Muffled boot steps ascend gritty stone steps. Darkness stretches out around me, broken only by a string of lights from the torches of the hikers. The air is both cool and stuffy, crowded with an energy that begs not to be quelled until we reach the top. I can’t stop. I feel the person behind me; I hear his steady footsteps and his haggard breaths. Talk is muted and infrequent; even the jungle stays hushed. We all gasp for more air as the steps continue to wind through to the coming dawn. We keep climbing towards Machu Picchu that sitting in the clouds waiting for us.
This is the culmination of a three day trek through the Andes. The alternative jungle Inca trail commences with bikes down a winding road and transitions to two more days of hiking with stops along the way in quaint mountain towns whose people and beds are both welcome respites after a long day of walking. I enjoyed the whole trek; however, I think that this final push up the mountain in the pre-dawn hours was my highlight. I cannot contrive words to express the energy and anticipation of this short up hill ascent. I think that the ruins were that much more meaningful to me because I felt like I had earned it. Taking the time to lay the groundwork in order to be worthy of something extraordinary is all but absent in my American culture. We expect instant gratification and rarely take the longer, harder route to get what we want. And when we do get it, it rarely holds meaning for very long. I have visited many ruins in many countries but I mostly took buses or trains or cars to get there. I got to play the passive part of the passenger. This experience required me to put one foot in front of the other and get there myself (with the help of an amazing guide and group of likeminded folk). I weaved my way through the countryside; amidst the mountains, along the river, through the towns that lead to Machu Picchu.
This trek shaped my attitude towards the ruins as well as my experience when I eventually made it there. I could not fathom being one of the tourists, that merely shuffled along in a tour group and then left; their desire to see a “wonder of the world” satiated in a mere hour or so. I wanted to run my hands along the stone and climb to the top of every trail that was within my reach. I fully appreciated every facet of Machu Picchu; from its grandness panning the mountainside, the rows of carefully placed stones that formed the houses and temples, to the precise positioning of a rock to mark the solstice in shadow.
Some helpful tips if you are planning a trip to see Machu Picchu:
1.) Pack exceptionally strong bug spray, the mosquitos are relentless. The highest percentage of deet that is safe is ideal. It gets warm, you will sweat, but nobody cares if you stink. Wear light hiking pants instead of shorts. The fabric acts as the last barrier of defense, protecting your virgin skin against the wiley mosquitos. I did not heed this advice and now weeks later, am still not able to wear shorts for fear of frightening small children.
2.) Opt for wearing cross trainers or other athletic shoes over clunky hiking boots. The terrain is not so arduous as to require such footwear; however, do not wear skateboarding shoes like Vans, as I chose to do (on advisemnt of my guide over my hiking boots). Whilst these shoes are optimal for chilling in the skatepark or looking cool, they do not offer the support or traction necessary to trek through the Andes. Lesson, most definately, learned.
3.) Bring some cash for along the way. Our sensitive tummies prohibit us from drinking tap water, so you will be forced to fork over money for bottled water every step of the way. And after a long day of hiking, upon arriving at natural hot springs, you may even want a big ol’ bottle of beer, and that also is not included in price of the trek.
4.) Be sure to get to the bottom checkpoint of Machu Picchu by 4 AM. The gate does not open until 6 AM but if you want a shot at getting to hike Wyna picchu (especially in the coveted second group at 10AM when the fog as burned off), you better get there early. They only allow 200 hikers a day access to this well-worthwhile mountain. When they do open the gate, be sure to keep a good pace because people have no scrupples about passing you if you are lagging. A cautionary elbow may be neccesary to keep these eager beavers in line.
5.) There are a number of rules listed on the back of your machupicchu ticket. The “guards” are very much sticklers about people not climbing on the walls; avoiding getting yelled at and stick to the paths. Also, there is no loud whistling on grounds. If you have a particular tune in mind that you feel will enhance your experience, kindly keep it to a reasonable volume. Refrain when possible from get naked like a group of cheeky boys did in my group. It is frowned upon and your efforts may be for not, because the “guards” will erase any evidence of such vulgarity (though with the slightest expressions of amusement). Though, it may enhance the view for a few and I imagine the breeze felt nice
6.) Save the train ride for the journey home. Take the precious few days out of your vacation time, and do some kind of trek to see Machu Picchu. I am truly grateful for every part of my experience and you will be as well.
Yvonne Leclair is a researcher and blogger for the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.