Cusco / Inca Trail / Machu Picchu.
After the humid heat of the Amazon, we stepped out of the airplane into the dry cool mountain air of Cusco, 3400m above sea level. Every refreshing breath required twice as much air, as we had about half the oxygen going into our system. Supplemental oxygen could be purchased at the airport, or you could go native, and drink copious amounts of coca tea (same leaf used to make cocaine!) which the locals have been using to counteract altitude effects.
Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, and was at the center (or navel) of Tawantinsuyo (literally means “four states”) which made up the Inca empire. Inca technically refers to the king, and not the people, who are the Quechua, and make up most of the indigenous population of Peru. Cusco is a hybrid of Inca buildings for foundations and Spanish colonial architecture on top. Like a lot of other places the Spaniards conquered, they tended to build churches and other important buildings on top of the sacred sites of the people that they conquered. This lead to a very unusual mix of stonework seen in most buildings today.
The Tupac Yupanqui hotel where we stayed was one such building that was originally an Inca palace, and then had a Spanish layer added on top. The thick Inca walls resulted in an incredibly quiet room even though we were near some main streets.
The Plaza d’Armas in Cusco is the main square and contains the best example of this hybrid architecture. The main churches look like Spanish churches on top, but have the Inca foundations up to about 10 ft.
Cusco also had no shortage of great restaurants, many of which were located in the main square overlooking the plaza. We did find Chez Maggie – a small restaurant specializing in brick oven pizza, and which we had to visit given the name. This was starting a trend, as last year we visited Café Margret in Eastern Iceland!
The next morning was the Cusco city tour. This involved exploring the ruins around Cusco, which meant driving up into the surrounding mountains another 400m!
We started at Sacsayhuaman (Pr. Sexy woman!) a few hundred metres above Cusco. This is the second sun temple, laid out in the shape of a Puma. The rocks came from 40 km away, some as heavy as 350 tons, which were moved using tree trunks covered with llama skins. There are some interesting shapes, such as a llama body, that are made from the rocks.
The next stop was Qenqo, where the llamas and other animals were sacrificed to the Gods. The flow of the blood of the animal during the ritual was used to predict whether there would be a successful crop that year. Qengo also had its share of llamas and traditionally clad women who would pose for a fee, as well as the reincarnation of the last Inca King, who also posed for a buck. I figured he was making about $50 per hour during the morning rush!
We continued up the hill to 3800m to Tambamachay. Built as a temple to the water, there is a spring with 13% iron content that runs all year – used as resting spot to recharge the human spirit. This was also the area with the highest concentration of vendors selling souvenirs to tourists, as well as some alpacas that posed for pictures!
Tambamachay was only 400m lower than the highest pass on the Inca Trail, and 400m higher than Cusco, so it felt that were half way to the top of the hike – except that we had driven up the hill, not walked. The true test would come in a few days.
Returning to Cusco, we visited the Santo Domingo Church, which was a classic Colonial structure built on top of an Inca foundation. The trapezoidal Inca stonework, with tightly fitting joints, gave way to arched doorways a top European style construction.
The next morning we left the hotel at 6:30am and headed for a 3.5 hr bus ride through the Sacred Valley to the start of the Inca Trail. After meeting our porters and getting last minute snacks at Ollayantambo we at last reached the Camino Inca – Inca Trail sign next to the railroad tracks. A quick check of our passport to confirm that I was indeed the person listed on the ticket, and the slow ascent of Day 1 began.
The Inca trail is part of the original stone path built from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The most popular trek consists of a 45 km trek from KM82 (Piscacuchu at 2500m) on the train line, to Machu Picchu. 500 people a day are allowed on the trail. This includes porters and guides, and therefore, about 200 tourists start the hike each day. The trail is closed for maintenance every February (which also happens to be the wettest month). The peak season is June to September, and thus we were just ahead of the rush. The trail is usually booked 6 months in advance, and therefore it is impossible to show up and expect to hike the trail.
In addition, the weight carried by the porters is limited to 25kg, and this is strictly enforced by spot checks along the way. Our passports were checked on three different occasions while we were hiking the trail. There are designated campgrounds where all the groups must stay each night, and thus it is not a wilderness experience, as you and 500 of your newest friends are camping under the stars each night.
The trail was “discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. The Spanish never found the trail or Machu Picchu, but the local people knew the location of both, and helped Bingham to find the “lost city”.
The first day is about 15km to El Mirador campground. This is an easy uphill to about 3100m, and passes some spectacular remains of Inca villages. The first one Llactapata, was built upon a spectacular terraced hillside near the river valley and was a rest stop on the way to Machu Picchu. There is an entire economy around the trail, with local women selling food to the porters and drinks and souvenirs to the tourists.
The trail is set up as a one-way hike, however, we did see at least 6 people walking towards us, who had to turn back due to the debilitating effects of altitude further up the trail.
Day 2 was the legendary toughest day. This involved hiking up 1100m to Dead Woman’s Pass and then 700m down to the campground. Luckily for us, there was more cloud cover this day, and therefore, not as hot. We traveled through the cloud forest, which had very different trees than the lower forest, before passing through alpine meadows with llamas and alpacas, and then reaching the pass shortly after 1pm.
Day 3 was the longest day, but was not as much of a climb as Day 2. This day had the most remains of different Inca sites along the trail.
The first check point, Runkurakay was used to control who could proceed to Machu Picchu. A few hours later, we passed Sayacmarka, which was used to prepare recruits in the military and had a companion site that was a second check point for access to Machu Picchu. The last site, Phuyupatamarca, had a series of fountains and viewing platforms to see the surrounding scenery.
We continued down the trail passing through some tunnels and circular staircase like paths. The Indiana Jones theme song kept coming back to me as I was descending this trail.
That night we had a special dessert – a cake to celebrate Joe and Deb’s Honeymoon! The chef baked the cake on the trail. These guys were amazing with the food that they prepared for us each day. We certainly did not lose any pounds even on this portion of the trip.
Day 4 was the day we had all been waiting for – Machu Picchu. The access to this part of the trail is controlled by the Park police, and the gate did not open until 5:30am. 200 tourists and guides lined up in the dark waiting to gain access to the 3 km portion of the trail that lead to the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu.
The gates opened, and the race began to see who could get there first! Our group split into two – the under 30s raced ahead with the over 30s bringing up the rear. However, the tortoise group won in the end, as Hanna, 23, hurt her knee and hobbled up the steepest part of the climb just before the Sun Gate.
The Sun Gate, situated East of Machu Picchu, is the first place that we could get a view of the famous site. The people that rushed ahead, got a good seat to see a rather boring view. As Machu Picchu is surrounded by higher mountains, the sun doesn’t actually hit the site until after 7am. Before, that the light is dim and flat and doesn’t offer the expected sun rise glow of colors.
Our group watched the sun slowly descend upon Machu Picchu as it rose above the surrounding mountains. We decided to continue along the trail to the Guard House that overlooks Machu Picchu where we would meet the 5 from our group who did not hike the trail. The Guard House is where all the pictures of Machu Picchu in the tourist brochures and post cards are taken.
By this time, the site was fully lit by the morning sun, and was certainly everything I had expected. In fact, the view of the surrounding rugged mountains was an unexpected bonus as I had not seen this type of view in any of the literature on the site.
After taking many photos of ourselves and the site, we headed down to the main entrance for breakfast and then went on a two hour walking tour of the complex.
Machu Picchu and the Inca trail were built by the 9th Inca king. Based on the archeological evidence of the type of buildings at the site, Machu Picchu was used to prepare future Inca Kings and nobles, and was a mix of a learning centre, astronomical observatory and retreat for the king. In addition, there were about 500 people who lived at the site which included the farmers and servant class.
The main reason for the selection of the site was its abundance of building materials and access to water. However, the dirt required to grow crops was hauled from the fertile sacred valley near Cusco. Over 80% of the buildings are original, having been restored. The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, and therefore, never ruined it. All of the damage was from the jungle having overrun the complex in the 400 years since it was abandoned.
Our tour took us to various parts of the complex, including the Eastern and Western Urban Zones and the Upper Agricultural Zone. The Three Window Temple was oriented to catch both the winter and summer solstice sunrise trough respective windows. The Sacristy Room in the west had the classic trapezoidal rock wall construction, which was know to withstand earthquakes. The Temple of the Condor, which was constructed to look like a condor, was also thought to be a torture chamber or possibly area for animal sacrifice. A more thorough description of the site is given at: http://www.rediscovermachupicchu.com/mp-attractions.htm
By the time we were finished the tour at 11:15am, the site was crawling with visitors, most of whom come from Cusco for a day trip. Over 4000 people a day visit Machu Pacchu, making it the main driver of the Peruvian tourist economy, and likely responsible for more wealth generation today than when it was used by the Inca king over 400 years ago.
Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, has as the name implies a hot spring in the town. This was a soothing way to finish the 4 day Inca Trail hike. We then returned to Cusco by train, passing the start at km 82 within 30 minutes of leaving the station!
Peruvians are very religious people, and are seemingly completely converted to Catholicism. However, we discovered that they actually have a hybrid of Catholic religion and native animist religion. This was evident the following day in the Corpus Christi parade in the main plaza of Cusco. The saints that were paraded out, had some Inca symbolism on most of them, and in fact each was thought to represent an Incan king to the local population as this replaced a “pagan” ritual that they held around the same time each year.
Later that evening we enjoyed a special Peruvian massage to soothe our now stiff bodies after the previous 4 days of walking. This also prepared us for another ritualistic eating experience – the roast cuy (guinea pig) that is a special delicacy in Peru. Our last meal in Cusco was at the Inca Grill in the main plaza. Again, the food was superb, with 5 of us enjoying a mix of alpaca steak, chicken, and roast guinea pig as well as more Chilean red wine and Pisco sours.