There is an ancient Chinese Proverb that says, “It is not the destination that is important, but the journey there.” Without question, the Inca Trail that winds its way through thick jungles, past countless ancient ruins, and through mountainous terrain to Machu Picchu, is one of the most sought after hiking trails in the world. Each year thousands of tourists heading to the lost city of Incas forgo the comfortable train and hike through the mountains of Northwestern Peru to arrive there. Those that make the journey on foot speak about beautiful mountain scenery and Incan ruins, all the while knowing that there are few, if any, trails in the world that can promise a view as spectacular as that of Machu Picchu waiting for them at the end of their journey.
When I reflect upon my years of travel, one regret stands out above the rest. It is that, when I was able physically, I never hiked the Inca Trail – not even the shorter, two-day route! I wish I could excuse this gap in my travel experience by saying “I wasn’t aware of this trail.” But I cannot. I simply let the press of other places take precedent. Also, I was concerned about altitude sickness and about the need to utilize insect repellent around the clock! So by the time I finally reached the end of the Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – it was by train. I had had two knee replacements and was 70 years old, so “arm-chair” hiking of the Inca Trail was my only option.
These very thoughts were racing through my mind as I sat on the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu one bright sunny morning in October of 2009. I could see the hikers on the Inca Trail just outside the window of my compartment. They were, for the most part, young and energetic as they carried their gear on their backs without any apparent, extra effort. I imagined the sights they would be seeing before they arrived at the very point where the train would drop me. I was reflecting about this personal lost opportunity, when a young man sat down in the seat beside me. Before long we began to pass the time by swapping travel stories. It turns out that he had hiked this famous trail only two years earlier. During the next 45 minutes or so, I learned a great deal from this young Canadian about the challenge of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
First, he explained that there are numerous trails of varying length. The shortest requires two days, the longest seven or more. He had taken the traditional four-day hike that begins at mileage marker number 82 along the tracks of the train we were riding. He told me how fortunate he was to obtain one of the 200 permits that are granted each day for what he described as a “challenging” hike. He reminded me how the air is much thinner in the mountains and how this factor can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and sometimes worse. He explained how Machu Picchu itself is often extremely crowded but that the Inca Trail is not. He said the mist that often hangs over the mountains adds to the experience of encountering the remains of long-lost cultures. Rapid and unpredictable changes in the weather are also an integral part of this trail. He said, “In one 24 hour period my group got rained on and sunburned; wore a down jacket in below freezing temperatures and just a tank top when the temperature soared into the upper 80s.”
My seat mate looked to me to be in top physical shape and that was a good thing, I imagined, when he told about the day during which he climbed more than 2,000 uneven steps cut into the rock. Yet his enthusiasm and excitement about the journey was very apparent. Listening to him describe his hiking adventure made me wish I would have made that journey when I was physically able.
My new friend described, at the end of his four-day hike, the moment when he got his first look at Machu Picchu. He had just passed through the Sungate which is less than a mile from the actual site. He said that his heart was beating so fast he wondered if he would live to see up close what lay before him. Of course he did and he described it as one of the greatest moments of his life.
My train pulled into the station near the staging area for the bus that winds its way along the road to the entry gate at Machu Picchu. The road covers only a few kilometers but takes 20-25 minutes for the trip because the road winds and turns though several switchbacks before it reaches its destination. The view was spectacular. Just inside the main entrance, I found a lookout that provided a panoramic view of a good portion of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing there, transfixed by what stretched out before me, I immediately understood why this site is number 12 on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before you Die.”
Machu Picchu is easily the most recognizable and iconic symbol of the Incan Empire anywhere in the world. It was built around 1450 AD and sits above the Sacred Valley. The site consists of more than 150 buildings ranging from houses to temples, sanctuaries, and communal baths. The compound contains over 100 separate flights of stairs. Most of the individual staircases were carved from slabs of stone. Some of the buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of how they may have looked originally. Almost 40 percent of Machu Picchu had been restored to date.
This Incan Citadel, once home to the sun-worshiping Incan civilization, is the most visited tourist attraction in all of Peru. The site was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World a few years ago. It has now been almost 10 years since I joined the more than 1.2 million tourists who visit Machu Picchu annually. I came away from this architectural “wonder” perched above the Sacred Valley with a new appreciation for the ingenuity of these ancient Incan builders and the rituals that sustained them. If the opportunity should ever arise, I would eagerly travel here again for yet another glimpse into the Lost City of the Incas.
Next time: “The Louvre: The world’s greatest museum”