Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
“Porter!”, comes the cry from behind. This alert from fellow hikers is a regular punctuation mark to my puffing and panting along the otherwise silent trail. I continue plodding along, but keep left, so the men we rely on for all but the thin air we’re trying to breathe can pass more easily.
The porters sweep past on this 46-kilometre, high-altitude hike in the Andes, despite each being weighed down with 20 kilograms of luggage, from potatoes to portable toilets. Each morning they pack up camp after we start walking, rush ahead to ensure lunch is waiting for us, then hurry past again to set up camp and cook dinner.
Our guide calls us “super hikers”. I know it’s more motivation than reality, especially when these superhuman porters leave me in their wake.
I’m tackling Peru’s Inca Trail, one of the planet’s great treks, in three days instead of the anticipated four, after a landslide obliterated one of the campsites before we set out. With steep inclines and descents, and uneven paths, it would be challenging nearer sea level, but as I approach the hike’s highest point of 4215 metres, at Dead Woman’s Pass, passing out, even death, seems entirely possible.
Even so, I’m never insensible to the trail’s wonders. Walking among clouds that swirl swiftly around and over mountain peaks, I see clusters of tiny, wild orchids, an iridescent green hummingbird hovering in the air, millipedes almost as long as my foot, and llamas grazing among stone ruins.
Machu Picchu, the ruined citadel declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, is at trail’s end, but there are remnants of the ancient Incan empire at several points along the route: precisely engineered agricultural terraces and drainage systems, houses, grain stores and temples, some so substantial they would be overrun with tourists if extreme walking wasn’t the only means of access. Indeed, this very trail was constructed by the Incas, including steps carved from or paved with stone, and tunnels hewn through rock by hand.
This is the legacy of the Americas’ largest pre-Columbian civilisation, and possibly the largest in the world before it was struck down by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Those who survived were the ancestors of these porters, whose features and dark skin indicate they are Quechua, the indigenous people of the Andes.
Exploitation of Inca Trail porters was rife before a law requiring minimum wages and conditions was introduced in 2003, but some tour operators find ways around it. Porters are essential for everyone but truly super hikers, so choosing a reputable company was part of my preparation. I went with a venture known for porter welfare, as well as for providing opportunities to interact with locals. Which is why, early in the hike, I found myself standing before a score of porters, telling them a bit about myself in baby-Spanish, and learning from these supermen about their lives as fathers, husbands, brothers and sons.
There was a similarly humbling exchange a few days earlier at an indigenous family’s farm in the Sacred Valley. The women, dressed in colourful traditional clothes, giggled with polite incredulity when one of our group revealed she is paid to wash dogs.
The extended family’s menfolk were absent, earning money as porters and taxi drivers, except for a shy boy and an elderly blind man dressed in woolly poncho and hat, who said little but played flute. After the women demonstrated the cleaning, dyeing, spinning and weaving of alpaca wool, we guests were glad to add to the family’s income by buying their distinctive textiles.
That visit, which included helping harvest imperfect little potatoes and a humble feast in their mudbrick home, is a particularly fond memory on the way to Machu Picchu. Uplifting thoughts are welcome as I cautiously descend ancient steps, which are often knee-joltingly steep and irregular, as well as slippery with rain and cloud vapour. The porters run past me. What’s Quechuan for unbelievable?
Finally, I’m standing at Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, thought to have been the main entrance to Machu Picchu. A mass of wispy, misty cloud parts below, revealing the Inca citadel voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. It’s a sight beyond words, though UNESCO does a fair job describing it as “among the greatest artistic, architectural and land use achievements anywhere, and the most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilisation”.
We descend into the extensive cluster of grey-stone walls and terraces, which hug the contours of a saddle between two mountain tops: the citadel’s namesake, Machu Picchu (“old peak”), and Huayna Picchu (“young peak”), the mighty sentinel watching over it.
Up close, royal and religious structures in particular reveal the Incas as masters of polished dry-stone wall construction: often large blocks were shaped to fit seamlessly together, without mortar, and have withstood centuries of earthquakes. They were skilled astronomers, too. In a temple dedicated to the sun, a unique tunnelled window still allows light inside only during the summer solstice, and the Intihuatana stone (the “sun’s hitching post”) remains a precise solar calendar.
Partially quarried rock at the settlement’s outskirts suggest how suddenly the city might have been abandoned. The Spanish never reached this deep into the mountains, however, so Machu Picchu escaped the looting and destruction endured by other Inca sites, including the imperial capital, Cusco.
Our Andean adventure began there, and it’s where we soon return for some rest. Also a UNESCO site, Cusco is remarkable both for its monumental Spanish colonial structures and the remnants of Inca culture that remain visible here and there.
Heavily scented with incense and the mustiness of timeworn stone, the cathedral’s interior seems to be pure European Baroque, with ostentatious gold and silver embellishments as well as an unusual amount of mirrored surfaces. The indigenous people were meant to be seduced by the Virgin Mary depicted wearing massive conical dresses reminiscent of Pachamama, the Incan “Earth Mother”, and a painting of the Last Supper features a roasted native rodent, variously identified as either guinea pig or chinchilla, among its victuals.
Santo Domingo monastery was built on the largely demolished Qurikancha, meaning “golden enclosure”. This sun temple was literally covered in gold until it was stripped as part of the roomfuls of ransom paid for the last Inca emperor. The Spanish executed him anyway. The precision of the almost black original dry-stone walls that remain is astonishing, as is the famous Stone of Twelve Angles, part of the foundation wall on Hatun Rumiyuq, the street once home to an Incan palace.
I stroll along this narrow lane to Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas. Quechua women in eye-catching traditional finery try to eke out a living from the tourists gathered there by selling their handwoven textiles or posing for photos with llamas they have crowned with flowers.
Above them looms a statue of Pachacuti, the Incan empire builder. Set atop the plaza’s 19th-century fountain in 2011, this golden figure gestures boldly towards the mountains. Perhaps towards those porters on the Inca Trail, ferrying visitors to a city in the sky.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "High society". Subscribe here.