South America Plus 2002-2004 travel blog

Cusco Tourist Time

Machu Picchu Trail

Machu Picchu Morning

Inca Lives

Machu Picchu Above

Machu Picchu Architecture

Huayna Picchu View (of Machu Picchu)

Machu Picchu Dawn

Copyright 2004

David Rich 1600 Words

T h e E n d o f M a c h u P i c c h u

The "wow" factor of the world's greatest archeological treasures puts Machu Picchu at or near the top, along with Petra in Jordan, Luxor in Egypt, Ankgor Wat in Cambodia, the Terracotta Warriors near Xi'an, China, and Bagan in Myanmar, among others. But when it comes to that most important of factors—location, setting, and surroundings, Machu Picchu is number one, likely tied with Petra which is strewn along miles of red-rock canyons frequented by those early capitalists, the Nabatean spice traders.

Machu Picchu nestles between two pointy peaks at almost 8000 feet, the best known, yet least understood, of the great Incan ruins. No one has yet figured out exactly who lived there or why, or the reason for Machu Picchu's abandonment before the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, yet since its "discovery" by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911 (two Andean families were living there on that fateful July day), fanciful theories have abounded and been abandoned, from Machu Picchu being a city of women— virgins, naturally—to an agricultural experiment. A hundred years later, by 2011, Machu Picchu may be no more.

Everyone in the neighborhood seems to know Machu Picchu is a short-termer because by 10 a.m. in high season (June to September), the lines for entrance extend an hour long, and by noon Machu Picchu's sprawling terraces, meadows, and temples are grossly overcrowded, creating the constant equivalent of a mini-earthquake. But I felt special, as if I'd earned the right of entry after sweating out the classic four-day Inca Trail hike, arriving above Machu Picchu at Intipunku, the Gate of the Sun, at 6 a.m.'s first light, an hour before the first ray of sunlight would strike Machu Picchu itself.

Cusco offers umpty-dozen tour agencies organizing four- and two-day Inca Trail treks, and since January 2001 that's been the only way you can hike in. Because the trail had become overcrowded and garbage-strewn (it isn't now), the government limited hikers to five hundred a day, including porters who are in the majority. My group of ten tourists required one guide and thirteen porters to carry the tents, food, and cooking gear for us all, including my pack. The pros and cons of hiring a porter to carry your backpack are simple: Against the idea—not a weenie, but also don't much enjoy the extremely steep, four-day hike that ranges from 7500 feet to almost 14,000 feet, up and down and up and down over four high passes. For the idea—unemployed locals desperately need the money, although the job is strenuous (even for fit twenty-year-old tourists) and dangerous, especially during the intermittent rains that turn ancient Incan stones into slippery slides, resulting in the crashing demise of at least one porter a season.

How was the hike? We were unlucky and wet, rained on during two of the four days, but when we could see, the scenery was spectacular. The trail is bordered by perpetually snowcapped peaks over 20,000 feet, coincidentally equidistant from Machu Picchu, which was built in their center. The route passes through and by a half dozen superb Incan ruins, two each during the first three days, and climbs thousands of original Incan steps. We admired a dozen flavors of orchids strewn among cloud forests of wild yellow daisies, bromeliads, and trees dripping with Spanish moss, perhaps called Incan moss before the Spanish showed up. We snapped pictures of llamas with red tassels on their perky ears, regally passing by with uniformly evil eyes. We tiptoed across tree-trunk bridges spanning raging rivers below, wildly cascading waterfalls, and green terraces stretched to infinity. We endured the constant shriek of, "Porters!" whereupon we'd throw ourselves against the closest mountain while heavily laden locals, five feet tall and carrying fifty-pound loads, would scurry past like wraiths. The porters would leave after breaking camp, well after we'd begun our usual slow slog up and up and up, passing us to set up lunch, re-break camp after we'd finished lunch, and pass us again so everything would be perfectly set up when we arrived at our evening camp and dinner. The porters were incredible chaps, clad in sandals, braving freezing sleet and rain, while trailing plastic ponchos behind them like trousseaus.

We camped our last night near the sprawling hostel/restaurant complex at Winaywayna, most welcome hot showers for a dollar-fifty, beer and wine flowing like the raging rivers we'd crossed, the hordes of involuntary teetotalers heartily breaking their fast. This was the perfect way to prepare for a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call, a hung-over breakfast to hit the trail before 5 a.m. in pitch black darkness. But soon after we cleared the checkpoint for Machu Picchu (fifty dollars per backpacker, included in our package hike), the moon peaked from behind a cloud, and by flashlight we followed our shadows up and down thousands of Incan steps, mostly up. At 6 a.m. we notched through the Gate of the Sun, Intipunka, and, whoops, at our feet lay a mysterious labyrinth of stone fortresses and golf green terraces, spread regally below the mountain behind us (Machu Picchu means "old mountain" and was named after the craggy fortress above our heads), to the tomahawk green mountain in front of us—Machu Picchu in all its splendor, the culmination of our four-day hike. Though it had rained on days two and three, we were splendidly lucky, the crucial day four dawning clear and sunny, only partly cloudy. Bits of fog wafted half a vertical mile from the canyon floor, off the Urubamba River, to wrap Machu Picchu into ethereal voluptuousness. And the best part was our early arrival, the first hiking group to hit the Gate of the Sun, and almost the first of anybody that day into Machu Picchu proper. Far above our heads the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Park stood notched against the brilliant blue sky next to Machu Picchu Mountain, overlooking cascading terraces of perfect greens. I was amazed that with the innate touristy-ness of Peru, someone hadn't installed a golf course.

To the left sat the ceremonial center, the Temple of the Sun, impressively structured by enormous and perfectly rounded monster monoliths above the Sacred Plaza where llamas grazed, arranged for tourist photos. Above all this towered a high hill covered with edifices as up-to-date as any observatory, the Hitching Post of the Sun. On the summer solstice the sun's rays cut from an hour's hike high above, through the Gate of the Sun, to line up perfectly with the Hitching Post into a conduit, which has a twin around the corner that awaits the winter solstice. Crowds explode on June 21, thousands flocking to watch the phenomenon occur at the exact spot where the son of the sun, the Inca, stood each year without the interruption of a single tourist.

The daily crowds at Machu Picchu during season from June to September (over 100,000 visited in 2000) are as surely pounding the ruins to a pulp as the next earthquake is certain to do. The end of Machu Picchu is almost in sight. The Disaster Prevention Institute of Japan's Koyota University reached this conclusion in a June 2001 study. Machu Picchu lies directly on the Tambomachuy Fault, and its destruction is exacerbated by the daily earthquake of tromping feet that have already helped topple the middle wall below the Hitching Post of the Sun. Cracks are appearing in walls all over the site.

For a unique perspective of impending disaster, climb the mountain at Machu Picchu's foot, Huayna Picchu, which is the Quechua word for coca wad, the hunk of coca placed in the cheek for chewing in defense against high altitude sickness, the dreaded soroche. On the top of Huayna Picchu, if the crowds will allow, you can peer between your feet and appreciate the cant of Machu Picchu below you. It sits on the slippery side of a jagged mountain, and below it winds forty hairpin curves on the crude dirt road leading down to Aquas Calientes in the fog below on the Urubamba River, a road closed by massive landslides every year. In May of 2004 15,000 Machu Picchu tourists were stranded by a mudslide. Go now before Machu Picchu disappears forever and join the madding crowds hastening its destruction.

Trekking agencies that pay a living wage to their porters will charge you at least $240 for the four-day hike on the Inca Trail, but this includes everything (except a hot shower and booze at the hostel/restaurant on day three) such as the fifty-dollar admission to Machu Picchu (seventy dollars for non-hikers) and the thirty-five-dollar train to Ollantaytambo and the bus from there to Cusco, all food, which is uniformly excellent, from superb chile rellenos Peruvian style to fried trout, lots of fruit, and great pancakes. A porter to carry your pack, which is highly recommended for anyone older than twenty-three and for those who wish to enjoy the hike, is sixty-five dollars. These prices have been and will continue to slip ever upward. I recommend the United Mice trekking agency run by a Harvard Business School grad (say hi to Sal for me). See, e-mail to, phone 221139, located in Cusco, a block north of the Plaza at Plateros #351.

For further information on hotels and restaurants in Cusco, Aquas Calientes, and Ollantaytambo enter these names or Machu Picchu on your favorite search engine and the current facts will magically appear at your fingertips. Specifically see,, and The trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu and return will cost you at least a hundred dollars plus the seventy-dollar admission to Machu Picchu, prices subject to change, never a bear market there.

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