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The trek to the top: Machu Picchu on foot

Approaching Cusco along the wide valley of the Huatanay River we paused to look over the sea of red roofs below. I tried hard to imagine the city in Inca times, famously laid out by Inca Pachacuteq in the shape of a puma, but even with the eye of faith it was difficult to see, and even more so from the Plaza de Armas, here in the epicentre of the city where the road had now taken us.

The Inca Empire was called Tawantinsuyu – the ‘Four Quarters of the Earth’. To the North lay the Chinchaysuyu – northern Peru and modern Ecuador; West lay the Contisuyu – the south-central coastal regions; South lay the Collasuyu – the altiplano of southern Peru and modern Bolivia; and East the Antisuyu – the unconquered Amazon jungle. Cusco, meaning ‘navel of the earth’, was its capital and from what remains one can only begin to imagine its former splendour. In 1533, the year of Pizarro’s triumphant entry into the city, an early Spanish chronicler wrote of Cusco: ‘We can assure your Majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain.’

Three years later in 1536, following the Inca rebellion led by Manco II and a six month siege of the city, Cusco was little more than a smoking ruin.

Nowadays, with its colourful markets, steep cobbled streets, Quecha-speaking inhabitants, iconic llamas, colonial architecture, lively bars and incredible Inca stonework this high Andean city is utterly unique.

We found it easy in Cusco to escape. It took little effort to lose the traffic and wander the back streets, little imagination to wonder at the past, for the legacy of the Incas was all around us. Their legendary stonework lines the alleys, said to be so snug you cannot slip a razor blade in the joins between the stones, each weighing several tons. Shops and houses still use the Inca foundations. On the west corner of the Plaza de Armas for example stands the Casana – believed to have been the palace of Wayna Capac, the last all-powerful Inca before the Spanish Conquest – just one corner remains and it is occupied by a travel agency. The Museum of Art is in the palace of Inca Roca, the sixth Inca. In Pumac Chupan, the area of Cusco corresponding to the puma’s tail, we visited the convent of Santo Domingo, built upon the remains of the fabled Qoricancha, the Court of Gold, in which resided the Temple of the Sun. In 1950 a fortuitous earthquake felled much of the Spanish church to lay bare the inner Inca walls of this archaeological jewel. The Temple of the Sun itself has disappeared but the surviving outer wall is one of the most famous Inca structures in existence, the stonework probably unequalled in the world. They say to look at this wall is to stare in to perfection.

Only three Spaniards ever saw the Qoricancha in its full glory, three of Pizarro’s roughest men, sent to speed up the collection of the royal ransom. Driven as ever by wanton materialism they spoke only of the sheer quantities of gold they found there. Horrified Indians could only watch as they prised seven hundred gold sheets weighing 4½lbs each from the walls. The same men reported an altar weighing 190lbs and a ritual font lined with 120lbs of gold. Taking the largest and most accessible pieces first, Pizarro’s main party followed, removing everything else. They recalled a multitude of precious objects – golden llamas, figurines, jars, pitchers and a field of maize made with silver stems and leaves and ears of gold – all exquisite treasures, all to be thrown in the crucible. Nothing survived. What was not removed however was the holiest religious symbol of the empire, the golden disc of the sun. The initial three men reported its existence but it seems to have vanished before the main party of Spaniards arrived. It remains undiscovered to this day.

In Sacsaywaman, a massive ruin to the north of the city, we had a lot of fun playing on a 500-year-old Inca slide. It was a natural rockslide, polished smooth by the backsides of generations of Inca children. The geologists call it a ‘slickenside’, formed apparently by two rock strata grinding against each other with such pressure the rock melts. Ness gazed into the distance toward the four corners of the Inca Empire, as I piled down the slide just one more time.

No journey through Peru is complete without seeing Machu Picchu, surely one of the world’s most astonishing sights. We figured it made sense to walk there. This said we were under no illusions; to walk the Inca trail is to walk in the footsteps of untold thousands. We had heard tales of a ‘pedestrianised motorway’ and mounting litter, neither of which in the event, thankfully, rang true. Perhaps it was the time of year or the rainy weather, but when we walked the trail it was virtually empty. We trekked alone rather than join an organised group.

A train took us from Cusco to the beginning of the trek. Ever since we had arrived in Cusco we lived in fear of being soaked, not by God but by irritating little boys with water bombs. It was that time of year, some festival or other, when all Peru’s children had carte blanche to drench whoever they wished, especially tourists. The train, unfortunately, offered no protection. It simply served as a highly visible receptacle for a large number of tourists. In short, a target – a fact not wasted on any child in any village along the line. Water bombs flew through the windows with extraordinary accuracy at every stop. Riding the bike in the vicinity of Cusco was even worse. Children would lay in wait around every bend, armed not with bombs but with buckets of water the size of bins. To walk the Inca trail actually came as something of a relief, though we were scarcely any drier, what with the sweat from within and the rain from above.

March was not renowned as the driest time of year but it was one of the quietest. Indeed in Machu Picchu itself, by late afternoon, we would often have the ruins all to ourselves. The Inca Trail had been a tough climb, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200 metres. The physical effort and discomfort of the hike served only to whet our appetite and intensify our thirst for the ultimate goal. The whole trail and its string of ruins, the lush vegetation, the astounding views, the Inca stone paths and steps; all were a glorious build up to the lost city itself. And so after three long days Ness and I stood at Intipunku (the Sun Gate) at sunrise, by this time joined by a horde of other trekkers, to look down on one of the world’s most breathtaking sights…to see…nothing… a complete white-out, just a couple of llamas and their attendant herder stumbling by!

Benno and Kirsten were part of the group assembled at the Sun Gate. We had bumped into them a few days before in Cusco, quite by chance. We knew they had opted to join an organised trek. They had found it very hard going, those cigarettes again. Sadly for them and the rest of their group they were whisked on to the bus to Aguas Calientes at the base of the ruins to board the train back to Cusco, before the mist cleared in the early afternoon. They never did see Machu Picchu.

We spent two days there, in which time it revealed itself in its full glory. To begrudgingly use an Americanism, its setting was awesome.

When we stood at the Intiwatana, the ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’ we were standing at the centre-point of this lost city in every sense of the word. The tip of Wayna Picchu lay due north, the peak of Salcantay due south. At the equinox the sun rises over the peak of Wakay Willka and sinks behind the highest summit of nearby Cerro San Miguel. At the December solstice it sets exactly behind the distant snow peak of Pumasillo. This aspect of ‘sacred geography’ constitutes the very essence of Machu Picchu. The Incas worshipped nature, and the earth itself, and at Machu Picchu so many of the sacred elements came together. The city was built in a saddle at the northern end of an immense ridge forty kilometres long. The soaring mass of Wayna Picchu towers over the city, standing as a dramatic ending to the sacred ridge. And here the Willcamayu, the Incas’ most sacred river, makes a huge snaking loop, almost surrounding the city. One struggles for words to describe the feeling of standing in the centre of this incredible place, but, really, for me, one word came to mind – harmony. One or two other words came to mind when I heard that the Peruvian authorities were allowing a private consortium to build a cable car across the Urubamba gorge.

The Intiwatana is said to be situated on one of the world’s natural power lines, one of the great ‘energy centres’ of the Earth believed to exist by the ancients. The Intiwatana is a ‘gnomon’, a vertical stone, a sculpture of unsurpassed perfection and beauty, this one mercifully untouched by the Spanish and still in its original condition. We listened to a guide, somewhat renowned of course for their ‘interpretations’ of the truth. He said that over the nine years he had been working at the site he had witnessed many strange things in the vicinity of the gnomon; tourists touching the stone and breaking down in tears, or collapsing, or simply reeling off and running away. I reached out toward it once the guide had left. Ness refrained, never one to dabble in the occult. I felt something strange, a rumbling in my arm, a kind of warmth and vibration along my outstretched fingers. Imagined? No. I know what I felt. It took me back to when I used a Ouiji board with a friend, when I was ten years old. I have never set eyes on one since, and I never will.

For those who do not walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu a train brings them all the way to Aguas Calientes followed by a short bus ride up to the ruins themselves. Taking the bus back at the end of the day, it snaked its way down the hillside negotiating hairpin after hairpin. At each of these bends a small boy dressed as an Inca child appeared, waved, and then vanished to miraculously reappear a few minutes later at the next-but-one bend. Intrigued by this I befriended him the next day and ran with him, pack and all, down the mountainside along his secret, precipitous trail to wave with him to the startled passengers. I refrained from entering the bus at the end, leaving him to collect his daily cache of tips unhindered.

“Nice running,” shouted one of the American tourists as I collapsed on to my pack by the side of the road.

Extract from ‘Bearback’, Pat Garrod’s vivid account of four years travelling around the world. Buy your copy here or read more here.

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