The Inca Trail
We begin our trek from Ollantaytambo. The first few kilometers wind through the warm arid lowlands with cacti and agave. It isn’t long before the torturous ascent up Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest and first pass on the Inca Trail.
On average, the rock trail is 1 1/2 meters wide. Interlocking stones fit together like a puzzle. The Incas utilized existing boulders and rock cliffs and carved tunnels and steps into solid rock. This stone trail has endured for 700 years without maintenance.
The incredibly steep Andes jut up like sentinels, draped in rich green vegetation. Out of the fog emerge ruined temples and terraced hillsides. I’ve heard it said that the entire Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are a complete work of art that aims to elevate the soul of the pilgrim.
Every evening, the diminutive porters fill plastic basins with hot water and deliver them to our tents. The cooks create traditional soups and stews with fresh vegetables and ancient grains like quinoa, the sacred food of the Incas.
I give a heartfelt “Hola!” each morning and hope my big smile makes up for my lack of ability to communicate in Quechua. The hot meals fuel our bodies through the chilly nights.
Surrounded by sacred mountains and perched on a flat between two thrusting peaks, the ancient city of Machu Picchu stretches in splendor. At the height of the Incas’ power, 1,000 people are believed to have lived here in the billowing mist. About 6 1/2 hectares were farmed in soil that was hauled up 1,219 meters from the Urubamba River. There are temples, royal tombs, ancient housing developments, an elaborate irrigation system, ceremonial baths, and huge grassy courtyards where resident llamas graze.
There were no slaves to create these fantastic temples and systems of roads. Their society was highly unified and well-nourished. These superhuman feats were accomplished from their undivided focus of human energy and their dedication to their deities. They created this place for worship of the natural world, particularly the mountains. Their enormous investment was in the contemplation of natural beauty. Their descendents, the porters who walk by our side, share the same passions. The Inca spirit lives in them.
On the way back down, the porters run past us at breakneck speeds. They fly down many kilometers of slippery steps - every year one of them dies in a fall here. I want to let them know my gratitude, that I share their passion for this place. I unwrap my kids’ chocolate Easter eggs that I brought along as snacks. As the porters sprint by, I pop one in each of their mouths. Their faces break out in smiles when they taste the chocolate. Each plants a huge sweaty kiss on my cheek. That means the same thing in English as it does in Quechua.