With 6 days down, we were now on the home stretch to Machu Picchu. The toughest days were certainly behind us and there was even some real treats to look forward to in the remaining days.
Day 7 is a fairly simple walk from Ccollpapampa to Playa Sawayaco (not actually a beach!), and then a half hour mini bus ride to the town of Santa Teresa. We started walking along the newly graded dirt road along with the other trekkers (on day 3 of their Salkantay hike), and about half an hour down the road Abel gave me the option of continuing down this flat, and to be honest kind of boring road, or to cross the Rio Totura and use the old trail. Of course, being the adventurous type, I chose to cross the river and do it the old fashioned way.
From the other side of the river it gave a better view of the newly constructed road, and after seeing what I'd seen in the last 6 days, it made me a little sad. Development is obviously the way forward for these tiny remote towns, but the environmental impact of these roads is easy to see. Cutting a huge wedge out of mountains in order the make a road wide enough for two cars, combined with the rain and mountain waters in these parts obviously causes landslides. As we witnessed on day one, when we walked along a similar road, landslides will come quicker and bigger than the local authorities are able to clear, and inevitably the road will become impassable by vehicles. That's what I saw on day one, and I hope I'm wrong, but that's what I think will happen to this newer road in the future. I don't know what the solution is, but it seems that a lot of money is being wasted, money that could be better used in these communities in different ways.
Anyway, I'd be interested in seeing what happens in the next few years, now back to the hike! We'd crossed the river over to the old trail, and this was much more enjoyable for me. Once again we were pushing through overgrown forest and crossing small waterfalls, some with somewhat suspect hand made bridges, and some purely on foot after attempting to pick the most stable rocky path, which wasn't always successful. Stopping to taste wild strawberries and having numerous other plants and flowers pointed out showed the value of having a knowledgable guide, and when we arrived at one of the many cable trolleys across the river and decided to have a go, I was glad I also had an adventurous one. One at a time we sat in the rickety trolley and had the other push us out to the middle of the valley, high above the river (50-60m at least). Slightly terrified at the thought of leaning too far left or right and toppling off the trolley, my nerves quick subsided after doing it once, and I just had to do it again to take a video (and then again when I realized the first video didn't work!). All this made for a fairly leisurely 4 hour hike, overall about 1km downhill to our lunch spot for the day, Playa Sawayaco (2070m), where we had the final delicious meal cooked by our chef.
After lunch you have a choice. You can either keep walking along the road for a few hours, or pay about $3 for a local mini bus for about a half hour ride. Since our horseman finished up his job at lunch and we still had a few cumbersome supplies to take with us, we took the bus option. The walk wouldn't have been anything that we hadn't encountered before, and saving time allowed us to get to Santa Teresa with plenty of time for a late afternoon visit to the hot springs, which stretched into the evening after a few welcome cold beers. The hot springs here are amazing, exactly what I imagine true natural hot springs to be like. The pools are perfectly constructed into the surrounding environment and almost look as if they've been exactly like that forever. A perfect way to relax and recharge after 7 long days. Stay as long as you like there for 5 soles (~$1.50)
Having now arrived at Santa Teresa we were now pretty much officially back in civilization, and that meant taking the chance to sleep in a real bed at a hostel (for about $3), and of course heading out for more drinks and a night on the (small) town.
I woke up on day 8 feeling a little worse for wear, both from the night on the booze, and from sharing my bed with some sort of bug who liked the taste of my arms and legs. Itchy as all hell, we started with breakfast and headed to the zip lines for some more fun. After little to no instructions on what and what not to do, we were clipped on to the first zip line and sent across the canyon. 5 more zip lines followed and all gave similarly incredible views high above the river. The highest point is 150m high, and the fastest speed reached is about 65kph, pretty cool stuff! My camera didn't think so, and decided to pack it in whilst filming a video, never to work again, one day before Machu Picchu!
We jumped onto another bus and headed to the hydro electric station, strangely the only construction being permitted with Machu Picchu national park. We freaked out briefly as a worker ran up to our mini bus parked at the gate and said 'there's going to be an explosion!', thankfully, it was a controlled one and we were never really in any danger, but we were all deceived nonetheless by his broken english and ill-placed sense of urgency.
As lunch went down my hangover intensified, and knowing there was only a short 2-3 hour hike to get to Aguas Calientes I wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Shortly after we started the walk, I got to experience my first taste of the magic of Machu Picchu. I say magic because I just can't comprehend how it was done, but in all honesty it's just sheer brilliance. An oddly carved rock sits seemingly in the middle of nowhere about 800m in altitude below the ruins atop the mountain, and probably somewhere in the order of 5-6km in actual distance. This rock is huge, has almost perfectly square steps carved into it, and sits perfectly in line with one of the windows in the temple on the top of the mountain, and where the sun rises on the winter solstice. Absolute perfection, mind blowing for mine. That was just a taste of what was to come though, and on we moved for the days hike, walking along the train tracks along the Urubamba River stretching right around the mountain. It would have been a very pleasant walk were it not for the hangover, but even still, the scenery was terrific.
After a couple of hours we arrived at the bridge into the Machu Picchu park itself, a good opportunity for photos in front of the giant welcome sign, and then it's just a short 15 minute walk up the road to Aguas Calientes, a surprisingly modern, clean and busy town. I suppose tourism will do that.
It's at this point you can officially say that you've made it to Machu Picchu (when coming from this direction, the traditional 4 day Inca trail is different and you walk directly into the ruins), there's no more real distance to be covered, and day 9 is just venturing around the ruins. If I wasn't so tired, I would have gone out for a celebratory drink! Instead it was early to bed, to prepare for the 4am wake up to be one of the first to the ruins.
It's funny how 4am doesn't seem early at all when you're super excited about something. Like Christmas as a kid, I bounded out of bed full of energy and raring to go. By 4:30 we were down at the bridge again, where entry to the park starts at 5, enough time for a quick breakfast on the go. The anticipation was high, we were nearly there, only 45 minutes up the mountain to ruins, easy right? I'd been issued a challenge to try to beat Abel's record of 22 minutes, but knew after only a couple that that wasn't going to happen. Dressed warm for the cold, I was quickly dripping with sweat and stopping to strip off layers of clothing. Step after step, in the dark, with only a battery-fading headlamp to guide, this was probably the most intense 33 minutes of the trek. I couldn't stop because I knew the top was so close, but actually had no idea how much further it was. 700m worth of altitude later I arrived at the top cold, wet, thoroughly out of breathe and thankful for the best piece of advice I'd been given all week; Take a spare t-shirt with you. A little more time for a snack, then it was time to line up before the ruins open at 6am. First in line at one of the four lines, I was now crazily excited about what was to come. Finally 6am came, passports and tickets were checked and in we went.
Approaching the lookout where you can get a first glimpse of Machu Picchu from above, I closed my eyes and was led to the edge. Everything looked just like a postcard, a perfect view of this once lost Inca city. A few quick photos was all we got the chance for before the clouds rolled in and you could barely see 10m in front of you. I felt for the people walking in just minutes after me who wouldn't have got the same spectacular view to start the day.
The cloud stayed thick and unfriendly for the next five hours. In that time I again came to appreciate the extra value I got from doing this trek as a lone tourist, I had a personal 1 on 1 tour of the ruins with Abel, and also got to hear so much more about Incan history that I don't think bigger groups would have got to hear. It's hard to put into words just how amazing the architecture, planning and construction at Machu Picchu is. For starters, just how a group of people 500 years ago could have such an understanding of the stars astounds me. The fact they can then plan to build buildings that create effects with shadows and light at such precise times of year (solstices) is beyond my comprehension. And then their ability to carry out their plans and actually spend years carving huge rocks with such precision that their buildings still stand perfectly 500 years later is something to make modern day rockmasons and bricklayers cringe. The sun temple, being one of the most important buildings in the Incan city, was built with the most precision. There's not millimeters to spare between huge rocks that must weigh hundreds of kilograms. I can't imagine how much time was spent carving and shaping these rocks to fit together with little or no mortar, and quite frankly, I don't think I want to know. A lot of Machu Picchu is still a mystery, as is the whole Incan culture, and some things are better left a mystery in my opinion. There's a magic and intrigue about Machu Picchu that I hope never goes away. My head is full of questions about how they built such precise buildings, how long certain things took, what inspired them to build in such a remote location, but I don't think I actually want these questions answered. For now I'm happy with just walking around the place in awe, and I hope I get the chance to do it again some day.
I will admit though, in the midst of the thick morning fog, I'd temporarily forgotten that spectacular early morning glimpse I'd gotten of the place, and was walking around thinking the place was pretty good, but not as good as I'd hoped. It wasn't until the fog cleared at 11:05, about 15 minutes after I'd climbed to the top of nearby Wayna Picchu mountain that I again was struck by the sheer magnitude of what I was seeing. Wayna Picchu is the postcard photo spot, where you can see the whole of Machu Picchu from an incredible vantage point. It's a pretty tough/steep stair climb to get there, but well worth the effort (maybe bring a second spare t-shirt if you do!). As I sat on one of the ledges overlooking the Machu Picchu site, I found myself cheering with a bunch of strangers for the fog to clear a little more, minute by minute, until finally we had the perfect photo opportunity. The look on one Korean girls face, who'd sat in that one spot for 3.5 hours, waiting, said it all. "I can go home now, I've seen it!" she said excitedly. I too, was again renewed in my faith that Machu Picchu was indeed every bit as spectacular as I'd hoped, and more. I returned from Wayna Picchu and did one more lap around the ruins soaking in as many visual memories as possible, using up most of my remaining energy, and every last bit of camera battery (camera borrowed from Abel for the day, thanks again Abel!)
And so it was that my much anticipated trek ended, with barely the energy to walk up the hill to the hot springs back in Aguas Calientes. It was certainly an extremely physically taxing 9 days, and not something I would recommend to just anyone. But if you love a challenge and are able to push yourself to the limit, you'll be able to tackle the Cachora to Machu Picchu 9 day trek. Having the chance to see the Choquequirao ruins with virtually nobody else around gives a whole different perspective to seeing Machu Picchu along with 1000 other people, and something I would highly recommend doing whether through this same trek or another. The scenery and landscapes along the way I'm sure are matched by other treks, but the river crossings and landslide navigation are probably not covered by the more popular treks, this one is certainly for the adventurous. Seeing single families and sometimes even individual people live in such extremely remote locations is something that makes our everyday lives seem infinitely complex, and really gives you something to think about. For me, the good parts heavily outweighed the hard parts. I'm extremely glad I chose this trek and can't wait to do something like it again, if that's even possible.