There and Back Again (to Machu Picchu!)

Continued from my last post about Middle Earth: The Fellowship of the Trek, Lord of the Rings Style.

Day 3: Cloud Forest and Hot Springs

Sunrise in the Cloud Forest.

The Fellowship awoke a precious hour later today, at 6:00am, to begin Day 3 of the Salkantay Trek. We donned short sleeves and bug repellent, letting the pack mules carry our wool hats and scarves.

The snow-melt stream seemed to lead directly away from our last view of Salkantay Mountain. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Our journey was generally uneventful as our trail undulated up and down next to a river valley. We crossed several barren hillsides, and our guide explained about the massive landslides that sometimes occur in the wet season. (Luckily, we were in the dry season.)

Then we got to this cliff... When I was a couple meters out on the path, I looked down a hundred feet of crumbling sand and froze up.

Photo credit: Adam Wroe.

"Just one step further," I told myself.

"Okay, here I go!" I replied to myself mentally as my body instead chose to sit down. It was like I was under the Imperius curse. (Whoops, messing up my fantasy metaphors here.)

Our guide Javier had to come back and rescue me, leading me across the crumbling trail by the hand, after which I sat on a rock and tried to control my eyes, which were now producing tears against my will.

"Want some chocolate?" asked my friendly hiking buddy. "They say it's good for dementors and heights." I accepted, of course, and felt much better.

We hiked to a small town, where we ate lunch in an outdoor cinder-block restaurant. There, we lost the first two members of the Fellowship when the French couple branched off to complete a shorter version of the Trek.

Too bad for the French couple, who missed out on our afternoon in the hot springs! (Sorry, I don't know of any good Lord of the Rings metaphor for that... unless you enjoy bathing in the Dead Marshes?)

The hot springs. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

The natural hot springs were our first "shower" in three days, and man were they delightful. We switched between the cold waterfall, the warm bath, and the hot pool until darkness fell.

 Day 4: Zip Lines and Train Tracks

This morning we were offered an optional zip lining activity for $30.

"No thanks, I'll walk instead!" I said. Apparently everyone else had a different idea, so where did I end up?

Riding atop a giant eagle? I wish!

Flying 100 meters above a river valley on Ecuador's longest zip line. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Weeeeeeeeeeee...... (That can be interpreted as a sound of glee or the sound of me peeing my pants, whichever you prefer.) (No I did not really pee my pants.)

Way to ruin a morning. But wait, it gets worse.

The suspension bridge. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Then we walked on a wobbly string of wooden planks back across that same valley. The things humans do for fun!

I tried not to sour the festive adrenaline-fueled mood, but I did not sugar coat my response when I was asked how much fun I had.


The railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes.

After lunch we began walking from Hidroelectrica, a massive new hydroelectric dam, and followed the railroad tracks all afternoon. We passed (and got passed by) all types of backpacking tourists and hippies.

A tourist stopped to show us her new butterfly friend. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Looking up a sheer rock wall of lime-green bromeliads.

The spiky green mountains were surreal, and we got occasional glimpses of rock walls or terraces in the high peaks. "Is that Machu Picchu?" we asked one another excitedly.

I was weary and footsore when we turned a bend and found ourselves in Aguas Calientes, the self-proclaimed "gateway to Machu Picchu." Here we would spend the night in a blessed inn, just like the Prancing Pony in the most important way possible: it offered a bed.

Aguas Calientes, "gateway to Machu Picchu." (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Thank the lord for showers and beds!

Day 5: Machu Picchu!!!

And curse him for alarm clocks... We awoke at 3:50am so we could hike to the Ancient City of Men, Machu Picchu, by sunrise.

In the dark, we lined up at the Lower Gate with a hundred other tourists. 

We climbed the Endless Stair from the dungeons of Moria to the summit of Celebdil. (Actually, we climbed from the riverbank to the entrance of Machu Picchu.) The staircase was comprised of 1700 Inca steps, carved from uneven stone and worn by years of travel.

The silly part about the whole "Machu Picchu at sunrise" thing was that the sun rose behind a thick fog while we were climbing, and the sky slowly got lighter. Not all the dramatic. My advice: just sleep in and enjoy the climb after a nice hot breakfast in town!

Or eat a banana at the top, like me.

The foggy morning.

I could see all the way back to Hidroelectrica, where we began yesterday's hike!

We took a guided tour of the city, and I was stunned by the technological capabilities of the Incas. The stonework was incredible.

Perfectly carved stones and trapezoidal doors. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

This wobbly-looking shrine to the gods was carved from bedrock.

Most of the walls have stood the test of time intact, if a bit crooked.

Archaeologists have recorded sixteen distinct types of stone wall in Machu Picchu, from rough piles of rocks to perfectly carved blocks. The walls had a hierarchy, with the best masonry being reserved for temples.

Our guide pointed out an amazing detail where an outer wall of a building transitioned from very good stonework to absolutely perfect stonework. Inside, there was a partition between a royal house and a temple, and the temple got the better wall.

According to our guide, no modern human has been able to recreate the perfect stones using hand tools like the Incas had. It remains a mystery how the Incas managed their incredible masonry.

My hypothesis: the Incas were actually Dwarves.

The large-scale carving of terraces was mind-boggling as well.

Although most the Nine Walkers left after a couple hours, two faithful companions and I roamed the city all day. And thus the Fellowship was broken.

These houses would have been covered with thatch roofs when Machu Picchu was inhabited in the 1400s.

We walked through the city streets, pretending to do business with the local butcher or baker. We  stumbled upon forgotten shrines and unmowed lawns and even a couple of humping llamas.

I felt like a kid running around a life-size dollhouse. I could have played "Inca" in here for days.

Steps off the edge of the world.

We walked along a narrow, deserted pathway above Machu Picchu to reach the Inca Bridge, a real-life version of Durin's Bridge from Khazad-dûm. Just like the Dwarves, the Incas used this bridge as a defensive mechanism. The wooden planks of the bridge could be removed to prevent enemy invasion of the city.

The Inca Bridge.

The zoomed-out view of the mountainside looked like this.

The cliff.

It was hard to tell, but it looked to me like that line of greenery stretching across the cliff used to be the path. The sheer cliff must have been about 500 feet tall, and seeing that narrow path carved down its center with no railing gave me the absolute willies.

Archaeology was obviously the highlight, but there was plenty of animal life here too.

Big millipede.

Curious llama.

 Blue-and-white swallows.

A camera-shy viscacha.

Watching swallows swoop around their stone-wall nests and llamas clip the grassy lawns, I was struck by the idea of how little life has evolved since the days of Machu Picchu's prime. In evolutionary time, 600 years is the blink of an eye. The Incas must have gazed upon these same swallows. Did they see them as pests? Or revere them as messengers of the gods?

There was only one animal I couldn't place...

Some sort of fluorescent green mutant alpaca? (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Well, I tossed my jewelry into the firey pit of Huaynapicchu, that mossy mountain in the background there, and that's almost where the journey ends.

That night I ate dinner alone: an exorbitant plate of chicken enchiladas at a touristy Mexican restaurant. I took the train back to the Shire (Cusco) where I arrived at midnight, cold, sore, and exhausted.

The next morning, five of the original Nine Walkers reunited in the Starbucks Coffee in Plaza de Armas, Cusco's central square, to share our photos and say goodbye for the last time.

(Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

So that's the tale, folks. I completed my mission in Peru. I survived the Salkantay Trek. I journeyed There and Back Again.

I apologize for any confusions I created about what belongs in Peru and what belongs in Middle Earth. Thanks to J. R. R. Tolkein for inventing the coolest land ever. Heartfelt thanks to Adam Wroe for taking all the gorgeous photos and, moreover, for convening a Starbucks reunion to share them. To the Fellowship, it was a pleasure adventuring with you. Best of luck on your future journeys!

The End