It was Kate Turkington, in her book “There’s More to Life Than Surface” who first whet my appetite for a spiritual journey to Machu Picchu. From then on unseen fingers beckoned me to visit this mystical citadel perched on its sacred mountain high above the clouds. My dream became a reality in August 2003 when Rob and I packed our bags to go hiking the Inca Trail.
As so many, who have trodden these sacred paths before, know, the Inca Trail is no pushover and one has to be relatively fit for the undertaking. Not only do the mountain paths take their toll on one’s muscles and stamina, but the altitude in the Andes also plays its part in making this a pilgrimage of endurance and determination. The trail itself is not particularly long, only 48 kilometres, but over the course of four days one can experience all four seasons, and weather conditions can vary from one kilometre to the next.
Our short journey to the start of the trail began in Cuzco where we boarded the bus. We were part of a group of sixteen South Africans who were doing the hike. Our tour guides were two charming young Peruvian men, Zacharias and Ephraim, whose wealth of knowledge of the history, flora and fauna of the area made the trip not only enjoyable but educational as well. Their easy-going banter and unflagging humour often had us in stitches and the group soon bonded and settled into a wonderful camaraderie that would endure for the whole hike. Ephraim proved to be an exceptionally spiritual person and I envied the simplicity of his life and the philosophy that served him so well.
The bustle of Cuzco gave way to open countryside and soon the Sacred Valley cradled between the folds of the surrounding lofty mountains, revealed its abundance. Verdant pastures lined the banks of the strongly flowing Urubamba River as it carved its way through the landscape. Flocks of colourful birds darted through the trees and overhead black vultures, which abound in this area, circled effortlessly. Looking at this beautiful scenery it was easy to understand why the Inca held nature and all of God’s creations sacred and why this valley in particular played such an important role in their culture and worship.
The last stop before the start of our hike was at Ollantaytambo, a colourful market village at the base of imposing Inca ruins of the same name. Its lofty location, surrounded by mountains, allowed for accurate astronomical readings to be taken on its horizons and it subsequently became one of the centres where the Incas could synchronize their agricultural and spiritual activities to the rhythms of the earth and the sky. These fascinating remains, which once housed religious, astronomical, urban and administrative complexes were our first real experience of Incan ruins and our anticipation was growing for what lay ahead of us.
Our hike started at Kilometre 82, a small railway siding en route to Machu Picchu. With strict instructions to limit our luggage weight to exactly 10 kgs, we watched anxiously as our porters spent time carefully weighing our bags and camping equipment to ensure that their loads were distributed fairly. With a light daypack, a cane walking stick and a broad-rimmed Peruvian hat to block out the sun, I was ready to start my incredible journey.
At a passport control point on the banks of the Urubamaba River, we were delighted to have ‘Machu Picchu’ stamped into our passports before we started walking. Hiking parties are limited to protect the ecology on the trail and strict control is kept of numbers.
From the time we crossed over the iron suspension bridge that afternoon until we reached our campsite at the foot of the Llactapata ruins, we were treated to the most beautiful and awe-inspiring scenery imaginable. Snow-capped mountains towered above us, the river gurgled beside us and our path meandered up and down beautiful hills. Imposing rocks, with colourful bromeliads clinging to their sides, dotted the landscape, a foretaste of what was in store for us as we climbed higher.
As we stood on the hillside overlooking Llactapata and its terraces, I thanked God for the privilege of being there, my heart almost bursting with joy and reverence for the beauty I was witnessing.
Before setting out the following morning, Ephraim called us all together to give us each a gift. It was a magic ‘boulder’ that we were to carry all the way to Machu Picchu. He warned us not to lose our stones at any cost because they were very special. Our interest was piqued – what was it all about?
Day two started with a very steep climb out of the valley. The highlight of the morning was a walk through a magical forest of twisted trees, hung with moss and filled with abundant bird life. It looked like something out of a Tolkien novel and I half expected a Hobbit to appear from the undergrowth! Here we saw for the first time hummingbirds of all descriptions, some large and others as tiny as bumble bees. They were delightful to watch.
When we started climbing up towards our first pass and came across the first of many steep stone stairs, I was glad that I’d put in so much training for the hike. It was really tough and I could feel the lack of oxygen at such high altitude. The answer was to take it slowly and stop often to catch my breath. This gave me time to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings.
We awoke the next day to the sound of rain, which was disappointing as the cloud and mist hid much of the beautiful countryside. With aching leg muscles I pulled heavily on my walking stick as I slowly made my way up to the highest point on the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200m. I walked alone and sang my favourite hymn quietly to myself, How Great Thou Art – “Oh Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder….”. It was very uplifting and helped me through many a difficult stretch of trail. At the top of the Pass we posed for a photograph with the South African flag before heading down a staircase that was steep, slippery and rather treacherous in the wet weather.
The second pass of the day was Runkuraqay, with its circular ruin – presumably once an outlook post or a resting place for Incan messengers. The descent from here was very steep, but we were now on the actual Inca pathway and I marvelled at their steps and the way they had built up the path when the going became impassable. We also went through the first of three Incan tunnels hewn out of enormous rocks with whatever implements they had available to them in those days.
The well-preserved ruins of Sayacmarca were next. Accessed by yet another steep staircase, its incredible walls, terraces and irrigation systems proclaimed the Inca’s ingenuity. Our path crossed a swamp and then meandered through a beautiful cloud forest. As the sun came out and gently fondled the trees along the trail, we wearily reached our campsite at Phuyupatamarca.
Perched above the clouds, with mountains all around us, it felt as if we were on top of the world.
Tired as I was that night, I hardly slept knowing that we were only hours away from Machu Picchu. After a festive farewell to the porters the next day we headed down an interminable flight of 1000 stairs. Hours later we reached the mysterious ruins of Winaywayna where we stopped for a visit and washed our faces in a sacred ceremonial bathing area, silently asking the mountain Apu’s for clear weather ahead.
The stone path followed the contour of the mountain behind Machu Picchu and then rose steeply through a forest of enormous tree ferns, begonias and orchids to reach Chaskapata (2530m) at the top of the steepest flight of stairs imaginable. When we came to Intipunku, the Gateway of the Sun, our guides hugged and congratulated us as we stepped through to see Machu Picchu sprawled out below us.
It is difficult to describe our feelings when we first saw Machu Picchu. Spread out on a lofty mountaintop, with its famous backdrop of Waynapicchu, the Urubamba River roaring down below and set off by the surrounding jungle-cloaked mountains, it was way beyond all our expectations. Rob and I hugged each other, tears in our eyes, hardly believing that we were finally there. One can only imagine Hiram Bingham’s excitement at discovering this intriguing place way back in 1911.
An architectural marvel, the skeletal remains of palaces, temples, passages and houses stood proudly defiant of time and the elements. The enormity of building terrace upon terrace and stone upon stone was not lost on us as we gazed spellbound at the perfection that was Machu Picchu. Their masonry, so accurately carved and polished, enabling huge granite structures to fit together with jigsaw precision without any mortar, puts our modern buildings to shame. Everywhere we saw evidence of an industrious and spiritual community whose lifestyle revolved around revering their God and their surroundings, whilst living in total harmony with nature.
Ephraim led us down to a grassy plain populated by llamas and asked us to take out our magic stones and form a circle together. He said that we should remember three things: Firstly that it is never too late; secondly that nothing is impossible; and thirdly that everyone in the universe is special. He then asked us to think of all the people in our lives, both living and dead, who were special to us and to pour all our love for them into our stones. It was a beautiful moment for us all and many of the group had tears pouring down their cheeks. Ephraim told us to find a special place at Machu Picchu to leave our stones as part of our pilgrimage to this wonderful site. Rob and I both left our stones in a wall in the Temple of the Condor, which I thought was very apt as the condor represented to the Incas the link between the material world and the spiritual world.
From there I found a quiet place to sit up against a wall and meditate. The magnetic energy that poured out of the rocks into my body was tangible. As I closed my eyes my mind raced with scenes of Incas, stone buildings, terraces and what it must have been like back in the days of this ancient civilization. Feeling quite battered by the energy I told Rob to take my place and experience it for himself. While he sat on the wall I held his camera, which suddenly took on a mind of its own. The lens popped in and out, lights flashed and Rob battled to switch it off. He couldn’t take any more pictures at Machu Picchu, it was almost as if the city had said “enough’s enough!”
We left the sacred site much later, elated, with so many unanswered questions about a community who left behind a legacy so mysterious and magical with no explanation of how they managed to achieve what they did or why they left. Our sacred journey was over, but we were changed by the experience, and like our passports, our hearts will have “Machu Picchu’ stamped in them forever.