, , , , , , , , , ,

Many years ago when I was about twenty-eight I hiked the Inca Trail with a group of friends. The Inca Trail follows the route the Incas forged from their sacred capital of Cusco across the mountains to their royal retreat and citadel at Machu Picchu. Much of the Inca Trail is on actual roadwork built by the Incas hundreds of years ago.

When I hiked the Inca Trail there were few tourists, no porters, no guide nor need for one, and as far as I remember no entrance fee. We took a train from Cusco to kilometre 88 and crossed the Urubamba River, raging in a canyon hundreds of feet below us, on a flying fox (a zip line with a platform to stand on instead of a harness). Then we started walking. Our only guide was a printed, but initially hand-drawn approximation of a map. We were carrying food for the five of us for four days, plus at least one five-litre plastic water container apart from our own water bottles. This was because at one point on the trail we had to carry water, as there would be none available until the next day. We carried only the flysheet from a fairly large tent for shelter. We got lost once because some German tourists came back up the extremely obvious trail ahead of us and assured us it was not the right way (it was), but we spent an hour or two literally climbing cliffs looking for the trail before deciding that the obvious path must be the one. We climbed three mountain passes, the highest being nearly 14,000 feet, and on the fourth day entered Machu Picchu from above, looking down on one of the most astounding sights in the world.

That such a place exists in such a remote and inaccessible location is astonishing, and yet I imagine that to the Incas it was business as usual. They were Andean people so altitude was of no concern, and mountainous terrain was the norm. The entire trail is littered with the ruins of other Inca buildings showing that this was a well-known and much travelled pathway. Machu Picchu never was a hidden city, or a lost city, not to the people of the Andes anyway, though the modern-day “discoverer” Hiram Bingham, who was led there by a young Quechua boy in 1911, would have us believe it was. Never mind that there were Quechua families living and farming there at the time. The Spanish never found it and thus it was never destroyed by them as other Inca sites were. Hiram Bingham thought it was the legendary “lost city” Vilcabamba, the last hold-out of the Incas.

The Incas rose from obscurity in the thirteenth century and through war and/or forming allegiances and/or marriages of convenience with rival chiefs they created the largest pre-Colombian empire in the world, an empire that extended from just across the Colombian border in the north, to Santiago in the south, a distance of approximately five thousand kilometers, and spanning from the eastern Andes to the Pacific coast.

It began with a hundred year drought that threw the separate Andean villages into chaos, warring with each other for food and water. Meanwhile in the fertile Cusco valley there was plenty of water. Instead of fighting each other the Incas, a sub-group of the Quechua people, united, and together built agricultural terraces and irrigation systems, developed food surpluses and an army, and bit by bit expanded their power and control over any who would challenge them.

The empire spread, and lasted for three hundred years. Under Incan rule Andean civilization flourished. They developed and mastered high-altitude agricultural practices. They connected fragmentary roads and built new ones, 30,000 kilometres of roads in all. They were master stonemasons, and I’m frankly dumbfounded by the sheer number of rocks they moved around to create roads, and buildings of all types – houses, palaces, food storage complexes, fortresses, agricultural terraces, and temples. The Inca Quechuas of the rich Cusco Valley rose partly through luck (being in the only place in that part of the Andes that had a good water supply during the drought) and largely through astonishing unity, and organization, and hard work, to become the leaders of a vast empire. It crumbled, though not instantly, with the arrival of the Spanish in the mid 1500’s. The final defeat of the Incas took place in 1572, the end of an astonishing era.

To hike the Inca Trail today costs anywhere from $600 and up. You can only go with an authorized tour company, you must have a guide, numbers are restricted, and you must book months in advance. And there’s now a foot-bridge across the Urubamba River at the start of the trail. There is also the less expensive Salkantay Trail. And then there’s the way we did it.

We took the early train from Ollantaytambo through glorious mountain scenery



to Aguas Calientes, a town at the foot of the ridge on which the ruins of Machu Picchu are situated. From there we expected to take one of the frequent buses travelling the zig-zag road up the mountain to the top. Instead what we found was this:


and this shows only one third of the line-up. We joined the end of the line and discovered that there had been not one, but two rockslides on the road due to heavy rains. Apparently only one had been cleared. Amusing myself while waiting I was drawn to photograph these two boys playing on the sidewalk.


After about an hour the buses started running. About three quarters of the way up the mountain we came to the rockslide at one of the many hairpin bends in the road


and we all filed out of the bus, climbed the makeshift stairs, that can be seen on the right of the picture, to the road above it and waited in line for a bus to come from the top to get us. At this point Don and I decided to walk. We’d waited in lines long enough. After climbing up the road for twenty minutes, and another twenty climbing Inca stairs and pathways within the complex, we were finally looking at the famous ruins of Machu Picchu.


It is believed to have been built in the mid 1400’s. The historians say it was built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, but I rather think it was built by many of his loyal subjects. Emperors rarely, I believe, actually do the dirty work. It is thought to have been a royal retreat, of great spiritual significance, and a fortress that would be extremely difficult to penetrate due to its remote location and difficulty of access.


It housed about 1000 people in 100 family compounds. Apparently the Emperor had the only private bath and toilet on the site.




The Temple of the Sun, above


and below


What an extraordinary place it is, huge in scope and power. The Incas lived in rugged intimidating terrain, but instead of being limited by it they used it to shape their cities and citadels, molding the layout and buildings to fit the land that supported them. Rather than fighting the mountains they worshipped them and discovered their secrets. The citadel sits on a ridge between the mountains called Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu as if it landed gracefully from the sky, in no way in contradiction with the land on which it sits. We were inevitably in awe.

At the end of a long day exploring we were entertained on the train ride back by a fashion parade, and by a wild man who bounced up and down the aisle and on the seats. That woke us up!


The entire Cusco Valley, and Urubamba Valley are littered with Inca ruins. As I’ve said, the Incas spread themselves far and wide, and through their massive building projects left their mark everywhere they went, and Cusco, and the surrounding area, was the cradle of their empire. We visited the ruins at Cusco, Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Machu Picchu, Moray and Pisac. And that’s maybe half of what you can see in day trips from Cusco or any number of villages in the area. I’m seriously impressed by all that the Incas achieved, but after seeing the best of them we felt saturated. We reached Inca Ruin burnout, the same as we reached Old Cathedral burnout in Europe. Pisac, however, is worth a mention.

We went as much for the Sunday market as for the ruins. There’s a huge market for tourists selling all kinds of handmade traditional artifacts, most commonly woven and knitted items. Beautiful, and very colourful. Beyond that we found the local fruit and vegetable market. Given all the local markets I’ve seen around the world you’d think I’d have reached Indigenous Market burnout, but apparently not. I still find then fascinating. I’m still entranced by this glimpse into a colourful world where people do things so differently, and yet so very much the same.








From the market we were driven up the mountain to the ruins at Pisac high above the valley. The citadel is surrounded by vast terraces and magnificent panoramic views. Like most Inca cities it is believed to have served military, agricultural, and spiritual purposes, and was possibly built to defend the southern entrance to the Sacred, or Urubamba, Valley. Its Sun Temple is the equal of that at Machu Picchu.

The road winds up from the valley below.


We get out of the car and there above us are the ruins of the Inca city.


Unlike Machu Picchu it is not crowded with other tourists and we revel in being outdoors and climbing and clambering all over the site. Once again we discover that, like the other Inca cities we have visited, it is vast. We walk around for hours knowing we will never see it all, but delighting in what we do see.

The terraces, and views, go on forever.


We scramble in and out of what once were homes,


follow pathways


and admire, and climb all over, the Sun Temple



We decided we would walk back down to the village. Online sources say the walk takes variously either forty minutes, or two hours, or anything in between. Weather was threatening. The entire time of our one-hour hike down the mountain there was thunder booming and echoing in the mountains all around us. Lightening flashed frequently, causing us to move more quickly than we otherwise would have. It was scary. And exciting. The path was at times very narrow with a steep drop down one side, at times confusing, at times slippery. We could see another vast rise of terraces and more ruins. There was a river to cross, more than once, but eventually we came to a broad stone staircase going down and down and down and knew that we were on the right path into the village. We passed villagers heading up. I have no idea where they would be going, or why. Our chant was No mas lluvia! No mas lluvia! – No more rain! No more rain!

According to Wiki it is not known when Pisac was built but since the area doesn’t appear to have been previously inhabited it would probably have been during the mid 1400’s. However on the way down the mountain, as well as seeing more ruins that were obviously Incan, we also saw this


Cliff dwellings. In the middle of a very very high and vertical cliff across the gorge from the trail we were following. Who built them? When and why? And more importantly, how did they ever get up to them from the valley floor way below, or down to them from the top of the cliff way above?

We beat the weather, ate lunch at the highly recommended Blue Llama Café, and were driven back to Cusco in a torrential downpour.

Next post: Fiesta at Ollantaytambo. And a bullfight!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machu_Picchu – Machu Picchu
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/07/110721-machu-picchu-100th-anniversary-archaeology-science/ – Machu Picchu
http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/peru/machu-picchu/ – Machu Picchu
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/04/inca-empire/pringle-text – Inca origins and history
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%ADsac – Pisac
http://www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/destinations/cusco/pisac.html – Pisac