But mother nature is fickle and the rainy season brought unprecedented destruction to the Sacred Valley. Flooding and landslides destroyed homes, roads, train tracks and took lives after intense rains during the months of January and February. Cusco declared a state of emergency and the citadel of Machu Pichu was closed after a group of tourists got stranded in Aguas Calientes (the small town at the base of Machu Picchu) and had to be helicoptered out.
I was hearing about all this while in Bolivia – getting contradicting and misinformation from backpackers and websites regarding when Machu Picchu would be reopened. Jenny came to meet me in La Paz, Bolivia and we explored Lake Titicaca while waiting for the time when we could make this epic trek we had so been looking forward to. Honestly, I thought more about how the flooding was effecting my trip, instead of it’s effect on the local people. This, of course, changed as soon as I got there.
We arrived to Cusco in late March in anticipation for Machu Picchu reopening on April 1st and found a tour operator and haggled (thanks in part to the large numbers of Jews in our crew) until we settled on a four night all-inclusive trek to Machu Picchu for 130 USD per person. After enjoying the lovely colonial city that is Cusco we eagerly set off on our mission.
Rainy season. Really. No joke, a lot of rain. We were the first group that had been taken through this alternative trek (not the ”Inca Trail” which is extremely expensive) in two months and immediately we saw first hand the destruction that had ravaged the Sacred Valley. The road we drove on had been recently cut into the mountain sides after the previous road had washed away along with the river banks and homes. After a white-knuckle ascent, we mountain-biked down a winding road that had engorged streams crossing various sections of the pavement, creating small rivers to ford. We arrived soaking wet and freezing to the small town of Santa Teresa where we dried our clothes over an open fire and sipped rum to ward of the cold. What Would An Inca Do?
Day Two began rainier than the last. We grumbled and acquired slick plastic rain ponchos of varying colors – imitating the rainbow Inca Pride flag. We began our day long trek, following the gorge of the River Urubamba. The rain was pouring down and we were running underneath rock slides, dodging the boulders that crashed down around us. Our faith in our guide, Neyser, and constantly reminded ourselves of Incan strength is what got us through. The footbridge crossing the raging Rio Urubamba had been washed away and in its place there was a recently constructed cable and small platform underneath used transported humans, two at a time across the swollen and rushing Urubamba. This is crazy!!
When we reached the entrance to the official Inca Trail we found out that the guards (who had big guns) weren’t letting anyone in who didn’t have a train ticket out from Aguas Calientes. What? Our guide, Neyser, who seemingly channels Incas and doesn’t take ”NO” for an answer, waited for his other guide buddies until we had enough numbers and about 30 of us rushed the gates and the small number of guards couldn’t do anything about it! Viva la revolucion, this feels good! We continued on as the sky cleared and hiked all day through the stunning gorge of the Rio Urubamba, gazing up at massive mountains covered in lush jungle. We reached the base town of Aguas Calientes by nightfall.
Machu Picchu. We arrived at day break when the whole Incan city built on a towering ridge that is Machu Picchu was shrouded in clouds. After two months of closure, we arrived on it’s first day open and everyone there was so happy and appreciative to be back at work, or able to enjoy this wonder of the world. And wonder it is. Wonderful, like jaw-dropping open in awe of the majesty of this location on earth, and then in the human feat that is constructing a sacred city in such a setting. Wonder in why it was deserted by the Incas and how it remained undiscovered until it was stumbled upon in 1911 by the gringo, Hiram Bingham.
Machu Picchu was a royal city and religious retreat built high above a canyon at about 8,000 feet in a cloud forest. It was built between 1460 and 1470 A.D. by the Incan ruler Pachacuti and is comprised of about 200 structures including several temples, residences, storage structures and other public buildings. The constructions seems to blend seamlessly into the landscape, as structures and sculptures follow the patterns in nature, water flows through cisterns and stone channels and temples hang on to steep precipices. They terraced the steep hillsides around the citadel to plant corn and potatoes to support their small population.
As the day progressed the clouds parted and we were able to witness more and more of this marvelous ridge and ruins. The crowds of people (which were significantly smaller than usual due to it being the first day open) left in the afternoon and the second half of the day was spent practically alone to explore the space. I don’t believe I have ever in my life witnessed something so grand. Machu Picchu is a backpacker’s mecca, the destination for exploration and discovery.
Something about how difficult it is to reach it, particularly when I went due to recent flooding, makes the final ascent so much more satisfying. Something about being shrouded in mist in the morning and then the clouds parting to reveal more and more of this amazing place. Something that left me feeling satisfied and complete and aware of my place on this planet, at this particular moment and somehow making issues I had been working on to understand a little bit clearer.
The day we hiked out was a 30 kilometer hike down railroad tracks, following the gorge farther up. We lucked upon a train car with railroad workers who generously lifted us 10 K of the way, allowing us to catch a bus and arrive to Cusco before nightfall. The most grueling yet ultimately satisfying pilgrimage I have ever done. The most awe-inspiring place I have ever been fortunate enough to witness. This is my mission for you…. Find your way there.