By the time we reached the narrow flight of carved steps leading upwards to the stone doorway of Intipunko ? 'Gateway of the Sun' ? and the trail?s end at 2685m, I was so out of it from chewing coca leaves that watching the sun come up over 'The Lost City of the Incas' was much more than a spiritual experience.
I had to ask the guide Jose if what I was seeing beneath me was actually the ruins of the Machu Picchu.
?Pepe,? he said ?you gotta take it easy with the coca leaves se?or, otherwise you'll be the one in ruins.? All I?ve ever needed is a trail guide with a sense of humour quicker than mine.
Everyone in our trail group of 15 had taken to calling me Pepe, thanks to Jose?s insistence. In Peru anyone called Francisco, and it?s a popular name there, gets the nickname Pepe.
I had gotten used to the coca leaf in tea form back in Cusco, which at 3350m above sea level is one of the world?s highest cities and the springboard for the Peruvian interior. Not only had the tea been freely served at the hotel, but also the hotel lobby had its own oxygen room where the concierge would give guests a five-minute shot of the pure stuff to clear lungs and head.
Our trail porters and guides had offered some of the coca-leaf tea at our rest points and urged us to drink it to keep relaxed and energized. Jose told me the local coca is a medicinal tea used for over 4000 years by locals across South America.
?Now people only know the leaves for cocaine,? he said shaking his head. ?We use it as nature intended, to help us live at this altitude,? he added. Coca is still an integral part of Andean culture used in most parts of ordinary life, whether it?s a woman needing a sedative during childbirth, as a dowry offering by a suitor to his future father-in-law or even as the tea drunk at a wake, Jose told me.
Apparently the leaves were originally the sole preserve of Inca royalty, but its stimulant properties that keep a lid on hunger and exhaustion, and increase endurance, soon outweighed its mystical use.
On the second day of the hike we were walking at almost 6000m at Nevado Humantay. I was gasping like a guppy and the peaks were spinning like a carousel.
Jose slipped a handful of leaves into my hand and made a chewing motion with his mouth. I never looked back ? and sometimes never looked forward either.
I couldn?t even lift an eyelid, let alone bat one
I do remember having to say goodbye to our packhorses at Wayllabamba camp, where we joined up with the three-day hikers on the more popular section of the Inca Trail and headed down to Machu Picchu. Horses were not allowed on the final leg as their hooves damaged the trail surface. Foot porters took over.
Even campfire stories where Jose told us about Peru?s special delicacy of roasted guinea pig didn?t cause me to bat an eyelid. Who?s kidding whom, chewing those leaves made me so relaxed I couldn?t even lift an eyelid, let alone bat one.
Another guide had told me that local Indians often calculated the length of their journey in relation to the number of mouthfuls of coca leaves they chewed while walking.
Arriving at dawn we were in time to watch as the clouds draping Machu Picchu were burnt off as the sun rose, exposing the tropical jungle vegetation and glistening stonework.
I was aware of Jose telling me that apart from the architectural and aesthetic genius of the stonework, the most remarkable fact is that the centuries old city?s plazas, steps, altars, rooms, agricultural terraces and water systems are completely intact and only needs thatch roofing to begin functioning again.
Already into my second mouthful of leaves when we arrived, my vision was way blurred and I was looking at one of the wonders of the world through the coca?s eyes. I have since promised myself to go back ? and see the ruins for myself.