day 4 – machu picchu

With the dramz of day 3 behind us, Rich and I woke bright n early on Sunday for our last day on the trail. The path to the Sun Gate, and then onto Machu Picchu. There was no faffing around this morning. Everyone was up and at ’em and in the breakfast tent by 4am, while the porters hurriedly rolled up our sleeping bags and broke down our tents. The ol’ guts were still not 100%, but the thrill of finally getting to MP and finishing the trek was too great to hold me back.

Toast, honey and tea was consumed, followed by one last trip to the (gulp) squat toilet (I’m sorry I said that word… ‘Squat’, for me, ranks up there with ‘moist’ and ‘panties’ when it comes to Worlds Worst Words – bleck!!) and then we were back on the road. Everyone who was feeling ailing certainly wasn’t showing it this morning – it was smiles all round that the end was in sight.

We marched out of camp with around 250 or so other campers, shining our torches on the path to prevent a rolled ankle on a loose rock or boulder step. The sky was just starting to lighten – pretty beautiful time of the day in this part of the world…

Five minutes out of camp, and we came to a standstill. We were at the final checkpoint before Machu Picchu. Which didn’t open until 5.30. It was 4.30. We would be here for an hour.

We rubbed our alpaca-gloved hands together and hopped from one foot to the other to keep our toes warm and our blood circulating. We reminisced about hairy parts of the journey, and hypothesised on what was to come. We high-fived Abel, while JC entertained us with ‘llama/alpaca’ gang-style hand signs.

And finally…

The gates opened and we started to move. Something rushed past my legs and I said “O gosh, I think I’m hallucinating; I think I just saw a dog” but then I realised that it was a dog. I was worried that I was still deathly ill and that my eyes playing tricks on me was the first sign of my impending doom. Over-react much? Sheebers…

Once the gates were open, the hikers were seriously like horses out of the gate at the Melbourne Cup. PEOPLE WERE RUNNING!!! Granted, the sky was light enough now for us to put away our torches, but the path was still rocky and steppy with even more steep drops, and anyway, we were still an hour and a half away from the Sun Gate. Slow down, peeps!

Rich and I strode along together, side by side. Despite being well on the way to the finish line, there were still quite a few precarious stretches of trail; one part was about 7 metres of narrow path which dropped away into the valley below. I think this is where the landslide was in 2010, but I don’t want to check because it would be too scary.

Here comes the sun, do do do do

Up a few more stairs and around a few more corners (seriously – on the Inca Trail, the stairs just keep going. You think you’re at the end of them and then you round a bend and there are MORE!!!!) and then there it was. No, not the Sun Gate. I came face to face with The Stairs of Death!!!** These stairs weren’t even really stairs. They were more like a ladder made of ginormous rocks. Like I said in a previous post, I’m no science mathematician or anything, but my calculations tell me The Stairs of Death were on an 80 degree angle. Fo real (mebbe not actually fo real, but they were STEEP!!!!).

Rich had already scrambled his way to the top – remarkably using only his legs, feet and walking pole to get him up. I, on the other hand, took things a little more gracefully. I turned around to the Argentinian hikers behind me and said “Please excuse my elegant ascent up the stairs” and proceeded to climb up, rock-climbing-style. Yes, I used my hands (it wasn’t the first time… there was actually a set of stairs a few days earlier that I went down on my bum). It really felt like I was climbing a mountain, without a belay!! I made appropriate ‘hoik’ and ‘eek’ noises and guess what happened? I turned around, and the Argentinians were coming up in exactly the same way!!! Hurrah!! I wasn’t the only nancy nerd-burger on this hike after all!

When we got to the top (and exchanged a few more high-fives) it was just a few more steps until we made it to the Sun Gate. Yay! The sky was clear and the sun was up and the view down to Machu Picchu was poifickt and beautiful. We celebrated our arrival with some water, some chocolate (ain’t nothing wrong with having chocolate at 7.30am) and more ‘llama/alpaca’ hands.

JC breakin' out the Llama hands

And from there, it was down the hill to Machu Picchu. Along the way, we passed day trippers, struggling up the hill, red-faced and out of breath. We all exchanged looks as they lumbered past, our eyes saying everything: You think this is hard?

Machu Picchu is huge and beautiful and green and lush. Llamas roam around chowing down on grass. Kids on school excursions jumped from wall to wall (and were promptly told off by SEVERAL guides and groundskeepers). Old ladies hauled themselves up rock steps and our fellow trekkers lay on the grass, absorbing the glory of finally being here.

Abel showed us around and explained what various rooms had been used for, and gave us a bit more of a history lesson, and told us a bit more about astrology as well. After a few hours of strolling and admiring and listening and learning, we bid farewell to our final destination, stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu stamp, boarded a bus and headed down a long winding road to Aguas Calientes. We had pizza and beer. AND MINERAL WATER!!! O agua con gas, I have missed you these past few days! We laughed. We cried (no really, we did). We smelt bad. We didn’t care.

We flipping did it.

Machu Picchu, you little ripper!

** Not their official name. I name them The Stairs of Death because they are revolting. But as far as I know, no one has actually died on them.

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day 2 – dead womans pass

Tents are not very comfortable, are they? Our first night in a tent was a bit restless – there was lots of thunder and rain during the night, and dogs barking and howling, and loud snoring from our neighbours, and then roosters crowing and tent zips unzipping and then…. it was time to get up. We were greeted at our tent door by a smiling porter bearing cups of coca tea and a bucket of hot water to wash our faces. After a sleepless night, it was a pretty nice way to start the day.

Breakfast consisted of bread and jam and… PANCAKES!! With mountains and ‘Machu Picchu’ scrawled across in a squeezy nutella-type spread! Yummo!

We bundled up our things, and Abel gave us a briefing on what to expect today. We were headed up to Dead Womans Pass. It was going to be hard. We were to take things at our own pace. There would be a lot of steps and we would be going up very, VERY high. It would be hard to breathe. We had to chew coca leaves (it helps with the altitude) and drink plenty of water and take plenty of rest stops.

So. Up we went. I’m not gonna get all technical and talk about angles and gradients and what-not. Sometimes the path was steep, sometimes it had steps, sometimes the steps were small and narrow, like they’d been laid for a gnome, and sometimes the steps were huge, like they’d been laid for a giant. As I struggled up, hobbling along with my walking stick through moss-covered trees and great big bushes, the porters rushed past me with their backs laden with our belongings. I felt awful – seeing them lugging our stuff with such seeming ease while I laboured along with next to nothing in my backpack.

The higher we went, the harder it got. Rich and I took several stops for water and jubes. At one point, we took an extended stop and handed out jubes to everyone who huffed and puffed by. I think this could be one of my favourite parts of the trek (apart from finishing it, of course); it was mostly porters who took us up on our jube offer, and seeing them smile as they munched on sugary treats, sweat pouring off their faces, on their way up the hill made me feel pretty happy.

llamas llama-ing about

We had a snack stop with our group at a flat plateau halfway up the mountain, where llamas roamed freely munching on grass and leaves, and dogs ran around in search of cheese sandwiches and discarded biscuits.

From here, the top – which is referred to as The Big Nipple, because, well, it looks like a big nipple – didn’t look too far away. I could see the path the whole way up. It didn’t disappear behind any mountain bends or behind any trees or anything like that – it looked fine. It looked easy.

Ha!

Once we started up the hill after our snack, things took a turn for the muy difícil! Rich and I shuffled along at a pensioners pace, looking even more elderly with our walking sticks. Strategically placed boulders along the path made for excellent rest stops, which we took every ten metres or so. When we finally made it close enough to the top to make out the guys from our group and hear snippets of conversation – when the end to this leg of the trek would be over – it still took another hour or so to actually make it to the summit. Even getting up the last few steps was a major struggle. When we finally made it, we both guzzled water, high-fived our team-mates, and collapsed at the edge.

Hooray!! We did it!!

Good job gang! This is the hardest bit OVER!

O Wembolina, how wrong can you be?

With the clouds rolling in around us and a chilly wind gusting in, we made our way down the other side. One would think it would be much easier heading down a mountain than it is going up, but they’re kind of on par with each other. While it’s easier to maintain a conversation and keep your breath steady on the way down, your knees lock and your ankles jar and your toes ram into the top of your shoes. It’s easier to make the wrong step and fall. It’s easier to lose your balance. It’s easier to sustain an injury. Ouch.

We took it slowly, chatting with Carmel and Jim about music and politics (like why is it that it’s always the Premier’s son who seems to get into trouble and/or become a model?) and travelling. We took breaks. We admired the scenery. It was a tricky business at times but twas a nice way to end day two of the trek.

We arrived at camp at about 2, had lunch, and collapsed into our tents. I’d been told that day two was the hardest day and we’d done it. Woot! Tomorrow would be smooth sailing. Andean flats were ahead, as Abel was wont to say. Beautiful scenery. And we were more than halfway to Machu Picchu.