Posted by: Dave | March 11, 2009

The Incas and a trek through their land.

I’m now back in Arizona. In my last post I talked a little bit about the Incas and my first few days in Peru. It’s been well over a week since that post, and I’ve trekked 45+ miles, eaten many, many potatoes, seen the mesmerizing Machu Picchu and other Inca ruins, and I’ve flown back to States. I’m glad I have let my trek and Machu Picchu experience sink in, rather than write about it right away. I think I have a little bit more perspective than I did right at the end of the trek. I think that’ll be more valuable than a play-by-play of the trek – although there certainly will be some of that.

The Inca Trail. Wide enough for a load bearing animal (llama, horse, etc), but that's about it. Yes, that's a cloud ... and a very long, steep drop off the side.

The Inca Trail. Wide enough for a load bearing animal (llama, horse, etc), but that's about it. Yes, that's a cloud ... and a very long, steep drop off the side.

The “famous” trek to Machu Picchu is a 4 or 5-day hike along the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail was the main thoroughfare for travel from Cuzco to Machu Picchu and some of the Inca settlements along the Urubamba river valley, and is now a well-used path for trekkers to reach Machu Picchu. The Peruvian government actually limits the number of people who can be on the Inca Trail each day to 500 (including all porters and guides).

What we historically call the Inca Empire is usually wrapped into a few centuries – from approximately 1300-1600 AD – but the civilization that we call “Inca” was certainly around for many thousands of years. As I mentioned in my post about Cuzco, the Incas were incredibly innovative. They built strong and durable buildings without the use of mortar. Through centuries of cultivation, they turned a small tuberous root into the white potato… which ultimately spread around the world and kept several other civilizations alive through drought and blight. They developed the sweet potato (and a couple of thousand other potato varieties) and maize. But amazingly they did not use the wheel nor did they have a written language. When the Spaniards came through in the early in 1500s, they destroyed a civilization and many  of its secrets were lost forever. Sad. The story of the Incas is fascinating – especially how a large, mature civilization could be quickly eradicated by less than 125 Spanish conquistadors. To read more about it, check out the Wikipedia entry on the Incas by clicking here (after you finishing reading my blog).

So back to the Inca Trail and our trek…

Our porters were awesome, carrying up to 15lbs of our stuff for us... and all the tents and food and such. Here they are just ahead of us on the trail... approaching the Inca ruins at Paucarkancha.

Our porters were awesome, carrying up to 15lbs of our stuff for us... and all the tents and food and such. Here they are just ahead of us on the trail, approaching the Inca ruins at Paucarkancha.

We opted for a 7-day trek that passed by Salkantay Mountain and met up with the Inca Trail after several days. Instead of doing the “standard” 4-day trek along with backpackers from around the world, we opted to do 4 days near Salkantay and then meet up with the Inca Trail and trek 3 days to Machu Picchu. What a stark contrast between the two segements… and each was fascinating. I highly recommend the company that we used for our trek, called Llama Path. They have by far the highest level of support for their porters, providing them superior clothing and gear and really creating a family feeling. If you do the Inca Trail or any other trek to Machu Picchu, check out Llama Path first.

I have well over 750 photos from this 7-day trek, and every day was so unique, but I’ll try to pare it down and avoid completely boring you with details.

Part 1: Salkantay (“The Savage”) Mountain
The Salkantay part of the trek took us away from the tourist masses to almost 4 full days without seeing a single other hiker. In fact, aside from our team of 25 trekkers, guides and porters, the only other people we saw were the native Peruvians who live in these remote valleys, often in huts with thatched roofs. Don’t even think about running water and electricity out here. It was amazing to see how primitive and simple people still live, and it provides fantastic perspective and appreciation for things we often take for granted – toilets, drinkable water, showers, etc.

This is our first campsite, after a beautiful trek through a valley. We camped in pastures that were often home to horses, cows and the presents they leave behind. The campsite vistas were all amazing.

This is our first campsite, after a beautiful trek through a valley. We camped in pastures that were often home to horses, cows and the presents they leave behind. The campsite vistas were all amazing.

I haven’t mentioned the altitude yet in this post. This experience is largely about altitude. Cusco is at approx. 11,000 feet (twice that of Denver) and on the Salkantay trek we reached points of approximately 17,000 feet. That’s some serious altitude and you can feel the lack of oxygen in the air. The first night we camped at about 12,000 feet, and the second night was at about 14,500 feet. On Day 3 we passed the highest point, the Incachiriaska Pass (Incachiriaska = point at which the Incas get cold) which crosses next to Salkantay Mountain at 17,000 feet. Of course it was snowing while we were at this peak. We hiked down to 13,500 for lunch and then back up to 17,000 again to look for a lake that our guide wanted to see. That’s a lot of up and down (and up and down) for one day… let alone at that altitude. It was amazing though.

This part of the trek on Day 2 is pretty indicative of the drama and isolation of the Salkantay Trek.

This part of the trek on Day 2 is pretty indicative of the drama and isolation of the Salkantay Trek.

Night 2 campsite at the foot of Salkantay Mountain.

Night 2 campsite at the foot of Salkantay Mountain.

Beautiful view of Salkantay Mountain in the morning. We saw/heard 3 avalanches while were here. Similar to glacial calving, that's a sound that can't be described in words.

Beautiful view of Salkantay Mountain in the morning. We saw/heard 3 avalanches while were here. Similar to glacial calving, that's a sound that can't be described in words.

Salkantay reflected in a puddle. Salkantay's peak is at just over 20,000 feet.

Salkantay reflected in a puddle. Salkantay's peak is at just over 20,000 feet.

After reaching camp, a 3 of us went an additional 1,000 feet or so withour guides to get a different perspective on the campsite.

After reaching camp, 3 of us went an additional 1,000 feet or so with our guides to get a different perspective on the campsite.

Here I am with our lead guide, Freddy, at the Incachiriaska Pass - the highest point on our trek. Gotta love snow and wind at 17,000 feet!

Here I am with our lead guide, Freddy, at the Incachiriaska Pass - the highest point on our trek. Gotta love snow and wind at 17,000 feet!

How do you enjoy being at 17,000 feet? Climb out on a ledge and smoke a Cuban cigar, of course.

How do you enjoy being at 17,000 feet? Climb out on a ledge and smoke a Cuban cigar, of course.

The hike into camp at the end of a full Day 3. Hiking through these glacial valleys in the Andes was dramatic every step of the way; low clouds, steep mountains, free-range animals, primitive homes and "villages".

The hike into camp at the end of a full Day 3. Hiking through these glacial valleys in the Andes was dramatic every step of the way; low clouds, steep mountains, free-range animals, primitive homes and "villages".

Day 4 brought us to the end of the Salkantay trek and to a small village called Paucarkancha where we had our passports checked before meeting up with the Inca Trail. By village I mean 3 houses and some Inca ruins. While our paperwork was getting done, I got what might be my favorite pic of the entire 7 weeks in South America….

Local in Paucarkancha where we met up with the Inca Trail.

Local in Paucarkancha where we met up with the Inca Trail.

Part 2: The Inca Trail
The first campsite on the Inca Trail is completely different than the ones we had on Salkantay. First of all there are many more people (the 500 or so I mentioned previously) and there are some amenities like a door on the toilet and running water (that’s not drinkable). The best part of the Night 4 campsite though was the soccer field. Our guide had been wanting to play for days, and we held a gringos v guides/porters match in the most scenic location that I’ve ever kicked a ball. The photos don’t do justice to the incredible setting in the Andes.

You know what they say about goalkeepers. They're all ...

You know what they say about goalkeepers. They're all ...

Best pic of the field we played on in the midst of the Andes. This is a group of porters playing after we finished our game. Definitely the best/craziest/most beautiful location where I've ever played.

Best pic of the field we played on in the midst of the Andes with Inca ruins on the sideline. This is a group of porters playing after we finished our game. Definitely the best/craziest/most beautiful location where I've ever played.

In case you’re wondering, the Peruvians beat the Americans 11-10 in a 2-hour game.  It was the first time that I had played soccer in 2 years… and I’m really, really happy about the way my hip responded. I miss playing and that might be the green light for me to try it out for real.

Now back to the Inca Trail… and all the people…

The hike out of camp on Day 5... now on the Inca Trail. Slightly different than the isolation of Salkantay.

The hike out of camp on Day 5... now on the Inca Trail. Slightly different than the isolation of Salkantay.

Inca ruins along the Inca Trail. These places were built as either storage/rest points for the couriers and travelers who walked the Inca Path or as a lookout to provide protection along the path.

Inca ruins along the Inca Trail. These places were built as either storage/rest points for the couriers and travelers who walked the Inca Path or as a lookout to provide protection along the path.

More Inca ruins along the Inca Trail.

More Inca ruins along the Inca Trail.

Peru has a wide variety of microclimates, and the Inca Trail took us into the Amazon basin. Here is the trail winding through the beginning of the jungle.

Peru has a wide variety of microclimates, and the Inca Trail took us into the Amazon basin. Here is the trail winding through the beginning of the jungle. This is the actual path that was built several hundred-plus years ago. The stones are just as old as the path itself.

Since the Incas were small people, there are often steep inclines that don't have steps. You should see the porters run up and down this path carrying 40+ lbs on their backs. Super fast and nimple... and often wearing only traditional Inca sandals.

Since the Incas were small people, there are often steep inclines that don't have steps. You should see the porters run up and down this path carrying 40+ lbs on their backs. Super fast and nimble... and often wearing only traditional Inca sandals.

A close-up of the Inca Trail... last photo in this blog that's just of a stone path, I promise.

A close-up of the Inca Trail... last photo in this blog that's just of a stone path, I promise.

The Inca Ruins at Winay Huayna, which is next to our last campsite on the Inca Trail. The Incas used the terraces not only to cultivate different crops, but also to conduct experiments on plant growth at different altitudes/irrigation/etc.

The Inca Ruins at Winay Huayna, which is next to our last campsite on the Inca Trail. The Incas used the terraces not only to cultivate different crops, but also to conduct experiments on plant growth at different altitudes/irrigation/etc.

Part 3: Machu Picchu
But of course, the Inca Trail is primarily about Machu Picchu… at least it is in today’s tourist world.  Not much is known about Machu Picchu, as the Incas didn’t keep a written record of their lives and the Spanish effectively wiped out their civilization. So when the ruins were found in 1911 (seriously… only 100 years ago or so), there wasn’t much information to go on. In fact, Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain” in the native tongue of Quechua, which is how the American discoverer was told about the location by the locals he encoutered in the early part of the century. We don’t even know what this place was called by the Incas. Scientists also think that it was incomplete when the Incas abandoned it in the early 1600s or so.

But leave it to the Incas to build an impressive building in a completely inaccesible location! The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu in their conquest because from the river valley it is completely hidden. There is now a road that brings tourists to the site by bus, but before automobiles this was only accessible via the Inca Trail and was often completely covered by clouds.  There is some debate about Machu Picchu’s use… but the current favor is that it was more of a learning center/temple and not a fortress.

We set off early in the morning on Day 7 of our hike, in order to get to the Sun Gate at sunrise. Ok… enough blabber.. here are pics:

Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail after passing through the Sun Gate.

Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail after passing through the Sun Gate.

Machu Picchu. Incredibly lucky with the weather... again. I think the weather gods were on my side while I was in South America.

Machu Picchu. Incredibly lucky with the weather... again. I think the weather gods were on my side while I was in South America.

Again, amazing weather. It's the rainy season in Peru.

Again, amazing weather. It's the rainy season in Peru.

Llamas hanging in Machu Picchu. There are wild llamas and alpacas in the Andes, and we saw a few of them, but these llamas were introduced to Machu Picchu for the tourists enjoyment. Still fun to see them though...

Llamas hanging in Machu Picchu. There are wild llamas and alpacas in the Andes, and we saw a few of them, but these llamas were introduced to Machu Picchu for the tourists enjoyment. Still fun to see them though...

Wayna Picchu (the mountain in the background) overlooks Machu Picchu and served as a lookout.

Wayna Picchu (the mountain in the background) overlooks Machu Picchu and served as a lookout.

Again, a traditional view of Machu Picchu with Wayna Picchu in the background

Again, a traditional view of Machu Picchu with Wayna Picchu in the background

Blue skies at Machu Picchu

Blue skies at Machu Picchu

I think this photo does a good job of showing the drama of Machu Picchu's location in the Andes/Amazon basin.

I think this photo does a good job of showing the drama of Machu Picchu's location in the Andes/Amazon basin.

Inca architecture at Machu Picchu

Inca architecture at Machu Picchu

The Incas used simple but effective ways of splitting huge rocks for their construction needs.

The Incas used simple but effective ways of splitting huge rocks for their construction needs.

Terraces at Machu Picchu

Terraces at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

from Wayna Picchu... you can see the condor shape of Machu Picchu

The view from Wayna Picchu... you can see the condor shape of Machu Picchu

Terraces and blue skies at Machu Picchu.

Terraces and blue skies at Machu Picchu.

From the top of Wayna Picchu, overlooking Machu Picchu.

From the top of Wayna Picchu, overlooking Machu Picchu.

A chinchilla.... chinchillin' at Machu Picchu.

A chinchilla.... chinchillin' at Machu Picchu.

I could go on and on about the Incas and about the details of the trek to Machu Picchu. It really was a fascinating week for me, and since I didn’t know much about the Inca Empire, it was a great educational experience as well.

So now I’m back in Arizona and it’s time to get a job.  I have absolutely no regrets about my trip to South America. From Patagonia to Machu Picchu, I was overwhelmed by the people of South America. They were all so incredibly friendly and helpful and I never felt unsafe. Add Argentina, Chile and Peru to your bucket list; specifically Patagonia, Iguazu Falls and Machu Picchu.

I intend to keep writing on this blog. There is still more that I want to write about from my trip (the driving experience in Patagonia deserves a blog entry all to itself) and I’ll have a link to a complete collection of photos posted at some point … and hopefully there will be many more travel experiences in the not-too-distant future.

Thanks for checking in during my travels… stop by occasionally and see if there’s anything new.

Dave

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Responses

  1. truly gorgeous!

  2. Hey Dave! It’s late right now and I don’t have time to read your entire blog in detail. Will promise to do it tomorrow. The photo of the little girl is absolutely precious. Thanks so much for the blog and welcome home!

  3. Awesome summation of the trip. Now I don’t have to write one. I’m just going to forward everyone from my blog over to yours. 🙂

  4. Unbelievable.. very jealous / envious of the balls it took to make this trip..

    Very, very cool man.. proud of you and can’t begin to imagine the internal dialog you had during your trip..

  5. Thanks Dunny… It was a great trip and well worth the time, etc. Now it’s time for another adventure… the job search!

  6. JT… feel free to link whomever to my page… traffic is good! I love your pics too… so many great ones.

  7. Your photography is stunning! Thanks for the tour through S America, I’ve been wanting to go for years. Awesome geography! I can’t believe you went all those places in one stretch of time. You must feel like a different person. I live near some great Nat. Parks in CA. Come visit. Don’t you just LOVE life in the west!
    More pics of guanacos please.


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