Rated in the top five treks on the planet, our three-and-a-half-day hike here has been spectacular and arduous. At Machu Picchu we open upwards and outwards to the infinite cosmos, and it feels fantastic.
Words and pictures by Raym Richards
The trek to Machu Picchu
It is dawn and I have been hiking by torchlight, along a steep, shiny and uneven and slippery stone path, since 4.30am. The sun seeps through clearing clouds, warming my damp clothes as I gaze down at the magnificent, empty, ancient city caressed by mist, beneath me. After three and a half gruelling days of high altitude hiking, culminating in one last steep demanding climb, I am standing at the Sun Gate. This is the high and rightful entrance of kings and priests to the ancient and mythical ‘lost city of the Incas’, Machu Picchu.
Trekking up to 4,200 metres above sea level, we have followed the pilgrimage route taken by Incan royalty and priests until the mid-sixteenth century. This path was originally used until the city was abandoned, hidden from the approaching Spaniards by jungle and tight-lipped locals. The city was built for an Incan king, 100 years earlier. Being here, though, in the the city and walking along this trail, it feels like this place has been used for sacred ceremony long before that.
Isolated, surrounded by rainforest and steep ravines, Machu Picchu lies at the convergence of seven high altitude valleys and trade routes. The shapes of the surrounding mountains are honoured by the architecture and strategic placement of large boulders around the city. Much of the impressive engineering in this city is out of sight, in the form of underground aqueducts, gullies and channels that keep the lush green terraces fed year round with an abundant supply of spring water.
Privileged to be the first to enter the city, we explore the flawlessly built Temple of the Sun. It aligns with the solstice sunrise and the Pleiades star system. Below is the Royal Tomb, a small and secret cave with steps that seem to lead nowhere. Here the Incan priests accessed the spiritual heart of the mountain for ceremonies and rituals, away from the eyes of the uninitiated.
We enter another temple with three large windows, which, like many sacred places worldwide, face east, to welcome the rising sun. The sanctity of this magnificent city is tangible. We walk around in silence discovering private nooks and crannies, lying against the great stone walls soaking up the energy. We draw it in, before the arrival of the majority of visitors, including colourful locals, who access the site from the lower levels, easily accessed by rail and bus.
In our still space we become one with the environment and grasp a little of what the ancient Inca found here
Lulled by the ever-present sound of running water we enter a timeless space that has been loved by the locals since they first set foot here. We do not sit amongst the ruins of a lost civilisation but in the living breathing centre of a spectacularly beautiful, cosmic vortex, which is still honoured by those who live and work here. Like Stonehenge, this place was sacred before any buildings were constructed here.
Lifted to the infinite…
I have led private ceremonies within Stonehenge, and the energy there is quite different, heart opening to the mother beneath. Here we open upwards and outwards to the infinite cosmos, and it feels fantastic.
Rated in the top five treks on the planet, our three-and-a-half-day hike here has been spectacular and arduous. Also easily the most demanding hike I have ever done. Two of our group were airlifted to Lima, suffering from altitude sickness. A third had 14 stitches after a dawn tumble left him with a nasty head wound. The year prior to our visit a young woman died, falling off the stone trail in the final pre-dawn hike. In her enthusiasm to get to the Sun Gate for dawn she overtook the group ahead and slipped into the void on the right of the path. Hikers on this trail earn their access to the sacred entrance to the city, and the experience is not for the unfit.
The Peruvian government allows a maximum of 200 trekkers per day on the Inca trail, supported by 300 porters, who earn every cent of their pay and tips. They run ahead of groups with 25kg backpacks to set up lunch stops and overnight campsites. The cooks somehow manage to conjure two-course, sit-down meals out of thin air.
Machu Picchu can be accessed via a scenic rail ride from Ollantaytambo, which has its own spectacular Inca buildings. The nearest city is the ancient Spanish settlement of Cusco. Both are worth visiting as part of your trip of a lifetime.
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