients and a portable stove as allies. I was quite overwhelmed and hugely impressed with the cake, which was moist and glorious. This delightful offering firing my stomach, alongside the gripping anticipation of Machu Picchu, I set out along the trail at a light jog, accompanied in this strange choice of speed by Rob and Shannon. Needless to say, my cake, taken together with the vast quantity of its brothers and sisters that I had greedily consumed in the past months, soon caught up with me and I left Rob and Shannon to lope on ahead, while I contented myself with an easier pace, by this stage quite removed from the majority of hikers behind and those few hardier souls motoring on ahead. This arrangement was perfect, giving me time to stop and stare – briefly – as I passed by yet more jaw-dropping scenery and to reflect upon my hopes, fears and burgeoning excitement at the destination lying ahead.
In what seemed like no time at all, I had arrived at the base of a short incline that opened out upon the famous Sun Gate, the entrance to the sacred compound of Machu Picchu for all those arriving on foot from the Inca Trail. Here I caught up with Rob and Shannon once more and we stared in reverent fascination at the sight before us, our first view of Machu Picchu, nestled below and ahead of us, cradled between two peaks and perched precariously upon the slopes running down from these heights. The city appeared small and grey in the early morning light; ghostly almost. My camera was quite unable to capture such a sight in much detail but, the picture to the naked eye is a sight that will remain with me for a very long time (hopefully!). It was while we stood admiring this life-affirming vista that we were caught by Rea and the four of us journeyed on together, arriving at the famous viewing-point, quite appropriately named ‘Postcard Corner’, some fifteen minutes or so later, buoyed by exhilaration to have achieved our desired destination and anticipation at what this destination might hold in store. We enjoyed a wonderful hour or so at the corner, taking countless photographs, laughing among ourselves and drinking in the breath-taking view: Tantaluses upon the mountain-top. Mere minutes after our arrival at the corner, still in the process of photographing every possible angle of the city below, the sun’s first rays began to creep over the high peak to the east of the city, lighting upon the top of Wayna Picchu, the high peak to the north of the city, the backdrop to every iconic picture of Machu Picchu itself. Within minutes, these gleaming droplets of light had spilled down the bulk of this peak and into the city itself, lighting first and foremost upon the high points within the urban complex, before creeping down over the lower slopes and the intricate, lovingly crafted terraces. This sight was a marvel, affirmation as to the good fortunate that I enjoy in being able to travel so far and to see such things.
It was here, in a quiet moment after I had sated my initial hunger towards the views available, that I withdrew from my friends and the small crowd present to open my birthday card, discovered among my hand-luggage soon after leaving home all those months ago at the end of February. The card had been thoughtfully, lovingly placed there for me to find by Mum and I had carried it with me all this time, in preparation for this happy day. Needless to say, the heartfelt words contained within, from Mum and Dad, came close to reducing me to salty tears, despite the public location I was hunkered down within: the considerable cherry atop my Machu Picchu birthday cake.
We rendezvoused with the rest of our group and commenced upon a tour of the fabled city, guided by Reuben. Here we learnt of the craftsmanship behind the gargantuan stonework, as I detailed in my post concerning Sacsayhuaman above Cusco. Here the masonry was even more impressive, although I was left feeling a mixture of emotions when I discovered that the local authorities preserve and even go so far as to reconstruct some areas of the ruins whenever they feel the need. A definite plus to this practice is undoubtedly the much more impressive indent made upon the eye and it is certainly not the fault of anyone that the city rests within a climatic region that is very unforgiving to such delicate archaeological remains. A particular highlight in this tour was learning a little more about the sacred sacrificing that occurred upon a specially designated area of high ground within the city itself. Here, carefully constructed and arranged buildings channel beams of sunlight at significant times within the year: during the mid-winter solstice (a mere week to the day before our arrival in the city), light from the sun is filtered through windows and slits in one such construction, distilling the beams into a single shaft that lights upon a sacrificial altar of rock, shaped to resemble a llama (doubtless the actual sacrificial victim that would have rested upon this altar in Incan times). The beam lights upon the eye of the carved llama, nothing more. Such careful precision amazed me and left me with a new-found respect towards this mysterious, capable civilization. Equally, during the mid-summer solstice in December, the sun is filtered from a point ninety degrees to the south, through the Sun Gate (hence its name) and on into the city, to strike once more upon a significant point upon the sacrificial rise: genius.
Reuben alerted us at this point as to the skilful acoustics that the city is able to boast: a shout from this vantage point besides the sacrificial altar can be heard below in the central communal space of the city and on the facing earthen walls beyond – there is even a faint echo that can be detected, enlivening the air all around. Reuben also tried to explain what is considered to be an ancient form of communication among the Incas, that of the coloured tassels, complete with intricate knots of varying designs and sizes. It is thought that these knots and their careful colour-coding formed a short-hand that was exploited by the messengers of the Inca. These messengers would run – yes, run – along the original Inca Trail, sections of which we ourselves were able to walk along, relieved at intervals by new, fresh messengers, so as to speed the line of communication. These messengers would perhaps pass their small shoulder-bag, containing the important tassels, along from one to another, thus ensuring that the correct original messages arrived safely and intact at their desired destinations. Alas, this potential form of communication has yet to be cracked by modern scholars, is yet to yield up its possible secrets to our modern age. Our tour concluded, I experienced my only real disappointment of the whole trip. Reuben signed off by alerting us to Wayna Picchu and the possibility to climb to its summit for further, breath-taking views out over the whole complex, from an angle opposite that offered by ‘Postcard Corner’. Unfortunately, by this point in the morning, the sacred city was teeming with people and the authorities offer only four hundred tickets for people to climb Wayna Picchu every day. Quite understandably, these tickets had long since been snapped up and there was even a sizeable reserve queue, waiting patiently for any no-shows among those with tickets. Quite incomprehensibly, despite having ample time before the commencement of our tour around the city, Reuben had abstained from telling us of this situation and so it was that any opportunity of climbing this challenging peak eluded me. Every cloud has a silver lining of course and my being unable to climb Wayna, a task that requires at least two hours, freed up more opportunities to explore the city itself. I ambled through crumbling doorways, past exhausted walls. I sat among clumps of lost stones, separated from their comrades to now appear lonely and forlorn upon the landscape. I observed the odd movements of the resident llamas, no longer subjected to annual sacrificing, instead allowed to roam free, cheap grass-cutting machines doubled as useful tourist attractions, for the younger visitors especially. I sat upon a rocky outcrop and assessed my thoughts. Machu Picchu was certainly living up to its reputation for amazing, beguiling and over-awing in equal measure. As all those months ago when writing of my trip to the Iguazu Falls, I felt a by now almost inevitable feeling of numbness, one that I also by now knew would pass over the following days, as the true glory of the sights and experiences on offer began to sink in. It was during my wandering that I came across Pete and his friend, two gay, charming chaps from Australia. Their witty conversation, and Pete’s in particular, helped to pass the time as we delved a little deeper into the physical remains of the star of the show.
All-too-soon, it was time for me to depart the ancient ruins and make for the modern town of Aguas Calientes below, where the rest of the group, impatient after their initial exploration of Machu Picchu, were waiting already for our arranged meeting-time and transfer back to Cusco. This modern locale, reliant for its continued existence solely upon the tourist droves visiting the sacred city above, day after day, had little to offer besides ludicrously over-priced memorabilia and the chance to grab a bite to eat before the bus journey ahead. It was here, briefly, that I ran into both Cam and Seb – at different moments – exploring the town before their own trek up to Machu Picchu the following day, part of a ‘Jungle Trail’ group, the best alternative to the actual Inca Trail itself and popular among those who did not pre-book the trail the necessary months in advance – indeed, the Inca Trail becomes so popular in the dry season (running from May to November, roughly) that the trail is often booked out up to four or five months in advance!
In no time at all, we were safely deposited back upon the bus, driving away from Machu Picchu and away from my single most highly valued experience upon my trip thus-far. While I am trying to make a habit of abstaining from forming any paltry attempts at ranking my experiences upon this trip, the sheer scale, mystery and historical significance of Machu Picchu, coupled with the preceding wonderful hike along the Inca Trail, added to the special importance of the actual day within the city, my 23rd birthday all combines to elevate this momentous episode above all others but, only a little of course.
¡Saludos a todos!