“Those who want to wake up at 3am to be able to see the sunrise, please raise your hands,” Efrain says, and I am shocked to see my hand rise. I am volunteering to wake up at 3, a scenario that would usually set the scene for my worst nightmares.
But I can feel the electricity in the restaurant, and the prospect of waking up at that ungodly hour does not seem to be so damning. After 5 days of arduous hiking from Cusco, 16 of us have finally made it to the small town of Aguas Calientes. Our shoulders ache from the backpacks boring into them, our hands are swollen from water retention and our toenails want to cry. As for me, my hamstrings are sore from all the sudden exercise after a month of doughy inactivity during Prelims season. Yet, I am excited. We are only a couple of hours of arduous climbing away from Machu Picchu.
Upon seeing the trains, a wave of nostalgia hits me. They are exactly like the trains I used to take to see my grandparents during the summer holidays back in India, here painted over in bright blue and gold.
Every day, around 2,500 people visit Machu Picchu. This is in accordance with the limit set by UNESCO. If left to the pressures of tourist demand, the number would certainly much larger. Most international tourists fly into Cusco (which translates to “navel of the world” in Quechua), the city that was the capital of the ancient Incan empire. From here, there’s a train that can be taken to Aguas Calientes; the distance can be covered in around half a day. Upon seeing the trains, a wave of nostalgia hits me. They are exactly like the trains I used to take to see my grandparents during the summer holidays back in India, here painted over in bright blue and gold. It feels like seeing an old friend with a new, glossy haircut.
We didn’t meet, however, until my return from Aguas Calientes. We had chosen to plough through the Salkantay Trek from Cusco instead. This is a popular alternative to the Classic Inca Trail ñ and for good reason. Salkantay is the highest peak of the Vilcabamba range, part of the Peruvian Andes. The name comes from the Quechua word salqa, meaning wild, and I can confirm that the mountain is anything but tame. In 2015, I climbed to Everest Base Camp and witnessed a level of commercialization that I had not anticipated. There were lodges, restaurants and convenience services present even at unreal altitudes all the way to Gorakhshae, the penultimate camp. Salkantay is different. Although physically less demanding, the trek offers a wilder experience as you reach 4600 metres above sea level through the mountain pass. We camp out every night, our perpetually cold feet requiring more than just our sleeping bags.
At one point, we are greeted by a lake resulting from a melting glacier in the middle of nowhere. Many of us seize the opportunity to strip and jump in (to, I imagine, the horror of our nervous systems). Starry skies form the most beautiful ceilings for our outdoor dining rooms. And although the freezing cold weather prevents us from enjoying it for too long, mere snippets of the diamonds in the sky help us to get through the piercingly uncomfortable nights.
I must talk about the food. Every night throughout the trek, our guides set up a kitchen tent and produce meals using the local produce – some of the tastiest food I had eaten in a while (and no, I’m not comparing it to the broken omelette I make myself every day). Fresh avocado, beans, quinoa, and a plethora of fruits and vegetables make their way onto my plate regularly ñ and as a vegetarian worried about what I might get to keep myself energized, I could not be happier.
We also spend some time on the Inca trail. Only 500 people are allowed on this trail every day ñ 300 of whom are porters and guides. It is here that the historical significance of our destination becomes evident. Much of the trail is Incan in construction and the thought of people from a Pre-Columbian American Empire constructing those paths is nothing short of awe-inspiring. At various instances, we see Catholicism seamlessly merged with Quechua religious practices, for many people in the region ñ including our guide Efrain ñ practise an amalgamation of the two.
After 5 days trekking in the mountain pass, we find ourselves at a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, the town where most tourists halt to travel up to Machu Picchu either by bus or on foot. The difference between those who took the blue and gold train and those who trekked is pretty clear. We’re dishevelled and working hard to satisfy our ravenous appetites, while the others seem to be more composed and generally more civilized.
The climb the following day is quite brutal for many of us, but eventually we’re glad we raised our hands to wake up at 3. The sunrise warms our cold feet and sheds light on stones that have been there since the 15th century. They’ve clearly been shaped by the people who worked to construct the place, but I can’t imagine how. We hear how Hiram Bingham accidentally discovered the place in 1911 while looking for Vilcabamba (the last stronghold of the empire to fall to the Spanish), and how the 150 baths, temples and sanctuaries found on the site have been variously interpreted over the years. While it is now believed that Machu Picchu was probably an elite estate for emperors and nobles, there have equally been many other hypotheses: a trade hub, a place of coronation, a prison, a place for testing crops, a temple of the virgins. Some still believe that it was primarily a place of worship. No conjecture about Machu Picchu is set in stone.
There is something appealing about the lack of certainty. Therein seems to lie the inspiration to pursue knowledge. I try to consolidate my thoughts on the way back to Cusco on that blue and gold train. Walking such a long distance has completely liberated my mind of the need to think about anything specific. The mountains and Machu Picchu aid this therapeutic experience; they remind me of my insignificance, of the fact that in all probability, I worry far too much about not knowing enough.
Nos Vemos, Peru!