Steamboat Living: From Mount Werner to Machu Picchu
March 15, 2012
Hiram Bingham — the man credited with "discovering" Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, in 1911 — was inspired by Rudyard Kipling's famous clarion: "Something hidden! Go and find it! Go back and look beyond the ranges … Lost and waiting for you. Go!"
Following that same advice, my husband, myself, and our four kids — Mary, 14, Meg, 12, Finn and Kathleen, both 10 — decided to go for it ourselves and walk in the famous footsteps of the Incas.
Located high in the Peruvian Andes, the legendary trail to Machu Picchu, Camino Inca, involves a four-day trek over high mountain passes and through dense cloud forests, breathtaking scenery and dozens of Incan ruins, with Machu Picchu waiting as the payoff.
The mystical citadel sits at 7,710 feet on the saddle of a mountain flanked by sheer drops to the Urubamba Valley far below. Because the Spanish failed to find it, it was never sacked; it was simply abandoned and left for nature to reclaim. While its exquisite stonework has withstood the test of time, its purpose remains a mystery.
It's exhausting just getting my kids to wear shoes, so dragging them thousands of miles away to "go for a hike" seems an insurmountable challenge. To help prepare before our trip, we study the Incas, an advanced culture wildly different from our own that lived where life is a constant struggle for survival. Their civilization only lasted a few hundred years, yet their legacy endures.
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Our trip begins in the ancient Inca capital of Cusco, which has preserved its unique character despite its tourism. Sitting at 11,000 feet, the vibrant city is a living museum of Peruvian history, with Spanish Colonial churches sitting on top of perfectly constructed Incan walls.
We are welcomed at our hostel, located right off the main square, with mate de coca, an Andean tradition for dealing with high altitude. To acclimate, we spend two days exploring its lively streets, alleys and marketplaces and sampling such local concoctions as ceviche and pisco sours, a Peruvian margarita made from egg whites, lemon, sugar, bitters and white grape brandy.
On Day Three, we're picked up at 5:45 a.m. for a three-hour bus ride through the Sacred Valley, stopping at Ollantaytambo along the Urubamba River for chocolate chip pancakes and coca tea. The gorge is lined by agricultural terraces, and snowcapped peaks rise in the distance. Best known for its Incan ruins perched on an outcrop, the village is also laid out in a spectacular grid of perfectly constructed city blocks that reveal the Incas' expertise as planners and masons.
At the trailhead, we see several other trekking groups getting organized. It is no longer possible to hike the Inca Trail on your own; you must go with an officially sanctioned tour agency. Although this makes the trek more expensive, it also helps preserve the trail. Plus, it's rather decadent; all of our food is provided and our tents are set up for us each night. We carry our own sleeping bags, personal belongings and water for the day.
Still, despite the hand-holding, anxiety about what we are getting into starts to creep in. One person in our group of 16 slips on the trail, twists his knee and is unable to continue.
We show our passports at the check station while the porters weigh their packs to ensure that everything packed in is packed out and that their loads are equal. Then we cross a suspension bridge and begin following the ancient Incan stones, polished for centuries, marking our path.
Today's trek takes us 12 kilometers just past Wayllabamba, the last community on the trail. The sun reflects off jagged, snowy peaks, lush green foliage, vibrant orchids and scattered ruins.
Lunch takes us by surprise. The porters have set up a tent complete with a table covered with white linen. Cold lemonade and food keep coming — chicken, trout, quinoa, potatoes, avocado salad, soup and fresh vegetables, all served family style. We also play with a litter of local puppies, our children campaigning for us to keep one.
To break the ice and get to know one another, Meg suggests going around the table and saying our names and something special about us. The tactic works, and soon we feel more at home with our fellow trekkers.
We continue on and pass through a tiny village where local men are making chicha, a beer made from corn. We give it a try, but it's tough to swallow.
At camp, we thankfully remove our hiking boots and slip into Crocs. Sipping wine, we wander to a field where the porters are playing soccer. The field resembles roadbase and the goals are rusty, but the level of play is amazing. The kids are invited to join near the end of the game.
Back at camp, our guides cook dinner over an open fire in a thatched hut. Later, the cooks and porters will sleep here where it's warm. Creamy rice pudding tops the meal off for dessert. After more visiting, everyone heads to their tents when the night turns dark.
We awake to coca tea delivered to our tent at 6 a.m. We pack and head to a hearty breakfast of coffee, rolls, porridge, fresh fruit and fruit pancakes. Today is our most challenging hike with a long, steep climb to Warmiwanusca, or Dead Woman's Pass. At 13,769 feet, it is the highest point on the trek.
We climb endlessly and eventually stop for a snack break at a vista framed by the snowy peaks of Mount Veronica. Popcorn, sandwiches and coca tea give us the boost to continue up countless steps (the Incas never invented the wheel, so steps are common). The kids race to the top, disappearing along with any concerns from our fellow trekkers about children slowing them down.
We celebrate at the summit with a Toblerone bar. The kids feel the need to hike to 14,000 feet so they can add another fourteener to their list. Then we begin the steep descent. Eventually, the porters greet us at camp with sweet juice and a late lunch. There is time to relax and play cards. Over pisco sours, we find out more about our porters. They are all from the same region and don matching-patterned knit hats, a sign of their village. We try hard to remember all their names.
Finn is feeling a little off after too much exertion at high altitude. Percy, our guide, makes him a horrible-tasting drink, which they make sure he finishes. He burps and is good as new. After dinner, we retire to our tents, exhausted.
The third day of the trek is the longest, with two passes and many ruins to explore. We're also treated to more steep and endless stairs. At one point, we count 2,080 stairs down, 33 carved into one boulder alone. The kids recommend building a zip line for all the descents.
The trail winds through rain forests exploding with colorful flowers and eucalyptus. We walk along razor-sharp ridges with panoramic views and then descend into an Incan tunnel carved in the mountain. Incan ruins appear out of rocks.
Our last camp has more ruins as well as a trekker's hotel, complete with a bar. We enjoy a cold beer with our guides and fellow trekkers.
The final morning begins at 4 a.m. with a quick breakfast followed by huddling at the lodge with other groups. The gate to Machu Picchu opens at 5:30. We begin the trek in the dark, and it is the first time we feel crowded. Everyone is trying to get to Intipunku, the Sun Gate, for sunrise, and the hike takes two hours. Through the clouds, we decipher the outline of Huayna Picchu, a peak looming over the ruins, and see hints of Machu Picchu.
Soon, we arrive at the 600-year-old city long hidden by the jungle. As the clouds lift to reveal the city, we are rendered speechless. No amount of reading has prepared us for the view. I'm not sure if I'm more amazed by the city itself or its setting. Eventually, I realize it's both; it's built in such harmony with its surroundings that it's truly mystical. The air seems to whisper with ancient prayer.
Walking around the ruins, we ponder how something so beautiful could have been built so long ago without the benefit of the wheel or basic tools. Its walls are made from intricately carved granite rocks that fit together flawlessly like a giant jigsaw puzzle, enabling the structures to endure for hundreds of years in an earthquake-prone region. How the Incas transported these massive stones chiseled from the mountains remains a mystery among scholars even today.
After our tour, we have a wonderful time exploring on our own, following a pack of llamas from place to place. Wherever you stand, you can see magnificent terraces slicing across outrageously steep cliffs, transforming mountains into suspended gardens. Another amazing wonder is hidden in every nook and cranny. Under the spell of this magical land, we can feel the Incas' presence.
At the end of the day, we catch the last bus to Agua Calientes, where our group bids farewell. After soaking in the hot springs, we take the train back to Ollantaytambo and find accommodations for $2. The next day, we explore the town before taking a cab back to Cusco. Our hostel now looks very five-star.
It's hard to imagine a path anywhere in the world with such a blend of natural beauty, history and mystery that leads to such a dreamlike destination. Completely hidden from view from below, Machu Picchu still retains its aura of mystery and magic. In the words of 20th century surveyor Frank Chapman, "In the sublimity of its surroundings, the marvel of its site, the character and mystery of its construction, the western world holds nothing comparable." ■
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