Walking/Crawling the Sun Gate Trail…And the H-AAAAHHHHT-t Springs of Aguas Calientes

Day 4 & 5:

We’re still staying at the Sumaq hotel at the base of the peaks; photo above is a view from our balcony looking toward Machu Picchu. Awakened Tuesday at 2:30 in the morning by a killer pounding headache and flashing lights, I get up, take 2 Exedrin Migraine and go out on our balcony. I see a steady stream of hardcore backpackers already climbing the road to the Sanctuary Lodge park entrance in the dark, their in-hand or headband flashlights zooming across our room’s ceiling. It seems warm with a slight night chill and, despite my head-in-a-vice pounder, I’m determined to make the 5:30 a.m. bus back up the 13 switchbacks. I try to see what the hardcore hikers are wearing, and having channeled a combo of Jackie O. in Greece and Isak Dinesen from Out of Africa while packing (hey, don’t forget: I didn’t know where I was going!), I mentally mash a Dinesen-esque faux leather bomber and black henley with Jackie O. khaki capris as a wardrobe plan for the day. We plan to trek the Sun Gate Trail ~ a part of the Incan Trail that enters the park from the pass at the top of Machu Picchu from where you would come in from the 4 day trek that Jeannie, Robb and the boys will take on Sunday.

Up on the mountain, we nickname this path the Avenue of Trails. It’s fairly flat, it’s fairly wide and it is carefully made of rocks, like a garden path. Although we start out shaky ~ P refuses to listen to me that we’re going the correct way when we climb the rocky stairs towards the Guard House and we end up backtracking and retracing our initial steps ~ we make great time and are both hoping to hit the Sun Gate at the desired estimated sunrise time of 7:20ish. Clouds have us socked in and while it seems like sunrise may not be in our future, it does make for an easy trail hike, as I cannot see much past the sides of the path.

We make it to the Sun Gate still in the middle of cloud coverage and as the Avenue continues in a calm manner, we take it, exploring a bit past our ideal destination. It’s gorgeous and seems like a weekend walk in the woods, with that fall smell of dying leaves on the ground and the sun teasingly, temptingly breaking through every now and again. That’s when, after we climb a rather steep stairs of rocks, that the clouds fully dissipate around us and as we round a bend of the now-narrowing path, I see that there’s a straight drop down our left side. Vertigo kicks in and I feel as though I’m spinning and need to drop to my stomach. I grab unsuccessfully for some sort of purchase on the mountain wall behind me and keep trying to look up, not down, thinking that will allow me to continue on the path. P has been holding my left hand, the good hand, during steeper and narrower passages and I feel it’s a testament to our marriage how accommodating he’s been and how trusting I’ve felt. He tries to urge me on, one step at a time, letting me know he’s there for me every step of the way, with a hand to hold and steady me. I practically yell at him. I cannot go further and I feel like I may not even make it back to where the path is wider, less steep and more manageable.

We turn around and do make it back to our Sun Gate, where we promptly meet a group of travelers and their Peruvian guide, who we overhear telling them to drink water, use the bushes, relax, since they are about 2/3s of the way to the Sun Gate. P and I meet each others eyes, horrified, knowing we have not made it to the top and that we will, for the second time this morning, have to retrace our steps.

I make it as far as the narrowing bend that drops off as a cliff and sit on a rock, stuck with a sickening, spinning deliriousness. I beg P to travel ahead and scope out how much farther to the Sun Gate, and to see just how much narrower and steeper the side of the mountain gets. From my perch on the rock, I say hello to a mother/daughter unit one-stepping-it-at-a-time; the mother tells me she thinks she got talked into more than she bargained for, the daughter tells me she’s doing a great job and they continue their descent with the aide of walking sticks. Where is my walking stick?! Where are my hiking/walking boots?! Where is my mind?! No wonder I love Charleston so much, I muse: it is, after all, called the LOWCOUNTRY! There is no chance of slipping and falling off a mountain.

P returns about 15 minutes later, with a not very positive look on his face. It appears the path becomes much steeper, much narrower and even crosses over a ridge that lasts about 50 feet, where it drops off on BOTH sides before spilling open to the REAL Sun Gate. I decide that the fact that one of us made it to the top of Machu Picchu’s Inca Trail path pass is enough and that I can live with that. Live, being the operative word.

We start down together, past our faux Sun Gate and decide to turn up toward the Machu Picchu peak. I slip twice in my jogging shoes (again, where is my mind? I mean, my fashion sense?! I will NEVER travel again without walking hiking boots and I will NEVER feel like an ugly tourist wearing them….). P catches me on the first slip. I end up unwittingly doing a right-leg quad stretch and on the last slip, catch myself on a rock with my good, left hand, tearing my bicep a bit. At least I’m still ON the path and not bouncing down the terraced side of the mountain! You think you’re on an adventure that’s like being on an E ride with no guard rail or safety bar, but it’s real life and accidents could happen. (Speaking of E rides, it’s a bit disheartening when yesterday I spot an ad on the back of the New York Times Magazine and tell P “look! this kid’s wearing an alpaca hat!” and, yes, it IS an alpaca hat and, yes, the photo next to that one IS of a family perched on a terrace overlooking Machu Picchu’s ruins and, yes, Disney ~ DISNEY ~ is now organizing guided family tour trips to Machu Picchu. In the words of Rachel Zoe: I. DIE. Thank God I made it to Machu Picchu before the it becomes a Disney ride. Sad.)

Looks like the steps down from the Machu Picchu path lead straight off the mountain. We cut left and take a break and lie down on the grassy terrace, where we run into the newlywed couple from Florida, who have already made it to the top of Huayna Picchu, as #1 and #2, plus finished the Sun Gate Trail and are now heading to the flat but steep Inca Bridge trail. Naturally. They got engaged on a mountain hike, are honeymooning on a mountain trek and are continuing for more in Argentina. They were in our guided tour group on Monday and advise me against even trying Huayna Picchu, although P’s appetite is whetted. He wants to stay through the rest of the day (it’s about noon by now) and hike the “little” young mountain, but I’m spent and cranky.

Later, back at a lower altitude and flatter terrain, I borrow an oral thermometer from the hotel’s front desk and find I actually have a fever of a couple of degrees centigrade, which means I had fever on the mountain this morning. No wonder I felt like I had the spins and like I was going to fall off!

We end up staying Wednesday, an extra day, partly because we hadn’t arranged to check out that morning, I’m feeling super sick and P wants to hike the other peak, Huayna Picchu and the Temple of the Moon. He talks me into going back up, meeting him after lunch. We purchase tickets from the desk, make the necessary arrangements. I take a bath and when we argue over the TV volume, I begin to suspect P’s getting sick, too. I realize the next morning, around 3:30 or so, that if I don’t go with him at 5:30 I may never mae it back up. I channel Amelia Earhart in my mind and work up a look to get me through the last day of 13 switchbacks up. We meet up with one of our new Hiram Bingham traveling friends, Bernie, half of a couple from Toronto. He’s planning the Sun Gate Trail and we give him our take on it from the day before.

While Bernie heads up after our entrance to the park, P and I cross the ruins once more, heading toward Huayna Picchu. While he makes the trek, I wait at that peak’s entrance gate near the Sacred Rock. I try to meditate, then read, then write in my journal. And the whole time I’m wondering why it doesn’t feel more spiritual to me. When P returns, he recounts the narrow path, the steep drops and a tunnel, where he’s had to take off and push his backpack in front of him in the dark. A spiritual feeling is beginning to radiate through me and I thank the Universe I didn’t try to make this hike.

The best part of our last day in Machu Picchu is the hot springs baths. A trek up in and of itself, the baths are somewhat on the outskirts of town and we are finally rewarded by calm river water pools of various temperatures and minerality where we soak until we shrivel. We meet some great new travel buddies: Irit, Dor and Ilad, 3 young travelers from Israel, and a newlywed couple from L.A. heading to Chile or Argentina or both. I forget. We end this day before boarding the Hiram Bingham back to Cusco at a cafe on the cathedral square where P immediately begins feeling ill. P is basically out for the count the entire train ride back and I worry that our travels in Cusco, where we plan to meet Jeannie and her gang, visit a textile weaving village and partake in a home stay, will be marred. Our Toronto friends are with us on the trip back (we abuse poor sick P with pictures!) and they so sweetly give us a ride to Casa San Blas, our hotel for the night, in their waiting guide’s car. Next stop: Amaru village, the Peruvian family home stay with Jeannie, Robb, Gus & Jeb.

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