Saturday, December 31, 2011

Machu Picchu - Huayna Picchu Hike

Huayna Picchu (aka Wayna Picchu, “Young Peak” in Quechua) is THE iconic mountain that you can see on almost all photos of Machu Picchu. It raises about 360 meters (1,180 feet) above Machu Picchu, and offers a spectacular bird-eye view of the site.

I, of course, had to climb the mountain. And to have a shot at doing that I made my poor husband run the last few miles of the Inca Trek.

The number of people who are allowed to go up the mountain is limited to 400 a day. It might seem like a lot, but it isn’t, as every day Machu Picchu is visited by more than 3,000 people. So to have a chance of getting one of those climbing permits/tickets, you have to arrive at the Huayana Picchu ticket office quite early in the day. Until recently, the Inca Trail trekkers were at a huge disadvantage to get those tickets, as they couldn’t get to Machu Picchu earlier than 8:30-9:00 A.M. (It would not help if the Inca Trail trekker would wake up at 2 A.M., or not sleep at all. On the way to Machu Picchu, a few hundred feet past the last campsite on the Inca Trail, is a guarded locked gate that only opens at 6:30 A.M. From that gate it is another several miles and about two hours to Machu Picchu.). In contrast, the visitors who arrive to Machu Picchu by train can enter the ruins through the main gate that opens at 7 A.M. On most days, we were told, Huayana Picchu tickets would sell out by 7:30 A.M. So to have a chance of getting two of them we had no choice but to run.

As soon as we were cleared at the Inca Trail gate, we started running as fast as we could. It was not an easy or pleasant run, as we had heavy backpacks, the trail was narrow and slippery, and we had to navigate our way between other trekkers and porters who crossed the gate before us. I have to admit that we were risking serious injury running in those conditions. I had a quite epic fall, and I almost managed to break my hip bone. Luckily, my hips are well-padded and this padding saved my ass (literally). I ended up with the biggest bruise I had ever seen on anybody, which lingered with me for the next two months—a small price to pay for the fantastic views Huayana Picchu offered!

Our determination paid off when we got to the Huayana Picchu ticket office shortly after 7 A.M., almost two hours ahead of the rest of our group, and we managed to get two of the last few remaining climbing permits. (BTW, the system of issuing tickets has changed since we were there. Nowadays, one can book a ticket for Huyana Picchu online. On one hand, that’s great news for the Inca trekkers—they will not need to risk their lives (like we did) to get tickets. But there is a downside to it too: you cannot buy a ticket for Huayana Picchu alone, you have to buy a Huayana Picchu-Machu Picchu combo, which costs $55. That’s somewhat unfair, as the price of the Inca Trail permit already includes the price of entry to Machu Picchu. But if you’re determined to climb Huayana Picchu, you have no choice but to pay this double “view tax” …)

The climb to the top of Huayana Picchu, though well-worth the effort, is not for the faint-hearted. As we stood in front of the mountain, measuring it up and down, we had a hard time imagining how one could possibly climb it without proper climbing gear.

We had an even harder time imagining how, a few centuries earlier, the Inca had managed to transport building materials and construct terraces, temples, and other buildings on the top of the mountain. Some of the buildings on top of Huayana Picchu could have been a part of an astronomical observatory, while others might have served as lookout points over the city and the paths leading to it.

One of the local guides told us that the mountain top also served as a residence for the high priest and sacred virgins. Apparently, every morning before sunrise the high priest walked with a small group to Machu Picchu to signal the coming of the new day. Then and now this walk would entail climbing about 1,200 vertical feet (300 meters). Today wire and hemp ropes aid hikers in their effort, but I doubt the Inca had needed them.

I would recommend exercising a lot of caution on this hike, especially after the rain (in fact, on most rainy days Huayana Picchu is closed to visitors), and I would definitely advise against attempting this hike with kids under the age of ten, or maybe even older.

Some spouses should be spared from this hike as well. For example, my husband complained all the way up and down the mountain how steep and dangerous it was, and how stupid he had been not only to agree to do this hike, but also to run with a heavy backpack to get a permit/ticket to do it (you can hear him say that in the video I posted below). And, you know what, I think Anil would have probably been fine without going on this hike, and he only did it because I pushed him to do it. But, hey, this is what spouses are for: motivating us and pushing us to achieve the impossible. :) Today, from the perspective of time having gone by, I know that he is very proud of himself that he managed to hike Huayana Picchu in addition to the Inca Trek, and I’m happy that we lived to tell the tale.

The bird-eye view of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayana Picchu:

A beautiful orchid growing along the trail:

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Inca Trek, Day Four: Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu

On the last, fourth, day of the trek we were woken up at 4:30 A.M. Despite the early hour, all of us were super-excited, as we were finally going to see Machu Picchu. Or were we? That morning was very foggy and cold, and many members of our group were skeptical whether we would actually manage to see the site.

I was not one of the skeptics. From the moment we booked our trip several months earlier, I had known that we would manage to see Machu Picchu in all its glory, and that the day we would arrive at the site would be beautiful and sunny. And I was right, the very moment Anil and I arrived at Machu Picchu, like with the touch of a magic wand, the fog and clouds lifted. But let me step back a bit, and tell you in more detail how this day unfolded.

After breakfast, we all went to the Winay Wayna restaurant, where we had to wait for about half an hour for permission to go further. For safety reasons the Inca Trail trekkers are not allowed to hike in darkness, and are required to wait for the sun to rise and light their way. To ensure that nobody breaks this rule, a few hundred feet past the Winay Wayna campsite, there is a guarded locked gate that only opens at 6:30 A.M. From that gate it is several kilometers, and about one-and-a-half to two hours to Machu Picchu.

After we were cleared at the gate, Anil and I separated from the rest of our group and started running as fast as we could. We needed to hurry, as not only did we want to visit Machu Picchu, but also wanted to climb the iconic mountain—Huayana Picchu—towering above it (more about it in tomorrow’s post). After about 30 minutes, we reached Intipunku (The Sun Gate), from which, on a good day, Inca trekkers get rewarded with a stunning view encompassing the whole site of Machu Picchu. However, we didn’t get to experience that view, as when we got there, it was still too foggy to see anything. The fog didn’t prevent me from snapping a few pictures of the Sun Gate, though.

As soon as we passed the Sun Gate, running became easier and faster, as we were finally going downhill. We were making good progress until we encountered a group of llamas. They looked so cute with their super-long eyelashes and big innocent eyes that, even though we were in hurry, we just had to stop and play with them. They seemed to be well-accustomed to tourists, and didn’t mind being touched.

We had so much fun with the llamas that we didn’t even realize that, in meantime, the fog had slowly started lifting.

And within seconds after we parted with the animals, the fog almost completely disappeared, revealing a breathtaking view of Machu Picchu directly at our feet. It was an almost mystical experience that I will never forget. (In fact, it was such a special moment that I decided to dedicate a separate post to it. It will appear here on 1st of January 2012, on the first anniversary of our arrival in Machu Picchu.)

As we were on a mission to get tickets for the Huayana Picchu mountain, we didn’t have time to admire the view for too long. After we snapped out of the awe, I quickly took a few pictures, and we headed towards the main entrance to Machu Picchu, where we had to show our tickets to a guard. We left our backpacks at the luggage storage, and again we started running all the way across Machu Picchu to the Huayana Picchu entrance. At least all this running paid off, and I’m proud to report that we managed to get one of the last few permits to climb the mountain. As you’ll be able to read in my post tomorrow, the climb to the top of the mountain was spectacular and well-worth the effort. A lesson: if you really want something really badly, and you’re willing to work very hard to get it, usually you’ll manage to achieve your goal, and a nice reward will be waiting for you at the end of the road :)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Winay Wayna Ruins on the Inca Trek, Day Three

Wiñay Wayna ruins are located near the last campsite on the Inca Trail. Unexpectedly, we had a lot of trouble finding the ruins, and we only managed to get to them after the sun hid behind the mountains, even though we arrived at the campsite a good few hours before sunset. It was a pity, as the site looked very interesting, and I would have loved to have more time to explore it.

Wiñay Wayna means “Forever Young”—a name given to the site after a variety of a pink orchid that grows there. Similarly to Intipata, these ruins have a spectacular location, as they are perched on a cliff overlooking the Urubamba River below, and a waterfall on the hillside above. There are also many magnificent agricultural terraces in Wiñay Wayna. However, what distinguishes this site from Intipata is the presence of multiple buildings of good quality stonework. Those buildings are connected by a sequence of fifteen baths, which suggest that Wiñay Wayna was probably a religious center associated with the worship of water. It is speculated that a ritual cleansing may have taken place here for pilgrims on the final leg of their trip to Machu Picchu.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Intipata Ruins on the Inca Trek, Day Three

Shortly after we left “Town in the Clouds” we got to “Sun Terraces” (Intipata). As the name suggests, this site receives a lot of sun. The clever Inca must have known it too, as they set up a huge agricultural complex there. The food from here is believed to have supplied nearby Machu Picchu as well. The size, the location, and the architectural beauty of the site yet again reminded us how amazingly well-developed and knowledgeable the Inca civilization was.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sayaqmarka Ruins on the Inca Trek, Day Three

Saycamarca--“Inaccessible Town”--lies at 3,600 meters above sea level, on the tip of a very prominent ridge. It’s the location that earned the town its name: from three sides it’s protected by sheer cliffs, and it can only be accessed from the fourth side by a steep staircase of 98 steps edged in the mountain. Seeing those beautiful ruins placed in a seemingly inaccessible location made me wonder if the Inca had built this town just to prove that they could.

My theory is as good as the one presented by archeologists and historians who investigated the ruins. They also have no clue. They speculate that Saycamarca simply served as a rest-stop town on a way to Machu Picchu. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Why would the Inca go through so much trouble to build a rest stop in such an inaccessible place? And why would they build a Temple of the Sun (a solar observation post) in that town? Let’s hope that archeologists will figure it out.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Phuyumatamarca Ruins on the Inca Trek, Day Three

Phuyupatamarca (“Town in the Clouds”) lived up to its name and presented itself to us surrounded by dense, dark clouds. It almost seemed like the clouds tried to protect the town from us; first by obscuring the view, and then by soaking us wet with rain.

However, it is not easy to discourage me from sightseeing. This rain didn’t manage to prevent me from walking around the ruins, and the surrounding agricultural terraces and ceremonial baths. The precise role of the baths is not known, but it is thought that they were used for the ritual worship of water.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Runkurakay Ruins on the Inca Trek, Day Three

Even though Runkuracay was the smallest of the ruins that we saw along the Inca Trail, they are the ones I remember the best (except for Machu Picchu, of course).

Runkuracay stuck in my memory because of its spectacular location and perfectly circular shape. This site is a true testimony to how amazingly advanced and rich the Inca civilization was at its prime. It seems like there was no task too difficult for them: they could build anything they wanted, anywhere they wanted. It’s even more admirable if you take into account that they did not use mortar, and that despite that, many structures survived in a pretty good shape till this day.

It’s unknown what the purpose of Runkuracay ruins was but, as it occupies a commanding position overlooking the Pacamayo Valley below, it’s likely that it served as a lookout point.