Monday the 19th of May 2003 – Day 90 (Day 3 of the Inca Trail)
Good weather greeted us at 6.00am. Most of the remaining footpath is the original work of the Incas. (In previous sections, the government has “restored” the stonework with a heavy hand.) En route to the next mountain pass (1 hr.), trekkers encounter the ruins of Runcuracay. The circular structure (the name means “basket-shaped”) is unique among those found along the trail. From here, a steep 45-minute to 1-hour climb leads to the second pass, Abra de Runcuracay (3,900m/12,700 ft.), and the location of an official campsite just over the summit. There are great views of the Vilcabamba mountain range. After passing through a naturally formed tunnel, the path leads past a lake and a stunning staircase to Sayacmarca (3,500m/11,550 ft.), named for its nearly inaccessible setting surrounded by dizzying cliffs. Among the ruins are ritual baths and a terrace view point overlooking the Aobamba Valley, suggesting that the site was not inhabited but instead served as a resting point for travelers and as a control station.
The trail backtracks a bit on the way to Conchamarca, another rest stop. Here, the well-preserved Inca footpath drops into jungle thick with exotic vegetation, such as lichens, hanging moss, bromeliads, and orchids, and some of the zone’s unique bird species. After passing through another Inca tunnel, the path climbs gently for 2 hours along a stone road, toward the trail’s third major pass, Phuyupatamarca (3,800m/12,540 ft.); the final climb is considerably easier than the two that came before it. This is a spectacular section of the trail, with great views of the Urubamba Valley. Some of the region’s highest snowcapped peaks (all over 5,500m, or 18,150 ft.), including Salcantay, are clearly visible, and the end of the trail is in sight. The tourist town of Aguas Calientes lies below, and trekkers can see the backside of Machu Picchu (the peak, not the ruins).
From the peak, trekkers reach the beautiful, restored Inca ruins of Phuyupatamarca. The ancient village is another one aptly named: It translates as “Town above the Clouds.” The remains of six ceremonial baths are clearly visible, as are retaining-wall terraces. A stone staircase of 2,250 steps plummets into the cloud forest, taking about 90 minutes to descend. The path forks, with the footpath on the left leading to the fan-shaped Intipata terraces. On the right, the trail pushes on to the extraordinary ruins of Hui?ay Huayna, which are actually about a 10-minute walk from the trail. Back at the main footpath, there’s a campsite and ramshackle trekker’s hostel offering hot showers, food, and drink. The grounds are a major gathering place for trekkers before the final push to Machu Picchu, and for some, they’re are a bit too boisterous and unkempt, an unpleasant intrusion after all the pristine beauty up to this point on the trail. Though closest to Machu Picchu, the Hui?ay Huayna ruins, nearly the equal of Machu Picchu, were only discovered in 1941. Its name, which means “Forever Young,” refers not to its relatively recent discovery, but to the perpetually flowering orchid of the same name, which is found in abundance nearby. The stop was evidently an important one along the trail; on the slopes around the site are dozens of stone agricultural terraces, and 10 ritual baths, which still have running water, awaited travelers. We arrived tired from walking on stone paths (uneven and slippy). We got a few beers each and had a good time walking about the previous three days. We went down to the “disco” for one. Only a few people there. We decided to each contribute 10 US to the porters. Total distance: 15km (9 miles).