Trekking The Inca Trail


“People used to be travelers… Now they’re tourists,” writes Mark Adams in Turn Right at Machu Picchu, quoting his guide John Lievers on his trek along the Inca trails. The book is, in turn, my guide on my trek in the Peruvian Andes – a place where you can still get a flavour of how explorers traveled a century ago.

 My journey to Machu Picchu begins when a friend gifts me Turn Right. After making an armchair trek through its pages, I am convinced that I have to experience the real thing.


Getting to Peru is itself a bit of a trek, as one has to change hemispheres, from the Northern to the Southern, from the Eastern to the Western. My actual trip kicks off when I fly half way across the world from Mumbai to Lima via Paris. Including the transit time, the journey to the capital of Peru takes over 24 hours. After tarrying a day or two in this coastal city to take in its charms, I fly in an easterly direction for the main event.


I land in Cusco – ‘the navel of the world’ – the holiest city of the Incas and the ‘base camp’ for trekking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. I feel the thinness of the air at 11,200 feet the moment I step off the plane. A woman sells spray cans of oxygen in the airport. A TV set above the counter plays a video in an endless loop showing people cheerfully snorting the stuff before bounding up a steep trail. Not very traveler-like, I think to myself, but buy myself a can nevertheless. Taking a few puffs I imagine I breathe easier.


You must spend at least two days in Cusco to adjust to the altitude, say the experts. I am glad for this sojourn, as a climb up the single flight of stairs to my hotel room leaves me breathless. As I sprawl on the hotel bed to recover I look out of the window and see the Santo Domingo monastery. I had read that this was built over the gold-plated temple of the sun, the Koricancha, that presided over this sacred city in pre-Columbian times. I address a prayer to both the Christian and the Inca gods that I not succumb to altitude sickness on my trek.


Bundled up against the wintry end-March weather, I walk slowly down to the Plaza de Armas, the main town square. The Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca palaces and temples that were here and built churches and mansions in their place. When earthquake struck the city, the colonial buildings collapsed but the original Inca foundations and walls remained intact. Some believe this to be the wrath of the Inca gods.


The Incas had developed a jigsaw-puzzle like method of construction in which granite blocks were cut and placed in an interlocking fashion, sans cement. It is to the absence of cement that the earthquake-proof quality of construction is attributed. I love the explanation that the stones of the wall dance along with seismic disturbances and fall back into place.


I fall in with a group of tourists on a guided tour of Cusco. The guide explains, “This was the construction style used throughout the Inca world, from Cusco to Machu Picchu. No gap was left between the stone blocks.” He takes out a pen knife to demonstrate how not even its thin blade can be inserted between the stones, so precisely are they cut and placed.


As with the pyramids of Egypt it is a mystery how these blocks of stone – some of which weigh a few hundred tons – were transported to the construction sites. What makes it seem an even more amazing feat is that unlike Egypt with its flat landscape, here the blocks were carried up steep mountainsides.


As evening falls, I decide it is time for a sundowner, or two, to wash away the tiredness induced by my high-altitude stroll. I check out a few bars and pick one with more locals than tourists. I order a pitcher of Pisco Sour — the national drink of Peru. Pisco (pronounced peace-co), the base liquor in this cocktail, is a grape brandy named for the Peruvian port where it was first manufactured. The brandy has a sharpness that is softened by the ‘sour’ part of the cocktail – lime juice with sugar syrup, egg white and Angostura bitters. There are several variations to this basic recipe, with forest herbs and exotic spices thrown in, especially at the more swish watering holes. But tonight in my no-frills Cusco bar, I am having ‘the real thing’.


The next morning I am relieved to find that I am getting accustomed to the rarified atmosphere. To fortify myself for the impending trek, I head for the bazaar to buycoca leaves, a mild narcotic popular in these parts. Chewing these leaves literally gives you the energy to climb mountains. My four day trek through the Andes is going to be fuelled by it.


I first read about the coca leaf in Henri Charrière’s Papillion. The story is a fictionalized account of the author’s captivity and escape from imprisonment in French Guiana. Running for his life, he chews the leaves to keep going.  I never thought that one day I would take the stuff to keep myself going!


The coca leaf has been consumed for centuries in the Andes. Taking it was considered something of a sacred ritual. One impetus for the spread of the Inca empire was to get better access to the coca growing areas.


Today, coca is commonly taken to prevent altitude sickness and as a pick-me-up. Though the leaf is beneficial to health it is controversial because you can manufacture cocaine from it. I start chewing the stuff right away.


A short drive by taxi out of town and uphill takes me to the Inca ruins at Saqsayhuaman – my friendly taxi driver tells me it is pronounced somewhat like ‘sexy woman’, especially if you speak with a Texan drawl.


Cusco and its suburbs are said to be laid out in the shape of a puma, with Saqsayhuaman as its head. Sexy Woman’s ruins are imposing. From here I take a winding track past alpaca grazing and reach an alpaca woolens factory outlet.


The fleece of the alpaca is finer than cashmere and warmer than goose down.  It naturally comes in more than 20 different shades so it does not have to be dyed. The charming saleswoman enthusiastically points out the plus points of Alpaca fleece and ends with this piece de resistance: “It is almost indestructible – garments of fleece that are 2,500 years old have been found intact in archaeological sites!”


Back in Cusco, my evening meal consists of fried guinea pig, or cui as it is locally known. It turns out to not be my favourite meal. Apart from it not being to my taste, the guinea pig is served almost whole – bringing to mind Mrs Gordon, my family’s pet guinea pig when I was a child, who had an untimely death at the paws of a stray cat.


I am unable to sleep the entire night. My insomnia is not caused by nightmares about dead pets though. Nor even by indigestion. I am baffled. Every time I feel I am about to fall asleep it is as if something inside my brain rudely pushes me awake. I literally do not sleep a wink.


6am. Bleary-eyed I get into the bus that will take us to the starting point of the trek – Kilometre 82 (at 9,000 feet), so-called because it is 82 kilometres from Cusco on the railroad. It is a scenic drive of three hours through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, but I am blind to its charms. We stop at Ollantaytambo village for breakfast and the last use of a proper toilet before moving on to the trailhead.


At the gateway to the Inca Trail we have all our baggage weighed. Everything will be weighed again on the way out. Including food and chemical toilets. Nothing, it seems – input or output – must be left behind to sully this sanctuary. We are allowed to give a maximum amount of weight per porter – which is regulated unlike in the mountains of India and Nepal. The rest we must carry ourselves. One thing that strikes me about our Inca Trail porters who are local mountain folk is the striking resemblance of their facial features to those of the porters on the trek to the Everest base camp. It is as if, by some geographical sleight-of-hand, Cusco has been switched with Namchebazar.


The trek begins. With backpack (containing camera, down jacket, raincoat, snacks, water and a hypochondriac’s treasure trove) and hiking poles, I set off across the narrow wooden bridge over the Vilcanota River.


The first day is supposed to be an easy hike. But thanks to my sleep-deprived state it does not seem so. I grumble about my insomnia to our guide, Jeremy. He asks, “Did you chew coca leaves yesterday?” “Of course,” I proudly reply, “the whole day!” I feel I have become a pro at this ancient Inca art. “So that’s the problem, amigo,” he smiles, “never have the stuff after lunch time or else it will disturb your sleep.” And I had been chewing the coca cud till sunset! I vow to have my last fix at noon today.


Our guide, Jeremy Cornejo, is a native of Cusco, Jeremy is passionate about the natural and cultural patrimony of his country. He is a walking-talking encyclopedia about the Andean region. In his weather-beaten face you see his mixed Spanish and Quechua Indian heritage. Centuries of colonial rule had taught natives to be ashamed of their indigenous origin but now there is a resurgence of pride in the Inca past, in their culture, cuisine and way of life. This coexists ironically with a strong belief in the Catholic religion of the former colonial masters. Like the mixed racial heritage in Peruvian faces, this duality seems to have become the defining characteristic of the Modern Peruvian.


The trail climbs steeply from the Vilcanota River, passing villages whose inhabitants wear traditional Andean ponchos. The faces of the older men and women are lined by harsh weather and hard work, a contrast to the red-cheeked softness of the children seen playing with farmyard animals.


There are flowers everywhere – the waxy red Puka Sullu Sullu, the pink Llauli flower that grows on spiny shrubs and from which the locals make a cough remedy, the blue-purple Tarwi which grows on the mountain tops and look like blue bells to me. And so many more whose names I do not know.


We pass a tomb that has been excavated on a hillside. It looks like a low stone igloo with a modest circumference. It would originally have contained a mummy. Unlike in Egypt, here the dead were mummified in a seated position, explaining how they could be accommodated in a tomb of such diminutive dimensions.


Further along, the Urubamba mountain range comes into view. I am chuffed to sight my first snow-clad peak—Mount Veronica.


Later, when our mountain trail climbs up high, we get an all-encompassing view of the extensive ruins of Llactapata in the river valley far below. Llactapata originally had over a hundred buildings. It was an agricultural outpost of Machu Picchu, supplying the citadel with maize, the staple food of the Incas. Both Machu Picchu and Llactapata were ‘discovered’ a century ago by Hiram Bingham III—the American explorer widely believed to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones. References to Bingham make nationalistic Peruvians bristle – how could places that their people always knew about be ‘discovered’ by a Gringo? True, that.


From there we trek another 7 km to reach our first camp – Wayllabamba. In Turn Right At Machu Picchu, the author’s guide John refers to Bingham disdainfully as a “bit of a Martini Explorer”.  He means that Bingham enjoyed certain luxuries in his treks. I wonder what John would make of the way I am traveling.


Chef Florentino (did I forget to mention that we are accompanied by a chef?) has walked briskly ahead to Wayllabamba, set up his kitchen and cooked up a storm. When we reach the campsite, we are given hot water to wash up and then served dinner in the dining tent, if you please. Alpaca steaks are the main course. Yes, besides being the source of fine fleece, this high-altitude mammal has been a food source from pre-Inca times. Its lean, tender, almost sweet meat is a fitting reward for completing a12 km trek. Now if only I could wash it down with a glass of Martini – but alcohol is a no-no at high altitudes!


How Florentino manages to cook wonderful meals througout our trek, given that he has had to carry all the ingredients from Cusco, amazes me. I am thankful.  I sleep blissfully tonight, warm and snug in my sleeping bag, inside a tent the porters have set up for me.


Day two is supposed to be the toughest trek – through the highest part of the trail, the ominously-named Dead Woman’s Pass. Well-rested and well-fed, I feel ready for it. As we trek uphill, the lower-altitude greenery gives way to what looks like an enchanted forest: Gnarled dark tree limbs dappled with moss in lighter shades of green, lichen hanging down from them like witch’s hair and a waterfall with a deafening gush cutting through it. In this perpetual gloaming I would not be surprised to see fauns or pixies.


When you come out of the forest you get a panoramic view of snowclad mountains. Sometimes the clouds obscure their snowclad peaks and at other times dazzling sunlight lights them up. Up ahead is Dead Woman’s Pass. It looks deceptively close. Now I am no longer walking, but climbing steps. Each step is a struggle.


Then I hear the magical sound of pan pipes and forget my aching lungs. An old man appears from behind a rock. He plays a beautiful Andean tune for me. I thank him. In return, he asks me for some coca leaves. I gladly oblige. And with that the old man of the mountains disappears as suddenly as he came.


I huff and puff my way up towards the pass. Like a mirage it appears always to be tantalizingly close, just beyond the next rise in the up and down path, but then it turns out to be further away. It is as if the Dead Woman is a tease, leading you on, even in her afterlife.


I put on every layer of clothing that I am carrying to protect me from the icy winds at this altitude. Only my eyes and forehead are exposed. I start to hear cheering. I wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me in this rarefied atmosphere. But then I realise that as every individual reaches the top, those who have reached before cheer for him or her. And now it is my turn. Exhausted but happy I sit down on a rock, nearly 14.000 feet above sea level, and drink hot coffee that a stranger offers me from a flask. The view from up here is spectacular. I savour it for a short while but soon it is time to head down the other side.


The downhill trek is a respite. No pressure on the lungs, I just immerse myself in the ethereal beauty of this place. After a long but leisurely walk, we reach the second night’s campsite at Pacamayo.


On day three, it is raining when we set out.  Though one has a raincoat, one’s spirit is dampened nevertheless. The weather clears up in three quarters of an hour. I am indeed fortunate that this is the only spell of rain I get on the trip because it is still the rainy season, though its tail end, and I was told in Cusco that it had been raining every day on the trail before we started out. Even one full day of rain would have marred the trek.


Jeremy suddenly freezes and puts his fingers to his lips. He points to a tree. In it are a number of bright-hued toucans. During the trek Jeremy has often stopped us in our tracks to point out mountain birds. Besides being a guide, Jeremy is an avid birder. He is never without his powerful binoculars. At times I borrow them to get a closer look at the hummingbirds, tanagers, warblers and other feathered folk whose flight paths or nesting grounds we cross.


We reach the circular ruins of Runkuracay, which look like ancient lookout points with sweeping views of the Pacamayo valley below. Climbing further up we come to the Runkuracay Pass, the second mountain pass on our journey.  At certain points, rather than hiking one is climbing staircases created by the ancient Incas. An hour’s trek from the pass we arrive at Sayacmarca – which means “inaccessible town”. It almost is. Protected by cliffs on three sides and reachable only by one narrow staircase cut in the rocks, it would have made a perfect fortress.


From here the trail leads into cloud forest filled with so many beautiful orchids, bromeliads, mosses and ferns that I am glad to be carrying extra data cards for my camera.  We pass through a tunnel that the Incas had carved into rock. We camp at the third pass of our trek, near Inca viewing platforms that overlook the ruins of Phuyupatamarca (“Town in the Clouds”). From my tent I watch the sky change colours at sunset like a heavenly light show. I catch a glimpse of the massive snowcapped peak of Salkantay, before swirling clouds obscure my view in a prelude to the complete darkness of night.


It is the fourth day of my trek. Today I will witness Machu Picchu. My anticipation has been growing, slowly over the months of planning the trip, rising faster as my flight took off from Mumbai and brought me to Lima and soaring as I reached Cusco. Now in these four days of walking through the Andes I feel like a tealeaf that has been steeped in the hot waters of history and geography, preparing me, body and soul, for the final destination.


We start the day exploring the baths, fountains and towers of Phuyupatamarca. Then begin the long descent through layers of cloud forest. A staircase cut out of living granite brings us to the archeological site of Wiñay Wayna—the namesake of the beautiful pink orchids that grow here. In Quechua Wiñay Wayna means “Forever Young”. The ruins are the largest and most impressive that I have seen so far on the trail. It boasts of excellent stonework and contains ten baths. I am amused to come across so many baths in the ancient Inca settlements we pass as I have given baths a miss during the trek. (It is too cold!) The Incas on the other hand worshiped water.


Llactapata. Runkurakay. Sayacmarca. Phuyupatamarca. Wiñay Wayna. The sound of the names of the places on the trail are like an old and sacred music, preserved through the centuries. These were – and are – stages in a sacred journey that culminates in Machu Picchu.


When we near the end of our trek late in the afternoon, the clouds do a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t, teasing us awhile before parting to fully reveal the shining gem of the Inca civilization. Built on a saddle between two mountains, the citadel of Machu Picchu lies stretched out in front of us like a toy land. It has cliffs on three sides dropping thousands of feet down to the Urubamba River that loops around the base of the mountain. It contrasts the intense green of its meadows and terraces against the grey of its granite construction.


The view is sublime.


As we approach the toy land, it starts taking on life-size dimensions. And then, suddenly, we are actually there – in the Lost City of the Incas, as Bingham titled his book about his ‘discovery’ of Machu Picchu. We enter through the stone portal of Inti Punku, the “Sun Gate”. It is the main entrance to the city and I notice that it is designed to perfectly frame Huayna Picchu, one of the two peaks of the saddle.


We visit the cave of the Royal Mausoleum, a grotto of unusual shape formed from natural rock and stone carved by man. Above the cave is the Sun Temple. It is said that on the winter solstice the sun’s rays come in through the window and cast a slab of light on the big rock at its centre. (Yes, a lot like Raiders of the Lost Arc. No wonder Indy Jones is believed to inspired by Bingham!)


Pachacutec, the great Inca ruler, was the visionary behind Machu Picchu. The way he had it built makes its beautiful stonework appear to organically grow out of the mountain, tiered with more than 700 terraces that were once used for agriculture. Its spring-fed network of fountains delivered clean running water (and, with a bit of a clean up, still can). Most amazingly, in a land where even today villages and railroads get destroyed by landslides, rainstorms and earthquakes, this citadel has remained unscathed over its more than five hundred year existence. The straw roofs and the gold, silver and rich textile adornments of the houses may be gone, but the walls stand strong.


As clouds swirl through its gateways and passages, making structures appear and disappear, I feel the lines between past and present, real and fantastical blur.


The Principal Temple of Machu Picchu is made out of gigantic precision-cut stones. It boggles the imagination that the Inca, with no iron and steel and no wheels, were able to achieve this feat.


When a young Che Guavara came here, he was hit by the inspiration to start his revolution. Perhaps this happened right after the game of football he reportedly played on the Sacred Plaza. He certainly had the nerves of steel necessary to be a revolutionary if he could play on a precipice almost 8,000 feet above sea level. One slip would have plunged him to certain death.


Up a few flights of stairs I reach the highest point of the Machu Picchu site. The enigmatic carved rock called Intihuatana that was worshipped by the Incas is located here. As with many other aspects of Machu Picchu, its position has some sort of significance in the ‘sacred geography’ of the Incas.


The Spaniards plundered and destroyed Inca citadels in search of gold and silver. The Catholic clergy destroyed Inca religious sites to rid the country of its ‘pagan’ influences. Smallpox carried in by travelers wiped out the people. But the citadel of Machu Picchu, shrouded in clouds on a remote mountain peak, was spared because the conquistadors never found it.


Thank goodness for that!



— by Sumanto Chattopadhyay