6. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Day 3: Sayacmarca to Wiñaywayna (8 km)

We were woken with a customary shake of the tent and morning coffee. In the early morning, the distant glaciers were bathed in a golden hue, which soon too consumed our campsite. It was once again time to hike. Our third day’s hike differs from other groups’ in that it is much shorter and easier, whereas our first two days were marginally more difficult and involved more climbing. The upshot of our altered itinerary is that we mostly had empty campsites all to ourselves, and would have a more relaxed third day of trekking.

Thankfully, after two days of constant ascents and descents, our third day would largely consist of flat or downhill stretches through the cloud forest of the Andes. As we travelled towards Machu Picchu, the influence of the nearby Amazon basin became increasingly clear; monotonous grasslands of the higher Andes gave way to dense overgrowth and petite violet orchids which populated the mossy mountainside. Along the way, we would also see small trumpet-like flowers, which the porters and guides would pluck from the plants and eat. The more daring among us, too, tried a few of the fresh and citrusy flowers.

Continuing along the Abra Phuyupatamarca mountain pass, which also acts as a campsite, we occasionally crossed portions of the trail that were skilfully constructed by the Incans, such as hollowed out tunnels through rocky outcrops, or paths which are semi-detached from the cliff face. These must have been very difficult to engineer, but the infrastructure and manpower of the Incan empire allowed the Incans to conquer the challenging Andean geography. We eventually reached Phuyupatamarca, the “town over the clouds”. During the rainy season, this complex would be enveloped in billowing clouds, giving rise to its unique name.

Phuyupatamarca is among the best preserved archaeological complexes among the Inca Trail. From there, the summit of the Machu Picchu Mountain (but not the world-famous ruins, which lay on the other side of the mountain) was visible. The archaeological site contains underground rivers irrigating terraces for agricultural purposes, as well as filling ceremonial fountains. Studies of the site suggest that Phuyupatamarca could have housed hundreds of people at a time.

We then descended 1000m into the cloud forest via an uneven staircase, purportedly built by Incans and preserved to this day. As the vegetation cleared, we were greeted with the sight of the Urubamba Valley, the same valley which we had crossed on our first day of trekking, as well as hints of the shorter two-day Inca Trail. In the distance, we could also see the town of Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the Machu Picchu ruins. A few hundred metres along the trail led us to Intipata. The agricultural terraces at these ruins gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs along the stony ledge and look out towards a winding footpath which makes up the two-day Inca Trail hike.

Intipata was only relatively recently discovered in 1992 and consists of convex agricultural terraces carved into the slopes. These structures were thought to be connected to Machu Picchu, probably supplementing the food supply for the complex. Sitting on the relatively quiet terraces, one can survey the winding Urubamba River, snaking around Machu Picchu Mountain. The river is flanked by train tracks; occasionally, we would see a distinct blue train chugging towards Machu Picchu.

Carefully descending the steep stairs at Intipata, we followed the descending path down to our campsite at Wiñaywayna. Compared to the previous days of trekking, the third day was much shorter. This made it all the more surprising when Jamie pronounced, “Keep your hiking boots on and bring a jacket; we’ll be leaving in fifteen minutes.” By this point, we had already shed our backpacks. What else could possibly lie in store?

Reluctantly keeping our hiking boots strapped on, we walked along a hidden path in the jungle until we reached Wiñaywayna. “Forever young” in Quechua, Wiñaywayna offered a view as romantic as its name suggests. What stood before us was the most impressive Incan ruin yet. Consisting of thirty or so two-metre agricultural terraces, a religious sector near the top of the terraces and a residential one near the bottom, Wiñaywayna is carved into the steep hillside. Running alongside the agricultural terraces is a series of ceremonial fountains and irrigation canals, still containing glacial water lazily flowing down the sloped complex. The minuscule feeling in the grand scheme of this Incan structure is no more apparent when standing on one of the terraces. Each terrace was half a metre taller than an average person, and were constructed from the natural slopes of the mountain without any use of machinery. The effort of planning and engineering these structures must have been immense.

Gathering us on a terrace looking out onto Machu Picchu Mountain, we sat in silence as pairs of swallows twittered and chased each other in the crisp late afternoon air. At long last, Jamie lamented, “Peru has everything – honest, hardworking people, natural resources, rich culture and history. And yet, living conditions remain poor and the people, especially those of us who are from the Andes, are not taken care of. Why?” He soon answered his own question. “Corruption.” Unfortunately, he was right. While this is a prominent problem in Peru and other South American countries, little has been done to combat corruption; as infrastructure and education lag behind other Western countries, the poor and the working class are left to suffer. Government contracts are often awarded to companies with personal ties and connections; in turn, companies operating in Peru often demand bribes to facilitate the many layers of bureaucracy. Anti-corruption laws are hardly ever enforced by the judicial system, itself susceptible to corruption.

We spent another hour further exploring the complex, discovering every nook and cranny of the residential structures. Travelling up the ruins, we find ceremonial baths leading all the way up to the religious complex. The apparent reason of placing most religious structures on higher ground was so that they would be closer to the sun, widely worshipped by Incans and pre-Incan tribes alike. These ceremonial baths likely allowed ritual cleansing on the final leg of the trail to Machu Picchu. We stayed long after other groups had arrived and left, and was only ushered back to the campsite as the afternoon grew cooler.

We returned to the campsite in time for our farewell dinner. Our porters and cook were due to depart early in the morning, taking an alternate route to Aguas Calientes. They entered the meal tent to rapturous applause and were introduced by Marco and Jamie. Most of our porters were born and raised in the mountains; most spoke Quechua and little Spanish. Many had hiked the Inca Trail countless of times, and despite being older than us trekkers, would regularly stride past us. As we bid our farewells, we returned to our tents for an early night, as we would have to wake up and begin trekking early the following day towards our final destination – Machu Picchu.

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