The Inca’s were the largest civilization in South America, their territory spanning 4000 miles along the Pacific coast of South America starting in Columbia and finishing close to what is now Santiago, Chile. What is amazing about this tribe is how much they accomplished in such a short amount of time. The civilization began in the 1300’s however their peak lasted less than 100 years from 1435 to 1531 AD. The first Incas were formed in Lake Titicaca on Isla del Sol (which I briefly wrote about in the last blog). Legend has it that the Incas began with Mama Ocllo (a woman) and Manco Capac (the first king of the Incas) rising up from Lake Titicaca with a golden spear. With their spear they travelled north to find the best land to call home. When they arrived in Cusco, they stuck their spear in the ground and named it the capital of the Incas. Mama Oclla taught the native women about sewing and weaving, while Manco Capac taught the men how to cultivate the land and build infrastructure and houses. They also formed the language Quechua, which is still spoken today in Peru and Bolivia.
After Manco Capac (also named the Sun God), there were nine official kings of the Incas. The incredibly rapid expansion of the Inca Empire began with Viracocha’s son Pachacuti (king number eight), who was one of the greatest conquerors. His son Topa Inca was also a powerful ruler conquering many lands as he built his kingdom. The last four kings were influenced by the Spanish and so are not regarded as worthy kings. Tupac Amaru was the last indigenous leader of the Incas and died in 1572. You may be interested to know that 2Pac (the rapper) was named after this Inca leader.
We left Lake Titicaca and headed to Arequipa, Peru, although we nearly lost our lives on the way there. Stupidly we took the ‘local’ bus, which turned out to be the fishmongers and sales bus. As the workers opened up the bottom of the bus to store our luggage the stench of fish that came out nearly made me sick. Then we had to endure 6 hours of salesmen nattering away in Spanish trying to sell the next moisturizer that will rid you of those annoying wrinkles. No thank you Senor! To top it off, the driver thought he was part of Formula 1 and we nearly had a head on collision with a truck since all of the drivers love to overtake going at top speeds, around bends, with steep cliffs on the side of the road. Fortunately everyone stopped when this truck decided to overtake on a bend and no one went over the edge, however our nerves were tested to the max. As you can imagine we were relieved when we arrived in Arequipa with all limbs attached. We spent four days in the white city calming our nerves, relaxing in the garden of our hotel, eating some delicious food (Alpaca!) and drinking some good coffee! We even found Starbucks! So we have decided that we are now flashpackers! We are travellers that would not dream of doing dorms, we now travel in luxury busses, we eat good food (well when we can) and when we camp we have room service! We saw the flashpacking phrase in a brochure talking about the hotel we were staying at and it kind of stuck…well for Peru anyway.
Arequipa was known as the White City originally for the Spanish white men that lived there. After a while the meaning switched over to the white buildings made of volcanic rock that decorate the plaza and its surroundings. The city is also home to Huanita, the famous Ice Queen. Typically the Incas did not sacrifice humans, normally choosing black llamas as the victim, however they did sacrifice about ten children that were the ‘chosen ones’. The most famous, the Ice Queen, was marched (not unwillingly) from Cusco to Arequipa and sent into the volcano to protect the communities from the Volcano Gods. She is special because when she was discovered her body was still fully intact with skin and hair because she was frozen. She is now on display in Arequipa. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see her.
After four days we decided we were ready to hit the road again and headed to Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world at 3269 meters (the deepest is close by Cotahuasi at 3535 meters, and Grand Canyon is 1800 meters). The tour took us through the antiplano which is surrounded by the three important volcanoes; Chachani, the largest, Misti, which is active (although the locals don’t like to acknowledge that fact), and Pichu Pichu. After a few hours we arrived in Colca Valley, a vast valley layered in terraces. We dropped some of the group off in the little town of Chivay, which to be honest I’m glad we weren’t staying in. It was all dusty streets and run down buildings. Because of our new flashpacker status and feeling like we needed some luxury, we had decided to stay at Colca Lodge and it was beautiful! We had a beautiful room with views of the valley, private hot springs overlooking the river, and a spa! I was in my element. I was almost tempted to skip the early pick up at 6am to see condors and just enjoy the hotel. Justin and I enjoyed the hotel for the afternoon, chatted with some fun Canadians and relaxed with a good glass of wine and some alpaca for dinner. After some convincing by Justin, we did decide to get up at 5 the next morning and headed on with the tour to see the condors soar down in the canyon and over us on the cliff side. If you’ve seen Grand Canyon then you need to wipe the meaning of canyon from your brain for about 30 minutes while looking over the edge of the cliff. It’s pretty yes, but stunning? Not really. To be honest I think the hotel experience really made our trip.
After having a taste of luxury we weren’t going back to the crappy busses and chose to travel with Cruz del Sur, a more expensive but less risky option. One that is less likely to turn you into a statistic (however we did break down for ten hours the other day on our 20 hour journey from Cusco to Lima; you do the math!). The busses are very nice and spacious, play good movies and the food isn’t half bad either. From Arequipa we headed to Huacachina, a small oasis town in the middle of the humongous sand dunes. The town itself is a cool little chill out spot for travellers, however the oasis has some pretty dodgy water and only the locals were splashing around in it. The reason to come here: Sandboarding and Dune Buggying. We signed up right away and were told we were going with the craziest dune buggy driver out there. I don’t think we got the craziest since I’ve had hairier experiences with my Dad doing the classic car trials. But I won’t say it wasn’t fun shooting over the dunes and doing a few jumps here and there. Sandboarding is very different to snowboarding. For one it is very sticky and hard to make turns. Justin took to it well, but I made a fool of myself face planting in the sand straight after I stood up. We started off on the equivalent of bunny hills and then by the end we were doing blacks! When signing up you can either choose the regular board or get the snowboard and boots. As we knew how to board we went with the snowboard, but it looked more fun and faster going down on your belly. Great experience, but I won’t be swapping it for snowboarding.
Next stop….Cusco! As mentioned above this was the capital of the Incas, however like much of South America, the Spaniards took over and it has a colonial feel with many churches. We spent five days in Cusco acclimatizing to the altitude and for me the food, or the pisco sours. After the second day I had a case of the Montezumas, which was three days before we started the Inca Trail so unfortunately I wasn’t able to explore as much as I’d hoped. Thankfully I was back to, well almost normal when Thanksgiving rolled around and we started the Inca Trail. However using the hole in the ground loos was an experience. Lets just say that you really have to make sure you’re aim is good.
So as not to be disappointed Justin and I decided to not read up much about the trail, nor had we looked at many photos. And we were not disappointed! The bus picked us up at 6:00 am and we headed for the town of Ollantaytambo. Here we ate breakfast and got pestered by the local women until we bought ponchos and sticks. Then we continued in the bus for another 30 minutes until we came to Km 82, the start of the Inca Trail. Packing up our things there was a sense of anxiousness, yet excitement in the air. The Inca Trail is the top activity to do in South America and you have to book it at least two months in advance, so this was a big moment for everyone. We were also walking the trail in the rainy season, but luck was in our favour and the day we started there were bright blue skies and the sun was shining down. After about 15 minutes the group was ready and the porters (chaskeys, which means messenger in Quechua) had loaded themselves up like donkeys. They are truly amazing. You read reviews about how strong they are, but it´s not till you see them carry a load probably as heavy as person and literally run by you do you realize their strength. There are actually three different trails to Machu Picchu; The sacred trail for the pilgrims, the commercial trail to transport food and other goods, and the military trail to transport messages between the rulers. We were walking on the sacred trail.
The first day winds you through the valley, by the river and by ruins. The first ruins we saw were Q’entimarka, which is shaped like a puma’s foot. All of the settlements built by the Incas were built in the shape of an animal. Machu Picchu is actually shaped like a condor. After a few hours of walking we enjoyed lunch in a small community. The chaskeys had set up a tent for us to eat in and cooked a four course lunch. They were so organized that we even had our own little bucket of warm water to wash our hands in. After lunch we worked our way up through the valley finishing at a campsite with views of Mount Veronica, a snow capped mountain sacred to the Incas. Machu Picchu itself was built with four sacred mountains in mind surrounding the settlement to protect the people; Mount Veronica, Machu Picchu, Yananti, and Pumasiyu. That night at camp we all got to know each other a bit more chatting over a beer. We had 15 in our group, four Columbians, two from Australia, six Americans and three from England. Amazingly we all got on very well and were laughing and joking the whole way. Our guides were great too, Percy the main guy who was very informational and Marcos who was there for you if you were ill. After another three course dinner we got ourselves into bed and just like it was timed the rain started to pour down.
The next morning we woke to cockerels and ducks walking around our tents, and to the beautiful view of Mount Veronica breaking through the clouds. Oh and don’t let me forget room service! Yes we were woken up with a choice of tea or coffee to be taken in our tent. Talk about service! The chaskeys had it all under control. Some of them have been working on the trail for 20 years and still continue to work at 67 years old! The second day of the trail was all up hill, ascending 1200 meters from 3000 to 4200 meters. We wound up from the valley to the cloud forest and then to the top of the mountains to Dead Woman’s Pass. Fortunately for us again the weather was perfect and we were able to siesta after lunch. Thank goodness as we needed all the energy we could get to hike to the top of the mountain. That night we celebrated Jami’s birthday and amazingly the chef was able to bake a cake for her. We have no idea how he did it other than the possibility that he carries a fridge and an oven on his back. This could be an option based on the size of his pack!
The third day was my favorite. Again waking up to views of snow capped mountains, waterfalls and the beautiful cloud forest below was a winner. This morning we had coffee in our tent. After breakfast we started heading up again. Our first stop for the day was the Runkuraqay ruins, which is a tambo, a resting spot for the messengers. They actually had tambos every seven km so the messengers could quickly relay messages either orally or using a quipu, a type of abacus using colored strings with nots which only royalty could understand. After finding out a little more about the Incas we carried on up to the first pass where we did a ceremony. This was a traditional ceremony that the Incas would do to make wishes and leave all of their bad demons behind. We had to find three perfectly shaped coca leaves and fan them out. We also took little pebbles from the river. Circling around a sacred rock, Percy made a speech and then one by one we all blew on our leaves, made wishes, layed them on the rock and covered them with our pebbles from the river. After the ceremony we carried on down the mountain to the sound of Percy playing his flute. It was such a special moment.
Reaching the bottom of the hill we explored another ruin and then crossed through the cloud forest once again. The cloud forest is so interesting, full of squishy mosses, tiny mushrooms, and colorful flowers. Mike, one of the guys in our group, teaches biology so was able to tell us about the different plants. Well he was able to do this on the second day, unfortunately he was suffering from altitude sickness on the third day and was doing everything he could just to make it through. We had our bought of rain this day too, which actually seemed quite suitable as we were hiking through the forest. And we got to use our colorful ponchos! After descending a while, the rain cleared up and the cloud started to disperse giving us a clear view of Machu Picchu mountain. Carrying on down we had just enough time to make it to the last ruin of the day, which was terraces upon terraces built into the side of the mountain over looking the vast valley and the river below. It was absolutely spectacular. We even saw llamas (apparently the park has pet llamas that can just roam as they please) and a fox roaming around the grounds. I wish we had more time because we really could have done some exploring there. After being called about five times we all came down and practically ran to camp so as not to get stuck in the dark! We made it and settled down to our last dinner with the group.
The fourth day, the final day, the Machu Picchu day. We woke extra early this day to get in line to enter the park. The gates open at 5:30 am but groups start lining up at 4:30. We were actually the last in line, which unless you are super bothered about seeing the sunrise at the Sungate works out because everyone is ready to move on when you get there and there is nobody coming up behind you. I feel like this is the way our trip was organized from the start. On the whole trail we hardly saw anyone and there were many times when it was only Justin and I, or us and a couple of others from our group. 12 years ago, the park was overwhelmed with visitors and the government decided to take it over, only allowing a limited number of people along the trail. Now only 500 people can enter the trail in a day, 200 tourists and 300 porters and guides, making it pretty easy for loosing yourself on the trail. As we were waiting, nervous chatter was in the air, then the gates opened and the nervous chatter changed to excited energy as everyone started hiking along the path. As we were walking the sun came up over the mountains and we had another cloudless sky. I seriously cannot believe our luck on this trip. I think the Inca Gods were looking down on us. I was up behind our guide as we were hiking, and he was unhappy at the pace we were going behind the other groups, trying to get us there before the place was filled with tourists. At one point, one of the other groups pulled over and we were off running along the trail overtaking anyone that had pulled over. We turned a corner and there were a set of steep stairs that you needed your hands to pull yourself up. Even with our backpacks on we flew up the stairs; I seriously thought my heart was going to explode! And then we came to the Sungate. There she was, Machu Picchu, prestigiously mounted on the hillside. We stood a while taking in the view, and taking numerous photos of the same thing trying to get the best shot. After a while we headed down and entered the park. We had completed the Inca Trail. The trail itself was amazing, but seeing Machu Pichu was the cherry on top. We spent the morning walking around the ruins, guided by Percy. It felt kind of funny to be mixed in with the nicely dressed tourists that had just come up for the day on the bus from Aguas Calientes. We almost felt like we deserved more recognition after exerting all of the sweat over the last four days. Maybe they could change their opening time for the other tourists to 11 am and the ones who actually hiked up a mountain to get there could enjoy it alone for an hour or two. But of course that couldn’t happen.
Machu Picchu was made public knowledge by Hiram Bingham, a professor at Yale, back in 1911. I don’t want to say he actually discovered it because of course the locals knew about it, there were even a few families that were living at the ruins when he arrived. Also, in 1902 a local farmer named Agustin Lizarraga also discovered Machu Picchu but kept the information to himself, took some of the treasures and sold them on the black market to an Italian. He even left his name and the date inscribed on a rock at Machu Picchu. The ruins were never found by the Spaniards during Spain’s conquest of South America since the kings led them along other paths.
In December 1908, Bingham attended the First Panamerican Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile. It was there that he decided to follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima. Inspired by 17th century chronicles about the lost cities, Bingham headed to Cusco. In Cusco, Bingham made the acquaintance of J.J. Nunez, then prefect of the Apurimac region, who invited him on the arduous trip to the ruins of Choquekirau, thought at the time to be the site of Vilcabamba, the much sought after “last resting place of the Incas.” Bingham went back to the US and decided to organize another expedition to Peru in 1911. Interestingly he bought all of his equipment from Abercrombie and Fitch who sold him chocolate bars, leather straps to close chests and other interesting things. In agreement to the expedition, the Peruvian government elected Sergeant Carrasco as his guide and translator. One night they camped near the Urubamba river and met Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer. Arteaga told them of ruins on top of the mountain above the camp. Bingham paid Arteaga to take him and Carrasco to the ruins. Starting in the morning they climbed the mountain. At midday they rested with campesinos who had been living on the mountain for four years. They also knew about the ruins and elected Pablito Alverez, an 11 year old boy, to lead Bingham and crew there. They came upon the ruins almost immediately and were amazed at what they saw. Theories are still being found out about Machu Picchu to this day. The thought is that the city was a second capital. The people that lived their were royalty and metal workers. Vilcabamba has still not been uncovered and is located somewhere in the jungle.
After exploring Machu Picchu we headed down the mountain, had lunch in Aguas Calientes and enjoyed one or ten beers with the group before heading back to Cusco on the train. We were there for another day, then headed to Lima for our flight to Columbia. We are now in Bogota, where we are not having so much luck with the weather (there are constant torrential downpours), but we are enjoying the partying!