A truly dreadful night. Three guides just outside our tent argue incessantly well into the night. Finally I can stand it no more and step out to ask them to be a little quieter. They are not impressed by my pleading, but they do take a little more notice of one of the hostel staff. I still do not sleep much though. Neither Jay, James, nor John fare any better.
At 4.30 am, we are woken by Americo, and we are away from the site a creditable one hour later in order to reach our goal, Machu Picchu, in time to see the first rays of the rising sun cast their light upon it. We had previously been told by each and every tour agency in Cusco of their unique plan to arrive at Machu Picchu early in the morning before anyone else, so it comes as no surprise to see a hundred and one other trekkers up-camp at the same time as us and hurry off down the trail.
The walk through more dense bamboo thickets and cloud forest is quite uneventful, and surprisingly uncrowded as the groups quickly thin out. After about an hour of walking, we climb a set of steep steps and arrive abruptly at Intipunku, the “Gateway of the Sun”. All at once, the entire lost city of Machu Picchu is laid out far in front of us, perching on a steep ridge between a great mountain behind and a jutting eye-tooth of a peak in front. As we wait, the shadow of the mountain behind us gradually pulls back and the sun floods the Inca city of Machu Picchu with golden light. It is an awe-inspiring moment.
However, it is not until we are finally down among the ruins that we really begin to appreciate their scale. Their sheer magnificence is only slowly absorbed by our tired minds as Americo guides us around them, explaining as we go the various features. We spend the whole morning there. The weather is clear and hot, throwing the fine stonework into sharp relief against the blue sky. All along the looped valley surrounding us dense cloud forest, interspersed with sheer rock cliffs, clings to the craggy slopes. Machu Picchu is not just a place—it is a total experience.
We leave Machu Picchu on the 12.30 pm bus down to Aguas Calientes, a small frontier-type town built along the railway line to Quillabamba. In fact, the railway line serves as the main road through the town, with cafes and Inca Kola stalls lined along the platforms either side of the line. A dog sleeps in the middle of the line, its head resting on the track. We have lunch in a rather grotty little restaurant that Americo leads us to. Feeling rather the worse for wear after four days without washing, we take the opportunity for a dip in the sulphurous thermal baths nearby. Despite the sound of adjacent pneumatic drills engaged in repair work along the riverbank after recent flooding, to lie and soak is sheer bliss.
Finding the right place to catch the express train back to Cusco is less straight-forward. Americo has directed us along the railway track. But there are absolutely no directions to help us. More by luck than by judgement, we find the train in a walled-off enclosure a little way from the town centre and up a short branch line from the main track.
For most of the journey along the Urabamba Valley, John, who is sitting on the left, complains that the train is travelling along the wrong side of the valley. The real fun begins as the train starts its steep descent into Cusco. In order to negotiate the severe incline, the train has to forward and reverse down a series of switchbacks, at each stop, the driver and guard taking turns to jump out to switch the points for the next section of track. The full journey is a little less than four hours. We eat dinner on the way back to our hotel at the Pucara Restaurant in Cusco, a very busy and popular place.
The drama is not quite over when we arrive back at the hotel. Both Jay and I are left shivering in the dark after the hotel wiring system fails to cope with two showers being used simultaneously.