By Kyle Miller
The ground had turned to mud as our taxi, barely holding itself together, drove down the busy streets of Cuzco, every bump causing a horrific noise within the suspension. Before long the metropolis was gone and we were among the rural areas, the vehicle barely holding onto the freshly slickened roads and going around turns I would feel uncomfortable driving in my Subaru, let alone this deathmobile—but not a flinch from the driver or other passengers.
It’s funny to think that my life is based on exposures and the possibility of death, but here I was white-knuckled for hours, and the local farmer next to me had no fears, no anxiety, and no cares. What was rain in the lowlands became snow on the upper plateau, and the high alpine of the peaks brought a huge grin to my face. I pondered the idea of Machu Picchu covered in a fresh dusting of snow—only to be crushed by the passenger next to me confirming that the ruins were at a much lower elevation.
The roads quickly descended deep into a valley gorged out by a massive, strongly flowing river bordered by 2,000-meter peaks. The mountains were everything I dreamed they would be: steep, green, and endless. The road finished in a small rural town called Ollantaytambo, a place that once thrived with Incan warriors and ruins that decorated the hillside, but now it was a train station and, more importantly, the gateway to Machu Picchu.
After enjoying a $10 cup of coffee that would be 99 cents at the local am/pm, I boarded the two-hour train that followed the shores of said river. I sat in a seat next to two obvious tourists and started chatting, only to find that they were scientific researchers from Antarctica on a small vacation. We picked each others’ brains for hours, myself receiving beta on climbing and them beta on gear. We affirmed that our gigs were ones that people dream of before saying goodbye at our departure station, another rural town called Aguas Calientes.
I thought the mountains were steep before, but this was a whole new ballgame of vertical granite walls bordered by lush Peruvian jungle. The rain poured in buckets as I ran through the market confirming that I wanted nothing to do with the infinite amount of trinkets the locals were peddling off to unsuspecting tourists. That night I would stay at a broken-down hostel with no locks, paper-thin walls, and an obvious infestation of local rodent populations. It turns out that warm rooms and warm showers are rare commodities only spared for the elite and those willing to pay the extra few dollars, so I shivered myself to sleep to the soundtrack of rain.
The sound of the alarm woke me up at 5:30 a.m. It was time to head to the busses, a conga line of tourists all waiting for their own personal pilgrimage to the sacred ruins. We stood at the back of the line of now more than 200 people wondering where everyone had come from before being crammed into the bus and off up a series of steep switchbacks to the entrance of Machu Picchu. The rain hadn’t let up for days, and the crowds were covered in ponchos of every color, which I joked was representing the rainbow.
It was 6:30 when I entered the gates of Machu Picchu and it took only a few seconds before its power consumed me. A once-sacred area of prestige and religious ceremonies are now walkways tramped by thousands of people daily. That day I walked around staying both warm and dry in my Peak XV coat, listening to a guide speak in broken English before heading out on my own path, looking at amazing architecture from a group who hadn’t minimal tools but endless resources.
Blown away but drenched, I decided I would have to return another day when the weather was good and see Machu Picchu on my own terms. So I returned to Aguas Calientes and upgraded my accommodations to a warm hotel with warm showers, where I laid out my wet gear to dry and checked the forecast to find that the weather would dissolve in two days. I would return to Machu Picchu that Monday, the Fourth of July.
I made the decision to leave early and hike up to Machu Picchu before the crowds and be one of the first 400 visitors who are granted access to Hyanni Picchu, a nearby mountain and home to Temple de Luna (the temple of the moon). I was out of bed and jogging down the road at 2:30 a.m. I arrived at the gated bridge 15 minutes later only to find that they don’t unlock it until 5:00 a.m. I had some time so I laid down on a bench and attempted to take a nap only to be awakened by other tourists who didn’t get the memo. I noticed that the guard let a group of six through the gate and I hastily rushed to find I couldn’t pass without a bribe. Not wanting or willing to pay him, I bartered my way through with a Clif bar and Nature’s Valley bar—I found later the others paid $15 a piece.
It was 4 a.m. when I started climbing the steep hills below Machu Picchu with the help of a headlamp in the dark jungle, stopping 100 feet below the main entrance, waiting for the lower gates to legally open. One by one, groups of people reached my stopping area, telling stories of how much they had to pay the guard to get through. In total I imagine there were 40 people; it was a good day for the guard. Once it was 5 a.m., we all made way to the gate and proceeded to wait for the next hour and watch the line quickly grow in size before they opened the flood gates at 6 o’clock.
With a stamp in hand verifying that I was one of the 400 to climb Hyanni Picchu, I left the beaten path and beelined for the Sun Temple. I sat there for 10 minutes by myself as the sun rose hidden behind the clouds before someone else joined me. The next objective was the main temple and most important area of all of Machu Picchu, which was left vacant as I climbed to the sacrificial quarters, I sat there quietly as the clouds came and went before others once again joined me. In total I had 30 minutes in the sacred areas to myself.
The trail for Hyanni opened at 7 o’clock, so I patiently waited in line at 6:30 to try to get another head start and it worked. I was originally 40 people back, but made a brisk pace topping out on the mountain minutes before the others. At first the view was obscured, but the clouds quickly burned off, and I had an unobstructed view of the ruins hundreds of feet below.
That afternoon I took advantage of every nook, cranny, and trail within the Machu Picchu area. My first visit I took the role of the tourist, but this time I went as an athlete, climbing Machu Picchu mountain to the Inca bridge, the Sungate, and all in between. I ended my day a mere minutes before closing and hiked back to Aguas Calientes. By going on those random hikes, I was able to stay away from the crowds and have an Independence Day I will never forget.
Things have changed so much over the past three years. Two years ago on the Fourth of July I was doing a seven-day traverse in the Cascades. Last year I was stuck in a tent for 36 hours battling out a storm, and here I was this year in the middle of the jungles of Peru, hiking solo around Machu Picchu. Never in my dreams did I think I would be here now.
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