CAPITAL OF THE INCA EMPIRE
"Are you ok?! I thought you were dying!"
Leah was yelling, scared to death that I had stopped breathing in my sleep. Apparently I was going longer and longer stretches without taking a breath, and finally gasping for air. Such was our welcome to Cusco, the city in the clouds, literally at 11,000 ft. above sea level, and prior capital of the Inca Empire. At altitudes this great, especially having just arrived from our home near sea level, the reduced oxygen levels can actually induce sleep apnea, even in young, healthy people. This was a terrifying way to learn such a unique fact, but it made us even more thankful we had chosen to spend a few relaxing days in Cusco for the very purpose of trying to acclimate to the altitude. We would soon be setting off for a week-long trek that would have us ascending an additional 5,000 ft. before the end, and we were currently struggling to walk up a couple flights of stairs.
Peruvians, particularly those who call this part of the Andes home, have developed numerous antidotes and even physiological attributes to cope with the altitude. Give a hug to a local and you will notice that, though they aren't tall (Andrew is only 6ft. 2in. and towered over everyone) your arms won't be able to fully wrap around them. Their large, barrel chests are specifically adapted to the lower levels of oxygen, and you could bet they would crush you in a foot race with all of the extra red blood cells they have. Yet even if you weren't born and raised here, there are still things you can do to help relieve those headaches and fatigue from performing normal activities at this altitude. Coca leaves are not only legal, they are common here, so much so that our hotel not only offered a pitcher of water in the lobby, but a pitcher of coca tea. A mild stimulant, similar to caffeine, it is said to help with the symptoms of altitude sickness. If you simply can't wait for the tea to steep, there is also an ample supply of dry leaves set out for you to take and chew. Though don't be surprised if your gums go numb for a little while...
At 11,000 ft. above sea level, Cusco is a surprisingly energetic city (*cough*coca leaves*cough*). For the tourist, and there are many from all corners of the globe, it is a springboard to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. A town full of all ranges of accommodations and an amazing culinary scene. To the local Peruvian, it is a melting pot of Spanish and Inca civilizations. Being the former capital of the Inca empire, the foundations of many buildings display the remarkable stone work of the Incans, yet the architecture above is predominantly Colonial. Local religious traditions and beliefs also mix with Catholicism, with the perfect example being inside the Cathedral anchoring the Plaza de Armas, the main square. Inside is a painting of the last supper, however the disciples are drinking Chicha instead of wine, a beverage of fermented corn, and on the platter in the middle of the table is cuy, or guinea pig, a delicacy in Peru.
We arrived during the end of September, which for Peru was late winter or early spring, and near the end of their dry season. Temperatures during the day would get up to 75 degrees Farhenheit, but dropped off quickly as the sun went down. We would spend a few days exploring the city, giving our lungs time to acclimate to the altitude before setting off for a week long journey to Machu Picchu.
Go below the touristy surface of Cusco, and you'll discover a vibrant, multicultural city with a rich bloodline that over hundreds of years has created a people, and a community, unique to this part of the world. The continent's oldest continuously inhabited city, it was the capital of the Inca empire prior to Spanish conquest. While Spanish is now the official language, the plazas are filled with local Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas. And though many of the area's treasures were taken to Spain, or back to the United States by Hiram Bingham during his many travels here, colonial mansions and back-alley churches still hold many ancient treasures of the Incas, and locals still tell stories in their native Quechua of fortunes which remain hidden in the thick jungle to this day.
~ Day 1 ~
cusco to salkantay lodge
We woke up with the rising sun eager to start our trek to Machu Picchu. After an early breakfast at our hotel we were picked up by our MLP guide and driven out of Cusco to the location where we would begin our trek. En route we took a short break to visit the Inca ruins of Tarawasi near the town of Limatambo (approximately 50 miles west of Cusco). The terrain is extremely mountainous, which makes for very winding roads as we descended out of Cusco to Limatambo. We then climbed up out of the valley again to the village of Mollepata where we stopped for a short coffee break, visited with locals, and got a sneak peak at the preparation of a classic Peruvian meal: potatoes and guinea pig!
After our many breaks visiting the ruins of Tarawasi and taking coffee in Mollepata we reached a place called Marcoccasa where we would begin our trek to Soraypampa. Today's hike would take us about 6 hours as we ascended the "Camino Real," or Royal Path, towards Mt. Salkantay, and our lodge nestled at its base. Mt. Salkantay is one of the most sacred peaks in Inca mythology, and at 20,600 ft., is the highest in the region. Along the way we would experience open fields with amazing vistas, stop for a picnic lunch, and even need to unpack our ponchos for a little rain. Thankfully, we were greeted at our lodge with hot coca tea and a hot fire.
After a long, uphill hike, we were greeted with hot coca tea at a luxurious lodge sitting at over 12,000 ft. beneath the shadows of majestic Humantay (left) and Salkantay (right) mountains. The view is astounding, and to enjoy it in such comfort makes the experience even more incredible. We took off our boots, which the staff would clean and have waiting for us tomorrow, and found a spot by the fire. We would be spending two nights here as tomorrow was a short day-trip to a glacier lake and back. For now, we would enjoy the comforts of the lodge, including full service bar, outdoor campfire beneath the stars and mountains, and even a hot tub!
As the skies cleared late in the afternoon we relaxed in the hot tub and enjoyed the amazing creation around us. We were even treated to the sight of an avalanche on the south side of Salkantay mountain (facing us). That night, our group gathered around the outdoor campfire to discuss the day, and other stories from our homes all over the world. The sky that night was perfectly clear, and the moon nearly full, which created near perfect conditions to light up the mountains around us.
~ Day 2 ~
Today we set out for a short hike on the slopes above our lodge to Lake Humantay, fed by the glaciers on Mt. Humantay. The hike itself was short, approximately 4 hours, but uphill nearly the entire way to the lake. We would begin from our lodge at approximately 12,600 ft. and climb to just over 13,800 ft. at the lake. Those in our group with less common sense packed a swimsuit and towel, but as this lake was fed by glaciers, we decided to wait for the hot tub back at the lodge. The short hike meant we would be back in time for a late lunch, and a lesson in making pisco sours to follow.
In order to reach the lake we needed to climb out of the valley, up the base of Mt. Humantay. We would be walking the valley up to Salkantay pass tomorrow, but today's climb, with frequent stops to catch our breath, gave us ample time to enjoy the awesome size and scale of these mountains. We were even treated to the sight of an Andean Condor as we walked, one of the largest birds in the world.
Joining us on our hike for today only was Santos. Born and raised in these mountains, Santos can trace his lineage back to the Incas. He still speaks the Quechua language and practices the traditions and customs of his ancestors. It is apparent that he has spent his life at high elevation, and open to the elements. He is a young man, not yet 40 years old, but his face is weathered. He also has a large, barrel chest, a trait of the people here due to the high altitude and lower oxygen absorption into the blood. If those clues weren't enough, while we were huffing and puffing to climb the hill at this altitude, Santos was yards ahead playing a handmade wooden flute as he walked! To top it off, he was wearing open toe sandals and we weren't keeping up in our high-tech hiking boots from home.
As we walked, Santos would stop to teach us about the local plants, animals, and way of life in the mountains. He would also stoop down to collect various plants and even cow pies for fuel for a fire. He did not speak English, but our guide would interpret his Quechua to us.
At over 13,000 ft., this pristine, glacier fed, crystal clear lake took away what little was left of our breath. The sight of the lake nestled up against the imposing mountainside, creating a beautiful mix of colors and reflections, combined with large Andean Condors circling above, left us in awe.
Once we reached the lake, Santos began to prepare a ritual ceremony to pachamama (mother earth), one of the Incan gods. The ritual began by asking us to pray by blowing on coca leaves. He then proceeded to create a sort of design, similar to a face, on the ground. Using carnations (red for the earth, white for the mountains) and alpaca fat and beans, he created the face. Next, he placed all sorts of spices, foods, even candy, sprinkles, animal crackers, and confetti encircling the face. The ingredients became increasingly random and unusual until finally complete, when the entire package was wrapped and used by Santos to perform a healing prayer over each individual before being burned over the cow pies he collected on our hike up the mountain.
~ Day 3 ~
Today would be the most difficult day of hiking. We would begin early in order to make it over the mountain pass before midday. The total trek today would take approximately 8 hours, and involve climbing from 12,600 ft. up to 15,200 at the top of the pass, and back down to 12,700 at our next lodge.
The initial climb out of the valley circling Mt. Humantay across from Mt. Salkantay was arduous. Our lungs were burning, crying out for more oxygen, while our steps continuously became smaller and smaller. The luxurious lodge we had called home for the past two nights, with all its wonderful comforts, slowly became almost indiscernible among the vast slopes of the valley below. Thankfully, there was ample opportunity to pause and enjoy the majestic creation all around us. When we did, we were pleasantly surprised at how quickly our lungs and legs recovered their strength, and we pressed on towards the top of the mountain pass.
Slowly, we marched on, conquering the many switchbacks in our path one small step at a time. As we reached the top of the pass, rounding the corner of the mountain, we noticed we were walking amongst the clouds. As the clouds moved by we could catch glimpses of the top of Mt. Salkantay, and knew we were close.
We had made it to the top of the pass! After climbing about 2,500 ft. over 5 miles to arrive at over 15,200 ft., we felt surprisingly good. Our next challenge: descending about 2,400 ft. to our second lodge.
The descent down the other side of the mountain was quick, with loose rocks the size of baseballs as our path. Large boulders, left behind by receding glaciers, gave this second stage of our trek an other-worldly look. Through the clouds we were given a great, though brief, view of the Salkantay River Valley nearly 3,000 ft. below us, and our next lodge a few miles away on the valley floor.
As we descended, we began to make out the appearance of tents. A kitchen tent, storage tent, bathroom tent, and dining tent. Our five star lunch in the middle of nowhere! The timing of the break was perfect as the clouds closed in just as we sat down inside. When we reappeared from the tent we were in a heavy fog, with visibility not more than 50 ft. We continued to descend to the valley floor, which was now full of smaller rivers created by the rain washing down the valley, and quickly turning to marshlands. At one point, our guide backtracked 50 yards to regain his bearings in search of the bridge across the Salkantay River that would take us to our lodge.
Crossing the bridge over the Salkantay River to our lodge, precarious though it was, made of dirt and branches, we were again greeted with hot face towels, hot coca tea, and a hot fire in the wood stove. After cleaning up, we were treated to a steak dinner with potato pie, and live music by two young local men playing guitars. After dinner our group gathered around the fire for a lively dice game known as farkle.
After a long day, our bed, with hot water bottles placed under the covers by the staff, was a welcome indulgence.
~ Day 4 ~
SALKANTaY RIVER VALLEY
The lodge was stuck in the clouds when we arrived, and it remained in them as we set out this morning. We would be descending about 4,000 ft. over 5 miles today, so were hopeful that we would get below these clouds. A hearty breakfast of mountain pancakes, the 13,000 ft. variety, with honey and jam helped to brighten our morning though!
As we descended down the valley we were treated to glimpses of the river and valley floor through breaks in the clouds. As we walked, we came upon a few very small, remote villages clinging to the mountainside, and our first sight of civilization in a few days. Soon, the valley we were following since yesterday merged into another, the Santa Teresa, and on a ridge overlooking them both we saw our next lodge.
Again we were greeted with warm towels and drinks, as well as a Peruvian lunch in the making. The cooks had spent the last 3 hours creating an earthen oven, into which they would put potatoes, fava beans, chicken, pork, lamb, and even guinea pig, before covering with hot stones, and then dirt, to cook for about one hour. It was a feast. We did try the guinea pig, but found it difficult to find any meat, and for the taste, not worth the effort.
After feasting for lunch it was time for a nap, followed by relaxing in the jacuzzi with a view of the valley.
~ Day 5 ~
SANTA TERESA RIVER VALLEY
Before turning our back on the majestic mountains we had spent the last few days scrambling over we were treated to one last view up the Salkantay River Valley with our lodge perched just above (left of the river). Today would be the least strenuous in terms of elevation, a welcome relief, but in length would be nearly 11 miles. We would follow the Santa Teresa River Valley now, carving through the thick jungle, and growing in strength through numerous waterfalls.
To our pleasant surprise, the trail was lined with tiny, though very sweet, wild strawberries. This helped to take our mind from the precarious bridges we needed to cross over the turns in the wild river below. And though our bellies were full of strawberries, we were treated to another delicious lunch at a farmers' remote house along our path. Though we had to fight off a few pigs, ducks, and even a mean turkey while we ate.
Our most unnerving crossing was also the most beautiful. A waterfall, cascading down the length of the side of the valley, crossing our path, and continuing to the valley floor, created a breathtaking obstacle. We did our best to climb up the large boulders for a better view.
To cross, we tiptoed over wet rocks, where a misplaced step meant joining the falling water down to the valley floor. Our trusty mules were much surer footed.
Nearing our next lodge, we joined up with an old Inca trail, which today winds through a coffee field. Our guide had arranged with a local woman to invite us in for some freshly brewed coffee. In fact, it was the freshest coffee we will likely ever enjoy. The coffee was roasted in a clay pot over a stone oven. Leah ground the roasted beans, which were then placed in a filter and cups drawn up for all to enjoy. We needed only to watch our feet for the many guinea pigs scrambling around her kitchen, which were likely her next meal.
Our final lodge of the trek was as fabulous as the others, but in an entirely new jungle setting, with an Inca trail outside the front steps. Tomorrow we would experience our first view, looking across a valley, of Machu Picchu, and be staying in a hotel in a small town below the sacred site. But first, before another three course dinner, we enjoyed some wine and cheese while playing another game of dice (farkle), which Leah won, earning her the trophy for the trip, a homemade chocolate candy bar.
~ Day 6 ~
Today would be our final trek, ending at the base of Machu Picchu. To get there, we would need to climb up about 2,000 ft. out of the Santa Teresa Valley, over the Llactapata Pass, and down about 3,000 ft. into the Urubamba River Valley. We would find little level ground today, but the views were spectacular.
Leah began the day with a sore knee from the continuous descent from Salkantay mountain a few days prior, and the elevation change of this final leg did not help. Thankfully, we had a doctor in our group who had brought all the first aid gear we would need. Leah persevered admirably, keeping up the pace through the pain.
After making it over the pass, we began our descent and suddenly came upon a clearing in the dense jungle. We stumbled out of the dense foliage and into an Inca archaeological site: Llactapata. Though much of the site is still claimed by the jungle, Llactapata is fascinating for its relation to another sacred Inca site. The front gate exactly faces our final destination: Machu Picchu!
Machu Picchu visible across the Urubamba River Valley, perched on the saddle between Mt. Huayna Picchu on the left, and Mt. Machu Picchu on the right.’’
We were treated to our first view of Machu Picchu, and the mountain it was named for, across the Urubamba River Valley. We would be climbing down into this valley, and to the base of Machu Picchu, this afternoon, but first we would be taking our lunch. A short hike down the hill from Llactapata brought us to a lone family house which operates a small restaurant for hikers with a world class view of Machu Picchu.
After slowly making our way down 3,000 ft. to the valley floor we were left with one last suspension bridge to cross. There may have been a little immature swinging of the bridge, but everyone crossed safely. Continuing on, we arrived at a small hydroelectric station where we would hop on the train for a short ride to Aguas Calientes, a small town at the base of Machu Picchu, and where we would spend the night.
Aguas Calientes exists for one purpose, to funnel people to and from Machu Picchu. The town, clinging to either side of the narrow valley and fed by the railroad, is lined with trinket shops and hotels. We were lucky enough to be staying at the far end of town, away from the crowds and nestled in the jungle. Our resort, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, was immaculate, and the perfect place to prepare for tomorrow's climactic exploration of Machu Picchu.
~ Day 7 ~
After trekking for 6 days, over 40 miles, and a combined 7,700 ft. of incline and 12,400 ft. of decline, we had made it to the "lost city" of the Incas: Machu Picchu! We were one of the first groups to the site this morning, blessed with clear skies, and after a 2 hour guided tour would have the rest of the day to explore this wonder of the world at our leisure. The city is a testament to the power and engineering achievement of the Incas at their peak. The entire city is made of cut stone placed together without mortar, so tightly in its original setting that a knife blade cannot fit between the joints.
For all the wonder at the city situated on such a steep mountain, and subsequent studying by archaeologists and tourists alike, a great mystery still surrounds the city of Machu Picchu. Why was it built? The complex of palaces and plazas, temples and homes may have been built as a ceremonial site, a military stronghold, or a retreat for ruling elites - its dramatic location is certainly well suited for any of those purposes. The ruins lie on a high ridge, surrounded on three sides by the windy, turbulent Urubamba River some 2,000 feet below. And though it was suspected to exist by the Spanish conquerors, its treacherous location certainly contributed to keeping it hidden. It wasn't until 1911 that a Peruvian guide led Yale professor Hiram Bingham, a real life Indiana Jones story, to the site, and the "discovery" of Machu Picchu was brought to the western world.
The evidence for the purpose of Machu Picchu lies in its orientation to surrounding sites, landmarks, and trails. Many landmarks, both man-made, astronomical, and mountainous appear to align with the site. For example, the main gate aligns perfectly with Huayna Picchu mountain directly to the north of the site (coincidentally, there are also ruins at the top of this extremely steep peak. If you look very closely, you may be able to make out a few brave souls scaling ladders on the side of the mountain).
You don't have to look far for further evidence of the connection the site has with other landmarks. Machu Picchu's own sun temple (modeled after the same temple in Cusco) contains a window which perfectly aligns with the sunrise on the summer solstice. The city also contains the temple of the condor, carved out of the mountain to look like the wings and the body of the condor.
Finally, the intihuatana stone is of special significance. These stones can be found throughout the Inca empire, however were often destroyed by the Spanish conquerors as they held special religious significance to the Inca. The purpose of the stones is not completely known, however it is believed they were used for rituals, as well as precise indicators of the two equinoxes.
Though the exact purpose remains unknown, the evidence for their engineering genius using the few tools available at the time is undeniable. From the thousands of feet of terraces, thousands of miles of paved roads connecting their empire, and strength of structures such as this one, built to survive the constant earthquakes in this part of the world, the Incas had developed one of the largest and most sophisticated empires in the entire pre-industrial world.
Standing atop Machu Picchu and surveying the surrounding Urubamba Valley we developed our own theory: Machu Picchu is not simply a breathtaking mountaintop city, it is a pilgrimage. From where we stood we could see, to the east and across the valley, the ruins of Llactapata, where we stood just a day ago admiring our first view of Machu Picchu. And on the other side of that ridge was the Santa Teresa Valley, and the lodge at its floor where we began yesterday's hike. Following that valley south you would arrive at the Salkantay River Valley, fed from the majestic mountains of Humantay and Salkantay we struggled over just days before. This perspective gave a new appreciation and meaning to the wonder of the world at our feet. Machu Picchu, with its perfect alignment to the surrounding mountains, sun, and stars, was not simply a city. It connected everything sacred to the Incas. Our trek was not only an adventure in itself, but it gave us a glimpse into the history, culture, and life of the Incas in the Andes mountains. And it gave us memories that will last a lifetime.