Scaling Putucusi, one of the familiar, jagged green shards that surround the fabled Machu Picchu, one thought keeps coming back to me: This country must not have strict personal injury laws.
If you hike, you know what I mean. Whether it's the White Mountains, Adirondacks, or the mighty Rockies, any well-traveled trail usually offers a lodge at the bottom, weather warnings, the occasional ranger, and a splattering of maps along the trail. There's a well-conceived plan to prevent hikers from getting lost or hurt.
But at 8,000 feet above sea level in the mountain highlands of Peru, no such structure exists. Despite being one of the most photographed and visited vacation spots on Earth, Machu Picchu and its surrounding peaks still remain a mystery buried deep in the Andes Mountains.
My fiancee and I found Putucusi much like Hiram Bingham re-discovered Machu Picchu -- through rumor. We took the four-hour train ride from Cusco, the nearest hub, through the mountains to Aguas Calientes, the makeshift town where travelers lodge before setting out for the ancient city. Arriving in the afternoon, we put off our trek to Machu Picchu until the next morning so we could arrive during the sunrise.
After grabbing lunch at one of the nondescript, numerous restaurants in town, we decided to kill the remainder of the day with a hike to explore the area. I read in a guidebook that a nearby peak offered a spectacular view of Machu Picchu, which otherwise remained hidden from sight in Aguas Calientes.
|Ladders on Putucusi. (Photo by Jason Tuohey)|
A map we obtained from the visitor office showed "Putucusi" with an arrow pointing vaguely away from the town, off the page. We followed the railroad in that direction. Passing by a guard who watched over nearby construction, I asked in broken Spanish "Putucusi esta alla?"
"Si" he said with a smile. Shortly afterward, we saw the gnarled stone steps ascending into the blanket of forest.
The hike began easy, a steady climb peppered with the type of aged stone steps that dot the old Inca territories. Then came the ladders.
At points too steep for a trail, hikers need to scale a series of ladders strapped to the mossy rock of Putucusi. For the longest one I counted about 108 rungs, roughly the equivalent of a four- or five-story building. Smaller ladders followed, as well as a wire railing you cling to during an uneven jumble of rocks. Fighting gravity and trying to maintain a foothold, we pulled ourselves up through the crags.
|Aguas Calientes as seen from the upper reaches of Putucusi. (Photo by Jason Tuohey)|
Once through the arduous thicket of rock and vegetation, we broached the tree line and came face-to-face with an awe-inspiring view of the valley below. Wind smacked us in the face as we gazed at Aguas Calientes, a cluster of tiny, colorful dots buffeted by the green of the valley. Clouds puffed in from the north, partly obscuring the taller nearby peaks. Free from the suffocating underbrush, we breathed in the fresh air. Instead of blindly climbing upwards, we now could see the road ahead of us. We had only been climbing for about an hour, but already our breath came short and our muscles ached.
The path zig-zagged upward, narrowing precariously at times, with steep falls on either side through the hardened shrubbery to the valley far below. We heaved for air as the sun beat down on us through the weakened atmosphere. We tired easily, taking frequent rests and rationing the water we'd brought.
As I carefully studied each nook in the path ahead of us, small doubts began to gnaw at me. I'm of the "cell phone for a watch" generation, and since I logically hadn't carted any mobile devices to the Andes, I had no idea what time it was. I only knew that we'd started up the path sometime after 4 p.m., and that the sun set earlier than normal in the mountains. As pebbles occasionally kicked out from under our feet, rocketing through the brush into the valley down below, it occurred to me a climb down in the dark would be perilously stupid.
Relax, I reminded myself. You're a glorified weekend warrior. Also, don't look down.
Tough to tell from the photo, but on either side was a sheer drop -- and the path was narrower than my outstretched arms. I was nervous, that's why my hair looked so cool. (Photo by Emily Cline)
We were hardly the only people on the mountain. As we labored up the cliff, we passed adventure-seeking college kids, Peruvian families, and second-generation hippies sharing smokes and chewing coca leaves. Each encounter forced a slow, awkward twist through the narrow path, and an almost as awkward yet good-natured "hello," sometimes delivered across language barriers. And for an hour straight, each descender offered the same advice: "Another 10 minutes to the top!"
Sweaty, burnt, and heaving, we eventually rounded a final pass and found flat land. Through toughened bushes and stumped trees, we saw the expanse of Machu Picchu laid out before us. A group of young trekkers welcomed us, enjoying their respite at the top by swapping tales of past hiking exploits. We found a flattened rock, paused to take in the splendor of the neighboring peaks and the deserted city across the way.
We stayed at the top just long enough to catch our breath and snap a few photos. But we found heading down much easier. Gravity aided the descent, and the twists, turns, and ladders held no surprises the second time around. As the infancy of dusk crept into the valley, our feet hit level ground and we began the march back into town.
Later that night, we watched street performers and a local parade over dinner in the town square of Aguas Calientes. Scratchy, achy, and yet content, we traded off laughing at ourselves for getting so freaked out over a four-hour hike, and scolding ourselves for tackling such a challenging path on a whim. But we couldn't deny that, even though we traveled across the hemisphere to experience the majesty of Machu Picchu, Putucusi was the hidden gem of the valley.