In the footsteps of the Inca


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South America » Peru » Cusco » Sacred Valley
June 8th 2012
Published: June 17th 2012
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Peru was definitely not a case of love at first sight. Bolivia had stolen our hearts, and it would take a lot for the new country to compete for our affections.

Puno was dusty and, with the exception of the obligatory cathedral and Plaza de Armas, unremarkable, even if it was on the shore of the magical Lake Titicaca. Even that wasn’t enough to redeem it. Our boat trip out to the Uros (or Floating) Islands was nice enough (oh how to damn with faint praise!), but nauseatingly touristy and without the historical fascination of the Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Inca civilisation, which we’d explored from Bolivia’s Copacobana the previous day.

The drive to Cusco took us through Juliaca, aka another Puno but on a much larger scale and without any hint of a redeeming feature. But by lunchtime we were back in the mountains, winding through lush valleys, and Peru tentatively began to exert its charm. When we stopped at the gargantuan statue of San Cristóbal with its fabulous views over the terracotta-tiled roofs of Cusco, we were definitely open to persuasion. When we stepped into our first Inca ruins, the country had well and truly got us in its grips.

There’s a misapprehension that there is only one “Inca trail”, the one on every traveller’s must-do list, the approach to Machu Picchu, but, in reality, the Inca communications system could rival the Romans’, with a network of roads across and along the Andes, and down to the coast, covering an estimated 40,000km. This, in combination with an efficient system of runners, ensured that, amongst other things, an Inca’s desire for seafood voiced in Casco, approximately 400km from the coast as the crow flies, could be satisfied within 24 hours. (The word “Inca” means ruler, guide, chief, adviser.) The “classic” trail is the one walked by most people visiting Machu Picchu. In three days, it takes you from the kilometre 82 marker near the village of Chilca outside Ollantaytambo up and over the mountains to Inkipuntu, the Sun Gate, for sunrise over Machu Picchu. (Continually inhabited since the thirteenth century, Ollantaytambo was, in Inca times, the seat of ideological and religious power, and is now the town from which the train leaves to take the more pedestrianly inclined to the same destination.) But this trek is now highly regulated. Only (gulp!) five hundred people,
THE viewTHE viewTHE view

Machu Picchu
including guides and porters, can leave each day; no walking sticks are allowed; and only human (rather than llama or equine) porters are permitted to carry the trekkers’ kit.

One of the attractions of Dragoman’s trip around South America, once I started looking at the small print, was their inclusion of a “community trek” through the mountains to the north of the Sacred Valley, instead of the “classic” trek. This takes you through villages and along paths that everyday people use (reminiscent of the treks I have been lucky enough to do in Bhutan), as well as intersecting with other old Inca trails. No, we wouldn’t be going through the Sun Gate at sunrise, but nor would we be walking with our five hundred not-so-closest friends. We were almost guaranteed to be the only gringos that we would see for a couple of days. We would also have the luxury of a hotel in Ollantaytambo – showers after three days’ trekking and comfortable beds – the night before we caught the early train up to Aguas Calientes, and from there the bus winding up the mountain to Machu Picchu’s main tourist entrance.

An early start on the Thursday
Cusco's Plaza de ArmasCusco's Plaza de ArmasCusco's Plaza de Armas

from San Cristóbal
morning saw us at Sacsayhuamán for just-after-sunrise over Cusco, and then driving over the mountains to the Sacred Valley, the agricultural jewel in the Incas’ crown, with its mountain-protected fertile soils and conducive climate of which the Peruvians are still taking advantage to this day. At Pisaq, we tested our fitness with the hike down from the Inca ruins to the modern-day town, and sadly bade farewell to a quintet of our friends who had decided that their fitness, in combination with incipient stomach and/or throat bugs, wasn’t up to the full trek.

After lunch, we also waved goodbye to our “classic” friends. They would spend a comfortable night in Ollantaytambo before starting their trek the next day. We were off to the village of Huarán where we would meet our llama and horse teams, via a brief stop the town of Calca to stock up on coca leaves, rain ponchos and other final necessities. From Huarán, we were going to trek for 3-4 hours up the valley to the spread-out village of Cancha Cancha where we would spend the night.

Just outside Huarán, a crowd of curious children watched our baggage being decanted from the minibus, and then the commencement of the slow packing process, the heavier stuff loaded onto our team of horses, and the lighter stuff onto llamas. We donned insect repellent, sunscreen, hats and daypacks, set the length of our walking poles, and hit the path leaving our baggage to follow on in due course.

In these narrow valleys, the sun rises late and sets early. We’d stripped to T-shirts within the first half-hour of setting off, but, by 3.15 pm, we were reaching for additional layers again. Warm in the sunlight, it rapidly became chill in the shade. A young girl caught up with us, shy in her speech yet curiously reluctant to overtake the gringos. This was her daily walk to school, an hour each way, an eight year old on her own, stomping up and down a track that altitude was forcing us to treat gingerly.

Altitude was always going to be such a feature of this trek that it deserved its own place at the dinner table. Huarán was at 3,100m; we’d climb 900m to Cancha Cancha that night. The next day, we’d cross the Pachacutec pass at 4,750m, but at a tentative pace of 1-2 kph until we passed over its summit. On the third day, we’d cross another high pass, the Huillquicasa pass, but at the relatively low level of 4400m. From then on it would be downhill, until those of us still masochistically-inclined, scampered up the additional 400m of Huayna Picchu from Machu Picchu’s 2,400m.

We completed the afternoon’s trek well after dusk. The sun still touched the mountains over to our right, giving the snow-peaks an eerie, other-worldly appearance against the gloom down in the village. We found our tents, already assembled in the grounds of the local school, by torchlight, and welcomed the appearance of thermoses of hot water, crackers and jam in the dining tent while we waited for our decadent three-course dinner to emerge. “So much for losing weight on the trek,” more than one of us was to grumble (a little tongue-in-cheek, admittedly) a day or two later. Smithy, the delightful Peruvian head guide whom Anki and Ross use at every available opportunity, was not going to see us starve. Dinners started with soup, continued with a heaped plate of several sorts of carbohydrate, various vegetables and meat, and finished with some form of dessert that had us incredulous as to its provenance, given the cook and his assistant were working on two gas rings in a neighbouring tent. Apple pie appeared one evening, and a massive two-tier cake on the final night.

The next day began early, but the hour was eased by the appearance of hot drinks and warm water at our tent flaps. (More happy memories of trekking in Bhutan. “Don’t expect this at the next Dragoman camp!” Ross warned us.) Today was going to be the toughest of the trek, and we set off cautiously, but now with three canine companions. An Alsatian-coloured bitch and her two youngsters had adopted us, and refused our half-hearted attempts to send them back to Cancha Cancha. I hadn’t noticed, but apparently they had followed us from Huarán, and were already in the locals’ bad books for killing an alpaca calf and a lamb the previous night. We’d made good the economic loss to the village, and found ourselves saddled with the dogs. That second day, they were largely good company and relatively well-behaved, with the exception of a quarter-hour or so when the youngsters scampered further up the mountain to terrorise a small herd of alpacas. The next day, they would blot their copybook big time, injuring a young alpaca a hundred yards from where I was sitting waiting for the rest of the group. I belatedly realised it had gone too quiet from the direction in which I had last seen my canine companions and ran back to find out what was going on, but it was too late for the alpaca which was bleeding heavily from the muzzle and behind its shoulder where a sizeable piece of fleece had been ripped off. We agonised what to do about the dogs, while Smithy and Mauro, his second-in-command, backtracked to locate the animal’s owner and pay him appropriate compensation (I felt morally to blame, even if the dogs weren’t my own). On his return, Mauro managed to leash the two youngsters with a length of rope from one of the horsemen, and relied on the bitch’s maternal instincts to stay close. At lunchtime that day, the dogs were left tied up but, when we came to set off again, we discovered that the bitch had run off. On the last day, we loaded the youngsters into the minibus and, on our way to Ollantaytambo, dropped them back at Huarán, hoping that they’d then stay put. Certainly they ran off happily when released back in their own village, and Matt thought he’d seen the bitch a couple of kilometres away: maybe she’d already made her way back.

In the meantime, we made our slow way up the Cancha Cancha valley. At one break not far from the top of the pass, we dug out some of the coca leaves we’d bought the day before (I’d already started the day with coca tea), and Smithy dispensed his “magic potion” for us to dab on our hands and faces, and inhale. Every little helps at this kind of altitude. It might have been two weeks since we crossed into Bolivia and first encountered “serious” altitude, but we were still relatively unaccustomed to exercise in this environment.

The scenery around us was getting more and more dramatic: below us, a couple of crystal-clear glacial lakes; beyond, a stark snow-spattered peak; behind us, the distant slopes on the southern side of the Sacred Valley. As we climbed up to the alp before the final ascent, a more dramatic, glacier-covered peak emerged, almost touching distance away in the thin, clear air.
liquorice allsortsliquorice allsortsliquorice allsorts

at the Huillquicasa Pass
When we all finally made it to the top of the pass, we celebrated with photographs and relief. It had been a tough climb, but it would be easier from here. That said, we still had some ground to cover before lunch, nearly two hours’ worth, even if it was downhill. The crew rewarded us with an extra course for lunch, an avocado salad before our much-appreciated soup, plentiful main course and fruit-dessert. To our further relief, the afternoon’s trek would take little more than an hour, down past a pretty waterfall to the village of Quismarani where we would find our camp already assembled with the unexpected addition of an informal market right outside our tents as the village women sought to press upon us drinks and textiles. Not surprisingly, they succeeded in both.

For the final day of trekking, we had a choice: the shortcut down to the road and then onto Lares, or the long route over the mountains via the village of Cuncani, with pretty views of more glacial lakes… or there would have been if the clouds had not come down. But such is trekking in mountains, and we had come prepared. Those of us who did not have full waterproofs had picked up disposable multicoloured ponchos in Calca, and, if we resembled Liquorice Allsorts, at least we were saved the worst of the weather.

At lunchtime, we camped out in another village school (it was a Saturday so we weren’t inconveniencing the kids), and dripped over one of the classrooms while trying to study the Quechua words and numbers up on the walls. Again, the crew rustled up an incredible meal from the shelter of the kitchen tent in the school grounds. By the time we emerged, the rain had given up. For the afternoon’s canter down the valley to the very welcome hot springs at Lares, we were gently teased by sunshine; the worst of the weather had gone.

The next afternoon we drove into Ollantaytambo, where the Spanish were briefly defeated by the Inca in 1536 in a rout assisted by Manco Inca’s brilliant idea of flooding the town. Ollantaytambo is a delightful little town, with narrow cobbled streets and Inca masonry, though unsurprisingly centred around its huge tourist industry. Stretching up the hills behind the town are the ruins of the Inca temple fortress. This was our first chance to climb up the deep steps of Inca agricultural terracing, which dwarf modern-day terracing in Asia. Across the valley, we could see in the cliff the sculpture of the face of Tunupa, a good Samaritan character from pre-Inca mythology. We were yet again impressed at the Incas’ knowledge of the movement of the Earth in relation to the sun, through their precise architecture which reflects the position of the sun during the solstices. The scale of the site, sitting almost on top of and towering over the town, is extraordinary. Unfortunately we were pushed for time, so Smithy whisked us round the ruins in 90 minutes and we then returned to our hotel to prepare for our pre-Machu Picchu dinner at the delightful erstwhile station waiting-room restaurant, El Albergue.

Monday 14th May, “Machu Picchu Day”, dawned very early with a telephone wake-up call from reception (Smithy wasn’t leaving anything to chance) and a reviving breakfast of scrambled eggs, and bread and jam. At 6.30 am we gathered to walk the few minutes down to the station. Just short of the station, Smithy handed out our ticket packs, a stapled-together collection of papers comprising our train tickets to and from Aguas Calientes, our Machu Picchu ticket (endorsed appropriately for those braving the steep uneven steps of Huayna Picchu), and our bus tickets, exhorting us not to lose any one of them. We felt like small children on a school excursion. We already had our passports in our sticky little hands: security – particularly against ticket fraud – is strict here, and numbers are carefully limited for the preservation of the site.

On board the train, we found ourselves in consecutively-numbered seats in the front carriage according to our first names. Mollie, whose first name is Amelia, was ecstatic to have one of the front window seats. Unlike their less exciting British relations, Machu Picchu trains have a half-width cabin at the front for the driver, leaving a lucky couple of passengers to have ring-side seats for the dramatic ride through the narrow western end of the Sacred Valley as it dips from the mountains into rain forest. I was so pleased for Mollie: it’s been a lifelong dream for her to come here, and she later decided to hop off the truck and spend more time exploring the Inca world, including spending the winter solstice in Ollantaytambo.
stunning backdropstunning backdropstunning backdrop

view from the gate to Machu Picchu

For two hours, the train wound along the valley, hugging the river the entire way. With high rainfall and variable water levels here, it was easy to see how the combination of a swollen river and multiple landslides in January 2010 could have washed out sections of the track, marooning people in Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu until air lifts could be arranged, and instantly suspending the vast majority of Peru’s tourism industry for several months. In places, we could still see the semi-washed-away railway tracks, stuck mid-stream.

Aguas Calientes’ raison d’être nowadays is its proximity to Machu Picchu. Even on a brief meander through its streets between the train station and the bus, and later to the restaurant where Smithy had arranged we’d meet before the return journey, it feels artificial and superficial, a gringo party-town for those overnighting here, with overpriced accommodation, food and souvenirs, and little else. But, for all that, it’s a sweet little place, and serves its purpose well. Shuttle run almost continually during the day, clambering up the half-hour of zigzags to Machu Picchu, giving brief dramatic views across to the neighbouring peaks.

The official entrance gate to Machu Picchu could be the gate to Anywhere, with its security barriers and computerised ticketing system, but the first give-away was the DIY Machu Picchu passport stamps available just inside. A touch naff perhaps, particularly given the number of places that now offer this – Tierra del Fuego National Park with their “Fin del Mundo” stamps, the various Antarctic bases, Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side, the Galapagos, and many more besides – but fun nevertheless. Then we started climbing up the track, breath bated at every corner in anticipation of That View, the iconic vista across the main part of the Machu Picchu ruins to the sharp triangle of Huayna Picchu towering beyond.

And it is every bit as jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring and every other such phrase I could ever extract from the most comprehensive thesaurus, as might be expected of such a wonder of the Modern World. I have found myself musing before on the relative paucity of man-made sights that have almost literally taken my breath away – the Great Wall of China, the South Gate to Angkor Thom, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden City – and would now add Machu Picchu to that list. No photograph prepares you for
what a road!what a road!what a road!

the road up to Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu
the reality. But, sadly, the pressure of visitors limits the amount of time that you can stand at that first viewpoint and simply absorb your surroundings. In addition, I had little over an hour with Smithy before the deadline for my “window” to start the climb up Huayna Picchu, itself a separately regulated part of the site in order to preserve this even more fragile ruin. So, obediently, up came my camera and I snapped away, knowing that any attempt to capture the magnificence of the site was futile.

Smithy’s uncle wrote one of “the” books on Machu Picchu and Smithy seems to have absorbed his relative’s expertise wholesale. Anki had already told me that, each time she comes on one of Smithy’s tours, she learns something new, even at sites that she has already visited several times. My brain, still reeling from the experience of actually Being Here, couldn’t hope to take in much of what he was saying. Back in Cusco, I bought the book. In the meantime, I tried to concentrate on architectural nuances, ceremonial practices, and the suchlike, in wonderment at my surroundings.

All too soon, the four of us Huayna Picchu ascenders had to abandon the end of Smithy’s tour and take off for the overshadowing peak. Disconcertingly, the path leads downwards at the outset, just as I was glancing up, once again, at the sheer-sided peak and wondering quite how I was going to make it up there. The rough steps wound upwards, until I reached a series of narrow agricultural steps, ambitiously created on the upper levels of the mountain. At this point, the pedestrian steps move over to the sides of the tiny fields and clamber upwards even more narrowly and precipitously, and, in common with others above me, I found myself on all fours for this part of the climb, trying not to look down. (I was relieved that vertigo-suffering Jo had decided not to come with me.) Near the top, the path wound through and round further small Inca temples until it me at the base of the collection of boulders which form Huayna Picchu’s peak. Here I found the beautiful people, or so it appeared, those who had come up earlier in the day and, scattered over the boulders like lizards, were taking the chance to sunbathe in these most incredible surroundings. I scrambled to the very
which way now?which way now?which way now?

Huayna Picchu
top over the rocks, using the adhesiveness of the granite surface to my advantage, only noticing the fragile wooden steps afterwards. It was a view and a half, and well worth the effort. Machu Picchu looked like a toy-town scattered over the shoulder of the mountain below me. Around three sides, spiked further green peaks, the Río Vilcanota (or Urubamba) meandering along the valley between them and the Inca mountains. The eponymous peak behind Machu Picchu itself seemed to be the only thing higher than me, a further 300m closer to the blue sky. I too could have stayed here for the remainder of the afternoon, but we had to be back in Aguas Calientes by 3 pm in order to catch the right train back to Ollantaytambo, and I was keen to see if I could squeeze in Machu Picchu’s remaining two key sites, the Inca bridge and the Sun Gate itself.

Signposting isn’t this area’s forte, but, with the assistance of another sunbathing tourist just outside Machu Picchu’s urban sector, I found the path to the Inca bridge. If “precipitous” applied to the path up Huayna Picchu, I am struggling to find a more dramatic word to capture the way that this fragile bridge clings onto the vast cliff-face. Stone walls have been built up from the base of the cliff, as if to support it, and the bridge itself spans a division between the two sides of the wall. Not surprisingly, no-one is allowed onto the walls or the bridge itself, but there are fabulous views of the whole cliff from the Inca track.

That left Intipunku, the Sun Gate, supposedly a 45 minute walk away. I looked at my watch. The other tracks had been generous with their time-estimates. I reckoned I could make it, even in the warmth of the middle of the day, a temperature to which I was very much a stranger after the last few months in Patagonia, the Andes and across the Altiplano. It was a lovely walk up this Inca path, giving me time to appreciate the gorgeous colours of the tropical vegetation around me. All too soon – if I’d only worked it out – I would be down on Peru’s bleak and largely monochromatic Pacific coast where such colours would be a feature of only my fading memory. The gate itself, to be honest, is no great architectural marvel – at least, not in my eyes. Its impressiveness lies in the views it gives over towards the distant ruins and the surrounding mountains, and then in the contrast to the forest-like track beyond which my “classic” friends would have walked seven hours’ earlier that day. I’d made it with time to spare, so sat back and munched my snack-lunch, contemplating the morning. It had been incredible.

By the time I left Cusco, a day later than the rest of the truck as I wanted the extra time to explore more of the city’s museums and churches, I was reeling with site-fatigue, fabulous and fascinating as this city is. But it wasn’t over yet. A few days’ later, in Arequipa, I went to pay my respects to the “Inca maiden”, Juanita. Fortuitously revealed on Volcán Ampato in September 1995, shortly after an eruption on a nearby volcano melted the ice on Ampato’s peak, Juanita is thought to have been a young Inca girl (probably between 11 and 15 in age) of noble birth sacrificed to the gods in the name of improved weather conditions. She, and the artefacts buried with her, are astonishingly well-preserved, the greatest deterioration having been in the fortnight or so she would have been exposed to the twentieth century’s elements just after the eruption. This, and other similar finds on the mountain, give us an extraordinary amount of information about Inca life and religious practices, as well as suggesting that the Inca were, effectively, the first mountaineers. Juanita – so-called after the American archaeologist, Johan Reinhard, who found her – is likely to have had to walk from Cusco (a distance of more than 400 km) in thin-soled llama shoes and then, in company with the relevant nobles and religious officials, climbed the 6,288 m mountain to the summit where she was probably drugged and then killed by a violent blow to the head. It is thought that she may well have been brought up knowing that, if conditions required, she would be sacrificed to the gods, so she would have been fully aware of where she was going and why. A poignant National Geographic film at the start of the museum tour intersects the story of her body’s discovery with a dramatic re-enactment of her final days. I was reminded of the “living goddesses” in Nepal, the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu in particular: a happier life, but no less artificial. Juanita is now kept in the Museo Santuarios Andinos in dimly-lit conditions at -20ºC, but it is still possible to see her in amazing detail, a tiny bent figure who paid the ultimate price.

So that, for me, was Inca Peru, an incredible and prolific collection of ruins of this most amazing civilisation that lasted, at its zenith, for less than a century, but covered South America from southern Colombia to central Chile, encompassing up to twenty million people.

Now I needed a breather on the coast to let my brain recover from the information- and experience-overload, though there was the small matter of my birthday to be celebrated in cake and cocktails in Arequipa first.


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laguna near Quismarani
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near Quismarani
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emerging out of the mists

similiarities to trekking in the Bhutanese Himalaya HUGE
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near the Huillquicasa Pass
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moth at the Lares hot springs
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Huayna Picchu steps


19th June 2012

Great to hear your take on Peru so far, I'm not surprised you didn't fall in love with the country initially, having entered through Puno and Juliaca :/ Looking forward to hearing more about Arequipa, very glad you got to meet Juanita.

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