Hiking to the Lost City of the Incas.
23.02.2009 -17 °C
In 1572, nearly 40 years after the fall of Cuzco, there remained but one threat to the Spanish domination of the Inca Empire and Peru.The last surviving Incan Emperor, Tupac Amaru, had fled into hiding with a select few of his supporters to a remote outpost in the Peruvian jungle known as Vilcabamba.Its location was such that several attempts on behalf of the Spanish to find it had gone unsuccessful as it was rumoured to lie in an area of thick, impenetrable jungle that was nigh on impossible to reach.Tupac Amaru's existence was a constant reminder of the failure to successfully obliterate all traces of the old Inca Empire which the new viceroy of Peru, Francisco Toledo, found intolerable.He determined to capture Amaru and put an end to Incan resistance once and for all.On 14th April he declared war on the fugitive Inca and sent an army out from Cuzco to find the location of Vilcabamba.Surprisingly they were successful, although they found the refuge deserted, the Inca and his people having left only the day before. The soldiers gave chase through the jungle and managed to track down capture Amaru and bring him back to Cuzco for a summary trial.He was sentenced to death and hanged, thus bringing to a close the era of Inca rule for ever.
Vilcabamba was eventually forgotten in the mists of time.Its location once again became a mystery but it's role in the history of the Incas ensured it an importance in the eyes of scholars to whom pre Columbian history was a specialty.One such man was Hiram Bingham, an historian who lectured at Yale university.After some time spent in Chile and Peru, he returned in 1911 to man a more co-ordinated attempt to locate 'lost ' cities of the Incas, including Vilcabamba.He was incredibly fortuitous and with the help of several locals living in the area, discovered quite a few overgrown ruins of Incan origin.
But it wasn't until a local 11 year old Quechan boy led him up some steep steps to a certain ridge high above the Urubamba river that he made what was to be the discovery of his lifetime.Located in an incredibly scenic setting above the valley floor against a backdrop of the surrounding green mountain range was a complete stone city of incomparable beauty.Bingham had just discovered Machu Picchu, but at the time was convinced he had found Vilcabamba.Incredibly he didn't linger, taking only basic measurements as he had no formal archeological training.He left soon after though he returned in 1912 and again in 1915 with the support of the National Geographic Society to continue excavation and later published his findings in his book " The Lost Cities of the Incas".The publication made him famous and pushed Peru and Machu Picchu to the front of every adventurous travelers wishlist.
And there they stayed.To this day, Machu Picchu is Peru's number one tourist attraction and the acknowledged highpoint of the Gringo Trail.Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 along with Cuzco, its allure has only increased since its 'discovery' in 1911 (there are disputes over whether Bingham was actually the first to find it).In 2003 it attracted a record 400,000 visitors keen to walk in the footsteps of the Incas and there are no signs these numbers are dropping off.To limit damage to the site numbers are strictly controlled and visas to walk the Inca Trail are restricted to 500 per day, including guides and porters.Our visas had been booked months before and we were finally packed, paid up and ready to go.
Except that we weren't.My sudden fever the previous day hadn't abated at all during the night.If anything, it had intensified.I dragged myself out of bed at 5am and had serious doubts over my ability to walk to the front door, let alone hike the Inca Trail.I sucked it up and jumped into our transport driven by our guide, Jimmy (who swears he's no Irish in him) and drove the hour and a half journey to Ollantaytambo where we picked up some last minute supplies and the porters and cook.We drove on to the real start of the Trail, an area known as Kilometre 82.By this stage I was feeling a bit better after washing down antibiotics with some coca tea.
We had our passports and visas verified in the registration office while our porters went to check in the gear.Due to some unscrupulous companies overloading their staff in recent years, all porters are now legally required to weigh in their loads, 20 kgs being the individual limit.We crossed the raging Urubamba river on a short suspension bridge and climbed up some steep, rocky steps.We were now officially on the Inca Trail!The weather was hot and humid and the sun scorched our backs as we climbed steadily upward through thickets of dried cactii.The path Bingham had taken to reach Machu Picchu years before was no longer used; instead it was the grounds for a railway line that connected Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, the small town nearest the ruins.The first class train that carried rich tourists direct to Machu Picchu was named in his honour and even now it blasted out steam as it thundered past us on the far side of the valley.Normally we'd be taking this same route back but due to the proposed rail strike this was looking unlikely.
The classic Inca Trail covers a distance of 33kms from its beginning at KM82 to its final destination of Machu Picchu.The path follows a winding and circuitous route that climbs steeply up forested mountains, over clouded passes, through deep valleys and along cool riverbeds.Every step is an unforgettable experience among some of the finest scenery Peru has to offer.Along the way are numerous lesser known ruins that would be world class attractions anywhere else, but here are merely interesting preludes to the 'lost city'.Each night we would camp at pre designated spots along the trail, in tents set up for us beforehand by our accomodating porters, whilst our talented cook would prepare delicious spreads at every mealtime.It seemed ideal.
As we walked our guide Jimmy explained a bit about the history of the Incas.He was an excellent guide, spoke perfect English and had a good sense of humour.Every now and then porters from other companies would jog past us, overburdened with enormous baggage and sweating in the dry heat.It looked like a tough job and I didn't envy them.We stopped for lunch after a few hours hiking and enjoyed a three course prepared with professional efficiency.Moving on we picked out the first of the Inca ruins, Llactapata; an ancient stone city built right into the back of a mountain on the far side of the valley.Its an impressive first display of the well constructed stone terraces the Inca are famous for, simultaneously providing arable land in a mountainous region aswell as acting as an natural defense.The ruins seemto be in amazingly good repair, even from this distance.
I wasn't able to admire them too long however.By this stage I was beginning to feel seriously run down.The antibiotics had worn off long ago and I was definitely struggling.As the day wore on I became progressively weaker and by the time we reached camp I was completely and utterly exhausted.I slept right through the night and by morning it was clear I was in no fit shape to continue.Reluctantly we made the decision to go back in order to get me to a doctor.We pushed on back that way we'd just come, me stumbling along among the rocky trail and finding it harder and harder to continue in the burning sun.At one stage we considered hiring horses from the locals to carry me down.We made it back, eventually, though it took every last ounce of energy I had.Later in Cuzco I'd learn I had a serious case of salmonella aswell as being infected with Giardia parasites, a real nasty combination.
We reached civilisation in the form of Ollantaytambo and scoured around for a doctor, but this being sunday there was none available.Janelle went off to acquire drugs of any sort, while I checked into the nearest available hostel and crawled straight into bed.Luckily by that evening I was feeling marginally better and we decided to risk the train ride straight to Machu Picchu, seeing as hiking the Inca Trail was out.We still had our passes and damn it if we weren't going to use them!Fortune smiled on us and we managed to procure some of the last remaining train tickets for the next morning, although they cost us the proverbial arm and a leg.At this stage though, we probably would have paid any amount.To come to Peru and NOT see its most famous site was simply out of the question!
We left the next morning on the 6.45am train.The sun was bright, the weather was clear and I was feeling relatively energetic.The train ride was surprisingly pleasant, with onboard service and a semi transparent roof to provide better views of the valley.The line runs straight through several tunnels carved straight out of the rock and follows the Urubamba river closely for most of the journey.Several terraced ruins built into the valley walls were visible along the way providing some entertainment.Pulling into the station at Aguas Calientes, we hopped off and rushed to the queue for the minibuses that take you up the steep road to Machu Picchu.Our last minute tickets meant that we'd have to return sooner than we would've liked, so we had only four or so hours to enjoy the experience.We climbed into the packed minibus with all the other lazy tourists and set off.
Arriving at the top of the steep dirt road that leads to Machu Picchu is akin to going to Disneyland or the World Cup.The excitement at being near such a mystical and world famous site is tangible.We pulled into the small parking lot and leaped off the bus in our enthusiasm, ignoring the theme park atmosphere outsite and rushed through the gates.The drive up had teased us with maddening glimpses yet it was only once at the top could we truly appreciate the incredible scenery of such a location.Even if these Inca ruins had not been present the view alone surely would have generated visitors by the truckload.Surrounded by heavily forested mountains on every side and shrouded in a near constant veil of mist, the ridge that supports Machu Picchu looks like some celestial place of worship (and may well be).The Incas could hardly have chosen a more appropriate setting.
Pictures don't do it justice and words can barely begin to describe it (though I'll try regardless).Beautiful is too lame.Breathtaking too obvious.Awe inspiring barely covers it.Majestic.Monumental.Stunning.Sublime.All these adjectives taken together and blended to create the ultimate accolade might give you an idea.Despite the overwhelming feeling of deja vu, Machu Picchu delivers on every level.It isn't just another humdrum ruin to visit and tick off your list.Nor is it a sight meant to be rushed with barely a cursory photograph.It is an experience to savour, a world wonder to behold.Just gazing upon the splendor of such a sight is enough to send you into a state of deep contemplation of the type of world that was, and is, possible.Staring over the precipice into the valley below you can just imagine the Incas who once lived out their lives here, convinced they shared the same hallowed space as the deities they worshipped.It is almost enough to turn one religous.
Built sometime around 1460 AD, Machu Picchu stands at an altitude of 2,430 metres in the Urubamba valley.Some 80 kilometres northwest of Cuzco, its name in the Inca language of Quechua (which is still spoken in parts of Peru) roughly translates as 'Old Peak'.Officially discovered in 1911 by Bingham, it was one of the few Inca settlements of any size that was never sacked by the Spanish and is thus still in excellent condition.Since its discovery its exact purpose has been the subject of academic debate and at various stages it has been described as a defensive fort, a religious centre, a prison, an astonomical device and an estate of an Incan Emperor Pachacuti, the latter being the most widely held belief today.It is likely it served more than just one purpose however.It occupies a position of natural defense and is served by the numerous terraces that the Incas used to grow crops on.
Machu Picchu is comprised of many stone buildings in classic Inca style architecture.The Incas were justifiably regarded as being master stonemasons (even by the invading Spanish) and used a style of building that fit cut stone blocks together in tightly fitting patterns without the need for mortar.Their mastery was such that their buildings survived earthquakes intact while Spanish built dwellings would crumble.This would seem to be one of the main reasons for the remarkable condition of Machu Picchu as Bingham found it.As they had yet to discover the arch they used a trapezoidal shape when constructing windows, a hallmark of their unique style.The Incas were also masters of irrigation and used ingenious stone channels to ferry water from local springs, many of which are still in working order.
As a settlement, Machu Picchu was divided into three main zones; Sacred District, the Popular District to the south, and the District of the Priests and the Nobility.The Sacred District contains the most impressive archeological sites.The Intihuatana stone was an important astronomical device that pointed directly at the sun during the winter solstice and allowed for precise calenderial measurements - an essential method for anticipating the seasons in a society that depended greatly on agriculture.The Temple of the Sun, used to worship the sun god, Inti, is a curved, tapering tower that contains some impressive stonework while the Temple of the Three Windows gives a splendid view over the main plaza below.There is also a huge rock that is carved in the likeness of a condors head, with the natural rock behind it resembling the bird's outstretched wings, apparently the site of occasional sacrifice.
Wandering around the stone buildings and temples of Machu Picchu is an overwhelming experience that is not spoiled one bit by the crowds of tourists.It is spread over such a wide area in such a unique setting that it is easy to find yourself alone among the many ruins and still enjoy the relative silence.Climbing up the steep steps to a lone thatched hut we caught our breath and stood in awe at the scene before us; the view that every single photographer simply has to capture and the one that is found in 90% of all postcards.An exquisite panoramic of the ruins, with the remarkably green plaza in centre surrounded by the stone huts, temples and stairways that climb off in every direction, with terraces on either side that just fall away into the abyss, all backed by the sheer green precipice of Wayna Picchu, itself covered in wisps of cloud.We dutifully took our own pics and continued on down into the ruins themselves, eavesdropping on the guides of other groups for lack of our own.
Before too long however, our time was up.Our train was due to leave soon and we had no choice but to leave with it.In all honesty I wasn't too pushed about leaving early as my fever was beginning to reassert itself and my energy levels were flagging.We took one last lingering look, bade our farewells and made our way back to Aguas Calientes.From there we hopped on the train and were soon in Ollantaytambo, where we caught a taxi that took us back to Cuzco.We may have missed the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hiking the Inca Trail, but seeing Machu Picchu with our own eyes was recompense enough.I'll take the memory of that any day.