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The Inca Trail

I plod up the mountain. Every few yards, I lean on my hiking stick, wheezing. “Pass of the Dead Woman,” at 13,776 feet, looms above me on the Inca Trail. My temples and lungs ache for want of oxygen. At this altitude, my blood has thickened and slowed in my veins, no matter how hard my racing heart pumps. Suddenly, heavenly music rises through the mist. Am I hearing things? I look to my hiking comrade, Beth Ellen, who’s leaning against a rock, panting. (I first met Beth 25 years ago while hiking the Appalachian Trail. We’re here, now, celebrating our friendship on another world-famous trail.)Beth Ellen’s face is blazing red. She nods. She hears the music too. A short, chocolate-skinned porter emerges from the swirling fog. An enormous bundle wrapped in a blue plastic tarp towers over his body. He wears no hip belt or shoulder straps. The plastic is simply gathered over his upper arms like a shawl and tied in a knot below his chin. He climbs the ancient Inca steps without hesitation, all the while playing the most beautiful notes on his pan flute.Other porters follow. One carries a portable toilet, another a tank of propane and a camp stove, and another three lidless cardboard trays of raw eggs strapped to the top of his bundle with a single cord. Their thin, muscular legs propel them with the precision of a marching band. Their stubbed toes are barely protected in sandals made from recycled tires. They smile easily as they pass, happy for the labor.Besides hauling our gear up and over these mountains, they cook us fine meals, set up and tear down camp, and chatter to us. Some are teenagers; others, senior citizens. Four are brothers, ages 18 to 50. They speak not Spanish but Quechua. We only understand the obvious – their exhilaration up here on this glorious trail. Every porter has his wool blanket that he uses as a pack pad. The six small men sleep widthwise in their four-man tent, lined up like sardines in a can, sharing blankets as covers and laughing and talking for hours into the night. Our group’s tents sit on little platform terraces carved out of the rain forest. It occurs to me that these porters, descendants of the ancient Incas, are not so different than their ancestors. They, too, are hauling loads in the Andean Mountains. Their ancestors lugged stones to build paths and temples. These guys are lugging toilets and gas tanks, transporting the infrastructure so trekkers like myself can experience the Inca Trail and, ultimately, the mystical city of Machu Picchu. Ian Lewis is a guide for Mountain Travel Sobek, the adventure travel company with which I am trekking the Inca Trail. About three years ago, the Peruvian people, with world conservation organizations, enacted stiff regulations to stop the exploitation of the Inca Trail and native people. Trekkers now must hire licensed guides and stay in designated, pre-arranged campsites. Porters are limited to carrying 10 kilos. Mountain Travel Sobek goes above and beyond the regulations in a number of ways, such as carrying out all waste. The guides on this trip are part historian, part naturalist and all-native; Sobek trains Peruvians to show off their country’s riches. For the first five days, they showed our group the ruins and temples of the Sacred Valley – and that was before we even began our four-day trek on the Inca Trail. “I don’t believe you can just arrive at Machu Picchu on the train and get it,” Ian explains. Exploring the Sacred ValleyAt precisely 7 a.m., first light hit the smooth, glassy giant rocks of Ollantaytampo’s Temple of the Sun. When I asked Ian where the colossal boulders came from, he pointed across the broad valley to a quarry. They were drug down that mountainside, across the raging Urubamba River, and up this mountainside. It is the kind of stupendous effort that some moderns conclude could only have been done by aliens. But I know better. Ian describes how the ancient Incas ramped and pulled the car-sized boulders using only manpower, without help from wheels or livestock. To get them across the river, they lined them up on one side and diverted the water upstream by building a channel. They simply moved the river so that the stones ended up lying on the opposite side. Nothing was impossible for those ancient engineers and workers.From the vantage point of Ollantaytampo, we looked up the narrow Sacred Valley toward Machu Picchu, the spiritual capital of the Incas. This point controlled all access to the area, for the magnificent, steep-sided mountains choke the Urubamba River in the valley below. All trails converged here.We spent the next days visiting major Inca monuments, rafting the Urubamba River, and hiking to out-of-the-way villages, markets and ruins. We watched women dressed in multicolored traditional clothing herding sheep, pigs and llamas to the mountains. We saw men hunched over in the fields digging potatoes and drying the giant corn this valley is famous for. Women delivered to the men their midday chicha, a fermented corn drink sweetened with lemon and pineapple – an ancient power drink more important than food.Every day, these people walk many miles to get to their mountainside fields – elevation 12,000 feet! – to hoe potatoes and grow corn. Their cultivated patches appear to hang vertically on the emerald-green sides of the mountains. The land is heavily terraced, making use of any arable soil. Each village has its own specialty, whether it’s making handmade clay roof tiles or clay building bricks, baking bread or raising guinea pigs for food. Surprisingly, school is compulsory here and the children hike up to four miles one way. The Inca TrailAfter five days of immersion in present-day Peruvian culture, including excellent regional food and fine accommodations, we begin our Inca Trail trek from Ollantaytambo, one of the few towns that has survived much as the Incas designed it centuries ago. Their ingenious stonework, cobbled streets, and extensive communal water system – canals took water to each doorstep – remain to this day.Other trekking companies cover the 24 miles to Machu Picchu in three days but Mountain Travel/Sobek takes a leisurely four. As a result, we have the good fortune of hiking and camping in between the crowds and feel as if we are in our own personal Inca world: We are pilgrims on an ancient highway, like all those who came before us.The first few miles wind through the warm arid lowlands with cacti and agave. It isn’t long before the tortuous ascent up Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest and first pass on the Inca Trail. Our suffering is part of arriving in Machu Picchu the “right” way, our guide assures.On average, the rock trail is 5 feet wide. Interlocking stones fit together like a puzzle. The Incas utilized existing boulders and rock cliffs in the trail design, carving tunnels and steps into solid rock. When the mountain makes tight, undulating curves along a cliff, the trail is built up 15 feet high for support. This stone trail has endured for 700 years without maintenance. The Inca Trail climbs through numerous vegetation and climatic zones before penetrating a high-altitude cloud forest. Here, mosses of peach, rust, red and orange carpet the hillsides, like sea coral over a reef. I plunge my hand in deep but can’t feel solid rock underneath.Hundreds of species of birds fill the air with exotic songs; 374 are indigenous. Flowers, including a bewildering array of 250 orchids, bloom in every imaginable color. Stands of bamboo tower over croaking frogs and giant ferns. Warm air rising from the Amazon lowlands makes mist, which rolls and swirls around the fantastic scenery like gauze. The incredibly steep Andes jut up like sentinels, draped in rich vegetation: Around every bend in the trail lies another dramatic scene of natural and manmade beauty. Out of the fog emerge ruined temples and terraced hillsides. All were and are used as resting spots for pilgrims making their way to Machu Picchu. The trail was designed to make the walker reel in awe until the stunning finale when travelers look down from Intipunku, the “Sun Gate,” upon Machu Picchu. I’ve heard it said that the entire Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are a complete work of art that aims to elevate the soul of the pilgrim – like a Gothic cathedral, yet on a much larger scale. Walking this path is both a physical and a spiritual journey. While Ian and Manuel Serrano, our other guide, fill our heads with information, the diminutive porters fill plastic basins with hot water and deliver them to our tents every morning and evening along with pots of coca leaf tea. This tea helps to mitigate the effects of altitude on our sea-level-loving systems. The cooks create traditional soups and stews with fresh vegetables and ancient grains like quinoa, the sacred food of the Incas that is hailed today as a “miracle grain.” I give a heartfelt Hola! (hello) each morning and hope my big smile makes up for my inability to communicate in Quechea. Beth and I long to ask them about their lives while joining them in slicing vegetables, fetching water, and doing dishes, but they won’t allow us to lift a finger.The hot meals fuel our bodies through the chilly nights. The daytime temperatures are warm, but at night can dip to freezing. Up in the heavens, the Milky Way looks foreign. New constellations make finding our way around the night sky into an adventure, much like the hike itself.A History LessonAt one time, the Inca Empire was as large as the Roman Empire. Like the Romans, they were remarkable engineers, building 25,000 miles of stone roads and trails – all by hand. Sometimes they followed the valleys, but just as often they traversed the high mountainsides, tracing impossible pathways and following narrow ledges above the gorges of the Andes. In order to keep the emperor at Machu Pichhu informed of doings in his far-flung empire, runners covered 150 miles in a day, bringing messages and fresh fish from the sea.Inca temples to the sun and the rain were built on peaks stretching all along the Sacred Valley, from the political capital of Cuzco to the spiritual capital at Machu Pichhu. All are aligned exactly to the sunrise and sunset. Up here, they studied the movement of the stars, conducted ceremonies to the sun god, and reveled in the stupendous scenery of their country. They built temples with stones weighing up to 130 tons apiece. They weren’t merely cut in the shape of rectangles, but had up to 24 elaborate corners. Nearly all their cutting tools were stone on stone, but archeologists discovered cutting heads made of meteorite rocks, which are much harder than the volcanic rock of the Andes. The mortar-less joints are so tight you cannot insert a razor blade or a sheet of paper. Each stone is a piece of sculpture.The fantastic temple ruins of Sacsayuaman outside Cuzco took 20,000 people working every day for 50 years to produce. The massive walls reach 18 feet into the earth and are arranged in an elaborate zig-zagging design in order to make it stronger. An interlocking grid was chiseled into the stones’ horizontal sides, in order to withstand earthquakes and human enemies. The Incas didn’t do anything small. Journey’s End: Machu Picchu The more we learn about the Incas and the farther we travel, the more awestricken we become. When we finally see Machu Picchu it all becomes clear – why we are walking the path like so many pilgrims did over the centuries. Surrounded by sacred mountains and perched on a flat between two thrusting peaks, the ancient city stretches in splendor. At the height of the Incas’ power, 1,000 people are believed to have lived here in the billowing mist. Sixteen acres were farmed in soil that was hauled up 4,000 feet from the Urubamba River, which curves around the city like a silver snake. There are temples, royal tombs, ancient housing developments, an elaborate irrigation system, ceremonial baths, and huge grassy courtyards where resident llamas graze. It is too big to grasp. I collapse on the hillside at “The Gate to the Sun” and have absolutely no desire to move. “They had three laws,” Ian tells us of the Incas. “Do not steal, do not lie and do not be lazy. There were no slaves to create these fantastic temples and systems of roads. Their society was highly unified and well nourished. These superhuman feats were accomplished from their undivided focus of human energy and their dedication to the deities whom everyone worshipped.” Machu Picchu and the settlements along the Inca Trail make no sense to our rational modern minds. The land is so rugged, remote and too steep to be agriculturally feasible. There are no real mineral reserves. They created this place for worship of the natural world, particularly the mountains, where they communicated with their spirits. Their enormous investment was in the contemplation of natural beauty.Their descendants, the porters who walk by our sides, share the same passions. The Inca spirit lives in them. On the way back down, the porters run past us at breakneck speeds. They fly down miles of slippery steps – every year one of them dies in a fall here. We plant our walking sticks with each cautious baby step, lowering ourselves down and down. I want to let them know my gratitude. I want them to know that I share their passion for this place. I step aside on the trail and unwrap the foil covering my kids’ chocolate Easter eggs that I brought along as snacks. As the porters sprint by, I pop one into each of their mouths. Their eyes widen and their faces break out in smiles when they taste the chocolate. Each porter plants a huge sweaty, kiss on my cheek. That means the same thing in English as it does in Quechea.


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