Machu Picchu And The Inca Trail – Cusco For Christmas

“I have come to take away from them their gold.”
– Francisco Pizarro

We leave Cuzco at dawn on the summer solstice, along the road that follows the Rio Urubamba to Ollaytaytambo. It is a bumpy and steep descent – too steep for our vehicle. The brakes are inadequate, so we must wait for a replacement bus, presumably with better brakes.

A local boy sings a few traditional songs to entertain us, while we take the opportunity to become better acquainted with our fellow trekkers over some tea and sandwiches. Just as we are about to explore the nearby town and adjacent ruins, the other bus arrives. We pile our gear and ourselves inside, and are off once again.

We reach the trailhead at kilometre 82 and unload the bus. Sleeping bags and mats are distributed, and backpacks are reorganized.

Some of us buy water, wafers, or walking sticks, and all of us pass through the first checkpoint before crossing the river and beginning the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Our trekking group leaves Kilometer 82 at the Inca Trail

Our trekking group leaves Km 82

Nail a Retread to My Feet

The first section of the Inca Trail is relatively mellow, and provides ample opportunity for adjusting our packs to accommodate our torsos, and adjusting our clothing to accommodate the indecisive nature of the Andean spring. We stop for a snack and fend off the resident pigs, lest they mistake our backpack buckles for food and crunch them to oblivion.

At 2pm, we must cross our first valley. We stop beforehand to look at the ruins of Llactapata and descend to the Rio Cusichaca below. All the tents, tarps, groundsheets, food and fuel are carried, set up and prepared by the porters. To keep ahead of the group, they often run a good part of the way. Some wear flip-flops or sandals made from old tires.

Diane in our tent at a campsite on the Inca Trail

Inca Trail Campsite – Thank You Porters!

The porters have prepared lunch and set up the dining tent on the other side. After a surprisingly scrumptious meal, we leave our packs under a tarp and follow our guide, José, up to the ruins. He gives us our first (of many) extended lesson on Inca history and culture before we retrieve our gear and continue on our way.

We follow the contour of the slope while colorful parrots dart in the air above the valley. Our camp awaits us at Wallabamba, and after another delicious meal, we swap stories and jokes before turning in.

Treading the Trodden Inca Trail

Again, we are up at dawn. Today is the big climbing day of our hike, so we load up on a breakfast of coca tea, cereal, toast, coffee, pancakes and “dulce de leche”. Still sore from the previous day, we start up a series of steep switchbacks before continuing up an ancient staircase made of rocks through the cloud forest. We break for biscuits and water at Llulluchayoc, on a plateau overlooking the valley up which we had just trudged.

Inca Ruins in the Andean Cloud Forest
Andean Cloud Forest on the Inca Trail

Inca Ruins in the Cloud Forest

We regain some strength, allow our shirts to dry a bit, and continue our ascent in earnest. At this elevation, the reduced pressure starts to take effect, and less oxygen is replenishing our tiring tissues. I find it best to power up a few vertical meters and rest for a minute or two, while Diane chooses a slower, steadier pace.

At 4200m, we finally reach the top of the Inca Trail at Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman) Pass. There are splendid views of the laborious Lllullucha valley behind us. We rest at the pass and take some photos. The sunny weather, which graced us on our walk up the valley, abandons us and turns cold, grey and wet.

We hurry down the stone steps to the shelter of our muddy dining tent waiting below. After lunch, we brave the elements again, and are passed by the speedy porters as we continue down the slick staircase to the Rio Pacamayo, where our camp for the second night awaits us.

Warmiwanusca Dead Woman Pass on the Inca Trail

Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman) Pass

Pass Tents

By morning the weather has improved, but we must wear clothes that are still wet from the previous day. We cross the valley and climb to the ruins of an ancient rest area. Again, José engages us in another lengthy discussion about Inca history and culture.

We climb to the Runturacay Pass, leaving the ruins and seasonal lakes collecting on the plateau behind.

After lunch at Sayacmarca, the trail winds through the high jungle, offering views of snow-capped Andean peaks, massive glaciers and fertile valleys. The roar of the raging Rio Urubamba, hundreds of feet below, can be heard as we explore the Phuyupata ruins.

The steep switchbacks we climbed a few days earlier have now reversed direction. In some sections, the stone steps are quite steep and the muddy trail equally slick. And my knees are killing me.

Rio Urubamba along the Inca Trail

Rio Urubamba

Our final camp, at Winaywayna, is shared by everyone hiking that section of the trail – not just our little group. After a few cervezas and some vino tinto, we tip Jose, the porters and cooks, and retire to our tent.

We are up before dawn, wolf down some breakfast, and race up the last portion of this Inca road. All the groups have left the same area at the same time, so this section of the trail suffers from many bottlenecks. Everyone is anxious to get to the ruins, and the atmosphere reminds me of a “powder day” at a popular ski resort.

Lost City of the Incas

An hour later, we reach the end of the Inca Trail at Inti Punku (Sun Gate) and behold the monolithic Huayna Picchu towering over the empty city of Machu Picchu. The last refuge of an advanced civilization – possibly the largest in the world at the time – hunted to extinction by the merciless atrocities of Francisco Pizzaro and his 16th century conquistadors.

The view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Machu Picchu sits empty before us at the Sun Gate

After hiking through valleys, passes, clouds and rain for the past three days, and having only seen the lost city of the Incas on television, the sight is surreal. The area is well manicured. A far cry from the tangled mess of dense jungle that Hiram Bingham found in 1911.

Llamas graze the grounds at Machu Picchu

Llamas graze the manicured grounds at Machu Picchu

We take some photos of posing llamas and alpacas, climb down to the ruins, and spend the rest of the day exploring the magical temples with Jose’s informed narrative. Mindful of our knees, we take a bus (chased by a traditionally-clad boy waving, yelling and singing) down to the Rio Urubamaba and Aguas Calientes, where we soak our sore muscles and aching bones in the thermal hot springs.

The view of Cusco, Peru from Sacsayhuamán


Feliz Navidad

We leave for Cusco at dawn on Christmas Day and join the crowd gathering for the celebrations there. An odd procession forms and passes by the Church of La Compañía and Cathedral, circling the Plaza des Armas.

Roll over the Cusco Christmas procession for a close-up

There is no Christian symbolism in the parade, only masked participants with peacock feathers stuck in their upturned hats. Unfortunately, José isn’t there to provide a narrative.

We spend the next few days exploring Cusco’s sites and history, and finally head up the hill to the lion-toothed Sacsayhuamán ruins that stand over the city for a last look at this special place.

Diane at Sacsayhuamán near Cusco, Peru

Diane at Sacsayhuamán

Spanish conquistadors ransacked this place too, taking all but the biggest stones for their own infrastructure. Much like elsewhere in the Americas, the original peoples still suffer the effects of western European colonialism, 500 years after it began.


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