Peru explorations: Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Cusco, Sacred Valley May 2010
My first ever multi-day point to point backpacking experience was actually what would be a huge milestone for most people–The Inca Trail covering 51 miles from Cusco, Peru to Machu Picchu in 4 days reaching a high point of just under 14,000′ before descending its way down to Machu Picchu at just under 8,000′.
The Peruvian government requires all Inca Trail trekkers to go with a certified tour agency, as lone hikers without a permit are technically illegal (if you get caught….). We toured with a company called Peru Treks, and they exceeded our expectations.
The company hired local porters who carried all the camping, cooking, and eating equipment and food, and we carried our own clothing, snacks, and water. The tour guide was born and raised in the mountains, and not only was he an excellent historian for the ancient Incan culture but he was also a very knowledgeable ecologist for the local flora and fauna. I would definitely recommend this company based on my experience.
Trekking the Trail was an incredibly humbling and spiritual experience, as our small group of hikers and the guides had the trail to ourselves each day after the porters ran ahead to set up camp to await our arrival to each campsite.
Along the way, we observed several different ruins as well as modern-day settlements. We got to see how the ancient inhabitants utilized terraced farming to their benefit with rows of crops built into leveled earth, and also saw how they built their structures into the side of the mountain for shelter from the elements and also built in such a way so that they could see anyone approaching for miles. However, this culture for some reason either never established a system of written communication, so our knowledge of their culture is made of educated guesses. Due to the lack of a written communication system, they were forced to communicate from one area to the next by way of messengers running the Trail.
Although there was not much wildlife at these heights (random mountain goats and wandering alpaca), we were able to see some impressive orchids and other flowers and trees. And the stars…..this was my first experience observing the stars from the Southern Hemisphere, and I was impressed. The first night of the Trail I was rewarded with an incredible view of the Southern Cross directly overhead, and it was so bright that I could walk around without a flashlight.
The views from these elevations were also quite spectacular, with some points hiking along a ridgeline that dropped thousands of feet below to the forests to one side while the face of the mountain climbed steeply on our other side with alpine trees and vines growing around us. We also at points climbed through cloud forests, which created a damp, cool atmosphere that provided an element of mystique to the area. Upon reaching Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,828′, we were able to look down behind us to the long, treacherous trail up but also saw thick clouds hovering around peaks in the distance but at elevations much lower than us.
Our arrival to Machu Picchu caused me to have feelings of awe and admiration at the ingenuity of its ancient inhabitants, but also repulsion at modern-dau tourists. We arrived to the top of Machu Picchu just at sunrise to get beautiful views looking down onto the empty ruins inhabited only by various alpaca grazing the grass on the terraced grounds, but shortly thereafter we were forced to endure thousands of tourists dumped onto the grounds by several buses and trains. I was suffocating with feelings of culture shock and agoraphobia after having spent 4 days backpacking in near solitude (with just our group), but then had to push my way through mosh pits of people who could not even begin to understand or respect the ruins for what they were without having suffered the Trail and learned the ancient culture by walking their main mountain highway. I applaud the desire to experience Machu Picchu, but please, if you are physically able, only experience it by way of trekking the Trail to fully understand and appreciate the ruins and the life they provided to their inhabitants.
Due to the complete lack of writings, we do not fully know why Machu Picchu was built, but it is said to date back to the mid-1400s and is theorized to be a place of retreat of the Incan royalty to escape the invading Spanish conquistadors who had already overtaken by force the kingdom’s capital in Cusco as well as all other communities throughout the Sacred Valley. I tend to believe this is a legit theory, especially because one of the best views looks directly down to the Rio Urubamba as it curves in a horseshoe shape allowing the Incans to observe anyone rafting down the river. Whatever its purpose in being built, it is clear that it was built with the goal of perseverance and durability, since it was completely lost to the modern world until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Before our trek began, we spent 4 days in Cusco touring the art district, learning about the destruction caused by Spanish conquistadors and how Tupac Shakur got his namesake from an ancient Incan who led a revolt against the dictators, and also exploring the ruins and markets outside of Cusco in the Sacred Valley. Sacsayhuaman is an incredible set of ruins set on a massive plane that overlooks Cusco and the Andes mountains in the background, and is also often used in regular Incan traditions.
In sum, this is a must-do experience for all adventure-seekers. Such a beautiful and impressive culture that has its roots in an even more impressive history.