In the footsteps of the Inca

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There was just a moment on the Apacheta Pass when time seemed to stand still. Dwarfed beneath the the might of Mount Salkantay, we stood at the top of the Apurimac Valley through which we’d climbed and looked down upon our remaining path towards the mountain range, its desolate white peaks guarding the Urubamba Valley and our ultimate destination of Machu Picchu. The views all around us were astonishing. Our local guide Jymmy stood with his head bowed and a Kintu between his forefinger and thumb, and while uttering something low and indecipherable in his native language of Quechua, he tucked the formation of three perfect Coca leaves into an Apacheta, one of the thousands of small man made rock formations built in respect of the surrounding mountains. He spoke to us in hushed tones, of his belief in and utter devotion to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and of the importance of the sacred surrounding wilderness, and as he did so the sound of someone playing Peruvian panpipes floated up past us on the wind. I felt a shiver down my spine and goosebumps rising on my arms and I glanced up – was I alone in this? Nope, the rest of our small group were stood just as silently still, a glazed look on their faces. It was difficult to tell whether it was the cold wind creeping down our backs, if we’d fallen for some cleverly contrived tourist show or whether we’d actually been drawn into some kind of ancient, spiritual sense of being, but either way, there was a moment in time where everything just seemed to be at peace.

That was on day two of our pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, and it’s safe to say that three days earlier everything had not been at peace at all. Having not wanted to pinpoint an arrival date to begin our trek and with the classic and world famous Inca Trail booked up months in advance, we left our fate in the hands of the huge number of tour operators in Cusco. Once the capital and centre point of the vast and all conquering Inca Kingdom, Cusco is undoubtedly now the capital and centre point of Peru’s ever growing tourist industry, and the result is staggering. Tourist Agencies line the ancient city streets, each offering a multitude of ways to reach Machu Picchu, while any building that’s not an agency is invariably a souvenir shop or tourist restaurant, all complete with their own salesperson at the door clawing and imploring at you to come in. It’s exhausting, it’s hectic and it’s bewildering, yet somehow Cusco is still remarkably appealing.

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We’d planned to spend a few afternoons here prior to any heading off on any adventures, and doing so is very much recommended to allow for acclimatisation to the high altitude. With that advice in mind then, we proceeded to do what we always seem to end up doing in these situations, which is the complete opposite. Somehow, within four hours of arriving in Cusco we’d booked ourselves onto a trek which left at 5am the next morning. Whoops. An evening was then spent legging it around the cobbled streets grabbing any possible trekking supplies we thought we might need – namely a ridiculously large supply of wet wipes and some bars of dried animal faeces, which we accidentally mistook for granola bars – before manically stuffing our bags, getting a few hours kip and then making a bleary eyed departure from Cusco under the cloak of darkness.

The first thing that strikes you upon arrival in the Peruvian Andes is the cleanliness and the clarity of the air. It had been the same in the Cordillera Blanca around Huaraz a few weeks earlier, and as we began to walk from the town of Mollepata on that first morning of our 55 kilometre trek, it was hard not to take a lungful of that air and feel exhilarated with the freedom of our surroundings, which were about as authentically Peruvian as they come. A pair of Andean Eagles wheeled playfully on the thermals above while in paddocks surrounding the path, Llamas grazed lazily under the watchful eye of stocky, poncho clad horsemen. Ahead of us were the stark white cliff faces of the Vilcabamba mountain range and it was these that we steadily climbed towards, the air thinning with the late afternoon light. It was in the shadow of these mountains at Soraypampa that we spent our first night, our tents and a few grazing pack animals barely noticeable in the moonlight beneath the surrounding slopes. With the temperature plummeting as darkness fell, excited chatter about our first days walk soon turned into just the chatter of teeth, and even a breathtaking blanket of stars above couldn’t keep us outside for more than a few minutes. Cocooned inside our sleeping bags we layered up with every item of clothing available, and as ice slowly coated our tents around us, we rested our legs for the long walk ahead.

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The very concept of Inca trails and paths was at the very root of their civilisation. Following the Inca’s all conquering expansion, sweeping across the Andean regions of South America taking hundreds of indigenous tribes and communities under their rule, it was this vast network of roads and pathways that paved the way, quite literally, for the continents most powerful pre-Columbian empire. It’s estimated there were around 40’000 kilometres of Inca roads, stretching from Ecuador in the North down as far as Argentina and Chile in the South, with some of these still now in use today as the Pan American highway, and other, smaller parts still walked and trekked by locals and tourists alike. The latter of these, the likes of the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, were originally little more than service roads, off the beaten path tracks used for access only routes to mountain top citadels. The former however, were integral to Inca rule. Chasquis used the roads as messaging and transportation routes, relaying information and goods (including the delivery of fresh fish from the coast to Cusco, over 400km inland) between runners at a rate of well over 200km a day, while the main highways were used to divide the kingdom up and were strictly for use by high society only. With the main highways driven through flat Andean plains for ease, high altitude mountain paths went directly up where possible, with huge steps being constructed on the steeper inclines, while paths were invariably constructed along valley slopes rather than the valley floor for use even in the rainy season. There was a method in everything they built.

We hadn’t made it onto any traditional Inca pathways just yet, but there was a definite sense of history unfolding as we made our way onwards. Following the lung busting climb up to the high pass at 4600 metres, we began to drop down into warmer climes, and into pastures dotted with traditional thatched huts and where tiny paths disappeared off over hillsides and into hidden gullies. Our path continued downwards still, and it was here that we saw our first Inca ruins at the small terraces of Andennes. Like many of these sites that are found all across the Sacred Valley and surrounding areas, the terraces were still in partial use – the same farming methods used hundreds of years back are just as productive now – and while small and not overly impressive, our first taste of some actual Inca ruins drove us on towards our final goal.

The terrain didn’t change much on the third day. We were now in high rainforest, the beginnings of the Amazon basin, and as we hugged the banks of the Huamantay River, tip toeing our way across landslides and picking our way over glacial streams, the temperatures began to climb along with the number of blisters on our swollen and aching feet. Fortunately that third afternoon bought some respite, as a 15 kilometre stretch from Colcapampa to the small town of La Playa put us within a short distance of Santa Teresa and some natural hot pools. Never before has a bath been so welcome. Yes, we were sharing the bath with several hundred other people, and yes, most of them also hadn’t washed for several days. But even so, after three and a half days of walking and wet wipe washes, this was about as good as gets.

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Well soaked, newly wrinkled and fully rested, we now had to face one last assault on our legs before the trek was done, it was time to walk in the footsteps of the Incas. From the village of Lucmabamba we began to climb. This section of Inca Trail is believed to have been one of the six or seven access routes to Machu Picchu, and as we heaved our way up the huge stone steps through thick jungle and along the side of inexplicably steep inclines, you couldn’t help but admire the graft that must have gone into the creation of such routes. Paths such as these are still being uncovered even today, while archeological ruins are also being still discovered, or perhaps re-discovered, also. Our trail took us via the site of Llaqtapata, discovered in the early 1900s by the American explorer Hiram Bingham who found and opened up Machu Picchu to the world, but then subsequently forgotten about and reclaimed to the jungle until 2003 when it was excavated further. This site itself was an important place, not only in its initial usage as a rest stop and a storage facility, but also for its location. For it was from here, from the crumbling stone walls and the neat grass terraces that we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. While the Incas used Llaqtapata as a look out point and signal post for their most famous of cities, we simply gazed in awe across the valley. It was a unique view, from side on and with the whole site framed by the surrounding mountains, even in its current miniature size it really was breathtaking and a site to behold.

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And so to Machu Picchu itself. For all it’s celebrity and for all the thousands of pictures you’ve seen, it’s hard to explain the feeling of that first view of the city itself. It’s unbelievably beautiful. We’d made it to the site for the opening of the gates at 6am, and as such the city itself was still deserted, a few resident Llamas the only movement down below. While the early morning light cast shadows across the complex network of walls and buildings, the towering shape of Huayna Picchu behind the site along with the astonishing backdrop of the surrounding mountains makes for an unforgettable image. It’s not quite a discovery of Hiram Bingham proportions, but for any traveller who visits it’s a definite ‘wow, this is actually it’ moment.

Back in Cusco in the days following our trek, we’d been lucky enough to discover a small exhibition of work by one of Peru’s most esteemed photographers, an indigenous man named Martin Chambi. It was Chambi who had helped open up Machu Picchu to the masses, lugging his 20kg camera and tripod up to the site in the 1920s and 1930s to capture on film a site that was very much still a wilderness. It was extraordinary to see the original photos of it back then in comparison to what we see today, and while there was untamed beauty to it then, little of it has been lost to time.

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We spent the first couple of hours being taken around the site by our guide Jymmy, where explanations of the different areas and their uses were given, and it soon became clear that there was not just method in their network of Inca Trails, but in fact in everything they made. Besides the dumbfounding number of carved terraces, used as both farming areas and as support for the city walls, the aqueducts and drainage systems, and despite the various rooms used as mausoleums, for ceremonial and sacrificial purposes or merely for more simple and practical reasons, it was their knowledge of the skies and sun that were the most impressive. Summer and Winter Solstices were of the upmost importance, with the first rays of sun on both those days being captured in the Temple of the Sun through carefully positioned windows. We saw two shallow pools carved into the ground, where the reflection of the Milky Way was observed and the movement of the sun could be tracked, and we witnessed the accuracy of the kite shaped southern cross stone in the Principle Temple, where the four points of the stone aligned perfectly to a compass. More pertinently for us in relation to where we’d come from, we also learned that directly North from this compass the actual Southern Cross is seen above the peak of Salkantay when at its highest point. There was little the Incas left to chance, everything was defined to the nearest degree.

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If the last few days hadn’t been exhausting enough, that final day up at Machu Picchu topped the lot. Having arrived there under the jolly assumption that our walking was done, we were in for a nasty surprise – it’s difficult to describe just how big the site is. We hiked up to the Sun Gate for stunning views across the whole site, where we couldn’t help but be envious of those on the Inca Trail who have this as their first entrance, and we plodded our way round to the ingenuous Inca Bridge, tucked away out of sight. These alone took hours in themselves, all in the unrelenting Peruvian sun, while the mere effort of exploring the main city was tiring enough. It was our climb up Machu Picchu Mountain however that nearly finished us however.

The tickets for the far more famous and popular climb up Huayna Picchu were booked out well before our last minute trek booking, so we found ourselves faced with the alternative, which stood at the opposite end of the site and at twice the height. For two hours we toiled upwards, our feet screaming at us as we clambered and teetered up the path of narrow stone steps that made for the top, but it was an effort that was more than worthwhile. From the summit of Machu Picchu Mountain we could see it all. The whole city lay there before us along with the winding Urubamba River sparkling below, both once again small within the vastness and beauty of their surroundings. This was surely one of the finest engineering feats by man, anywhere in the world within our entire existence. How, without the use of wheels and with only their own knowledge and understanding of the earth and skies around them, they had built this so perfectly formed city on top of a mountain, I will never know. It was an unbelievable achievement of epic proportions, and here’s the thing. They began to build this in around 1440, with it taking around 60 years to complete. By the mid 1500s, it was empty, abandoned with the arrival of the Spanish. That means that for all the effort and for all the exquisite work that went into Machu Picchu, it was only really lived in for around 50 years. Which in the grand scheme of things, is just a moment in time.

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