Inca Trail, Peru
By Phil Ganz
I have yet to meet someone who is willing to stick their neck out, be courageous, and say that the Inca Trail is rubbish. As much as I crave for being novel, I can’t be that someone either. Everyone’s Inca Trail is a personal trip and mine felt epic. The Trail moved as though it was hewn into the mountains by a gifted artist with a razor sharp understanding of dramatic curve and the human psyche.
It would be a story that we always knew the plot and ending of, but as with all good art, it is the unexpected bursts of genius that overwhelm you. Its capacity for revealing nuances and extremes of emotion that you never knew existed within you differentiate this from your standard walk in the park.
The trail gently teased me on its first day with mild suggestions of what it may reveal of itself in the next three days. The scenery and variety of fauna encountered would already have made it a memorable trek by itself but the myths and infamies that hang in the air of every gringo hangout in Cusco played on my mind, and made sure this was only the light reading of an introductory chapter. There was the buzz of anticipation in the campsite that night and we were introduced to the most creative – and mostly tasty – cooking possible, with the bare minimum variety of ingredients available. I was personally also introduced to sleepless nights in the cold tent in my summer sleeping bag and eight-fold layered clothing.
Powered by hot cocoa, luxuriously brought to our tents and guzzled before our eyes were yet fully open, a monster breakfast and more coca leaves stuffed into my cheek, we set off the next day, by reputation the most punishing one of all. Gently ascending it started out nicely enough, new species of flowers popping up every ten metres of climb.
A Hard Climb
After several hours however, the punishment started being meted out in the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200 metres. The path was steep and long and when I’d feel like my lungs were about to cave in and my legs were about to buckle, I’d push myself to climb faster, all in the name of the search for that elusive natural high. It worked. By the time I was down at the camp for that night and had lunch, I and two others felt cocky enough to climb more and pre-empt the next morning’s ruins. They and the mountainside were dipped in a marvelously mysterious mist that was drifting and revealing the parts it chose for us to see. It was an indescribable rush coupled with the high I was on at the time.
The come-down was all the more severe – the old adage that what comes up must go down proved true. Camping at altitude that night, I froze worse than the night before, wrapped in everything I had carried, including my rain poncho. Whether it was the cold, too much food I had eaten for dinner (I had developed a reputation for eating a lot so I was always kindly thrown the others’ leftovers as if to a dog), lack of sleep, the iodine purified river water or a combination of everything, I proceeded to empty my guts outside the tent early the next morning.
From then on I felt rough and irritable. The ruins we re-visited in the sunlight held none of the magic they had done the night before, the steps upon steps were starting to grate on my nerves and the idea of sleeping in a nice bed and going back to civilisation (and I wasn’t thinking Cusco but more like the USA) seemed preferable to what I was doing right there. Instead I slept on the ground at our lunch camp, soaked in the hot sun and ate. Which did the trick. With renewed energy I started on the longest stretch to date, which mostly wound downhill.
We passed through enchanted cloud forests that had trapped the clouds and were drinking their water. There were many species of orchids and moss so moist, colourful and deep that you could sink your entire hand into it. We passed other Inca ruins, again lent atmosphere by the fog that had descended on the old stones coloured red by the moss and plants.
I was immersed in this world and my imagination kicked in as I started running down the same rough, seemingly neverending stairs at breakneck speed that Inca messengers had used to hold together a huge empire that was lost half a millenium ago.
The camp we stayed at that night had all the amenities, a bar, and lots of high Inca trailers (which is meant to suggest that a few of them decided to get pissed and started throwing chairs around). Dinner was a special occasion and the cooks of the different tours tried outdoing each other in carving animals out of vegetables – we all agreed that ours were the best even though our tour was on the cheap end of budget. What followed was an amusing attempt at a ceremony to say goodbye, thank and tip our porters who had carried food, tents and countless kilos more and had done so many other things for us to make the trek amazing and possible.
As the rain was pattering against our tent that night I slept like a baby and was warm, if only for a few hours. We awoke at 4 AM for the final chapter. Nothing felt impossible anymore, we had survived the worst the Trail could throw at us, had forged bonds in the fires of hell and the cool heavenly highs and were now ready to reap our reward: being part of the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu.
The Lost City – finally
The spectacularly entitled Sun Gate that we aimed to reach by sunrise didn’t live up to its name – the clouds blocked out the sun as well as most of the Lost City. But even after the sun came out it took me several hours to start appreciating the full mind-blowing extent of Machu Picchu’s beauty. The place is a giant work of art of stone. There is intelligence, refined aesthetics and creativity in its design, sitting there atop and nested in incredible mountains. The different neighbourhoods revolve around beautiful open green spaces, sitting on terraces of different levels with almost everywhere being accessible by at least two different sets of stairs – backtracking is rarely necessary when moving through the elevations from A to B. Temples to the various gods have been situated meaningfully and abstract symbolism abounds. You can tell it had been designed to be a place of beauty – the path up the nearby mountains from the city can only have been made as a showcase of Machu Picchu’s aesthetics. Machu Picchu smacks of self-awareness and purpose everywhere you walk.
The city drew me in more and more as I explored its streets and alleys and started noticing subtle details in the stonework and decorations. There was harmony. The llamas roamed the streets and gardens and seemed as though they were solely in charge of their maintenance. I imagined what it must have been like when the majestic condors still ruled the skies and lorded over this place.
Even the huge tour groups of largely Japanese, Koreans, Americans and French could do nothing to spoil the place for me. On my cocaine-like natural high I felt above it all. I understood this place, I knew I had been an Inca for a few precious moments when running down their ancient trails, forgetting about the existence of buses, trains and cars and the world outside. For the rest of the day, I made Machu Picchu my home and got to know its shortcuts, hidden alleyways and character. I could almost see what it looked like when it was still populated.
As the sun started setting I said goodbye, my heart heavy with lightness, and ran down the steps, Inca style, to the tourist village of Agua Calientes. The hot spring there is funneled into a cesspool of human Inca Trail filth but the hot water did wonders for my exhausted body. The train back to Cusco the following day, however, was full, so I resigned myself to spending another day there.
In the morning the village was drenched in rain and the mountains were hidden in impenetrable clouds. What was up had come down again and I felt like a nobody. There were no more elderly congenial US-package tourists congratulating my ‘achievement’, I didn’t show the signs of four days without a shower anymore and had slept in a comfortable bed the previous night. I was barely sure anymore of what exactly had occurred in the last few days. But in some places in my body, I started feeling the tingling recollection that whatever had happened had been infinitely different from all standard walks in the park I had had so far.