As the sun rises and the mist settles, we make our way over Inti Punku, the Sun Gate Pass, and get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, nestled deep within the Andean mountain range in Peru.
The descent past ruins, terraces and sacrificial altars is the culmination of a four-day and three-night backpacking trip over three mountain passes and 26 miles.
Discovered by professor Hiram Bingham on July 24, 1911, after being hidden from the world for more than 400 years, the city is one of the few major Inca sites left untouched by Spanish conquistadors.
There are two ways you can get to Machu Picchu. You can backpack the Inca Trail, which is part of a 14,000-mile network of roads and trails built by the Incas stretching from Colombia to Argentina, or you can take a bus and train. My wife and I thought about it — walk or ride. We could hike on a 600-year-old trail, passing through native Peruvian villages, seeing ruins you would never see in a travel book, all while dodging llamas on the trail used to transport goods to market, or we could take a bus and train.
The answer was easy. We hiked. We thought that the opportunity to combine adventure, culture and history while hiking with people from other countries would turn out to be a trip of a lifetime. We were right.
To say we backpacked to Machu Picchu may be a bit of an exaggeration. Our group consisted of 34 — 13 hikers, 19 porters and two guides. The porters carried the food, tents and provisions. For a small price, they also carried our personal gear, meaning all that we had to do was carry a day pack with some snacks, a camera, rain gear and water. All meals were prepared by a gourmet chef.
To be a licensed guide in Peru you need to be a college graduate well versed in history, archaeology and fluent in English. One thing to note: The Peruvian government does not allow individual hikers on the Inca Trail. You have to be part of a licensed tour group. The hikers in our group were men and women from the United States, South Africa and Australia and ranged in age from 23 to 77, with the majority between 50 and 60.
We began our trek by crossing the Urubamba River at an elevation of 8,528 feet and climbed to our campsite at 12,303 feet. The hike, which took most of the day, was interspersed with history lessons from the guides, viewing Inca ruins and passing through small villages.
Day two was spent hiking over two mountain passes, the first being Warmiwanusca, or Dead Woman's Pass. Though the pass was at 13,766 feet and the highest pass on the Inca Trail, we were acclimated, and climbing to the summit of the pass didn't seem to be much of a challenge, as most of the elevation gain was achieved the first day. The views of the Andes were extraordinary, with miles and miles of snow-capped peaks.
After descending past waterfalls, we came upon Sayacmarca, an impressive ruin on a cliff overlooking converging mountains and the valley below. Though we'd seen more than 20 Inca ruins over the past two days, they seemed to be getting larger and more impressive.
The diversity of scenery on the hike amazed us. Much of the third day was spent hiking on cut stone through a rain forest and included walking through a carved stone passageway in the mountain appropriately referred to as the Inca Tunnel.
After setting up camp, excuse me, after the porters set up camp and we rested in our tents, we were guided to Winay Wayna, a terraced ruin with homes and granaries that stretched more than 100 yards up the side of the mountain. Again impressed and in awe of the beauty and workmanship of the city, we were left wondering how Machu Picchu could outdo what we'd seen the past three days. We were about to find out.
The last day we arose earlier than usual and took a short hike to the Sun Gate Pass to see the sunrise and catch our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. There it was, saddled between two mountains and surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River in the valley deep below.
There are more than 140 structures in the city, including temples, sanctuaries and residences. Buildings were constructed using cut granite stone and with no mortar, with the stones fitting so tightly a piece of paper could not be slid between the stones. Doors and windows are trapezoidal in shape with walls tilted inward and L-shaped stones used for corners, all to reduce seismic risk.
After we had ample time to tour the site, buses took us down to Calientes for the train ride back to Cusco — the same way the other tourists came up. But our group, as backpackers and now as friends, didn't just see Machu Picchu, we experienced Machu Picchu. I couldn't imagine doing it any other way. As Hiram Bingham said 100 years ago, "It fairly took my breath away."
Older than 50, but feeling younger, Paul Sommer likes to combine adventure, culture and history on his vacations.