Ithaka

Reveries On A Walk To Machu Picchu

By Douglas Bernon
January 17, 2003
Cuzco, Peru: Altitude: 11,150 feet

On Day Three of the four-day trek to Machu Picchu, painful truths cannot be ignored. My calves and thighs ache. My left hip has formed a subversive pact with the renegade knee beneath it. Neither have been reliable friends this past decade. But there's also an upside: My breathing is better, even though we're almost at 14,000 feet, and I know I'm going to make it without a hireling to tote my bale. For sure, I'm the caboose on this train of eight trekkers; and yes, the frequency and duration of my rest stops exceed all others; and yes, I'm the eldest. But there is a growing, unspoken confidence in me: The porter who carries the emergency oxygen bottle no longer dogs me like a shadow.

Photo of the Inca trail
At higher altitudes on the Inca Trail, there are no trees; however in the
current rainy season, the mountain sides are lush with vegetation.

It's a spectacular walk today, the most beautiful so far, and from lunch on it's mostly downhill. Actually there's almost 5.5 miles of knee-jolting downhill, until Winaywayna,a campsite where we'll get up at 4 tomorrow morning to make it to Intipunku for the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Our afternoon breeze is light. All I hear is rustling bamboo and the screams of my toenails turning black as they jam against the inside of my boot with each step down the mountain. For three days I've been chewing coca leaves and gobbling handfuls of trail-mix made up of M&M's, Vioxx, Ibuprofen, Celebrex, raisins, and peanuts. I wonder at what dosage this combo turns hallucinogenic or toxic.

Photo of leaves from the coca plant Leaves from the tropical coca plant (Erythroxylon coca) are one of many medicines still used throughout the Andes. The coca leaves are brewed into a tea that aids breathing in the thin mountain air. Incas also chewed it while walking long distances, and so do trekkers today. Sadly, in these forms it offers no buzz.

Machu Picchu, Peru's famous Lost City Of the Incas, is perched in a high mountain valley ringed by towering peaks. This ancient holy city is about the same distance south of the equator as Barbados is north. Depending on our altitude, we've been slipping up and down through a series of microclimates: cloud forest, grassy plains, high sierra, rain forest. Think orchids, jungles, and glaciers, all in the same picture. Once, much of Peru was laced with narrow Inca highways, wide enough only for a walker and his burdens. Many think the trail was a pilgrimage planned as a narrative experience, a complete work of art in which truths are revealed progressively in nature's changing dramas, culminating with the mountaintop setting and elegantly crafted stone temples of Machu Picchu. Seems right to me.

Photo of trail above Qoriwayrachina The view from the trail above Qoriwayrachina.

My hajj to Machu Picchu begins with a pre-dawn, two-hour bus ride from Cuzco to Qoriwayrachina (8,300 feet) on the Urubamba River, which the Incas considered a sacred waterway. In Quechua, they called it Wilca Mayu, the identical name their astronomers gave to the Milky Way, its heavenly reflection. Our group had four Brits aged 19 to 23; two Australians aged 26; Hans, a 50-year-old Dutchman with the lungs of a teenager; and me. Carrying tents and food were a slew of porters. Everett Salsas, a Quechua who had trained as an anthropologist, provided adult supervision. One hour into the walk, the mountain segregated the fit and pathetic. The only person half so slow as me was the girl who chain-smoked.

Photo of the group of trekkers to Machu Picchu Our band of eight with guide Everett in the center.

Our initial, lowland terrain was filled with purple and orange bougainvillea, cacti with giant white blossoms, bromeliads, trumpet flowers, willowy snapdragons, cauliflower, corn fields and giant agaves, which they don't use for tequila. The local grog is chicha, a thick corn brew. A large mug, for 15 cents, will knock your socks off. At occasional, isolated huts along the trail, to signal passer-bys that there's fresh chicha, the individual brewmeisters display a red plastic bag nailed to a bamboo pole. I considered these flags personal invitations and accepted them often.

Photo of an alpaca Seen roaming throughout the Andes, alpacas always look grimy and adorable. Not only the source of warm sweaters, they are delicious as grilled burgers.

For several hours the first day we followed the Cusichaca River heading north and then up to the first campsite at Wayllabamba, which is just under 10,000 feet. This introductory amble had but a gentle rise, and until lunchtime I never felt much removed from civilization. I could hear trains and see power lines, but then the new world faded. By 4 p.m., when we pitched tents, I was pooped. Everett said there would be snacks at 5, and sure enough the porters appeared with bowls of popcorn. The twentysomethings looked annoyingly vigorous. Everett reminded us to treat this trip the way the ancient Quechua did, as a pilgrimage, rather than a race. Not to worry. At 7:15, I flossed the green residue of coca leaves from my teeth, and curled into my sleeping bag, thinking about Day Two, which everyone warned is the hard one.

Photo of waterfalls Before seeing these waterfalls, we knew they were there. Their rumbling resounded through the valley.

The Andes are a seriously vertical neighborhood, and the second day has some noticeable uphill. While the porters galloped and the youngsters strolled, I huffed over Warmiwanuscca pass (13,776 feet), eating the dust of those before me. But something great happened that morning. Suddenly in my mind's ear I heard Peter, Paul and Mary singing Right Field. I recall being stuck there regularly as kid, and I realize I'm doing now what I did then, withdrawing from the competition and escaping into reverie, receding into a rhythmic walk and absent-minded daydream that erases humiliation, soothes muscles, and eases breathing. (This is a good. Twice today I passed people with altitude sickness being administered life-prolonging oxygen.)

Photo of the trail to Machu Picchu Everything needed on the trek must be carried along.

I realize I'm in reverie-mode and start playing with the word itself: to see again, to hold in awe, to be reverential, to be the most reverend. I laugh out loud, thinking, oh yeah, the air's thin, the grog's got gusto, and I'm getting goofy. But it's more than that. It's such a treat that the mind can think about what the mind is thinking about. I think about my father, dead now for 33 years; about Bernadette and her physical courage; about good friends of 50 years; about people I've mistreated and some who've done me dirt, too. I beam about what Bernadette and I have accomplished so far on our cruise, and soon I'm tromping along. Sure, my lungs are screeching some, but I don't mind; my backpack full of water bottles, clothes, supplies, sleeping bag, and mattress feels lighter.

I've done months of much longer, much higher, more treacherous and demanding treks, and surely I've carried heavier packs, but that was in the Himalayas — 20 years and 15 pounds ago. I used to slip into meditative reveries then, too. I startle myself out of this one when I loudly hiccup, only then conscious that I've been playing with anagrams, and my body, despite today's demands, is more clever than my noggin. It's offering a friendly hint. "A hiccup chum," I realize, is an anagram for Machu Picchu. Now I'm rolling.

Photo of the temples of Machu Picchu Though dwarfed by the peaks around them, the temples of Machu Picchu, appear as if woven into the hills and blend quietly.

Were there this many hummingbirds before my reverie? I spot a mountain caracara, a hawk-like animal with black and white wings and red under his beak. He's almost six feet across. The book says he's found only above 3,500 meters. He glides above me, dipping a wing in his thermal, and I wave back. Two waterfalls thunder to my left, and the glacial peak of La Victoria suddenly appears to my right, piercing the clouds. When I lollygag into camp, just in time for the day's 5 p.m. tea and popcorn feed — some two hours behind the trailblazers — everyone's looking rested. I'm a tired and happy camper. It's so cold tonight I sleep with my hat and gloves on. Trekking is about levels and layers, putting things on and taking them off — layering, revealing, relayering.

The third day has the longest walk, with lots of up and down and a couple of passes over 12,000 feet, but it's also got more Inca ruins and temples to stop in and a variety of microclimates, some of which contain fuchsias, bamboo, and moss so wet you can grab a handful, wring it out and gain enough water to cool your brow. There are orchids everywhere, some loud and large, and others smaller than a fingernail. One is so exquisite the Quechua call it Wacangi, "You will cry."

Photo of mountain lupine in full bloom Great beds of mountain lupine were in full bloom this week, sometimes covering whole banks along the trail.

I'm regularly checking my little Quechua dictionary. Toponomy fascinates me because place names reveal so much about what a culture exalts. The Incas called their beloved mountains Pachamama, earth mother, caressed her kindly and worked to resemble her. In the United States, at Mt. Rushmore ("Speed up?" "Go faster?") we shove sticks of dynamite into mountains and blast them into facsimiles of politicians. A French friend once laughed to me that to grasp the soul of America, you need to spend time at Mt. Rushmore and Wal-Mart.

The hardest part of Day Three is keeping my balance. For hours we descend staircases of wet stones, polished slippery by a hundreds of years of pilgrims making their way. Sometimes I feel my heartbeat in my teeth; I keep hoping I won't plummet, gathering no moss and bouncing into oblivion, an image that interferes with spiritual epiphanies. No chanting OM here. Inside my head I hear mundane practicalities: "Slow down sucker — put your right foot forward here." Because my left hip and knee won't cooperate fully, my hopping-descent resembles a cross between Grandpa Amos on the Real McCoy's and Chester on Gunsmoke.

Photo of a pair of hiking boots These toenail-destroying boots are given a rest.

Pretty much I trudge alone, which is fine, because I have uninterrupted time to focus on sounds and smells: the laughter of treetop birds; a whispery, high-octane whirr of hummingbird wings; the lusty damp woods and dark places; the vanilla of oleander and butterscotch begonias. But occasionally, if one of the group wants a rest or a chicha buzz, they'll briefly hang back with me until my pace bores them. Thirty years ago it would have bored me, too. They're polite, but in their eyes I detect pity for the elderly. The startling news that my wife and I live on a sailboat buys me back a few scraps of credibility as marginally cool.

Photo of Bernadette at Machu Picchu Bernadette at Machu Picchu.

Our fourth and final day is brief and glorious. We're up at 3:45 for pancakes and coca tea, and off by 4:30, benefiting from a nearly full moon and a break in the clouds. Those wearing headlamps lead the way. By 5 we can make out the trail. The goal is to push hard and be at Intipunku (the Sun's Gate) by 6, in time for the first rays to stream through the stone portico high above Machu Picchu. We make it, and the early beams reward us with several seconds of a rainbow; but still, the clouds linger, hiding the treasure completely. At first we're silent, hoping the sun will do its job and burn away the shroud. Then someone suggests we blow on the clouds, as if our collective breath and hopes could make temples appear; but clouds rarely respond to the importunings of mortals. Then suddenly, like fog banks instantly evaporating off the Maine coast, the clouds lift and Machu Picchu is laid out before us in crystal clarity. Majesty, mountain, temples, and green hills leap from behind their drapes. No one speaks. Several minutes later the mist swallows it.

For another hour we descend through the clouds and emerge at the temples. It's 7:30 now. The sanctuary is open, and Bernadette is waiting. I spot her in the distance and feel whole again.


Books and Resources for Travel in Peru

The Ecotraveler´s Wildlife Guide to Peru by David Pearson and Les Beletsky, published by Natural World, Academic Press, 2001, ISBN: 0-12-548065-2. Whether for serious naturalist or livingroom environmentalist, this is the finest and most useful nature guide I've ever seen. The authors include discussions of parks and reserves, geography, habitats, ecology and natural history. The photographs and drawings are top-notch with useful, distinguishing descriptions. Chapters are divided into Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals, Insects and Other Arthropods. This book is actually worth its weight in your knapsack.

The same publishing house has editions on Belize and Northern Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Galapagos, Hawaii and Tropical Mexico, and says they have another dozen in the works.

Photo of the temples and dwellings at Machu Picchu
The temples and dwellings at Machu Picchu laid essentially un-touched for
hundreds of years, until they were rediscovered by explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911,
when he was searching for someplace else, the ancient city of Vilcabamba.

Exploring Cuzco by Peter Frost, published by Novas Imagines, SA in Lima. Published in numerous languages, it is available throughout Peru or can be ordered through email at jbar@amauta.rep.net.pe. Frost divides his discussion into the city of Cuzco, areas worth seeing outside the city, the Sacred Valley (including Pisac, Calca, Yucay, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo) as well as a thorough discussion of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. Frost has a deep affection for the Quechua and Peru, and this respectful attitude permeates his writing.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Peru, assembled and written by Rob Rachowiecki, is, as usual, excellent. These folks know how to do practical.

For those who want an overview on other trekking in South America, Hilary Brandt's guidebook, Backpacking in Peru and Bolivia, published in the U.K. now in its 7th edition, remains the standard.

The Conquest of the Incas, by John Hemming. This comprehensive and detailed history is first-class and fun. Hemming, like Frost, has a deep love for Peru and writes without the pretentious grandstanding found in autobiographical accounts of the explorer-looters who put Machu Picchu on the world's map. Hemming is that rare historian who has a droll appreciation for the foibles of the human condition. He reminds me of A.J.P. Taylor, but with a sense of humor. Published by Macmillan in 1970 and now available in paperback. ISBN: 0 333 51794 6.

Realm of the Incas, by Max Milligan is an exquisite picture book of Peru, and the introduction is written by John Hemming. Published by Harper Collins in 2000. ISBN 0 00710405 7.

The Two Ways to Get to Machu Picchu

There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu, and both of them start in Cuzco, Peru, the archeological and tourist center of the Eastern Andes, the place the Incas once believed was the energy center of the earth.

The simplest way is to buy a train ticket and four hours later arrive in Aguas Calientes, at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. Accommodations there range from cucaracha-modest (under $5) to downright elegant ($65), and all options can be found in travel books, on the Internet, or through your local travel agency. Most people just find a hotel when they arrive in the town. From Aguas Calientes, there is a $4.50 bus that in 20 minutes takes you up the dirt switchback road to the ruins at Machu Picchu, where doors open at 7 a.m. The only hotel located next to ruins is the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which can be emailed at res-mapi@peruorientexpress.com.pe Single rooms start at $305 per night.

Photo of Douglas at Machu Picchu
Douglas takes in the same view as the Incas enjoyed hundreds of years before.

The second route is a tad circuitous but infinitely more interesting, and surely cheaper. Trekking Machu Picchu with organized groups can be done in either two- or four-day treks, and the fees range anywhere from $60 to $2,000, depending on whether you book them in Cuzco or in your home country, and depending on the trekking service you choose. The prices include a trekking permit, all meals, snacks every day and porters carrying tents and food. Regardless of price, however, you sleep on the same ground, have the same views, eat more or less the same grub, and see the same sights. With any of the groups you can either carry your own pack or have a porter shoulder it for you. Typical cost for a porter is less than $10 a day.

It's dead simple to arrange your trek once arriving in Cuzco. Trekking agencies crowd onto every street, compete mightily, and there is plenty of availability. The key questions to pose are these: Does the guide speak your language? Is there a medical kit? Will one of the porters be carrying oxygen? How many people will be in the group? Any number greater than 10 is unwieldy, although some of the most expensive agencies take 16.

Photo of Machu Picchu in Peru
In 1995, only two hours walk from here, another smaller city was uncovered.
Local archeologists and anthropologists assume there are more temples and villages,
hidden by jungles and waiting to be re-introduced to the world.

The days of independent treks on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu came to an end several years ago when a forest fire engulfed part of the Inca Trail. The Peruvian government, in an effort to protect an unrenewable resource, now requires that groups be guided. All other trails in the country are open to unsupervised trekking, and next time, that's where I'm headed.

Staying in Cuzco

The range in price and style is considerable. Lonely Planet, The Rough Guide and other travel books offer a comprehensive list of hotels, along with descriptions, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. We were referred by other travelers to Amaru Hostal, and are glad for it. It's well located in the artsy section of town, near the main plaza and many restaurants, yet it's high enough up one of the hills to be away from much of the noise and hubbub. It's safe, and you can leave luggage there with confidence when you trek. Our modest, clean and comfortable room, with pretty carved furniture, large windows, a private bathroom with shower, and plenty of hot water, was $20 a night, $17 when Bernadette stayed there alone. That included our breakfast of fresh fruits, yogurt, granola, eggs, toast, coffee, and tea. From our front window we looked out on a courtyard of flowers and then across the town's roofs and up into the mountains. Most importantly Doña Juana Maria, the proprietress, is helpful to guests and sets a warm tone. Amaru Hostal can be reached at Amaru@telser.com.pe or telephone/fax 084 225933. We didn't make advance reservations, just arrived on the doorstep, but call ahead if you want to be sure to get a room, as this little hotel is very nice.

Photo of Douglas in a scary mask
Douglas, after four days on the trail.

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