Ponchos, Pancakes and Pachamama.

29 11 2008

Leaving La Paz, we headed across the border to Cusco in Peru. We still hadn’t done everything we planned to do in Bolivia, but we needed to get to Cusco before the rainy season kicked in. The reason for this was that we planned to do the World famous Inca Trail, which finishes off at the magnificent Machu Picchu.After checking into our hostel, we headed down the hill to have a look around the city and hopefully book our tour. We planned to come back to Cusco for Christmas, so didn’t plan on spending too much time exploring, as we were too excited about doing the trek. We had been thinking about the trip long before we arrived in South America. It is one of the highlights of any trip to the continent, and we had poured over photos of the amazing ruins as we planned our trip in rainy Wales. It had been Claire’s dream long before, ever since studying the Inca’s at middle school; and now the time had finally arrived to see them in real life!

We had planned to book one of the alternative tours, such as the Salkantay. All the treks eventually end up in Machu Picchu, but all take different routes to get there. However, once we had looked at photos of the different tours on offer, we decided that we wanted to trek along the genuine Inca trail, walking the path that the Inca’s would have walked over 600 years before. Furthermore, the path passes a number of well preserved ruins along the way, each offering an opportunity to gain further insight into the Inca Empire.

As we headed down into town to book our tour, we recognised a friendly face lying on a bench. It was Susan whom we first met in Bariloche, and kept bumping into at every stop. As we approached her though, we came across a horrible smell coming from her direction. Looking closer we saw that her leg was bandaged tightly up, yet the material was soaked in a pasty yellow concoction. She explained that she had damaged her foot falling over whilst intoxicated, and rather than go to the hospital, the staff at her hostel insisted that she visit one of the local doctors, which she did.

The doctor lived outside the town, up a narrow backstreet. Upon arrival, she was invited into what appeared to be his garage, and was full of dusty knickknacks, with an old massage table amidst all the clutter. His treatment can best be described as typically unconventional; first his massaged her entire foot, and then spread the said yellow paste all over her injury. The paste itself was rather pungent, and resembled the smell of a homeless man’s trousers… She had since been back twice for further treatment, and claimed that it miraculously appeared to be working. Her foot was healing incredibly quickly, and she hoped to be back on the dance floor in no time.

Whilst I remained slightly sceptical of ´witch doctors´ and their so called ´miracle´ treatments, the evidence was there before me. South America is a mix of modern and traditional, from views on medicine through to religion. Whilst predominantly Catholic, the older Pagan traditions still play a principal role in day to day life. The indigenous people still believe in a lot of the things that were believed by the Inca civilisation, and even before then. The Inca trek itself was, and still is a pilgrimage, and the ruins along the way are all heavily influenced in their design and original purpose by the beliefs and ideologies that the Incas themselves subscribed too. All have Quechan names which relate to their design and purpose.

Quechua (Runa Simi) is a Native American language of South America. It was already widely spoken across the Central Andes long before the time of the Incas, who established it as the official language of administration for their Empire, and is still spoken today in various regional forms (the so-called ‘dialects’) by some 10 million people through much of South America, including most extensively and numerously in Peru. In fact, it is the official language in Peru: at the last census (1993) there were over 3 million speakers of the language in Peru alone.

We booked our tour with United Mice. We were fortunate to get a place on the Inca trek, as usually you have to book 3 months in advance. Fortunately for us it was quieter during the wet season, so we were all good to go! We hired some smaller bags in town, as we didn’t fancy carrying our large pack backs the whole length of the walk. It is possible to hire porters to carry your belongings, but having found out that nobody else in our group was hiring one, we decided to follow suit. With the tour booked and paid for, we set about stocking up on the essentials; snacks, wet wipes (didn’t want to be completely dirty!) more snacks, batteries and a small bottle of rum to keep us warm at night! We were so busy trying to work out how to make our bags as light as possible, whilst still making sure we had all we need, we almost missed our orientation meeting that evening. We were still rearranging our bags way after we returned from it as well.

The next morning we awoke at 4am, and carried our bags (as light as possible) to the awaiting bus outside. The rest of our group was already on board, but it was still a tad too early to make conversation. We contented ourselves with dozing and staring out of the window, watching Cusco disappear behind us, and the snow capped mountains and flora becoming the prevailing view. Disembarking the bus in the last town before the trail begun, we headed to a small café to fill up on breakfast to keep us going for the morning. Most of us ordered two breakfasts, and plenty cups of tea and coffee, just to be on the safe side! As we gradually began to wake up, and the food found its target, conversation began to flow. We could tell right away that we had a good group; we had 7 medical students from Sydney (Aussie, Julian, Scott, Rich, Emma, Jacqui and Maddi), and a couple, Stephen and Johanna from just outside Surrey. All looked in good health and up for a laugh.

Before we left to start the trail, we were set upon by a number of locals trying to sell us coca leaves and walking poles. We bought some coca leaves, but didn’t really feel that we needed the walking poles. Only after seeing that the rest of the group had bought them (all apart from Scott) we decided to be sheep, and bought one each. I’m so glad that we did; they proved to be the best buy of the trip, due to the treacherously wet walking conditions. They were also great for pointing things out, swinging around, and once or twice, for poking another group member with.

From the out, our guide Freddie was full of information on the surrounding area. He regularly stopped us and made us sit whilst he told us about the Inca ruin that we could see. He explained that most of what we know about the Inca Empire is hypothesis. Many believe that the Incas did not have a system for writing, therefore leaving no written accounts of their civilisation. However others propose that the Inca kept their accounts, their genealogy, their astronomical calculations, and (probably) their stories on a complicated system of cords and knots, called quipu. Either way, very little can be put forward at hard fact about how the Incas lived, and the purpose of the buildings that we can still see today, dotted all across the Inca Empire.
Freddie also explained about the Inca’s beliefs, and what the indigenous people today still believe; much of which is based in Inca mythology. Freddie explained about Pachamama, who is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Pachamama is usually translated as “Mother Earth”. He also explained about the Chakana, or Inca Cross. The Chakana is the three-stepped cross equivalent symbolic of what is known in other mythologies as the Tree of Life. It is represented in many of the buildings in a diamond shape. The snake, puma, and condor are representatives of the three levels; the condor is the heavens, the snake is earth or water, and the puma is the underworld. These symbols were represented repeatedly in the ruins that we saw.

The first afternoon consisted of a long up hill walk through the trees to get to our first camp. We were soaked in sweat by the time we reached it, but thankfully there was a fresh mountain stream in which we could wash. I didn’t waste any time, and stripped off my saturated clothes, and thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the ice cold water as it cleansed me of the day’s exertions. As each member of the group arrived at camp, they each followed suit, and after, we sat in our clean clothes, enjoying a hot chocolate and looking out at the amazing view. Our tents had been pitched right on the edge of the mountain side, affording us breath taking views across the valley through which we had trekked that day. We fell asleep that night the moment our heads hit the pillow. Unfortunately for me, my sleeping bag was far from adequate, and quickly the cold mountain air permeated my sleep, and I was forced to put on every piece of clothing I had packed, in order to try and get at least 10 winks that night.

The next day we continued the trek up hill to get to the highest point of the trail – Dead Woman’s Pass! (It lies at 4200m, and is so called because of the way the mountains lie, they create the shape of a women lying down.) The last section to the top was pretty tiring, yet the great thing about the group was that everyone walked at their own pace. There was no pressure at all on anyone. The aussies were doing remarkably well considering that they had literally flown from Sydney to Lima, then headed straight to Cusco to do the trek. They were suffering from both jet lag and altitude sickness, yet you never would have guessed it.

At the top of the pass, we paused for a group photo and also to each have a glug of rum, and to pour some into the earth to toast Pachamama. The rain finally came later that day, but in true traveller style everybody pulled out their rain gear and carried on walking. The aussies had even accessorized and got different colours: they looked like a walking rainbow. A lot of the walk is through cloud forests, and the views were not quite as amazing as they could have been due to the weather, but this didn’t put a dampener on the experience. In fact, the light through the cloud produced a somewhat ethereal quality.

As a group we were all relatively fit and kept up a good pace, yet nothing could prepare us for the pace that our porters went; I swear they were part machine. We could never have done the trek without them; they carried the tents, cooking equipment and food for the whole group. Each morning they packed up after we had left, and practically ran to the next point to prepare lunch for us, and then on towards the camp for the evening. They were dressed mostly in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, yet not once did they slip on the wet surface. We were incredibly grateful for their work. Furthermore, the food that the chef and his assistant prepared for us three times a day was amazing. For breakfast we had fresh fruit, porridge and pancakes. Then for lunch and dinner, we had heaped platters of rice, pasta, vegetables and a selection of chicken, llama and beef. We never went hungry; the only quibble we had was that we finished the supply of strawberry jam too quickly! We ended each day with a selection of teas that aided digestion, ease tired bodies and keep us free from altitude sickness. We were truly spoilt.

Considering that the official Inca trek is one of the most popular trails to take, we saw nobody for the first 3 days of the tour. We were alone, with only our guide and porters. It was great to be out in the open, and imagining what it must have been like all those years ago. Even, going back 100 years, to when the ruins were first discovered. The place was covered in over-growth, and no where near as well maintained as the path is today. Only 500 people can walk it at any one time, and the trail is closed each February in order to clean it and keep it well preserved. Everywhere you look you can catch glimpses of Inca ruins, many of which are around 90% original. You can also see the famous Inca Terraces. The Inca built huge agricultural terraces into the mountain side. The terraces had 2 purposes: the most important was to ensure food, then, secondly, erosion of the land could be blocked this way. They were all well irrigated, and each had its own store house to preserve food for when it was needed. Some of the terraces were experimental, meaning that they brought crops from the low lands and vice versa, and experimented at different altitudes to see how well the crops produced. They even encouraged certain crops to grow at different altitudes, thus supplying the entire empire with a huge array of different food types.

After an equally cold nights sleep, we began the third day that would take us to our final campsite. This was also one of the hardest days as had to tackle what is known as the ´Gringo Killer´; over 3000 steps, taking us over 1100 metres down. This is when we had never been so grateful for our walking poles. Playing twenty questions and numerous other games to keep us going, we started the knee assaulting descent. We made it to the bottom though, only to find we then had to head back up hill in order to get to the final ruins before Machu Pichu. They were definitely seeing, and yet again we had the place to ourselves. We spent hours wandering around the two sights, Winay Wayna (Forver young) and Puyupatamarca (Town above the clouds). The walls had stood the test of time, and whole houses still stood. They had complete drainage systems, and huge stone steps. There were gardens, and temples with windows that had been positioned for the sun and the seasons. It was awe inspiring. We were incredibly blessed with the views of these sights as well. Each time we arrived at a spot there was terrible fog, and the view was somewhat marred. Yet every time, after around 10 minutes, the fog lifted and revealed to us the sight in all it glory. We were offered an ephemeral glimpse, enough to take it in, before the fog slipped back and hid the view once more. This further added to the numinous ambience of the trail.

The third night was a shock to the system: the campsite that we stayed at actually had other people staying there, lots of people! In order to get as close as possible to Machu Picchu the night before, all the groups on the trek converge at the one place. Luckily for us our company had chosen a pitch slightly further away from the main group. We had got used to our solitude, and were in no rush to join civilisation just yet. We did however make a quick reconnaissance mission down to the main site, where there was a bar where we bought a couple of beers to have with our last supper together. That night we said thank you to our porters and also, as is apparently tradition, we sang them a song. In keeping with the theme, and also to keep it easy, we decided on The Proclaimers “I would walk 500 Miles”. The porters look terrified as we burst into a rendition of the infamous song, yet they were soon cheering and laughing along (most with their fingers in their ears). In return, they sang for us a traditional song in Quechan, that they all learnt as youngsters. It was a lovely moment, and we were incredibly grateful to them.

The next morning we were up bright and early in an attempt to be one of the first groups to the gate that leads onto the final stretch to Machu Picchu. We were promptly up and ready, and were actually the first group to the gate. However we hadn’t even had time to go to the bathroom, so in two separate groups, we left our bags and quickly headed back to use the facilities. On our way back though, to our place in the queue, we weren’t prepared for the level of abuse that we received from the other groups, who were behind us. They called us all sorts of names, and refused to believe that we weren’t in fact pushing into the queue. It was quite shocking to hear grown men and women act in such a way, and at such an early hour in the day. We weren’t too bothered though, we were the champions at the front!

As soon as the gate opened we headed straight down on the final leg of the walk. As the rest of the walk had been, the steepness was measured in Peruvian terms. The final section was deemed by our guide to be ´Peruvian flat´, thus meaning that it was on the whole uphill, with a few small flat sections. Not wanting to rush this last section meant that we were overtaken by a few anxious hikers, determined to run the whole course so they could say “they were the first there!” It seemed a waste to rush through without taking in everything along the route, especially on the final section. We finally reached the Sun Gate, the first spot that offers views over the site of Machu Picchu. In with keeping with the rest of the walk, there was thick cloud blocking the view. We waited around in the hope that it would clear, yet as more and more groups appeared, we decided that it wasn’t going to happen this time. I believe that it only cleared for us when we were alone as a group.

As we headed down towards Machu Picchu, we found ourselves walking quicker and quicker. Claire and I had been looking forward to this moment for ages, and round the next corner we were not disappointed. It was every bit as awe inspiring and breath taking as we had hoped. A civilisation lost in the clouds, built on the edge of the mountain, with the river raging below, and the immense terraces still in place, sloping down the sides. All the buildings had stood the test of time phenomenally, you could visualise perfectly how it would have been all those years ago. It was impossible to believe that what we were seeing had been lost for over 600 years.

Built around 1460 by the Emperor Pachacuti, it remained unknown to the Spanish conquerors that brought the Inca Empire to an end. It lay forgotten for many centuries, only the local Indians and settlers knew of its existence. It wasn’t until July 24th, 1911 that it was rediscovered, by an American explorer Hiram Bingham. He had been exploring the area, and had discovered many of the other ruins that lie along the Inca Trail. Bingham was led to the site by an 11 year old boy, and it didn’t take him long to realise that this might be the place that he was looking for. Bingham’s theory was that it was the site of the Inca’s last refuge from the Spanish. (It wasn’t until the 1940´s that doubts began to arise over this assignation – many now believe it to be Espiritu Pampa in the Amazon jungle) Machu Picchu still remains one of the most best preserved remains of a citadel which the Inca´s used for both religious and agricultural reasons.

The buildings were built without mortar, and carefully designed in such a way as to remain standing against the elements, and withstand numerous earthquakes. In fact, the architects who built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a site also built on shifting plates, visited Machu Picchu to learn more about the design and construction of the buildings. The place contained such energy and I was in my element exploring. I loved it for the way that it transported me to a time long forgotten. I spent many hours walking around, peering through doorways and running my hands over the ancient brick work. In some houses I could almost smell the smoke coming from the ancient fireplaces.

Sadly it was eventually time for us to leave. We walked the down the hill to the small town of Aguas Calientes, where we boarded the train back to Cusco. There was a small problem with the train, as we had to pay extra because it was the tourist train. As soon as the train was moving I was asleep, my dreams transporting me to ancient empires. I was suddenly awoken however by a masked man, waving a dried llama in my face. Apparently it was an example of traditional dance… I was more content however being left to my dreams. It was in all an incredible experience, one that I shall definitely never forget.

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