Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Machu Picchu and Our Hike Up Huayna Picchu

Excuse the random doodle, I got carried away at the last minute!  

1 million people per year, up to 5,000 people per day.  That's how powerful the draw is to visit Machu Picchu, the speculated 550-year-old ruins from the ancient Inca civilization.  The crazier reality of this is that Machu Picchu is sinking, slowly but surely.  So, they told us not to carry heavy packs and not to take "jumping pictures" here.  Also, no strollers, no leaning, no climbing, no lying down, no trekking poles, no heels, no tripods, no loud noises/singing/applauding, no music.  It's all too easy to be oblivious when you're touring around in there, but these rules remind us that even a mighty Wonder of the World can deteriorate if we aren't careful.  We definitely cannot take our presence here for granted and should do what we can to protect it.

Also, out of the thousands of people who actually get in each day, only 400 are granted access to Huayna Picchu and another 400 for Machu Picchu Mountain, the two iconic peaks towering over the citadel.  We were two of those lucky visitors.  Not once did we ever regret doing that hike up those ridiculous stone stairs to get to the top, where so few people in the world have been!

Back view of the citadel from Huayna Picchu - 8,924 feet up!

Getting into Machu Picchu was, as expected, chaotic and nerve-wracking even at 6 in the morning.  We got in line at the bus stop in Aguas Calientes at 3:30 AM sharp and there was maybe 30 people ahead of us.  The bus doesn't get here until 5:30, but Edgar our guide told us that we needed to be here two hours early.  One thing we learned from following him for four days on the Salkantay Trek is that he is always right.  It was insane how quickly the number of people added up behind us!  We happened to be right behind two Americans in line and they were just married, from San Diego.  It was so nice talking to them and it passed the wait time quickly. They had both gone to Machu Picchu the day before already and so they shared many insights.  We all got on the second bus out and we were hitting those switchbacks up in the dark.  Once there, we queued up to get our passports checked and then got let in through the floodgates!

The first thing we did was to run up to the Guard Tower, which is where they say the view is best.  We must have been pretty excited or maybe pretty used to the burning sensation in our legs by this time, because we passed a bunch of other people and were pretty much in the first five people up there!  It was so quiet and mystical - it felt truly otherworldly, perched up there and watching the clouds move in and out.  We waited and waited for the sun to come out, but it didn't until much later that day.  Still, this long sneak preview was a very suspenseful sight.

It's like a ghost city.  Legendary!

Edgar gave us an extensive tour at around 7 AM.  I was half asleep during most of it, to be honest.  I think my body was finally telling me that my battery was super low, from having trekked for the past four days.  It didn't stop me from realizing how amazing it was to be able to walk around in here among its walls and actually touch the stones.  I cannot even fathom how this entire place was built by human strength and engineering alone.

When Edgar gets interrupted by the resident llamas...

It is striking that everything that was constructed here has some higher purpose - usually relating to astronomy or myth.  From the shape of a window to the direction things face. On all of our other tours to other sacred sites, we've seen the same trend. Edgar whipped out his trusty phone and, with modern-day technology, showed us that this rock is pointing dead-North.

We also learned that the Inca were very smart, mathematical people.  Their structures were soundly built, unlike the colonnades and arches of Spanish architecture.  Because they lay their stonework with a wider base and precise dimensions (trapezoidal or pyramidal in shape), their buildings have lasted through ages of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

The stones are measured in such a way where they fit together just perfectly.  Inca masonry and architecture was pretty next-level.

Still, parts are indeed collapsing due to overuse.  We saw workers doing restoration work throughout the day.

At around 9 AM, our group dispersed to the various side-hikes that we all planned to do - two people had permits for Machu Picchu Mountain, two were doing Huayna Picchu like we were, and the remaining group of four went to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge.  Our entrance time wasn't until 10 AM for Huayna Picchu, so we sat down on a grassy terrace and ate our sack lunch of avocado sandwich and hard boiled egg (thanks to our trekking company!) and snacked on my pack of habas (toasted lima beans).

(I just found out that you're not allowed to bring food in... but they never checked!!)  

How did the ancient Inca do this??  They must have all been extremely fit.  The hike to the peak of Huayna Picchu is about 1.2 miles with an elevation gain of about 1,000 vertical feet.  It took us 45 minutes, with a few pauses for photos and catching our breath.  It's all stairs, but these stairs were all uneven heights, narrow in some places, and not the smoothest.  As Edgar would say, this is the true Inca experience.

We made it!! And...I don't know why he wanted to copy the color that I was wearing this day -__-
It was incredibly grueling going up all those stone stairs and somewhat precarious in some places, but not as bad as we had heard.  Met another Wesley from the Netherlands too! He took some photos for us and chatted with us during our breaks. 

Once at the top, it was such an incredible view that really can't be encapsulated in photos.  You can see just about everything that we trekked through on the Salkantay Trek from here - the glaciers in the distance, the snaking Urubamba River, the tiny railroad tracks, and the endless cloud forest, with Machu Picchu no bigger than the palm of your hand planted in the middle of it all.  

Machu Picchu - looking quite surreal.
It is believed that this very spot at the top of Huayna Picchu was a place of worship for the Inca.  Five and a half centuries later, we still can't help but to bow down to the sun, the mountains, the river, and the sky when we  arrive at a view like this.

Urubamba River, which the Inca named the Vilcamayo, or Sacred River.

The downclimb took even longer!!  Gotta go slow with these weirdly steep steps.  It was an adventure! 

The sun finally came out and everything was so sharp and beautiful, but we didn't have much time to explore after Huayna Picchu.  It was fine though, there were so many crowds that it would have been hard to get around anyway.  We stole one last picture from a higher point before heading out, with a full view of the peak that we had just climbed!

Oh yes, it's pretty cool too that you can get a special Machu Picchu stamp for your passport at the exit!  We put it on the same page as our Peru stamp from the airport.

Machu Picchu was an awesome end to our five-day walking adventure in the Andes.  Check out our post about the Salkantay Trek, if you haven't already seen it!  Next, I'll need to blog about what we did in Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Cusco, and Lima... 


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