The Peruvian town of Cusco was a hub of the Mayan and the Incan Empire. Though it’s in a valley, the town is still at an altitude of over 11,000 feet. Perched in the hills above this town used to be the Incan temple called Sacsayhuaman. The Temple was built with massive stones intricately carved to fit the stones below them, forming what looked like an airtight fit while using no mortar. They resembled giant misshapen pillows to me. When the Spaniards arrived and conquered them, they forced the Incans to disassemble most of their temple and hall the stones down the hill to be used as building material for the Spanish Catholic church. It is interesting how God takes on the form of those with the most powerful weapons and willingness to use them. Though the Peruvians converted to Christianity, happily I’m sure, they snuck in some rituals and holidays that would be seen is very peculiar to most Christians.
I was there at the behest of a friend of a friend who’s lifelong dream it was to hike the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu. He thought that I would be a great partner to help that happen. I thought that this was a swell idea. Cusco is the nearest place with an airport.
While in Cusco, we found the most authentic Peruvian restaurant we could and asked for the most authentic Peruvian dish. What we received was what looked like a small pet that had been shaved, given a bad suntan and had a pepper shoved in his mouth. you could see its little teeth and it still had the fur on its ears. We took turns pretending to eat it and then sent it back to the kitchen to make unrecognizable. I still couldn’t eat it.
The government of Peru had realized by this time that the Inca Trail was a significant treasurer and that it was worth protecting. They also wanted to ensure that the local economy received some benefit. Therefore, anyone hiking the trail was required to hire a local registered guide, complete with porters. I thought that this was terrible. I have always liked independent self-exploration. I was envisioning a scene out of the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” where a guide would hold up a giant plastic sunflower and tell the troop “now follow the sunflower!” Antoine, the friend of the friend, had researched it thoroughly and had chosen the guid wisely.
The Inca trail hike is long and strenuous. Though I was in heaven, anyone who was not fit enough, or had trouble with altitude, was miserable. At the beginning, I saw Porter’s carrying one exhausted, middle-aged American back out. Antoine, being the oldest in the group, was on the cusp. Our guide was perfect. He told us where to meet in the middle of the day and at the end of the day, then left us alone if we wished. Upon reaching the first meeting point, we were greeted by our Porters with chairs, fresh coffee, and freshly popped popcorn. I immediately realized that “ I could get used to this”. Though Spanish is the official language of Peru, the porters spoke the native Quechua, which when spoken, sounded more like Klingon to me.
There are certain things in life that you just luck out on and our group was one of them. There were two 20 year old girls from Chicago, a young British couple, (Brits can be a riot) and a young Asian-American with his new Chinese girlfriend. Then there were Antoine and I. We were the old ones in the group, in our 50s and 40s. On the third day, the Chicago girls gave me the nickname Captain America as Antoine was struggling and I took my backpack on my back and his backpack on my front. I was okay with this naming development until I came down with the worst case of gas, causing the Chicago girls to then rename me “Gas Man”. After singing the song to Batman “na na na na na na… Gas Man!”, I was right on cue, thus cementing my new fate.
At the end of each day, the porters set up our tents, a large dining tent with tables and chairs and then cooked a simple but decent meal. I was starting to realize just how deprived I had been in all my previous hiking. The dinners ran late and the laughter made my face hurt until our guide told us that we had to go to bed as we were keeping everyone else awake. When the first of our group crawled out of the dining tent late at night I heard an exclamation, “Oh my God!” Then the next person crawled out and exclaimed “oh my God!”, one after another. I was the last to leave and was wondering what could possibly be so impressive, until I got out and looked up. We were high in the Andes, and far From any city. The Blackness of the sky and the volume of the Stars we’re like nothing that I could have imagined had I not seen it. I too repeated the exclamation.
Our guide had told us, before our trek had started, to buy dried coca leaves from one of the street vendors and bring them with us. Being legal in Peru, I bought them. Our group met up before the longest climb to the highest pass, and our guide treated us to an Incan ritual as we chewed our coca leaves. My mouth tingled as if full of an anesthetic spray that dentists used to use to deaden the pain. I asked the guide ”what will the drug dogs in Miami do when they sniff my pants that have been carrying these coca leaves for days?” He said, ”oh… it’ll drive them ape shit!” I don’t know if I got high, but I did happily charge up to the nearly 14 thousand foot pass with one backpack on my back and one backpack on my front.
The trail goes through what is known as “ the cloud forest”. Many of the plants grow high in rocks and trees with no roots as they can suck the moisture that they need right out of the clouds.
Machu Picchu is, by far, not the only Incan ruins. They are just the densest and best manicured. Beautiful ruins with aqueducts that have stone wash basins built in seem to be everywhere. The place must have been hopping. The ruins along the trail before reaching Machu Picchu are my favorite as they were far from civilization and the rainforest was in various stages of reclaiming them. They felt more like one was making a discovery.
(from an earlier post) Everything laid out before you at the beginning ruins the secret, dampens the mood of exploration. This has been a theme of the best things in my life. It’s a theme of human history, art, spirituality… After days of hiking, I descended the Inca trail onto the best, most famous viewpoint of Machu Picchu, only to find it completely fogged in. “This is terrible!” we exclaimed. “All this travel, all this money!” But slowly, the fog lifted, but fortunately, not completely.