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Wednesday, 13 March 2013 08:16

Hiking the Inca Trail

Written by  Cindy Ross

I plod up the mountain. Every few yards, I lean on my hiking stick, wheezing. The “Pass of the Dead Woman” at 13,776 feet looms above me on the Inca Trail. My temples and lungs ache for want of oxygen. At this altitude, my blood has thickened and slowed in my veins.

Suddenly, heavenly music rises through the mist. A short porter emerges from the swirling fog. An enormous bundle wrapped in a blue plastic tarp towers over his body. He climbs the ancient Inca steps without hesitation, all the while playing the most beautiful notes on his pan flute. Other porters follow. Their thin, muscular legs propel them with the precision of a marching band. Their stubbed toes are barely protected in sandals made from recycled tires. They smile easily as they pass. Besides hauling our gear, they cook us fine meals, make camp, and chatter to us. Some are teenagers, others senior citizens. They speak not Spanish but Quechua. We only understand the obvious - their exhilaration up here on this glorious trail.

It occurs to me that these porters, descendents of the ancient Incas, are not so different than their ancestors. Their ancestors lugged stones to build paths and temples. These guys are lugging portable toilets and gas tanks, transporting the infrastructure so trekkers like myself can experience the Inca Trail and, ultimately, the mystical city of Machu Picchu.

About four years ago, the Peruvian people, with world conservation organizations, enacted stiff regulations to stop the exploitation of the Inca Trail and native people. Trekkers now must hire licensed guides and stay in designated, pre-arranged campsites. Porters are limited to carrying 10 kilos.

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.


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