The Sacred Citadel
Machu Picchu can go by other ways, but the excitement of the discovery of that sanctuary, astronomical observatory and landscape of crops in terraces, reaches greater intensity if you walk on the Inca Trail. Only the passion of adventure and effort reveal the secrets of those places that the Great Inca commanded to travel six centuries ago from Cusco, in search of a place to erect ceremonial palaces and temples.
All the routes to Machu Picchu start today as in the past of Cusco, “navel of the world” according to the legend and capital of an empire whose power testifies the stones that build buildings of the colonial era. At the Plaza de Armas, the neuralgic center of commerce, farmers arrive every morning dressed in traditional clothes, laden with colorful baskets and herds, selling alpaca wool clothes, fruits and fresh coca leaves, whose infusion is the best relief of the walker to overcome the soroche, the Andean altitude sickness. On one side stands the Cathedral, built on the palace of the Inca Viracocha with stones from the nearby ruins of Sacsayhuamán. Another miscegenation has its reflection inside the temple: the natives pray to the saints with rituals closer to Inca mythology than to Christian worship. Nearby is the convent of Santo Domingo, which, over the Temple of the Sun (Coricancha), is a good example of architectural fusion.
The walk through the streets of colonial design reveals the splendor of churches and palaces, to end at the Central Market or San Pedro, a sample of Inca agriculture: potatoes of different names such as chuño (freeze-dried potato with ice), yuccas and turmas of different flavors and shapes, corn, chili, mote and even exotic flowers. The neighborhood restaurants offer dishes such as “lawa de chuño”, a stew of vicuña meat, beans, ground chuño and aromatic herbs.
The mythical path of the Andes
To reach the first camp in Huayllabamba, about five hours are spent on an enjoyable journey next to the Urubamba, which then gains altitude in the Cusichaca valley. This section is a good training for the subsequent days. The first stop in the ruins of Patallacta already shows the essence of the rural Inca culture: a construction with more than a hundred rooms carved in stone, a lookout tower on the summit and the terraces that were cornfields, where guanacos graze today.
The second day, the biggest challenge of the road, starts early. After crossing a rough wooden bridge over the Chaupihuayjo River, the path ascends in a stairway between the sound of the water and the slow march on the slabs. The temperature gradually decreases and altitude sickness can make an appearance. Meanwhile, around us a visual spectacle is developing more and more overwhelming: thick forests, Inca ruins and, to the east, the perpetual snow of Sankanta peak (6,270 m) and cliffs where the condor nests. The Abra de Huarmihunusca pass (“paso de la mujer muerto”, in Quechua) culminates after the ascent of a hundred meters on a stepped path. Located at 4,200 meters, this port is an exceptional viewpoint from where you can already guess the way down to Machu Picchu. That night, in the Pacamayo camp, you will recover strength with a convivial dinner and a good night’s sleep under the starry sky of the Andes.
The goal of the third day of the march is the Huinay Huayna camp, just two hours from Machu Picchu. The archaeological attraction of this stage is the Inca Roundabout of Runcuracay, a construction whose use still constitutes a mystery for archaeologists: watchtower, temple, perhaps food store … From here you can see the jungle, the distant snowfields, like lagoons and meadows where orchids bloom in spring.
The stone footprint of the Incas is more present as we approach the sacred city. A short detour on the main route leads to the ruins of Sayacmarka, a cyclopean fortress that has preserved much of the gigantic walls that once held it. Next, the road stretches over a long platform with spectacular views, passes through a 16-meter tunnel dug by the Incas, and reaches the Abra de Phuyutatamarca. This hill is located near an architectural complex, perhaps destined for water rituals and purification whose pipes are still in operation. The last camping, in Huinay Huayna, will be festive before the emotion of having at hand the goal of the trip.
In the old mountain
Arriving at Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) when the sun rises is the best reward after four days of walking. During the descent at dawn by terraces and paved paths, the sound of the river is heard closer to each step through the fog. Suddenly, the rays of dawn rip through the clouds and enter through Inti Punku or Puerta del Sol -probably a guard post in the Inca era- to show, less than a kilometer away, the whole of Machu Picchu in all its splendor.
The first thing that is noticed when entering this city composed of palaces and temples is its excellent disposition for ceremony, defense and self-supply. The Temple of the Sun, the Condor, the Three Windows … surround the Main Square in an order imposed by the orography and the ritual function. Its maximum symbol, perhaps also its reason for being, is the Intihuatana – meaning “where the sun is tied”, in Quechua – the great stone whose angles are oriented to the four cardinal points.
Ever since the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham discovered the city a century ago, in 1911, very little has been advanced about its origin, about the reason for its magnificence, about its sudden abandonment and even its true name. The current traveler, when entering the citadel, can not help being carried away by the breeze of the Andean highlands, the smell of grass and the memory of stones. The rest is mystery.
Visit the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu!