Monday, December 18, 2006

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

Written by Lynn

I have a book at home that is packed away in a box (meaning that is it either in Edmonton, North Bay, Hamilton or Ottawa) entitled ¨The World´s Greatest Treks¨. Someday I plan to do them all. But we decided to start with the most well known - The Inca Trail.

It´s definitely not for the faint hearted or the out of shape (though the altitude makes everyone feel a little breathless). Day 1 starts out pretty easy, leaving from Cusco where you just spent several days of enforced rest at 7500 ft altitude in an attempt to get used to it. Cusco itself is a great little town with lots of shops and restaurants, and hotels ranging from the dirt cheap to the vastly overpriced. The city of Cusco, founded in 1100AD, was the centre of the Inca Empire in the 12th to 16th century. The empire itself was spread out in 4 distinct directions (north, south, east and west) called TAHUANTINSUYUS and connected by paved pathways along which runners, called CHASQUIS, travelled immense distances to deliver orders and information - ie. the infamous Inca Trail.

To start our small section of the trail, we rode out to a town called Ollantaytambo, where you can still find some intact Inca ruins. This is one of the few Inca fortresses that was successfully defended against the Spanish invasion. You can appreciate the trapazoidal shaping of the buildings, all of which are built with the walls slanting inwards in order to with stand earthquakes. In this area there is supposedly a devestating earthquake once every 50 years or so, the last one being in 1984. This one was mild in comparison to the 1650 earthquake which levelled the town of Cusco.

We were blessed with a great group of 10, along with 2 guides (Balario and Duska) and 11 porters. We had people from USA (Chip and Drew, who were kind enough to carry enough candy to support all of our sugar cravings), Spain (Carlos and Eva), Belgium (Stinj and Nikolas) and Australia (Drew 2 - note the stunning wool sweater vest - and Jess), as well as the 2 honourary Canucks, which made it permissable to sing several renditions of the South Park song ¨Blame Canada¨ over the next 4 days. Interestingly (and those of you who are thinking of doing this trek, take note) there was a WIDE range in what we paid for this tour. The cheapest prices were fenagled by the Australians who went to Cusco first and then negotiated for last minute deals. The highest were paid by those who booked on line months ahead of time (you know who you are!). Costs ranged from $220US to $450US for the EXACT same tour (we were happily just below the median cost). Price shopping in Cusco won´t usually work in the high season (from May until August) as the tours book up months in advance, but negotiating is always possible. The number of people to start the Inca Trail is limited to 500 a day, including porters and guides. This number was dropped from 700 a day four years ago because of the concern that over use was ruining the trail. It is quite likely, even in the rainy season we were trekking in, that the numbers are maxxed out daily, as there were LOTS of people everywhere you turned. There has been a major push in recent years by indigenous groups as well as UNESCO to force the Peruvian government to take more drastic measures to protect Machu Picchu and other Inca historical sites. As a result, in 1999 a plan to install a cable car to Machu Picchu was put on hold, but not official shelved. But in the past 10 years the number of tourists visiting the site have climbed drastically from 200,000 a year up to 500,000 and there is no end in sight. The costs associated with visiting Machu Picchu are obviously aimed at tourists, which makes the site inaccessible to the Inca's descendants, thereby disconnecting the region's indigenous people from an important spiritural and cultural centre. Recently a group called the YACHAY WASI was formed to try and push for an indigenous voice in the determination of management policies for this and other historical sites. This didn{t stop the Peruvian government from allowing a company to film a beer commercial at one of the sacred temple sites in Machu Picchu. During the filming one of the cranes being used to hold the cameras went out of control and chipped a rock altar.....oops.

Day 1 was a deceptively easy hike up to the first camp site. Even though it was raining, the views were already impressive of the surrounding mountains and the gorge we were hiking along the edge of. That night we camped in a soft, grassy field surrounded by mountains after a simple but tasty meal of rice and chicken.

Day 2 dawned clear and very cold, though this quickly changed as the tempurature rose steadily, having us all strip down to shorts and tank tops. After a breakfast with lots of coca tea (coca helps to prevent altitude sickness, as well as being energizing and suppressing hunger; most of the porters walks with a ball of coca leaves stuffed in their cheek for these reasons) we started the hardest day of the trek. In the first 4 hours we went from about 7500 ft up to almost 12,500 ft to cross the first pass called WARMIWANUSKA (Dead Woman´s Pass). At the top we waited for the team to regroup (except for the porters who RUN to the next stop in order to set up the tents and prepare for dinner). It was cold enough that it we had to put on basically every peice of clothing we brought with us (the only time we would use our fleeces and gloves, though thank god we had them). Unfortunately, the higher we got, the mistier it became, until we were basically standing in the middle of a cloud. The last 500m up to the pass were breath taking, mostly because the altitude forced you to stop every 10-15 steps to try and force some oxygen to your leg muscles and slow your heart rate.

After a short break for picture taking, we walked down for about 2km on stone steps that were put in place about 500 years ago as part of the original Inca Trail. Our second night we were so tired that no one objected to the 8PM bedtime. We usually ate at 7PM, then had to clear out the dinner tent shortly after since the porters used it as their sleeping area, a fact the guide forgot to tell us the first night, which made us feel terrible for hanging out in the tent until 9PM.

These porters are unbelievalbe! Most of them weight about 120 lbs and stand at only about 5´4¨. About 10 years ago a porter´s guild was formed to improve their working conditions. Now they are only (!!) allowed to carry 25kg each and have a weigh in station at the beginning of Day 2 to make sure this is not exceeded. One of our porters had been doing this job for about 15 years, and can remember when he used to carry upwards of 45kg! We were carrying our own sleeping bags and mats, along with a change of clothes and could barely make it. The porters carry everything from the food, to the tents, tables and chairs, eating and kitchen tent, cooking supplies and even a propane tank. And they RUN! It´s their responsibility to make it to the lunch site and the camping ground before us ¨touristicas¨ and to have everything set up and ready to go. They are wearing sandals made out of recycled tires, and in most cases only eat whatever is left over after we scarf our dinners down. Once our group realized this we were a little more careful to not overeat, just taking enough to feel full. On the bright side, the porters get paid decently for the area, earning 145 soles (about $45 US) for the 4 days, and our group tipped each of them an additional 40 soles each. Doesn´t sound like much (mostly because it isn´t) but men are fighting for these jobs. Most of them are subsitance farmers in the area surrounding Ollantaytambo, and acting as a porter 3-4 times a month will often elevate them into the middle class, allowing them to buy decent clothes for their families and furnish their homes. I guarantee it is not a job many of us could do! It is most important to question the company you book with regarding the treatment of their porters. The easiest and most invisible way of cutting costs on a tour are by shorting the porters - not feeding them properly, making them sleep in the open, maxing out the weight they are carrying to cut down on the numbers of porters (one trick they will use is to get the trekkers to carry their own packs past the weigh in station, then give them to the already overloaded porters; everyone in our group decided to just carry their own).

Anyways, the porters are up at 4:30AM preparing our breakfast and wake the group up on Day 3 at 5AM. Today we have to go over one more pass, then down 2000 (!!) steps to the next campsite. While not as hard on the lungs, the knees do start to ache from the strain. During this day we pass several archeological sites and stop at each to explore and appreciate the fine craftmanship that went into the building of each. Often they are TAMBOS, or resting places along the Inca Trail for the messengers. These are generally built with what the Inca would consider shoddy workmanship - small stones mortared together and covered over with mud to hide the imprecision. We do go to WINAY-WAYNA, a religious site, that shows more of the intricate stonework the Inca are famous for called ASHLAR. Enormous stones are carved with bronze or stone tools and rubbed smooth until they fitted together without mortar so carefully that a knife can´t be passed between two blocks. Some of the ashlar in Machu Picchu has as many as 30 corners on them, all precisely fitted. A site we visited just outside Cusco before we started the trek is called SACSAYHUAMAN and is one of the finest surviving examples of this stonework. Some of the stones are estimated to weigh over 130 tons and are used to make up 3 parallel walls that go on for 360metres. This site is believed to have been a sanctuary and temple of the sun, hence its intricate stonework. One of the big mysteries remains how the Incas could have moved such massive peices of stones as they had not developed the use of wheels. Unfortunately, because they had no written history, there remains nothing to answer these questions.

Just before the end of Day 3 we also had a chance to visit an ancient agricultural site. The Inca farmed on terraces that covered the hillsides. The lower terraces were used for crops such as maize and other vegetables, while the higher ones grew potatoes. In Inca society all the land was communally owned. 50% of the produce from the farmed land went to the community responsible for it, 25% went to the government (who stored food in large structures called COLLPAS for times of shortage and famine) and 25% was for the gods. Terraces surrounding the temples, traditionally set at the highest point of land, were used to grow aromatic plants and colourful flowers.

Gilles missed these terraces as he met up with a Norweigan who was slightly crazy (and it was apparently contagious). The two of them decided they were going to try and race the porters for the last 6km downhill to the campsites. They were apparently doing just fine, keeping up anyways, until the porters (wise to what the gringos were up to) veered off the Inca Trail onto ¨porter only¨ paths. Being the smart (and possibly over competative) fellas that they are, they followed the giggling porters down a series of vertical inclines that cut across the switchbacks the rest of us sane folk were using. The end result - they got the the last campsite 2 hours ahead of the rest of us, but still miles behind the porters, who had themselves a good laugh and a story to tell that night.

When the rest of the group caught up with these guys we were greeted with a wondorous sight - hot showers and cold beers! This was surely the ugliest campsite of the 3 we stayed at, but it did have the advantage of running water. Keeping in mind the number of people who use the Inca Trail daily, combined with the fact that there must be a lot of people with upset digestive tracts from a combination of unrefrigerated food, high altitude and extreme exertion, the toilet facilities are easily the LEAST attractive feature of the Inca Trail.

Day 4 started extra early as our group was determined to be the first through the gate to get to Macchu Picchu. So at 4:45AM we had our packs strapped on and were at the locked gates ready to go. The gates themselves opened at 5:30AM, and then we had another hour of uphill hiking to get to INTIPUNKU (the sun gates) but boy was it worth it. Because of the time of year, the sun is up much too early for us to catch sunrise over Macchu Picchu, but as you crest the hill and go through the ancient stone gates you see spread before you an ancient city that must appear almost exactly as it did 500 years ago. Ringed on all sides by mountains with the HUAYNA PICCHU towering over it, and the URABAMBA river flowing below it, you are blessed with the sight of the last Inca stronghold. It is awe inspiring enough to make the last 4 days worth all the sweat and burning leg muscles.

It is believed that this site was chosen for its geographical features, which show the side view of a face of an Inca gazing at the sky, the highest point being the silohuette of his nose. One of the most amazing aspects of this site is how the architectrue is integrated into the surrounding landscape buildings melding with hillsides and huge rock features incorporated into temples and walls. Macchu Picchu, or "old mountain", was believed to have been built by Sapa Inca Pachacuti starting in 1440 as a country get away for the Inca nobility. It is composed of over 140 structures, including staircases, terraces, temples, palaces and towers, along with its most infamous structure, the INTIHUATANA, or hitching post of the sun. Here on winter solstice (June 21st) a priest would tie the sun to the earth to ensure its return. The 2metre high block of stone, it also has 4 points showing north, south, east and west, and was used as a calendar of sorts and to help keep track of seasons. The highly advanced irrigation system is believed to have carried water from a sacred spring to all the individual dwellings in town. The remote location of this town is one of the few reasons that it survived the Spanish invasion, while many other structures, and most intihuatanas were destroyed.

After about 1/2 an hour, the rest of the groups started to catch up with us, so we moved on to Machu Picchu itself. It is impossible to get to the site prior to others as there are buses and trains arriving from the near by town of Aguas Calientes as soon as the gates open, but getting there prior to noon will ensure relative privacy. After a brief history lesson our guides gave us a tour of the main sites within Machu Picchu including the Temple of the Condor, the Sacred Rock, the Sun Temple, the Funerary Rock and the Temple of the Three Windows. After this we were free for a few hours to explore prior to catching our train back to Ollantaytambo at 4pm. We chose, along with 4 others, to climb HUAYNA PICCHU to a secondary set of ruins that overlook Machu Picchu and give you an amazing panoramic view of the valley. The trail up to HUAYNA PICCHU is steep and narrow, with drop offs on one side and an unforgiving cliff face on the other. Once you get to the top there is a series of about 100 steps that are only about 50cm X 15cm (ie. only about the size of your foot fit sideways on them) to get to the temple. There are NO handrails or any other form of safety. This is about where I turned back, my fear of heights being justified by the sight of several guys sliding down these stairs on their backsides, too afraid to look down. Afterwards we found out that about 4-7 people a year fall and die off of this peak every year - too bad our guide forgot to tell us about this!

After wandering around the site for another hour or so we caught the bus down to Aguas Caliente for dinner before the trains left for Ollantaytambo. A collectivo, full to the brim with tourist, locals and drunk farmers, managed to get into Cusco by 8:30 that night, just in time for us to regroup at a local restaurant for beer and a bite eat.

All in all we had an amazing experience here and would strongly recommend that anyone who has a chance come to see Machu Picchu. If the idea of 4 days of hiking, camping out on rocky ground and a lack of showers does not appeal to everyone, there is always the option of staying overnight in Aguas Caliente and riding the bus up to Machu Picchu in the morning. But I would warn you that part of the whole experience was the Inca Trail. Somehow having to work so hard to get to the Sun Gate, and that first sight you get of Machu Picchu spread out before you eliminates 500 years of history in the blink of an eye. I can easily imagine what a sense of awe Henry Bingham must have felt on July 24 1911, when he crested that hill and finally discovered his long sought after Machu Picchu.


SueZ said...

INCREDIBLE photos and commentary of
your Inca trek!!! You drew me right up those steps.

Do you miss Tim's after your taste of Columbian coffee??

Your travel journal is captivating.
Wishing you Lynn & Gilles a happy
& adventurous 2007- where will
you be at the stroke of midnight??

JC said...

Gilles and Lynn,

You guys rock. It's the trip of a lifetime, and I thank you for sharing your stories.

Lynn, you write beautifully, love the descriptions. And Gilles, I'm assuming you're taking some of the photos, so nice shots! ;)

All the best,
James Chow

Movies Gallery 2011 said...

Thanks for the share.
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