The Heart of America

PREFACE: At one point I had pretensions of sending this in to a travel magazine, but thanks to my inexperience and lack of connections in the magazine world, some schmuck at the New York Times fucking wrote the same article that I was going to write. His isn’t as cool as mine, and he didn’t speak Spanish.

Part 1: The Inkas, the Quechuas People
As most 5th grade history students learn, the Spanish Conquistadores demolished the Inka culture fairly quickly after arriving in South America. An astute youngster might even know a couple of other pre-Columbian ethnic groups from other parts of the Americas, what a quipu is, and will surely be able to recognize the most famous, the most publicized of all early American cities, Machu Picchu.

Unfortunately, the history lesson ends there; at least in the United States, most school curricula do not include much before 1500 in the way of American History. Even as a Spanish major in college I received little more than a perfunctory tale of South America: conquest and slaughter followed by U.S. exploitation and continual political instability. One of the things that I was eager to absorb in my travels to Peru was some of the mysterious history that provides the backdrop to South America’s story.

For me the most obvious starting point is what Ché called the Heart of America, the capital of the Inkan Empire, Cusco, or Qos’qo in Quechua. From there, I had a myriad of ways to begin my exploration of ancient indigenous people, lost cultures, and recovered histories.

It took several days of adjusting to equilibrate myself to the foreign influence in modern Cusco, a city whose entire livelihood is built on the tourism industry. Everything was more expensive than Bolivia, my last destination, where the dollar is 8 bolivianos, as opposed to 3.2 Peruvian soles. Prices are in American dollars, and nearly every restaurant menu is translated, if not written in English. There are ad hoc guides on the street corners offering well-rehearsed five-minute summaries of important Inka sites and constructions; old women and small children dress in traditional costumes, carrying lambs and puppies, or guiding llamas in ridiculously photogenic fashion. Snapshots available for a fee, of course. Along the bustling routes from the hostels and hotels to the historical center of town, cries of “Massage Señora? Pedicure, Lady?” burst out of every shop window. The echoes rang in my ears for days. It was not until I embarked upon the ancient Inkan pilgrimage that I understood the reason for the proliferation of massage parlors and personal hygiene services; after 4 solid days of hiking up and down mountains, you need a few creature comforts.


Part 2: El camino inka

Many people come to Cusco just for the Camino Inka or Inca Trail, and I was one of them. I wanted to see the famous Machu Picchu I remembered from postcards and the poser on my highs school Spanish classroom’s wall. The mystique of the Inka culture and my painful ignorance of it made this one of the must-see places in the world; visiting the ruins was something that one just “had” do to.

In my research before the trip, I found out that the Peruvian government strictly regulates the traffic on the Trail. The first restriction is that only 500 people per day are allowed to enter the trail. These 500 spots include tourists, guides, and the chaski, sometimes called porters, who carry the tents, food, and extra gear. I knew that the trail was heavily traveled, that some conservationists even advocate closing it off to protect it from overuse, but that walking for four days in the footsteps of the Inkas was worth the effort. Since we were traveling in the low season, we secured our spots on the trail only a month in advance and waited for our departure date of January 8th, just at the beginning of the rainy season.

During the winter, some people reserve permits for the Trail a year in advance, placing quite a premium on the trip. Companies charge anywhere from $250 to $1000 for the 4 day classic Inka Trail which takes fit and energetic travelers from Cusco to Ollantaytambo by bus, from the Piscakucho Checkpoint at km 82 to Machu Picchu on foot, then from Machu Picchu back to Cusco by train.

Our guide whisked us off in a bus at 6:05, picking up passengers intermittently as we drove through a sleepy Cusco. I took the opportunity to catch up on my rest until we reached Ollantaytambo, the last town before the trailhead. There, I grabbed a quick pre-hike breakfast of fresh toast and coca tea to get energized for the trip.

The coca leaf is a key element of highland life. Its symbolism and restorative powers are remnants of pre-Inka times and the Quechua peoples are adamant that it remains a part of modern society despite coca’s association with the cocaine supply chain. In the Museo de Arte Precolumbiano (MAP, the Pre-Columbian Art Museum) you can see small statues of Pacha Papa, the husband of Mother Earth, with a bulge of coca leaves in his mouth, looking just like rural farm workers all over Peru. Our guide on the Inka Trail, David, made himself what he called “the real coca-cola” each morning in an empty Coke bottle: hot water, a bit of sugar, and a handful of coca leaves. This concoction is a great way to hydrate on the trail. Having suffered bout of altitude sickness a few weeks before, I experienced firsthand the benefits of coca: my nausea abated and I was able to function a little more normally at 3500 meters above sea level. After that, I was sold on the plant’s benefits. Steamy coca tea replaced my morning coffee in Peru, and helped me make it up the infamous 4200 meter Warmiwañusca (Dead Woman’s Pass) on Day 2 of our hike. It refreshed me after lunch, and thawed me out after a four hour hike in chilly rain to our last campsite, Wiñawayna (Forever Young).

The weather did not improve on the last day of our trek, when we were scheduled to enter the legendary Machu Picchu through Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. The night before, the two-day trekkers joined the other hikers staying at Wiñawayna, and the chaskis went home freeing up about 300 more spaces on the trail. Thus, on day four of the hike the number of tourists doubled, creating a log-jam of hikers at the last campsite. Most groups woke at 4:00 am to be first in line at the last checkpoint on the Inka Trail before the Machu Picchu UNESCO Sanctuary. At 5:00 am I found myself in the midst of a line of multicolored rain ponchos waiting for dawn and the opening of the checkpoint. The dawn never really came; the sky gradually turned more silvery than charcoal, and before I knew it I was one of nearly 200 trekkers rushing for some unknown reason down the last 6 km of the Inka Trail.

I could understand the preoccupation with early arrival if there were some mindblowing vista at the destination point. However, following a set of logical calculations, I knew that if it was drizzling and we were walking through the clouds (literally!), there would be absolutely zero chance of seeing the traditional Machu Picchu snapshot from the top of the mountain. When the trail came to the last set of huge Inka stairs, I paused for a moment before gathering what strength was left in my body. My legs, already shaking already from lactic acid buildup for three days, plus lack of oxygen, were not moving at their quickest. I started up the steps, which were about three feet wide and between six and nine inches deep. Most of them were about 18 inches tall, quite a large distance for people of normal size. Getting up stairs like this is no easy task under the best of conditions, but added to the difficulty of the dimensions, imagine a cliff face on your left and a several hundred foot drop immediately on your right; there’s no hand rail, just clouds. Then, on top of that, add two days’ worth of rain streaming down the mountain via the fastest route possible: the stairs. Did I mention that I was also carrying a backpack?

I’m not a hiker. I didn’t come on the trip to push my body to its physical limits, to beat some record time from Piskakora to Machu Picchu, or to scramble like a mountain goat over dangerous rock faces. Thus, I was more than a little angry when a group of six people decided that it was imperative that they pass me on the stairs. I was clearly going much too slow for their tastes, and they absolutely had to get to the fogged-in Sun Gate two minutes before I did. Heaven forbid they might miss something. So there I stood, balancing on the largest step I could find, teetering on the precipice side of the stairs trying not to look down the stairs in vertigo and tumble down through dozens of tourists to a wet, rocky end, while some jerk on a mission and his five friends whizzed by me on the left. At least the last few of the group had the decency to let me move over to the rocky side of the stairs, instead of pushing me closer to the edge. Finally, a more sane and more considerate hiker asked if I was okay and let me proceed slowly up the stairs. By the time I reached the top, the adrenaline wore off and I was left cold, wet, and furious two kilometers from Machu Picchu.

When people end up in large groups, their minds generally turn to mush, and even the best of human beings becomes consumed with a sense of selfishness that I abhor. It was this sort of situation that I encountered at the end of the Trail; being stranded on the stairs was frightening, and legitimately dangerous. This group’s guide asked them not to race ahead, and looked beleaguered when they ignored his advice. When I finally reached the top of the stairs, no more than five minutes after the group of people in such a hurry that they had to nearly push me off a mountain, they were panting, waiting for their guide to catch up. I hope their little race was worth it.

A few kilometers down the trail, I reached the Sun Gate well before they did, to find what I knew would be there: impenetrable fog. The rain let up a bit, but we were still standing on a mountain in the middle of the cloud. There was no Machu Picchu bathed in the magic light of dawn, no sunkissed ruins, only grey mist.


Part 3: Alturas de Macchu Picchu

The Machu Picchu that I experienced had a different sort of mystique than the one in the postcards; it was eerie, hesitant to reveal its secrets and guarded in its majesty. The surrounding peaks were sketched out in the watery shadows of a Japanese ink painting, and the ruins faded in and out of the mist as our small tour group wound its way up and down the narrow stairs that traverse the city. I left my camera in the dry safety of the coat check with my backpack, too tired to care about taking pictures once I passed through the theme-park turnstiles into the Sanctuary area to begin the official tour.

Later on that morning the sun came out, just as our small group was ready to board a bus down to Aguas Calientes and a hot lunch. With the good weather came tourists by the busload, spreading out over the grassy terraces and stone steps like ants at a picnic. I was exhausted, nearly too tired to drag my legs up the hundreds of steps in the city itself, and recently embittered by the stupidity of human beings in large numbers. Maybe someday I’ll go back to Machu Picchu with my camera on a sunny day, but it will be a different mountain, not the fog enclosed sanctuary that I explored one January dawn.

For all its beauty, elegance, and meticulous preservation, Machu Picchu wasn’t the magical destination I desired. My four days on the Camino Inka will remain in my memory for decades to come, but the journey was more rewarding than the goal. I put my body through the same rigors the Inka priests and pilgrims experienced, and seen dozens of the 85 micro-climates in the landscape. Thus, went I reached the summit, the holy city in the clouds, I was perplexed and disoriented when I realized that the other 600 some people wandering around the city had not shared the same experience. The women in high heels teetering along the terraces, the freshly showered and comfortably attired retirees with their enormous hats and cameras, and the hurrying daytrippers did not come through the cloud forests, sleep in the mountains, or appreciate the strength and stamina of Inka pilgrims on the holy road. A British-operated luxury train pulled them through the valley along the Urubamba River, oblivious to the trials and beauties of the trail.

Machupicchu is a museum. It is carefully taken care of, studied with precision by hundreds of archaeologists with international grants, highly regulated, and bears the golden stamp of approval from United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Foundation. There are a dozen of ways to get there, depending on your physical fitness or the depth of your pocket book. It is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and everything that the posters advertise, but it no longer evokes the spirit of discovery. Hiram Bingham, an anthropologist who brought the attention of the Western world to Machu Picchu, took most of the small objects back to Yale University for study. Unfortunately, the Peruvian government did not supervise the excavation and cleaning, giving free rein to the American historians. In a silly romantic way I wanted to feel history, not preservation. With its pristine lawns and manicured stones, the site requires constant maintenance. It isn’t the same place that the Inka used as his seat of power, where the Inka and his people catalogued the stars and revered the stars.

Just as the old Machu Picchu was lost to the world for centuries, the poetic solitary Machu Picchu is also now just a thing of legend. This wasn’t Neruda’s Machu Picchu, the Old Mountain lost to the world; a place of silence, water, hope, and struggle that speaks through the depths of the rocks of the tragic betrayal of one of America’s greatest cultures. This was modern Peru overseeing a fantastic economic resource. Ché and Neruda’s mountain and its city are lost to the world, for better or for worse. Bingham may have found the city for the history books, but the Western world’s “finding” it and adding it to the modern canon of sacred places took away some of its power and spiritual weight. It shrunk the heart of America.

Part 4: Choquequirao
The nonexistence of my mythical Machu Picchu led me to a trek on another, less-traveled trail. This time the road lead to Choquequirao, one of the last refuges of the dying Empire where the Incas fought the Spanish conquistadors. All the guidebooks and several Cusco locals warned against embarking on the Choqueqirao trek during the rainy season for fear of mudslides and other weather-induced catastrophes, but after surviving three days of rain on the Inka Trail, I figured things couldn’t get much worse. We scheduled the trip with a small local company, after searching around for the absolute lowest price. At $180 per person for four days, the Choquequirao trip cost nearly half of the Inka Trail. I knew the food would be more basic than the four course lunches and dinners on the way to Machu Picchu, but from the cordiality and frankness of the people who worked in the tiny tour office, I had hopes for an interesting trip.

From the beginning, this trip was different. Our taxi was late, so we sped through Cusco with a frantic tour employee to be shuffled onto a bus to Cachora with a guide and our cook carrying three dozen eggs on top of his backpack. To cut the early morning chill, I grabbed two tamales from the vendor hauling a 30 pound canvas sack of steaming corn masa through the aisle of the bus. In a daze, I ate my breakfast along with fifty odd Peruvians on their way to work. I awoke from a nap with the news that we were about to get off the bus, but when I looked outside all I saw were mountains and farms, no towns, no street vendors hawking walking sticks or other tourist fare. We took a frenetic taxi down a twisting dirt road to the town of Cachora, maiming a sheep on the way to the city center, which consisted of two paved blocks leading to a small square with an enormous ancient tree. Not kidding, the sheep literally bounced under a wheel, and the guy herding it yelled after our careening vehicle as we swerved away.

In Cachora I waited patiently while our guide ran around town gathering provisions and making sure the mules and their driver were ready to go. Due to environmental restrictions no pack animals are allowed on the Inka Trail; I was glad to have a little help on what I knew would be a more difficult hike. After a short first day’s hike, we reached our first campsite. Instead of a dozen raised sand beds filled with trekkers’ tents, our tent waited for us in a verdant glen. Only one other couple was staying at the campsite, creating the sense of a peaceful refuge. As the sun set, a pair of hummingbirds swirled around the clearing collecting nectar, and I was reminded that I too needed to stock up on energy for the hike ahead.

The ascent to Choquequirao, which we started at 6:30 a.m., was one of the most physically challenging tasks I have ever accomplished. Thanks to our pre-season training on the Inka Trail, we were in good shape and equilibrated to the altitude, which changed from 1800 to 1550 m.a.s.l (meters above sea level) as we went down to the Rio Apurimac, then jumped from 1550 to 2400 by lunchtime. Luckily, Eduardo our guide prodded us out of bed early with coca tea, so we did most of our hiking while the western face of the mountain was in shade. Contrary to all of the warnings, there was hardly a drop of rain on the entire trek; no gushing stairways of water and trails partially obscured with mudslides like I found on the Inka Trail. We were incredibly lucky with the weather. Even with idyllic weather conditions, trudging up a mountain is exhausting. We made it to the highest point after 3.5 hours of hiking, and I was amazed to hear Eduardo tell us “you walked well.” Not knowing what that meant, I asked him to elaborate. The last group that he took up the mountain, not accustomed to the altitude or hiking with packs, needed over seven hours to finish the same trail. After a relaxing lunch at a tiny farm on the hillside, we set off along the final 10 kilometers to the ruins.

From afar, there doesn’t seem to be much on the mountaintop. It’s clearly terraced but the warmer climate zone and humidity make the mountains like tropical greenhouses, perfect for vivacious jungle-like foliage. Choqueqirao is covered in vegetation, part of a living, aggressive forest. Eduardo was right, this wasn’t Imperial Inkan architecture, with immense seamlessly-joined granite blocks. The buildings are more rustic, made of layered pizarra stones joined with mortar. The edges are rough, just like the cleaning process at the site. It was built in a rush as a refuge from the advancing Spanish armies.

At Machupicchu I observed at least a dozen workers picking moss out of the bricks with dental instruments, whereas at Choquequirao there were two men with pickaxes clearing brush and one resident archeologist. Because of some misguided structural restorations in the 1970’s including concrete supports, the ruins of Choqueqirao don’t qualify for the title of a World Heritage site, and consequently don’t qualify for the restoration grants that go along with UNESCO’s endorsement. Bizarrely, France is quite interested in the site’s historical value and provides much of the current funding.

In the warm afternoon light after our grueling hike we were practically the only ones on the top of the mountain. A few humans dotted the grass: our guide, the harriero, D and I, and the scientist. We walked up in the breezy silence to the ceremonial ground: a circular lawn created by slicing off the next closest peak to the palace and stared down the canyon into the heart of the Andes, lush peaks before us, and a few snow-capped ones in the distance. We tromped about the ruins, taking fake Ché pictures like the ones I remembered from Motorcycle Diaries, alone in the sculpted doorways of Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Now we were the intrepid explorers: exhausted and sweaty with more fly bites and scrapes than I care to remember, but we’d made it to a place where history wasn’t so entangled with Western colonialism. Where we could sit outside the palace and listen to legends told from a local as a few scrappy clouds raced through a clear blue sky.

The next morning, in a cool fog and light drizzle, we explored the agricultural sections of the ruins, found the ancient architect’s house, and then had to be on our way back: we had to hike the entire trail back again. No luxury train filled with attractive women modeling alpaca products, or men doing the masked devil dance (complete with the historical caricature mask of the white bearded devil—think there was a hidden message there?), we were back on our own foot power. We plodded along the ridge back from Choqueqirao, and at each sinuous curve of the trail the mist swallowed a little bit more of the city, wrapping up its secrets again for someone else to discover.

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  1. […] commercial airplane, I was admittedly in a bizarre state of mind. Adding to the experience was the mad rush of tourist adventurers hoping for a postcard-esque view of the ancient Incan capital. That […]

  2. […] desert, quite literally twice as high as this supposedly “gorgeous” McClure thingie; I’d walked up AND down a 9,000 foot peak on my own two feet, with a stop at an ancient city in… The cities in Peru didn’t need to brag about mountains, they had volcanoes and mythic ruins. […]



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