6. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Day 2: Wayllabamba to Rukuraqay (16 km)

We were woken up by a shake on our tent. “Would you like tea or coffee?” offered Marco. Little did we know that we would be offered a morning drink, a delectable luxury for what we had assumed would be the most primitive camping experience. Soon after our breakfast, trekking poles in hand and hiking boots firmly strapped on, we were again on the road. The second day of hiking would be our longest and most arduous of the Inca Trail, as we would have to ascend and descend hundreds of metres through mountain passes.

From Wayllabamba, the landscape surrounding us became increasingly barren. The desolation was accompanied by ever fewer mules and villagers encountered along the path. From the quechua microclimate, we had now entered the puna region. Microclimates in the Andes are largely grouped by their altitude above sea level, and are characterised by varying temperatures and precipitation throughout the year.  This gives rise to an incredibly rich biodiversity and varied ecosystems in a relatively small area, arising from flora and fauna adapted to these microcliamtes. The Incans benefited vastly from this biodiversity, not only cultivating a wide variety of crops and goods, but also facilitating the development of the famed Incan trade network, which in turn enabled the Incan economy to develop.

With our ascent, the thinned air made every step increasingly difficult. Every set of rhythmic steps up uneven, rocky staircases would necessitate a pause to catch our breaths. The view of the mountain Salkantay greeted us as we struggled ever upwards. Our trail led us towards Dead Woman’s Pass, or Warmi Wañusqa. The pass, sandwiched between two rocky peaks, is so named because the outcrop resembles a supine woman. The lack of vegetation in the puna microclimate left us exposed to the harsh sun and wind, making the final stretch towards Dead Woman’s Pass particularly strenuous – until, finally, we had made it with a final push.

Standing at 4200 m above sea level, we had reached the highest point of our trek. At this altitude, there is only about 60% of the oxygen compared to sea level. Regardless of fitness level, age, or previous acclimatisation, our group was plagued with altitude sickness, only worsened by the high physical demands. Having finally reached Dead Woman’s Pass, we were welcomed by not only a boundless view, but an extended break from hiking. “Guys, I brought along something special from Cuzco,” Jamie exclaimed. It was a bottle of rum. “This is for all of you, our family. But before we drink, we must first give some to Pachamama.” He poured drops of rum onto his fingers and flicked them towards the snow-capped sacred mountains surrounding us – Veronica, Salkantay, Huayna Picchu, and Huayanay.

Andean tribes lived in the mercy of the soaring peaks which surrounded them. To them, the mountains giveth, and they taketh away; they kill with avalanches and rockfalls, or bless by providing glacial water, incessantly feeding rivers and lakes. The sacred mountains were appeased by offerings, which sometimes extended to that of human life. Unblemished Andean children represented the purest and most perfect subjects of the sacrifice, often sent to mountain peaks as objects of sacrifice with their parents’ blessing. Today, while the practice of human sacrifice is no longer carried out, local inhabitants continue to revere the mountains, which provide a link to the past and continue to sustain communities in the Andes.

With the mountains around us now appeased, we enjoyed what must be the most rewarding shot of rum, having conquered a challenging stretch of our trek. We enjoyed a well-deserved photo session with the commemorative post and the Pacaymayo Valley stretching before us. Even the typically tireless porters dropped their (our!) packs and took a brief reprieve at this summit point to enjoy the breath-taking views on either side of the mountain pass.

From the summit, we started our descent into the Pacaymayo Valley. The campsite, and our site for a late lunch after the exhausting morning, was visible in the valley some 600 m below us. Descending on the rocky terrain was challenging, at times more so than the ascent, as the combination of backpack and body weight increased the stress on one’s joints. Nonetheless, the porters, geared only in basic footwear and carrying packs easily twice as heavy as our backpacks, would run past us down the rocky slopes!

After reaching Pacaymayo, we were faced with the unenviable view of a steep slope leading up the other side of the valley. We now had to climb another 400 m after our steep descent, to the second mountain pass of the day – Abra Runkuraqay. Along our ascent, llamas grazed on the shores of crystal blue lakes, relics of glacial action millennia ago. Runkuraqay, basket house in Quechua, lies just across the mountain pass, a lonely circular lookout post overlooking the Pacaymayo valley. This structure is believed to be a watchtower for the Inca Trail, juxtaposing against the surrounding overgrowth. Nonetheless, for us to reach our campsite as the afternoon drew on, there was little time to dawdle around the Incan site.

As we descended from Runkuraqay, the vegetation surrounding us became appreciably more verdant and lush. We were entering the cloud forest. With vegetation shading us from the harsh sunlight and howling winds, this stretch was noticeably easier than the previous. Following the slowly descending path which undulated about the side of the Pacaymayo valley, we finally reached Sayacmarca, which was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, only reachable by climbing a narrow, rocky path off the main trail.

Sayacmarca, the aptly named “inaccessible town”, is a beautiful semicircle construction with multiple layers of rooms, enclosures, narrow passages, and irrigation canals. From here, one could see stunning views of the Aobamba Valley (formed by a tributary of the Urubamba). Accessible only by a lone staircase, Sayacmarca was a fortress divided into a rounded temple area, and a residential area consisting of numerous small rectangular rooms. This complex was fed by an ingenious design, rerouting a small river into the city, irrigating crops and providing previous water for ceremonial baths and everyday use by the residents.

We descended through the cloud forest as the mountains behind us became increasingly surrounded by mist, condensing throughout the late afternoon. Our campsite looked out towards the distant Pumasillo glaciers, which would periodically peek out from behind the late afternoon clouds. As the sun set on our campsite, the distant snow-capped mountains were painted golden-red, providing the perfect backdrop as we ended our second day with a satisfying dinner and coca tea. There are worse places to spend a night after a long day of camping.

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