People often say that mountains can make them feel small.
When surrounded by these seemingly ageless monoliths, a feeling of infinitesimal value takes over and a person’s life can instantly feel irrelevant. You are enjoying the surroundings, taking a deep breath of fresh air into your lungs, and in an instant, the fragility of life as you know it is revealed. But how often does it cross the mind that our physical bodies are made up of the same elements as those mountains?
The Carbon, Iron and Oxygen found in our bodies could just as readily be taken from the same mountain it happens to be gazing upon. The human body is a testament to our oneness with the Earth. I don’t mean that spiritually or metaphorically, I mean that physically, we are Earth. There isn’t an element in our bodies that can’t be found instantly in our surroundings.
When I look at a mountain, I am happy that he is my brother.
When I look at a mountain, I am happy that he is my brother. I am happy that is my family. I take great comfort in knowing that when I die, I will become a mountain, or a sunset, or a meandering river. For me, this is enough. Life after death or the possibility of reincarnation does not concern me, because I know that science has already told me the most important thing about what happens when we die, that the elements of our bodies are given back to the Earth from which we came.
For me, that is a million times more poetic than any religious notion we have today. For me, I am happy to know that I can say for certain, “When I die, you will see me everywhere”.
This train of thought is the power of nature. It is the philosophy of native traditions around the world both past and present, and was the belief of the Incans more than 500 years ago. In Peru, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hikes one can take to explore this beautiful country and learn about its vibrant history.
When I die, you will see me everywhere.
For us, it would be Salcantay, The Savage Trek that we would embark on. The hike isn’t called The Savage Trek because of its difficulty (although it is rated as “difficult”), it’s called the Savage Trek because one of the highlights of the trip is reaching Salcantay Pass at 15,200 feet, where Salcantay (or The Savage) Mountain looms over you at 20,574 feet.
This aggressive and undeniably awesome mountain is only 8,455 feet shy of the peak of Mount Everest. When standing at the pass looking up at it, you feel as though you are being cradled by a giant.
After flying from Lima, at sea level, straight to Cusco at 11,152 feet, we hung around town for 4 days before beginning the 70 km hike so we could acclimatize to the altitude. I’m happy we did, I felt great when we got there and decided to stop taking my altitude pills because I didn’t like the intense, lucid dreams that were accompanying them.
By the end of that night I started to get a headache and could feel my heart rate increasing. I woke up after a three hour nap to a heart rate of 130 bpm and slightly blurred vision. I began drinking copious amounts of water and coca tea, as well as eating as many carbs as I could get my hands on.
Apparently, the increase in carbon-dioxide helps with breathing regularity, and when accompanied by pressure breathing (holding the lips slightly together so air must be pushed through them), you can help the body to adjust quicker.
Pressure or pursed lips breathing increases the amount of CO2 in the lungs, it relaxes and dilates the smooth muscle of the airways, and increases oxygen levels in your arterial blood. It took a couple of days, but eventually I felt better and could really enjoy the beautiful town of Cusco.
After a quick meeting the night before with our group, we hopped on a bus and headed from Cusco to the small town of Mollepata. I think this is where we were supposed to start hiking from, but our guides (Marco 1 and Marco 2) arranged a truck to drive us deeper into the mountains.
It looked like it had been constructed either 400 years ago or 3 days ago.
This didn’t bother me; the roads were very busy (for literally being in the middle of nowhere) and were packed with construction crews and farm equipment. I surely didn’t want to spend $500 to go on a hike that begins with flat-bed trucks passing me every 20 minutes that are going slow enough for me to jump on.
So our group, and what seemed like 37 other groups, piled us and all our gear into the back of a large farm truck and hit the…road…goat path…riverbed, not sure what it was but it looked like it had been constructed either 400 years ago or 3 days ago. After a bumpy ride over creaking bridges, mud bogs and jolly passers-by, we came to the end of the whatever-you-wanna-call-it and unloaded all our gear.
The truck faded away and we were left with nothing but the Andes Mountains to set our eyes on. We weren’t 10 minutes into it before our tail gunning guide, Marco 2, pulled out a big bag of coca leaves to munch on. It helps with nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach and diarrhea! Take that Pepto Bismol!
It also helps with altitude sickness, as well as providing an alertness that matches that of strong coffee but without any of the “downing” side effects. A piece of lime flavoured ash is put into the mouth with the leaves to break them down and make the mixture taste better for longer. Take that Trident Gum! Marco 1 looked back from the front of the pack as he put a small handful in his mouth, “When the mountains start moving, you take a break from the coca leaf”. Roger that Gold Leader!
When the mountains start moving, you take a break from the coca leaf.
About four hours into the hike we were approaching our first rest area, where we would have lunch. It was a respectable climb to the farmer’s settlement high up the valley, and the hike was already starting to push me. At one point I was very absorbed in it. Head down, pressure breathing through my lips to keep the altitude at bay, gulping back a mouthful of water every 15 minutes or so from my camelback.
My bandana was already soaked from climbing up the valley and my back was beginning to give me a glimpse of what the next four days were going to feel like. Then somewhere between a thought about how awesome my shoes were, and how effective my fancy new windbreaker was, a young girl about nine years old went running by me with a big, cute-as-a-button smile on her face, and an even bigger sack of potatoes on her back.
I remind myself that I’m a pussy, and I set off.
She just waved at me as she ran by and gave me an enthusiastic “Hola!” Now, if you’re ever on WaystoFeelLikeaBigNorthAmericanDouchebag.com, you might see the above scenario on there and a variety of photos of other trekkers trekking in foreign countries. It’s amazing what we THINK we need in life to be comfortable. In the “civilized” world, we don’t want to do anything unless we know we have made ourselves as absolutely comfortable as we can afford.
I often wonder what they think of us as we go hiking by. We’re covered in gore-tex, armed with every type of spray, lotion and just-in-case remedy known to man, we use hiking poles to keep our pampered joints from giving out and sparkling sun-glasses to keep our sensitive eyes shielded from the life-giving sun that’s nurtured us for eons. I think of that moment quite often when I’m contemplating whether or not I’m fully prepared for something. When I’m sitting there wondering if I need another tenser bandage or another uber-high-protein-boosting-mega-energy bar, I think of that girl, I remind myself that I’m a pussy, and I set off.
(Yup, Seems I have everything I don’t actually need here!)
After our break, we continued walking for the better part of the day, getting to know the members of our group, as well as our guides. We eventually ended up in the most beautiful mountain valley I’ve ever seen. In the valley of Soraypampa, the mountains shoot straight up from beside you, but the ground is covered in short grass and meandering little streams.
The porters were setting up camp when we arrived, and shortly after putting our things in our tents, the smell of tea and the impending carbohydrate buffet began to loom in the air. We were called into the dining tent shortly after nightfall, supper would be a little longer now, so we sat down to some hot coca tea and listened to Marco 1 tell us the story of the Inca.
(Campsite 1 with Salcantay in the background.)
As he began to tell us the story of Pachacuti, the respected King or Sapa Inca that eventually transformed the land into the Incan Empire it became famous for, hail began to hit the tent. Marco got more into his lesson. It became evident that this wasn’t a little tale about the past; this seemed to be something more extravagant, something he likely did during every tour to set the stage for the rest of the trip, and eventually, Machu Picchu.
This was shaping up to be a great one though, hail and wind battered the tent and Marco’s energy and vigour matched that of the storm outside. He told us of the Chasquis. These were messengers of the Incan empire and were the people many of the guides respected and admired. The messengers would run, apparently for days and weeks on end, fuelled only by coca and a very small amount of rations.
We all sat silently. He told us about how the Incas revered the mountains and called them The Great Teachers.
They travelled light so they could move fast. It was essentially a relay system, these runners would move from station to station (or Tambos as they were called) delivering goods along the Incan Empire. At the height of their existence, the Incas claimed the entire western side of South America, from Columbia all the way to Southern Chile and Argentina. Some accounts claim they moved up into Mexico as well, and traces of their civilization have been found in Bolivia and Brazil.
We all sat silently. He told us about how the Incas revered the mountains and called them The Great Teachers. How they believed the weather was always a sign and how the mountains would often reward, as well as punish them. This was an amazing civilization. And like all great civilizations; a greedier, wealthier and more power-driven nation eventually showed up, took over, killed everyone with disease and guns and set-up their Gothic Clubhouses (or Churches) right over the once beautiful temples in what are now Cusco.
(‘Peaceful’ looking Church. Admission for worship, $6.)
This civilization was of course the Spaniards, arriving in 1532, and relentlessly taking over the land until final conquest in 1572. With our history lesson complete, our bellies full and my love for the Inca elevated, we went to bed and prepared for the hike to Salcantay Pass.
We awoke to hail still fresh on the ground, but the sun was promising a different kind of day. We could see the mighty Salcantay in the distance, and only several hours of switchbacks and shale-covered trail lay between us and the 15,000 foot high pass. I could tell by the look on Robyn’s face that she wasn’t feeling so hot. As a migraine sufferer, the thinner air, constant exposure to the elements and high carb diet are a perfect recipe for a mega migraine. Marco gave her what he called “Condor Pee”.
(The hike to Salcantay begins.)
Funnily enough, he never actually told us what it was, but it had a very strong smell that stung the nostrils. You were supposed to rub it on your hands and cup it to the mouth and breathe deeply. They recommended that she get carried up the pass on a horse so as not to over exert herself.
Although it was tempting, we discussed our lesson about the Incas last night and came to the conclusion that this would be her lesson from the mountains. Usually when she gets a migraine its all systems down, the lights go off, the ice pack comes out and I make myself invisible or virtually undetectable. She gets up only to puke out the nothingness in her stomach and going outside is only something she can dream about in her painful stupor. And now here she was, 12,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by thin air and towering peaks with a 3000 foot climb straight up being the only way down.
She gets up only to puke out the nothingness in her stomach and going outside is only something she can dream about in her painful stupor.
She puked one final time before setting off and we began to climb. Every time she needed to stop and puke or drink water or catch her breath, we looked up at Salcantay’s cheeky grin and reminded ourselves of what we were being taught; that no matter how hard you think something is or how vulnerable you feel, you are stronger than you will ever know. We always think we know what we want, a rather bland recipe to be honest. We want all the good things and none of the bad. We want to always feel happy and never know sorrow, but it is only through our trials and tribulations that we actually become strong, confident and inspiring human beings. We want to be the latter without experiencing the former, but this isn’t possible. So in turn, what we really desire in life is difficulty. We should shy away from a sheltered and easy path if we want to do anything other than simply exist.
(With the switchbacks behind us, it wouldn’t be long now before the pass.)
When we reached the top of Salcantay Pass, we were met with indescribable views of the Wilkapampa mountain range all around us. Towering high above us to our right was Salcantay, The Savage Teacher, with his granite grin and white-capped fangs nudging our now stronger selves to the valley below. Robyn pretended as best she could while posing for photos and chatting to other groups as they arrived at the pass. After a group photo, we began our descent into the jungle terrain below and our salvation to warmer weather, thicker air and easier hiking.
(The Teacher looks on.)
Robyn felt better within one hour of the descent. Perhaps this was because the air got thicker and temperatures quickly became warmer, or maybe it was because her lesson had been learned and the mountain was focused on the next group making its way up the pass. I like to believe it was the latter.
(Team Giver’ at 15,200 feet.)
We descended from 15,200 feet all the way down to 9,514 feet to the gorgeous village of Colcapampa. Our campsite was in a lady’s yard where they sold snacks as well as the sweet, sweet nectar of the Gods, ice cold beer! After seriously feeling the effects of just one beer, it was time to fill our bellies, get to know each other better, have a few more beverages and pray to the Mountain Gods that we didn’t wake up hung over.
The beers sat nicely and graciously put us to bed a decent hour. We woke up feeling rested, but everyone was suffering from some seriously sore legs. We had a little stretch, ate breakfast, downed a couple litres of warm, freshly boiled river water and began the leisurely, 12 km hike to the village of La Playa. We were now in what they call “The Brow of the Amazon”.
(Descending towards the jungle and La Playa.)
You’re not quite in the jungle, meaning you can actually see the sun through the forest canopy and it doesn’t rain every six hours. It’s beautiful. We began to see mountains all around us that now started to look like the famous mountain peaks you see in all the pictures of Machu Picchu; tall, spiky peaks that are still covered in thick greenery. I kept my eyes open for the famous pink-toed tarantula that apparently can be found in this part of Peru. Although their venom is considered mild, it packs a nasty bite and can grow to be the size of a dinner plate! With no sightings seen or spiders spied, we continued onto the city of La Playa.
I kept my eyes open for the famous pink-toed tarantula … it packs a nasty bite and can grow to be the size of a dinner plate!
It’s much larger than the previous village of Colcapompa, with a school and several cafes to try freshly picked java from the surrounding coffee plantations. It’s busy. Things are happening here. Colcapompa was a little more isolated from the outside world. Inhabitants were all farmers and had little businesses that supported the tourism rolling through from the hikes.
In La Playa, people have a wide variety of professions and are more connected with the modern way of living… or dying. And we were only 12 km away from Colcapompa! As soon as we got there, I gathered a few other sweaty hikers and we went down to the river for a quick dip in the frigid rapids. It didn’t take long before we drew a crowd, and before we knew it, the local kids were showing off for us, jumping into the rapids and teasing us to join them. We all eventually worked up our courage and joined the kids jumping off a rock into the quickly moving water. Once we got back from the river, Marco told us of some hot springs that was an optional $20 and was just a short van ride away. I would have paid $100 for hot springs that day! The “short van ride” was actually an hour long rollercoaster ride that clung to the side of a mountain, with nothing but a sheer drop to our right the entire way.
(The ‘Never Gonna Tell You’ Hot Springs.)
To say these hot springs were worth the trip would be drastic understatement though. There were three pools, all of varying temperatures with seats carved out of the rocks. You could sit in the healing baths with nothing but a giant mountain face at your back, and a large mountain valley in front. The pools were comprised only of hikers and their guides. It felt like a VIP pool party, reserved only for hikers with aching muscles and sore bones. We sat in the hot pools for a couple of hours, taking deep breaths in between our sips of cold beer. We arrived back at La Playa feeling relaxed and perfectly content. We ate dinner and spent the rest of the night around the bonfire, telling stories of other adventures, and listening to our guides tell tales of other memorable groups they’ve navigated through the mountains.
Our group was not of the little-old-lady variety.
Before we went to bed, Marco 1 told us that the next leg of the hike was optional. By this point of the hike many people are often tired, the temperature is hot by early morning, and by nightfall we would be in Aguas Calientes, the hub city for Machu Picchu. You get a nice hotel room, a shower, a hot meal and a cold beer. These temptations often sway people to get a ride to the Hydroelectric Station where they catch a train to Aguas Calientes, and spend the better part of the day catching up on sleep or alcohol consumption, or very likely a combination of the two. The alternative or scheduled hike is to go from La Playa to Llactapata (pronounced ‘yakta-pahta’) and then from Llactapata to the Hydroelectric station, where we would catch a train to Aguas Calientes. Llactapata is another famous Incan site with unique views of Machu Picchu, but is rumoured to be a demanding hike, with a quick and very significant elevation gain. We were actually all quite surprised with the option.
I have heard stories of seventy year old grannies doing the Inca trail, and it’s said many other seniors and even little kids have done the Salcantay. The most significant job the guides have, is to make sure everyone completes the hike in a safe and fun manner. They have connections everywhere for a horse pick-up, a van ride, a train ride, you name it; I’m sure they would just throw you right on their own back if they had to. But this is a good time to let you know something about our group. Our group was not of the little-old-lady variety, and most certainly was no group for a young child or family. Our average age was around thirty, most were younger than that with the average age only being elevated by an English couple in their mid thirties, who just finished Kilimanjaro and had their sights set on K2.
(‘Team American Heel!! Were taking a picture’.)
There were two young Aussie blokes, been best mates for life, never lagged behind and always looked like they were just out for a mid-day stroll. Then there were the ‘Mericans! The ‘Mericans were close friends, who had all decided to reunite in Peru to do the trek together.
These mutants were your typical all-American band of Ironmen. When we were doing a leg, they wanted to know who had done it the fastest and if they could do it faster. They were always out in front and took great pride in being the ones who were actually pushing our guides. Several times Marco just told them where to stop next and let them take off like a pack of wild dogs.
There were six of them in total. The only exception was Lance. Everyone has a Lance. A little slower, half as motivated and twice as fun! Simply keeping up with this group would be Lance’s test from the mountains. Two of them were closing in on the end of a one year world tour. They had that world-been-toured vibe to them. They were in deep experiencing mode. These two would be in front the entire hike, but would get more pictures than anyone and seemed to already know a little bit about every site that we stopped at.
I both loved and hated them, depending on the situation. The others were just your head down, keep keepin’ on type folk. They never skipped a beat, and were never too far behind their two friends. Then there was Robyn and me. Robyn’s in great shape, but I get in trouble for walking too slow in the grocery store; going on a five-day hike with me is probably like watching molasses race to the bottom of a glass window.
The only time I ever move fast is when I’m being propelled either by gravity, a motor or a predator. Don’t get me wrong though, I can be competitive and just as much enjoy being the unassuming one in a group. I make jokes about how lazy I am, how it’s not about the destination but the journey and all that mumbo jumbo, but really I’m just biding my time, like a crocodile with his eyes just above the water’s surface, waiting for the right time to strike! “Do we want to go on the optional, more challenging hike to Llactapata, Marco? Umm, we would like to not only go on the hike, but do it in record time, and if everything goes right, take you and Marco 2 out on stretchers so you forever remember our names!!!”
Robyn never really bounced fully back from the second day and the van ride to the Hydro Station was too tempting for her. Lance opted for the ride because… well you already know Lance now. I woke up in the morning full of confidence. I decided that today I was going to push myself. Marco 1 was a very seasoned guide, which is to say he has very seasoned joints. He had a bunk knee and a sore back and this is why we figured he was giving us the alternate option, maybe he was a little too sore himself for the hike. The ‘Mericans introduced him to Tigerbalm and he was rubbing it on his knees every chance he got. He decided he would go on the hike to Llactapata, but would tail gun the group and let Marco 2 lead Team America to the top. As soon as we got on the trail, it was a constant climb.
(Jungle Water Break.)
Eventually, we were way up on the side of the mountain and could see far down into the valley below. We spied a few parrots along the way and had a mountain valley view the entire hike. Marco 2 was in the zone right from the get go. He was leading the pack and was determined to show our anxious group the way of the Chasqui, he too travelled light, no pack, always chewing on Coca and always carrying a single walking stick.
…we were paying homage to Marco’s ancestors and all those who came before us
An hour in Marco 2 and I were several minutes ahead of Team America. He was pushing on aggressively and I could tell he was just getting into it. After a while, he started to jog up the steep hills. I pushed myself to keep up; he kept reminding me of the Chasquis who used to run through the mountains. Then out of nowhere, Marco started sprinting. I had never walked for 4 straight days before, let alone walked through the Andes up and down passes. My legs were sore, my lungs were sore, my body ached and I already felt like I was pushing myself just to stay in front with him. But without so much as a thought, I started running as fast as I could behind him. We were breathing loudly in sync, we had a rhythm.
Our pace, although fast, was deliberate, constant and driven. I felt like we weren’t running to prove a point or to even push ourselves. I felt like we were running out of respect, like we were paying homage to Marco’s ancestors and all those who came before us. I felt like we were a part of the mountain and its history. We ran for much longer than I thought possible and, when we stopped, we laughed and hugged, shared water and thanked one another for the experience. It was another memorable moment set forth by the Great Teachers, the Mountains.
(The settlement at Llactapata.)
Llactapata was said to be the home of an Incan Chieftain who built a small settlement here. The settlement was connected to Machu Picchu via an old section of the original Inca Trail. It was likely in this location for the same reason everything seems to exist in the Machu Picchu region, astronomy.
The site was likely used for navigating the stars during the solstices and equinoxes. But the main attraction for us, aside from the site itself, was the view of Machu Picchu from here. Here you are rewarded with views that you will not see on any Machu Picchu postcard. We were looking at the back of Machu Picchu. There were terraces still completely grown over and old windows and roofs still wrapped in vines.
You could see what all of Machu Picchu originally looked like when first discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Marco 1 gave us a few more history lesson as we chugged back as much water as we felt we could afford. The sun was now out full force and the ‘Mericans had been sitting still for longer than six minutes, and were beginning to look like antsy dogs waiting to be set free by their Master.
(The rarely viewed backside of Machu Picchu)
I ran out of water during our descent to the Hydro Station. We were in the jungle now, it was hot and humid and my body was feeling the effects of trying to keep up with an Incan descendant, whose idea of fun is running as fast as he can through the Andes. I was behind the Dynamic Duo with the rest of the group a ways behind. I was tired, out of water, hot and stupidly enough, still pushing myself.
Fuck Yeah!!! …We were off like foreskin!!
After re-grouping at a cable bridge, we continued our way to the Hydro Station to meet Robyn, Lance and the rest of our porters. We would say goodbye to our porters and chefs from here. They were no longer needed, as we were now hotel bound. They grouped up, we tipped them all well and they were on their way. Most were young kids, around sixteen. They seemed very excited to receive their tips. I’m sure, by Peruvian standards; these kids do very well for themselves.
Marco 1 went and checked out what the deal was with the trains. When he got back, he told us that it would be another two hours for the train to show. It was just over 10 kms to Aguas Calientes, and we were now presented with another option; wait for the train or hike the tracks to town. Can you guess what we did?
Ameriiiicaaaa!!! Fuck Yeah!!! We had enough time to fill up water bottles, slam two litres of ice cold Coca-Cola and we were off like foreskin!! The walking was flat for the most part, and I had a special moment of watching Robyn run frantically from person to person, asking for toilet paper before making an abrupt emergency stop by the side of a river. Halfway through the walk, we realized that Robyn had forgotten her camera on the ground at the last place we stopped, about a kilometer back.
(The last pic before forgetting the camera.)
After a quick deliberation, and coming to the conclusion that many other hikers would soon be passing that very same spot, Marco 2 and I once again found ourselves sprinting side by side to reach the camera before the next group. This run was different from the last one, I was beyond exhausted, we were definitely in a race against the clock and if I didn’t make it, I would have not one single picture to remember the hike.
We made it there quickly, and couldn’t believe the camera was still hiding in a patch of grass. We didn’t beat the hikers to the location, but we got lucky the camera was hiding. We walked at a fast pace back, deciding we would tell Robyn we didn’t find the camera and string her along for a while as punishment for her forgetfulness. We got back to the group not long before town, we had our fun watching Robyn feel guilty before giving her camera back, and even impressed the ‘Mericans with our speed in which we returned. The town was now in sight and I could smell the fresh bed sheets of our hotel!
Aguas Calientes is a neat little town. It’s only source of income is Machu Picchu, and it’s thriving. There are budget accommodations beside five star hotels, hole-in-the-wall pubs next to fancy restaurants, and people from all walks of life. The first thing I did when we got to the hotel was take a long, hot shower and down a slushy bottle of Gatorade. Then…it all came crashing down. The day caught up with me in ten minutes flat. Within a minute of the Gatorade, I puked it out and began to get the chills while in the hot shower. I was going down at an alarming rate. From that moment on, I could not hold a drop of liquid and food was out of the question.
It was likely heat exhaustion, coupled with physical exhaustion, lack of water, and the sudden intake of the high sugar Gatorade. When I wasn’t in bed shaking, I was on the toilet spouting from both ends. I was so thirsty. My lips were dried out and I kept getting Robyn to go get me another drink to try and hold down. By the end, I had 5 or 6 different types of juice beside me. They all sat there with their sexy condensation dripping between their letters, like beads of sweat running down a sexy girl’s cleavage. I could look, but if I tried to touch, I would be rewarded with only pain. All I could do was absorb as much liquid through my lips as I could. I kept wetting them over and over and just kept my mouth saturated.
(True love is not missing a good show while your partner is dying in the hotel.)
I would wake up in cold sweats to take a sip and go back to bed. To say I still felt like shit in the morning does very little to explain how I still felt when that alarm went off at 5 am. I shook it off best I could, packed up my bag and boarded the first bus to Machu Picchu.
My lesson was quickly taking shape. I had dreamt of Machu Picchu for years. I pictured myself on a quiet terrace, sitting in deep contemplation, imagining what life would be like there. I had read many articles and books about the architecture, the astronomy and the traditions. It was the main reason for going there. The universe, however, had different plans for me. I tried as hard as I could to listen to the lesson, to stay intrigued, to not barf on one of the other tourists.
Despite my efforts, I could not get the most out of it. I was constantly reminded of my attachments. Not just of my attachments to material things, but of my attachments to how I imagine future moments. We may dream of a specific moment for years; dream of your wedding day or your big promotion, but when these moments finally arrive, we realize we’ve made them so much more extravagant and perfect in our dreams that the real thing can barely compare. So although I didn’t get to enjoy Machu Picchu like I always hoped I would, I feel I had learned something much more valuable; that sometimes, the knowledge you seek at an ancient site has nothing to do with the ancient site. And in such lies their power.
(Trying to keep it together.)
I won’t give you a history lesson about Machu Picchu, as I know there are millions of people who have never even been there, and know much more about it than me. But one thing I really remember, was talking to Marco about some of the crazy theories that surround Machu Picchu’s purpose.
I have seen shows that claim it was built by aliens because of the precision of how tightly the walls are constructed. The tales are true; you still cannot slide a piece of paper between the rocks of these 500 year old walls. To say they are built by aliens though, is to degrade and deeply insult one of the most prosperous civilizations knows to man. Just like Egypt, there were no slaves, no aliens and no secret forces at work.
They would cut the blocks as best they could, set them on top of each other and slowly slide them back and forth until any ill-fitting ridge were sanded off, and a seamless seam was achieved. They weren’t slaves but the best of the best. Machu Picchu was reserved for the Incan’s elite. The best architects, the best astronomers, the best builders, the best politicians and the best military strategists.
The location of Machu Picchu was chosen not only for cosmological observation, but for defensive strategy as well. They had a 360 degree view with large walls at the base of the settlement. They would line large boulders at the top of the walls, which would be used to crush any impending armies coming up the mountain. The multiple terraces leading up to the city was designed to give intruders a massive disadvantage and funnel them through tight corridors, many with thin, triangular shaped doorways that were impossible to pass through wearing a full suite of armour. Machu Picchu is small for an Incan site, and it’s said that very few Incans were even aware of its existence. Machu Picchu is so powerful because it is a testament, not only to the height of a civilization, but a testament to the potential of mankind. It truly is a wonder of the world.
(The ‘Holding Cell’, with prisoners names carved into the stone.)
(For anyone wondering what a ‘seamless’ seam is.)
(The classic Machu Picchu shot.)
It was just a short train ride back to Cusco, where our bags were waiting for us at our hotel. It took until morning to wash the surreal off us. We woke up, had breakfast delivered to the room, and pulled a couple bags of coca tea out of the colourful package. I take a drink and it has a different taste than it did before. A little more “steeped” in tradition. We finish our nostalgic breakfast and turn the television on to find a Spanish version of “Two and a Half Men”, a shallow and morbidly modern reminder of Spain’s conquest.
From then on I noticed a lot more of Peru’s subtleties. It’s much like it is in North America. The native tradition is used mainly as a marketing tool by the conquering nation; Inca Cola, Inca Potato Chips, Inca Clothing and Incan Art, the mingling of a past war still lingering. Two civilizations forced to rely on each other to prosper. The hike was both literally and figuratively full of ups and downs. The lessons from the mountains and guides were well received.
If you make the trip to Peru, expect the unexpected, expect to be challenged and humbled over and over again. Most importantly, know that if you walk into it with an empty cup, it will get filled over and over again!
Thank you for reading.