Some people are not affected by high altitude, but I didn’t want to risk enjoying my trek to Machu Picchu in order to find out if I was one of them.
Other measures that were suggested to me included acclimating over several days, staying hydrated, taking ibuprofen tablets, drinking the local coca tea, and chewing coca leaves. I followed all recommendations.
A funny thing about the elevation—Machu Picchu, a mountaintop citadel most people think is almost inaccessible due to its location at 1½ miles high, is actually ⅔ of a mile lower than the regional capital of Cusco where I started.
Machu Picchu is also a quarter of a mile lower than the river town of Ollantaytambo where the Inca Quarry Trail hike began. Somehow the Spaniards never found the fabled city. Perhaps if they had looked down instead of up.
I spent, in total, nine straight days between 1¼ and 2¾ miles high. (Consider that Denver is one-mile high.) I don’t know which of the precautions, if any, worked, but I didn’t get sick. Just a little short of breath.
Originally I intended to hike to Machu Picchu via the classic Inca Trail and had obtained the required permit from Peru’s Ministry of Culture. Two hundred tourists are allowed to begin the trek each day.
By then, all of the permits were assigned. So, we switched to the Inca Quarry Trail, a similar route that doesn’t require a permit.
Both trails, blazed by the Incas, wind their way from the floor of the Sacred Valley up and over high Andean passes. The views of snowy peaks, cloud forests, and the Urubamba River valley are spectacular from both.
The Inca Trail covers twenty-seven miles; the Quarry Trail sixteen. The Inca Trail involves three nights of camping; the Quarry Trail two. The Inca Trail tops out at 14,600 feet, a little more than 2½ miles in elevation; the Quarry Trail goes slightly higher to 2¾.
The major difference between the two is foot traffic. Hundred of hikers and support staff are on the Inca Trail each day. The lesser known Quarry Trail sees not many more than fifty. We would have the scenery to ourselves.
Besides elevation, other factors contribute to the hike’s difficulty. The trail is steep—an incline that tests cardio training at any altitude.
The footing is uneven. The surface ranges from grass to dirt to mud to scree to talus. The weather varies from hot sun to hard rain to stinging hail.
Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? Yet, soon, there I was, lumbering up the mountainside, chewing coca leaves, gasping for breath, marveling at the scenery, and wondering which packhorse would carry me back to the bottom should I need evacuated.
Rise and fall
During the 1400s, an indigenous nation emerged from the Andean Mountains to become one of the largest, most tightly controlled empires in the history of the world.
The capital city of the empire was Cusco. Most modern visitors to Machu Picchu pass through it, just as the Incas once did.
At their peak, the Incas numbered twelve million. The Incan king reigned over all that is now Peru, most of Bolivia and Ecuador, a large portion of Chile, and corners of Argentina and Columbia.
The Incas had only three laws: Ama sua. Ama llulla. Ama quella. (Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not be lazy.) They were certainly not lazy.
The Incas built twenty-five thousand miles of roads and bridges. To grow crops, they terraced the sides of mountains and developed complex irrigation systems.
Ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Egyptians, among others, excelled at masonry. And yet, the finest masons of all time may be the Incas.
They fit smooth stone blocks together so precisely no mortar was needed. Their construction innovations include interlocking blocks shaped like three-dimensional Tretris game pieces. Their walls were often angled or curved for stability and have withstood numerous powerful earthquakes over the centuries.
The Incas gave us quinoa. In case you are not smitten with the healthy properties of this seed, consider that the Incas also gave us potatoes. Four thousand varieties of them—red, white, yellow, purple, blue and sweet. Whether you prefer quinoa on your salad or french fries with your bacon burger, you can thank the Incas.
The Incas were also known for the production of fine woolen textiles. Goods were transported throughout the empire via llamas, one of the sources of the wool.
Incredibly, the Incas lacked many of the advancements associated with civilization in other early cultures, including wheeled vehicles, iron tools, currency, and a written language.
The empire’s rapid expansion and dominance lasted little more than a century. When the Spaniards “discovered” them in 1532, the Incas were distracted by a civil war. Eventually, half of the Incan population died from exposure to European diseases.
Navel of the earth
Cusco was founded on the spot chosen by Inti, the ancient Incan sun god. The location was called qosq’o, the navel of the earth. Cusco is South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Thirteen Incan kings ruled from Cusco between 1200 and 1533. The ninth one, Pachakutiq, ordered the construction of several magnificent stone buildings, including Qurikancha (Temple of the Sun) and Sacsaywamán, the fortress overlooking the city. Nearby he built the town of Ollantaytambo and perhaps even Machu Picchu itself.
The thirteenth king, Atawallpa, was executed by the invading Spaniards in 1533. The city fell. The Incas rebelled in 1536, but, after a violent battle at Sacsaywamán, were driven into the jungle.
The Spaniards looted Cusco of its precious metals and tore down its temples and palaces. Today, Catholic churches perch on top of the original Incan foundations.
Cusco is home to half of a million people. The city sprawls through an upland valley and climbs the sides of the surrounding mountains. Most of its buildings are squat, white-washed adobe with tin roofs. To get to Machu Picchu, you head downhill—sort of.
Rats and rodents
Upon our arrival, Craig and I set out to explore. The city’s center is Plaza de Armas, a big square surrounded by ornate churches and colonial arcades. Two flags fly in the plaza—the Peruvian national flag and a rainbow-colored flag representing the Incan empire.
Street vendors in the square offer fresh-squeezed orange juice and boiled corn on the cob. Women in bowler hats and colorful skirts sell photo opps with alpacas and lambs. Shops display expensive woolen goods made from llama, alpaca and vicuña wool. (These three species, as well as guanacos, are unique to South America.)
Around the corner on Hatun Rumiyoc Street is an Incan block wall containing a perfectly fitted stone with twelve corners. The Twelve-Angled Stone demonstrates the master masonry skills of the Incas. Tourists pose for selfies with it.
The huge cathedral on the square was built using stone blocks from the nearby Incan fortress. Its construction began in 1559. Inside, a painting of the Last Supper depicts the face of Judas as that of Francisco Pizarro, the hated Spanish conquistador who ordered the death of Atawallpa, the last real Incan king.
Around the table Christ and the disciples are feasting on a local dish—cui, a roasted guinea pig. Cui is a common offering on menus in Peru.
End of the empire
Qurikancha was once the greatest temple in the Incan Empire. The mummified remains of several Incan kings were stored inside. The high priests used it as an observatory for studying the stars.
Nowhere else is Incan masonry better exemplified. The stone blocks in Qurikancha’s remaining walls are impeccably fitted. The fine cutting and polishing of the blocks is so precise that mortar is not necessary. In some places it is difficult to discern where one stone ends and the next begins.
Again and again, our guides demonstrated that a knife blade cannot penetrate the joints between blocks.
Once, Qurikancha’s walls were sheathed in gold and silver, and its altars laden with treasure. Then the Spaniards arrived. They described the opulence as “beyond belief.” Soon after Cusco’s conquest, the temple’s valuables were looted.
All that is left of Qurikancha is its foundation.The temple’s stones now support the Dominican Priory and Church of Santo Domingo. Multiple times, violent earthquakes have leveled most of the church. Yet, the Incan stone walls remain in place.
Reader, you may notice a sentiment here. Today, an anti-invader perspective is pronounced in Peru, despite the fact that forty percent of Peruvians are of combined Spanish and Native American descent. Again and again, we were reminded that the Spaniards plundered the culture and committed genocide.
The last major battle was waged within the huge fortress overlooking the city. Its name, Sacsaywamán, is pronounced something like “sexy woman.” As many as five-thousand warriors could bivouac within its walls.
In 1536 the Incas held the fort and were laying siege to the Spaniards in the town below.
An attack by Spanish cavalry turned the tide and ended the rebellion. Thousands of dead littered the site after the battle, attracting a wake of hungry condors.
Soon after, the Spaniards tore down the walls, leaving only the most massive blocks of stone behind. One weighs three hundred tons. Like other Incan engineering marvels, the fortress was tiered in a zigzag shape with round corners and jigsaw-puzzled walls.
Back in town, we visited San Pedro Market, Cusco’s fascinating central marketplace. In addition to the expected food stalls are booths selling magic potions and witches’ spells. Dried llama fetuses are available as good-luck charms.
Outside, freaky street performers were entertaining huge crowds. One of them asked a female audience member to pull, hand over hand, a lengthy clothesline that passed through his mouth and out of one of his nostrils. The crowd was enthralled.
Lay of the land
In the afternoon, we gathered in the hotel lobby, which was adorned, as most in Peru seem to be, with religious paintings and sculptures.
There, we met Juan, our Inca Quarry Trail guide, and Kleber, his assistant.
Kleber rarely spoke but often smiled. During the hike, he was usually at the back, gently sweeping behind the slower hikers. Craig called him “the most patient fitness trainer in the world.”
Once, Juan asked Kleber to run ahead to help at our next campsite. While we tortoises plodded along the steep trail, Kleber ran cross-country like a rabbit. Centuries ago, messages were relayed hundreds of miles via high-altitude runners. Kleber could have been one.
Juan, on the other hand, was more gregarious. His language was eloquent; his movements mannered. When the rest of us were sweat-soaked and disheveled, Juan was poised and stylish. After each brief rest, he would grandly sweep his hand in a forward direction and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we may continue.”
Juan briefed us on the trek, describing each day’s itinerary. He distributed maps of the trail. Most of our questions were about meals and toilet facilities. “My friends, we may use Incan toilets. But once above the tree line, they may no longer be discrete.”
Duffel bags with plastic liners were distributed. We were limited to four kilograms (just less than nine pounds) of personal gear. Packhorses would carry them. Once the rented sleeping bag was added, the duffel was to weigh no more than six kilos.
We could, however, carry whatever we wanted in our daypacks, as long as two liters of water per day were stowed.
Our group included seven other hikers—two Americans, three Australians, a German and a Dane. Craig and I were the oldest and so anticipated the pressure of keeping up.
In the evening we joined the group at dinner. As the consumption of alcohol is discouraged at high altitudes, the nine of us toasted the beginning of our adventure with bottled water.
Peruvian cuisine features a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit. Popular dishes are ceviche, chicharrón (deep-fried pork), lomo saltado (beef, onion, and tomato stir-fry), and, of course, cui (the aforementioned guinea pig).
Before I left Columbus, my friend Rob advised, “Don’t eat too many hamsters.” I settled on an alpaca burger.
To read more about my hike and visit to Machu Picchu, please see the next post, “High old time (Part 2).”