At the end of a long day’s trek, you reach the Sun Gate. This is the greatest arrival portal imaginable: below you lies Machu Picchu.
Walking the Inca Trail requires significant effort. You stalk a narrow path at 2700 metres, tracing the contours of a vast range within the Andes, crowned by a ring of Peru’s grandest peaks, and frequent, unexpected squalls of harsh weather rip through when you are convinced it is going to be a glorious day – but there is a great reward to cherish. At the end of a long day’s trek, you reach the Sun Gate. This is the greatest arrival portal imaginable: below you lies Machu Picchu, built in the 14th century and still magnificent and mysterious, a beguiling stone monument of a previous civilisation. There are many ways to now reach Machu Picchu. Rickety old Europeans like to travel by taxi, train and coach to the very lip of the high mountain ruin. Yet the destination alone is not the prize. The sum of the journey adds savour to its richness. The trek to the Sun Gate, the true gateway to Machu Picchu, is a dramatic journey that best starts in darkness. We left Cusco at 4am, passing disheveled punters spilling out of nightclubs as we alighted a mini taxi. After two hours of driving, we huddle around the train at Ollantaytambo in the pre-dawn gloom, then clunk along the tracks to KM104. There is no station, no platform. The train stops for a moment and you jump off. The train leaves and there is nothing except a suspension bridge across the fast flowing Urubamba River. It’s dark and cold, and you wonder for a moment what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into, but you peer across the river to see the archeological site of Chachabamba, at 2200 metres. You can only reach this by passing through a control point, and must be accompanied by a guide to register your Inca Trail Passport. Without pre-paying for a passport and a guide, there is no access. It controls numbers along this ecologically sensitive area, and demand is so high that all available passports are purchased within days of being made available three months earlier. It pays to book early through a savvy Cusco operator, and we chose Apus Peru. Ariana Svenson from Perth co-founded Apus Peru in 2005, with Quillabamba native Fely Callanaupa Gonzales. Svenson was pursuing Masters studies in the development of third-world nations, focusing on Andean communities, but forfeited her studies to create this tourism business based on returning profits to the local community. Many western tourism operators have set up offices that exploit the Cusco economy, paying local guides a pittance. Apus Peru chose instead to help found Threads of Peru, selling textiles from two remote weaving cooperatives, and paying above award rates to attract the best local guides. Foremost among them is Big Willy – Wilfredo Tunquipa Villena, a Peruvian native who has spent 15 years as a guide and speaks Spanish, English and Quechua. He’s unusually tall compared to many Peruvians, hence his nickname, but he is also called Saqra (it means demon) by the mountain people. Once, Big Willy performed the pagan Saqra dance on Ausungate, the highest mountain of Cusco, and that memory has become legend. Big Willy wears the mantle of mountain legend easily, taking the time to tell you about folk stories, identifying myriad types of mountain orchids and even producing a handy oregano and tomato pizza for lunch from his backpack once you reach the steeply terraced archeological site of Winay Wayna (2700 metres). It takes another hour of trekking, sliding by deep gouges ripped into the sheer mountain by the previous season’s mudslides, before ascending a steep stone staircase to reach the Sun Gate. It is, literally, a breath-taking moment; as you suck in deep draughts of air, you simultaneously lay eyes on the marvel of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, we didn’t have long to enjoy the magical vista. As is custom in this region, cloud closed in quickly, embracing the surrounding cluster of mountain peaks, and it began to rain hard. Jagged granite flagstones that form the steep descending pathway into the archeological site from the Sun Gate immediately become a treacherous, slippery threat. With aching knees and worried minds, we slowly entered Machu Picchu, more cautious than glorious. That night we stayed in Aguas Calientes, a tiny town on the valley floor beside the Urubamba rapids, and subsiding euphoria was replaced by aches in our joints. Still, after a few big tumblers of pisco sour, the cocktail that makes margaritas look tame, we had the necessary energy to tell tall tales about our adventure – and we are still telling them.