“Old Mountain” was home to the ancient Inca Fortress better known today as Machu Picchu.
Thought to have been built by the Incan ruler, Pachacuti Inca Yapancui, the sanctuary of Machu Picchu overlooks the deep canyon of the Urubamba River, and covers an area of 5 square km’s. It is part of the larger Machu Picchu Heritage site, spanning an area of 32,600 hectares and is home to numerous archaeological wonders and a myriad of magnificent flora and fauna.While the ruins of Machu Picchu can be accessed by train and a quick bus trip, the best way to arrive to the ruins is along the famed, Inca trail.Built by the Inca’s in about 500AD, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu covers only a small section of the ancient road system, which once spanned 23000km’s and connected over three million km² of territory. The trail was built block by block along the spine of the Andes, linking southern Ecuador to central Chile.
Among the lists of world famous treks, the Inca Trail is undoubtedly one of the top ranking, so popular in fact that one needs to reserve a spot on the trail at least three months in advance. Up until 2005, the number of trekkers on the route escalated out of control with the result that the paths were overcrowded and strewn with litter and garbage. It got so bad that the government finally stepped in and imposed a restriction of 500 trekkers per day, to include guides and porters. The result is that the route can now be trekked without the overwhelming sense of having stepped into Piccadilly Square on a Saturday morning.At a spot called Km82 on the Urubamba Rriver, about 170 tourists gather each day, to walk the 53km famed Andean trail, to the ruins of Machu Picchu.
For many, the path gives modern man a chance to walk in the footsteps of a lost civilisation, but what many people don’t realise, is that the route opens a window to exquisite plant life, a myriad of old Incan Ruins and an insight into some of the old traditions of the people.Walking along well worn paths, the trail heads through small little villages where residents grow corn to make their “Chicha,” or Corn Beer. Here, weary porters carrying heavy loads, stop to purchase a mug of the pinkish brew to quench their thirst. But first, they pour a little on the earth as a dedication to the earth goddess, Pacha Mama.
Such is the ancient tradition of dedicated worship of the Quechuan people of this region, carrying forward a tradition that was entrenched in the life of the Inca Civilisation that occupied this region.Winding alongside the Urubamba river, through deep valleys and up high passes, the trail heads through some of the most picturesque scenery; hillsides covered in red splashes of bromeliads, trees covered in bright purple fuchias, endless expanses of Puna Grassland and a myriad of hummingbirds darting about drawing off the sweet nectar of the bright orange flowers that adorn the shrubs along the paths.Shortly after heading up the first of several passes one looks down onto the ruins of Llactapata, or the Town on the Hillside.
Rumour has it that the walls of these ruins contain the secret to the whereabouts of a stash of buried gold. Perhaps it is the way the sunlight plays with the golden grasslands as it shines through the clouds, or simply the lure of the mystery, but many a trekker stands mesmerised as they peer down upon this ancient fortress.And so the trail continues as it heads towards the most challenging part of the trail – “Dead Woman’s Pass” so named because from the top, the mountain appears as a woman lying on her side. Breathing in the thin air as one puffs to the top of the pass, once cannot help but marvel at the tremendous effort put into building this road network by the Inca civilisation.As the trail rises up passes, falls into the valleys below and heads through tunnels carved out of the solid rock, one soon finds oneself entering the cloud forest. Here, among the ruins of Sayakmarka and Conchamarka, lichens and air plants hang on trees and rocks sigh beneath the weight of mosses growing up to one metre deep. And within the mists that rolls through these valleys, the Inca Trail protects one of the most incredible sights; over 250 species of orchids adorn these paths, the smallest being the Pleurothalis, its’ flower measuring only 2mm in length. Dragon orchids, Bats Face orchid, Epidendrum and Maxilaria to name, but a few. Begonia grow abundantly, creating a kaleidoscope of colour as one approaches the ruins of Phuyupatamarka, aptly meaning, “Town above the clouds.”
Leaving these ruins behind, the trail heads down an endless combination of stone steps and paths along a section only recently discovered and opened up to the public in 1985. That this trail had remained so well hidden for nearly 600 years makes one wonder what other mysteries lie hidden beneath the dense bush. But perhaps it was hiding a sacred ruin, considered by some to be more beautiful than the sanctuary of Machu Picchu; the ruins of Wiñay Wayna. Meaning ‘forever young,’ these ruins consist of an upper ceremonial and lower living area, connected by a long flight of steps.
Adjacent to these and falling in front of a magnificent back drop of crashing waterfall and forested area, is an enormous sweeping amphitheatre of agricultural terraces, now home to resident Alpaca grazing in the morning light.But the taste of tradition and history obtained over these three days on the trail are insignificant, compared to the marvel that awaits the excited trekkers on the final day of the trail.Amidst the excitement of early morning chatter, people queue at the entry gate of the trail at 05h00, waiting in anticipation for the gate to open.
The final 40 minute trek to the gate of Inti Punku lies ahead and accompanied by the calls of birds waking to their day, one arrives at the sanctuary of Machu Picchu.Shrowded by a blanket of morning mist, one looks down at this ,magnificent complex and watches as the rising sun gently touches the terraces throwing them into morning light, opening the ruins to the eyes of modern man. Deep in the valley below, lies the Urubamba river, pounding through the valley like the beating heart of the mother goddess. And behind the ruins of this “Old Mountain”, Huayna Picchu rises sharply like the nose of Pachamama as she gazes at the sky.Some say that the city was built for nobility, while others say it was a centre for astronomical observations.
Built on a pyramidal mound in the centre of the complex, is the incredible Intihuatana, meaning “ hitching post to the sun”, a block so carefully designed that at midday on March 21st and September 21st, the sun shines directly above the pillar, casting no shadow at all. The complex is home to a myriad of stone walls, rooms and ceremonial areas, agricultural terraces and dwelling areas. So intricately built are many of the structures, that no mortar was used to hold the massive blocks together, some weighing as much as 50 tons.From a city of 1200 people, about 300 000 tourists embark on an annual pilgrimage to the ruins, of which about 12 000 arrive by way of the old Inca trails.
But just as the glaciers of Kilimanjaro are withering away through global warming, so increased levels of rain are threatening to destroy the very foundations of the ruins of Machu Picchu.Once protected by Pachamama and then mysteriously abandoned and handed over to her forests below, its future now lies in the hands of man. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1983, the sanctuary of Machu Picchu is now a protected area and Unesco is determined to ensure that this ancient sanctuary remains intact and safe from ruin and destruction.Chilean Poet, Pueblo Neruda once wrote, “Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to the eternal fusion with the cosmos…a resting place of butterflies at the epicentre of the great circle of life. One more miracle,” a miracle we trust will survive into the history of mankind.