We made it! Today was another energetic day of trekking–both up, up, up 2200 feet (on a recently discovered royal Inca trail), then down, down, down over 3000 feet to the river valley below. After a brief walk along the surging Aobamba River, we arrived at Hidroelectrico (Hydroelectric) a quintessential end-of.-the–train-line South American town, 45 minutes later we arrived in Aguas Calientes (Hot Springs), also known as Machu Picchu Town. Total mileage: 7.1. Total vertical footage: 2200 up and 3300 down. And our OCSC team performed flawlessly!
The trek uphill took almost two hours but was totally worth the trouble, for we were hiking the very trail once used by the Inca himself, the ruler of the entire Incan ´empire´–a trail at least 600 years old, in amazing condition, and bearing the unmistakable fine workmanship of those master stonemasons. Reaching the summit around 1130, we walked into the restored ruins of Lllactapata (´High Town¨ in the native Quechua of the Andes) to behold a sight few ever see. For there, across a wide, deep river valley, only 2 miles as the condor flies, was all of Machu Picchu arrayed before us. Yet it was a long, dusty hike from here to there–well over 15 miles by foot and train.
Listening to our expert guide Dalmiro describe the history of this place, we sat transfixed, glancing at times across at the wonder we had come so far to see. Some believe Llactapata was a shrine, others call it a watch tower, and yet others think it was merely a great rest stop with the world´s best view of what was to come. Whatever its purpose, we felt privileged to be there and lingered for a half hour, taking photos and studying the intricate stone work. For the entire time, we had this epic archaeological site to ourselves.
After a brief lunch stop, it was time to descend to the river below…and 3000+ feet of steep downhill hiking is no small feat. About half way there, we got another special Andean surprise: a flash thundershower! Quickly donning our rain gear, we trooped on–thankful in a way for the cooling effect of the squall. It was as if Mother Nature had decided to sprinkle down the trail so we wouldn´t get so dusty…but then she got a bit carried away.
Eventually the rain stopped and we reached the valley floor. Striding triumphantly into the strange little company town of Hidroelectrico, we found a perfect open-air bar right above our train and passed around cold Cusqueño beers, toasting our 40-mile achievement. Everyone had made it from the first to the last lodge under their own power, with nary a complaint. We had much to be grateful for.
While the group celebrated, I slipped away to find a small ruin I´d read about, called Intihuaca–a sundial cut entirely from a massive piece of granite that was one of many sacred sites the Inca placed strategically around their realm to worship the sun and to observe astronomical phenomenon. After searching through a banana plantation, not 10 steps away from the train tracks, I found this forgotten shrine. I stood transfixed. Here, among the litter and overgrowth and discarded railroad ties, was a site that was probably visited by shamans and Incas on their own treks to Machu Picchu. And, like Grant´s Tomb in a lost corner of New York City, it is all but forgotten. It was a powerful and enchanting discovery.
By and by, we boarded our train to Machu Picchu town, enjoying a quick ride nearly to the doorstep of the luxurious InkaTerra hotel. We found our rooms, took long, hot showers and met for yet another gourmet dinner with all the Andean trimmings. Tomorrow, we start chapter three of this adventure as we head up to the ruins high above us. The trek is complete; now our exploration turns to one of the Seven Wonders of the World. What a life!