The reason I haven’t been updating this blog as frequently as I said I would, as often as I would like to, is because I know what will happen after I post the last post: my trip to Chile will be over. I know I know, it’s been over for three months now, but in my head it’s not yet “official” because I haven’t finished writing about it. Is this called denial?
Over the past few weeks I’ve come to the conclusion that I am indeed facing reverse culture shock (despite my attempts to thwart it). It’s so much more subtle than I imagined it would be that I can’t tell you the exact moment I realized I was having Chile withdrawals.
As my graduation gets closer and closer and I make plans for the future (eeeek!), I know that all journeys must come to an end. There’s a line in a favorite song of mine (“Volver” by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera) that goes, “Pero el viajero que huye, tarde o temprano detiene su andar. But the traveler who flees, sooner or later must stop running.” I don’t want to tell myself to “stop running” necessarily; rather, I want to think of it as pausing long enough to enjoy all the wonderful things that are happening around me at this very moment. And you guys, you who have been taking part in my adventures and traveling with me, deserve to know how they end.
So, without any more ceremony, I present to you: the first installment (out of four) of “¡Chau, Chile!” :)
To start: the second post about Perú!
The Inka Trail (el Camino Inka) as it’s known today is a roadway, part-reconstruction part-original, that leads from Cusco to Machu Picchu. It’s actually a bit of a misnomer since it’s not the only road the Inkas took to get to the ancient city: there were hundreds of Inka trails that connected the entire empire like a large web, many of which still exist today although most have been swallowed up by the jungle or destroyed by European colonizers.
An aside (I seem to like these, don’t I?): Incidentally, saying “the Inkan empire” is also a misnomer. “Inka” means “lord” or “ruler” in Quechua and technically was used just for the ruling families, as a result many scholars now refer to the empire as the Quechua empire.
Anyway, the Quechua were a jaw-dropping kind of people in general, but what I find really fascinating, apart from their architecture (as I think I mentioned extensively in a previous post), is the existence of these “Inka trails”. These pathways connected all four regions of the Quechua empire, which went from Quito, Ecuador all the way down to Santiago, Chile (if you go back to my post about my trip around Northern Chile, you’ll see a remnant of an Inka trail). These trails also linked all the important cultural and religious Quechua sites to one another. Machu Picchu, perhaps the most famous Quechua ruin, is interconnected with other ruins via Inka trails. When Europeans first reached the Quechua empire people who lived in the Andean jungles learned of their presence within two days, a distance that in today’s time would take a day to travel by car (the Quechua messengers traveled only on foot). Isn’t that crazy?! C’mon, there is no way in hell that that’s not one of the coolest things you’ve ever read…
Sorry, sorry, so many distractions! Okay, so to prevent the destruction of the “official” Inka Trail the Peruvian government has put strict regulations in place. For example, only 500 people are allowed to start the trail each day–300 are porters and guides and the rest are tourists. Whereas earlier it was possible for people to hike the trail alone everyone is now required to hike with a tour agency. Because tour agencies must meet government requirements for the hike (e.g., proper and safe elimination of wastes, environmentally-friendly tools and equipment, healthy relationships with porters, etc), it is easier (theoretically) to minimize damages to the trail. As you can imagine this has created a high demand for spots and it’s often necessary to book the trial well in advance, sometimes as early as six months if you plan on going during the high (dry) season–June to September. Even though I went in December during the low (wet) season–October to May–I still had to book the trip in September.
For those of you who want to know the details about booking the Inka Trail (e.g., how to choose a tour agency, what are some trail/hike options, what to expect from the agency and from the trail, etc) I’ll be adding a page to my blog. You can find this page at the top of the main site.
Now…finally the moment (I think) you’ve all been waiting for: the Inka Trail. I have to preface this by saying it has been the most physically challenging thing I’ve done so far (definitely beats climbing an active volcano) and therefore the most rewarding. This doesn’t mean the hike is impossible or even ridiculously hard, just that I had never done anything like it before.
We hiked for a total of four days, beginning at Km 82, situated right next to the Urubamba River. Here’s a quick sketch of the trail and the surrounding area:
The first day of the hike was the easiest–it’s meant to gradually let our bodies grow accustomed to the hike. What surprised me about the trail was that it didn’t take us through the lush jungles of the Amazon, where we walked in the cool shade of wild vegetation under a canopy cover that was pierced by warm sunlight. No, it wasn’t quite as romantic as I had imagined it; on the contrary the trail was mostly dust and rocks, we were nowhere near the Amazon, and the air carried a muggy type of heat (it was cloudy but the walking made us all sweat). I’m not saying I was disappointed, not at all! In fact I loved that it was nothing like I had imagined it to be.
This first day we were able to hang out near the ruins of Patallacta (Pa-ta-yak-ta)–also called Llactapata (Yak-ta-pa-ta)–before setting up camp later in the evening.
I think what most people overlook when visiting Machu Picchu is that it isn’t the only Inka site worthy of recognition and respect. You might have noticed in my sketch of the Inka Trail that it isn’t the fastest way to get there: it curves and climbs and dips, it doesn’t go in a straight line. So then what was the point of it if it wasn’t a direct route to Machu Picchu? Many archaeologists believe that it was a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Machu Picchu by way of other ceremonial sites. Those of you who are familiar with California’s mission system might be able to guess why these peripheral site were constructed and used: each ruin served as a place to stay for the night and provided work for local Andean farmers. Just like the Spanish missions built along California are a day’s ride on horseback, most of the ruins are located a day apart, so that if somebody embarked on the trail they would make their way to shelter before it got dark. These ruins had to be taken care of and locals were often entrusted with this task. While hiking I wondered whether the Spanish had gotten the idea for the Mission system from the Quechua people…wouldn’t that be neat!
By the end of the first day we were at our camp site. It had begun to rain sporadically and we were all hoping it wouldn’t turn into a downpour (so much for that…). I’m sure you guys are all curious about what the camping part of the trek was like. The only reason (seriously, the only reason) we got through the first day, let alone the next three, was all thanks to the porters who came with us. Anybody who tells you that you’ll be “going native” during the trail (i.e., living a hardcore four days, relying on the few supplies you remembered to pack, etc) is totally lying. We had it easy. The only thing we were required to carry on our person were personal items (e.g., clothes, sleeping bags, toiletries, etc). Communal supplies like tents and food and cooking equipment were all carried by the seven porters who accompanied us and they were the ones who set up the camp sites and cooked and served the food.
These porters are amazing. I don’t think I can stress this enough. They are seriously incredible people who work really hard to make sure tourists like us have a good experience on the trail. These guys would set up and take down all the tents (sleeping tents and eating tents), cook all the food and clean up after we were done. They would be the last ones to leave our campsite but the first to arrive: everything would be set up and ready to go by the time our group reached the next one…it was crazy! These guys would run, not walk, RUN, up steep hills and steps, carrying over 20 kg work of supplies on their backs in flip flops. They were wearing freaking FLIP FLOPS! You haven’t seen anything as insanely awesome as this, guys. Again, it was amazing, and so humbling.
The second day was straight up insane. It started well enough, with some ups and downs, but then turned into the most rigorous climb I’ve ever done. After a grueling six hours we reached the summit, the highest point on the trail: Dead Woman’s Pass.
After Dead Woman’s Pass the trail was all downhill. For the next two hours our guide Raúl and I hiked to our next camp. Unfortunately it had started to pour by the time we began to descend, so we were pretty much drenched when we finally reached the campsite :( I was so fortunate to have found the best hiking boots ever…I was trekking through muddy water for two hours and my socks were still relatively dry. Huzzah!
Day three was probably the most fun trail day as the rain had stopped by lunch time and we were able to see some amazing ruins. The trail wasn’t challenging either, so that was nice.
Our third campsite was about 10 minutes away from the ruins of Wiñay Wayna, which means “forever young” in Quechua.
You can see the agricultural terraces made of stone (from this angle it all looks green because you’re seeing the tops of the terraces). According to Raúl the structure of these terraces (i.e., their concavity or convexity) serves an important purpose. They way in which these terraces are shaped–the shape itself depends on the direction of light, wind, and rain–helps pollinate the plants grown on the terraces.
The fourth day was when we actually made our way into the “lost city”. We woke up around 4 in the morning to wait in line at the entrance to the portion of the Inka Trail that leads to Intipunku or “the Gateway of the Sun”. Rising far above Machu Picchu, this is where the Inka and his posse would have first caught glimpse of the city.
Okay, so now I have to gush a bit more about how amazing the Quechua were (c’mon, like this could ever be boring…). Remember how I said that they were awesome architects, centuries ahead of other (i.e., European) civilizations with regards to engineering, mathematics, and science? Well, Intipunku was built so that on the Winter Solstice the sun shines through Intipunku straight onto the Temple of the Sun (located in Machu Picchu) at sunrise.
I mean like what.
The crazy part is, nobody can still figure out HOW they were able to make such precise calculations. I mean, this isn’t only Intipunku and the Temple of the Sun we’re talking about…crazy stuff like this exists ALL THROUGHOUT THE EMPIRE.
If you want to learn more about the Quechua/Inka, I highly recommend reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams. It’s a fantastic story about the history of Machu Picchu (and the Quechua/Inka) and its “discovery” by Yale professor Hiram Bingham III. Adams, an (ex?) editor at National Geographic decides to follow Bingham’s footsteps around Perú 100 years after the credited discovery of the ruins of Machu Picchu. This book definitely made my foray into Perú seem quite inconsequential. Adams actually “roughs it” out there in the Amazon: he hires an Australian guide who basically knew the area like the back of his hand–he had done the Inka Trail several times, usually in flip-flops–and stayed out on the trails for weeks at a time, visiting other ruins around Machu Picchu. SERIOUSLY GO READ THIS BOOK OKAY. It’s entertaining, educational, and full of surprises.
But yeah, I’ve been talking for way too long. Here is Machu Picchu!
On the very first day of the Inka Trail Raúl had warned us that there was a possibility we’d reach Machu Picchu when it was raining. Instead of getting upset he told us to take the opportunity to see Machu Picchu like the Quechua would have seen it (i.e., realize that the site had its ups and downs, it wasn’t always going to be so pituresque). Although I was slightly disappointed that it was raining when we arrived, the cloudiness actually made it more appealing. Machu Picchu can really work the whole “mystical/enigma” thing.
After spending a few hours exploring Machu Picchu we met our guide at Aguas Calientes. On the train back to Cusco the five of us realized that we were all smelling really bad and that we really didn’t care. I mean, we had already known this while on the hike (we had not showered for four days now), but when you’re sitting next to someone who smells like roses, you really get self-conscious. Whatever. We had just done one of the world’s most awesome hikes EVER and we did not give a shit.
That being said, the train is the only other way to get to Machu Picchu, so if you don’t have the time to do the 4-day hike or are not in the right physical condition you can take the train-bus combination to the ruins. Trains depart from Cusco daily, at hourly (or so) intervals and reach Agua Calientes in about three hours. From there you can take a bus up to Machu Picchu. It’s important to note that only about 2500 tourists can enter Machu Picchu daily (200 of them arrive via the Inka Trail) so tickets may be hard to come by in the peak season. More information about this will be available on the Machu Picchu info page!
Thanks for sticking with me all this while, and thank you so so so much for your patience! Hope you enjoyed this post and are looking forward to the next ones :)