The air of the Andes is filled with a unique majesty. As the coastal region surrounding Lima gradually climbs and bus routes narrow onto mountainous terrain, the political and cultural history of the land broadens to include thousands of years of human endeavor. Contemporary Peru has made considerable effort to embrace its ancestral roots; cultural tourism accounts for the third-largest industry in the country. Ecologic diversity of the region plays a major role in this system, which facilitates leisure in a variety of natural settings. The city of Cusco has flourished in particular, serving as a staging-ground for hundreds of agencies which transport foreigners to appreciate the work of the Incan people. This is serious business for the country’s cultural capital, due to a complex permit system organized by the federal government. The program limits the volume of tourism in sensitive cultural sites for conservation purposes. As a result, competition between registered tour companies is aggressive.
Nearly 2 million visitors travel to Cusco every year, many of who continue into The Sacred Valley or to Machu Picchu. Others ascend the 11,000 feet above sea level simply to eat ‘cuy’ and enjoy the Spanish-colonial history of the oldest living city in the Americas. Many of those I met along my travels had plans to trek a portion of the Inca Trail, although few left the comforts of the city for an overnight excursion into the wilderness. This distinction seemed especially prevalent due to the Peruvian rainy season, which closes parts of the trail network for the entire month of February.
Systemic inequality persists throughout Peru, where the existence of a small upper-class has remained a cultural constant. Those who worked in my hostel and grew up in Cusco spoke of a city where many have few options, and some only desperate opportunities. Black-market industries such as drug trafficking and gang violence still provide many food and shelter, in a region not far from the Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro (VRAEM). In the trekking and tourism industry, tipping allows select individuals to distance themselves from such lawlessness. The industry is supported by a constant influx of foreign tourists, but has been hurt by recent global economic recession.
My itinerary consisted of the traditional Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, over the course of 4 days in early January, 2019. The first two days of the trek were by far the most difficult period of the experience, which in aggregate covers 28 miles and thousands of feet in elevation. The 12 members of our expedition originated from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. This dozen was led across the trail by a group of three guides, each remarkably informative.
We were supported by a team of 15 porters, who carried the large majority of our equipment ahead to construct camp and cook meals each day. These men are recruited from local communities, and offered relatively high pay to haul 50 pounds apiece across the rugged terrain. They spoke little English, and instead communicated using a mixture of Spanish and local languages. Guides are compensated from the $800-$1300 expedition fees, and porters receive mandated tips.
The trip from Cusco to the trailhead at Kilometer 82 lasts approximately 2 ½ hours by bus. Tour-operators pick up the permitted well before dawn in an attempt to provide the best trail experience. Initial paperwork is checked at a government installation which appears to have been built 30 years ago. The village surrounding the checkpoint appears forgotten, covered in political graffiti from elections long-passed. Its people farm the surrounding ground deemed arable, and sell Gatorade to those privileged enough to disturb their community’s traditional mode of life. Contrary to the warnings we received regarding strenuous review of our permits, the public servants at the trailhead quickly examined the group’s paperwork and identification before allowing us access to the trail.
The first day’s hike on the traditional Incan Trail route winds through an Andean valley, following the sounds of the Urubamba river before pitching upwards to the first campsite at Wayllabamba.
Communities of indigenous Peruvians still dot the national sanctuary, providing living testament to the rural region’s cultural history. Initial sections of the trek are nearly flat, characterized by local motorcycle and livestock traffic.
The physical requirements of the journey became evident soon after our first lunch, when the hills around us began transitioning to mountains underfoot. Incan ruins grew more common as we left the civilized world behind; soon I barely noticed those of smaller stature. Chewing coca leaf and chugging hydration capsules, our group of 12 barely trudged into camp on the first afternoon, arriving around 4 p.m. Our entrance was celebrated by a line of enthusiastic porters, who had already spent hours pitching tents and boiling water in preparation. The group quickly dissolved by sleeping assignment, each pair choosing its own method of decompression following the 7 hour hike. I immediately passed out, waking only to vomit due to dehydration and altitude. The sun had set by 6 p.m., at which point our guides gathered us for dinner and then bed. Exhaustion from over-exertion convinced me to lose all extra weight in my bag; the porters were more than happy to take extra snacks off my hands. Altitude sickness during the first night sapped my hunger and rendered my sleep restless.
The second day of the traditional trek is infamously difficult. Elevation increases rapidly between Wayllabamba and Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point (nearly 14,000 ft.) on the Incan Trail. At the beginning of the day our guides assured us that we had already ascended half the distance to the peak, but warned us of the steepness we would experience in the first half of the day’s 11-hour grind. They couldn’t have understated the difficulty of the climax’s final stretch, where I paused every 15 feet to gasp for air.
After reaching the summit of our exertions, our expedition began its first descent into the dampness which characterizes the central and eastern Andes. The last half of the second day was a breeze in comparison. For the youngsters among us, using gravity to descend proved much easier than fighting it upwards.
Exhilarated by our early triumph and light rainfall, the group quickly covered ground toward a late lunch. Meal-time procedure was the same every day. First the porters warmed water for the foreigners to wash our face and hands, and then provided us coca tea and coffee as we waited in the mess tent for the meal’s first course. Lunch and dinner always began with a Peruvian soup, followed by a course of bread and vegetables. After exhausting these first courses, the group was served a variety of meat dishes which primarily relied upon chicken as a source of protein. Once the table had been cleared, dessert consisted of sweet, gelatinous dishes similar to flan. I never heard a member of the expedition complain about the food we were served, and was always impressed by the porters’ ability to cook after bearing so much weight throughout the day.
The last half of the trek was not nearly as physically demanding. The third day’s itinerary only required half a day’s walk, allowing the group to explore Wiñay Wayna for the entire afternoon. This section of the trail is shrouded in dense fog during the rainy season, creating an atmosphere of mystery only discoverable in the heights of the Peruvian Cloud Forest.
The ruins at this elevation are immense, dwarfing the smaller settlements in the valley basins. We were alone here, surrounded by dozens of farming terraces which predate the American Revolution by nearly half a millennium.
The llamas ensure their grass remains cut, and the government claims that the ruins are almost entirely original. Our guides were particularly excited by our solitude, as these sites are usually overrun by tourists during the dry season.
I took advantage of our light schedule by spending time with the porters, who used the mess tent as a recreational space. The language barrier made communication difficult, but not impossible. After warming them up via games on my phone, I was able to use common phrases and hand signals to get a general idea of their ages, and the number of years they had spent hoofing refrigerator-sized backpacks across the mountaintops. The youngest among them (contrary to Peruvian law regarding porters) was 15. The oldest was in his 50s. A handful of the men had been trekking for more than 10 years, but the majority had been in the business between 3 and 7 ‘seasons.’ Although a bit rough around the edges, these porters took great care to ensure the members of our expedition enjoyed the experience.
The final day began like the first, before 4 a.m. The porters left us around 3 a.m. to return to their families, granted an afternoon’s reprieve from the trail. The most competitive guides attempt to reach the final government checkpoint early, in order to reach the Sun Gate just after dawn and Machu Picchu in the early morning. Our group was first in line to have our permits and passports checked one final time, and nearly sprinted to reach the citadel we’d walked so far to see. The excitement of our arrival was dampened by the number of sneaker-clad tourists who had already descended upon the site.
Fortunately, nothing could ruin the feeling of completing the trail and reaching our destination. As we stepped out of the jungle, Machu Picchu immediately became real and physical, right in front of us. Residual doubts regarding my physical ability dissipated, and I became invigorated with newfound energy. My lens was incapable of capturing the enormity of the citadel.
Visitors climbed through the site like termites, slowly grinding its stones to gravel and that chat to dust. The tour our guides presented passed in a blur, full of llamas and rubble.
Soon my final obstacle loomed: Huayna Pichu.
The ‘look-out mountain’ of Huayna Pichu is billed as a 2-hour climb which culminates atop yet another Incan ruin, built to survey the entirety of Machu Picchu and its domain. Most visitors to sanctuary skip the hike, citing the trail’s steepness as good enough reason to remain amongst the throngs of tourists at the main site. Undeterred by my exhaustion and spurred by the extra ticket I had purchased, I resolved to complete the journey as intended. After managing three-fourths of the ascent, the rainy season returned in vengeance. Although I knew my view from the top would likely be obscured, I endeavored on- in some instances climbing slowly, hand-over-foot. My efforts were frustrated by a phobia of heights and the constant rain, but eventually I reached the trip’s final peak. Dense clouds filled with rain blocked the lookout’s view, but could not wash away the sense of accomplishment filling my breast.
Gravity hastened my descent, after which I hopped a bus to Aguas Calientes for one last lunch with my expeditionary group and our guides. Sitting in a vehicle after relying upon my own two legs for so long felt strange; the narrow and winding road sharing little similarity with the vertically-hewn stairs which had become so familiar. Gone were the birdcalls, the chittering of insects, and the coolness of the clouds which characterized the Incan Trail. Their replacement with the trappings of civilization was less refreshing than expected, providing ample juxtaposition between the solitude of the trail and the interconnected life to which I returned.
Soon our group was aboard the train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, where our guides had arranged us a series of buses to Cusco. There is only one track between the cities, forcing the Belmont Express to stop frequently. The last conversations I had with those around me were about extended vacations, as I returned to Hendrix for a final semester. Others were headed deeper into the rainforest in Brazil, and some to Lima for the international food scene.
I arrived at my hostel just past 8 p.m., ate my third Polla a la Brasa of the trip, and grabbed a beer before calling it a night. The stories which swirled around me spoke of rainbow mountains and archaic astrology amongst the Andean ridges.