Peru, Part 3. The Sacred Valley of the Inca.

The author rests at the entrance to Macchu Picchu.
The author rests at the entrance to Macchu Picchu.
The author rests at the entrance to Macchu Picchu.

(Note: This story is part 3 of 3.  See part 1 and part 2 for what got us here. -Ed.)

Rain.  We knew we were coming in the rainy season, and the last night delivered.  Not torrential rain, not mudslide rain, but certainly worthy of the tarps, and rain jackets and gear that we were advised about.  It was full on.

A mountain pass.
A mountain pass.

But, I get ahead of myself.  The last leg was one of the longest, or at least it felt that way.  We continued to ascend, and descend, and ascend again.  The rain was telegraphed by an encroaching fog, which mercifully dampened some of the views that might have otherwise activated a stark sense of agoraphobia.  As it stood, however, one could hear the trucks on the road far, far, faaar away at certain points, spooky echoes and ricochets of activity somewhere below.  The course thickened a bit, so that it could be said to be if not a jungle, a tropical forest, at least. Bright mountain flowers, vines peek through the stones.  The trail is no longer facing open vistas, but becomes enclosed within the branches.

The idea of Hiram Bingham discovering this trail, under layers of dirt, seems nearly unbelievable.  We see fewer other groups, as we’ve had time to space out a bit, and there are long periods of solitude.  By this point our group has all gotten to know each other a bit, and the trail might be spent talking with one or another before switching off to the next walking partner.  There is no denying it now.  We are deep within the fastness of the mountains.  There will be no more lost baggage, no more rescues.

Flowers growing from rocks.
Mountain flowers growing from the rocks.

As if in answer, a group of men armed with AK-47’s emerge from the jungle.  There is a moment of apprehension, but their tactical gear and black uniforms give them away, they are the local guards, something like state troopers or forest rangers. There are three of them, loaded for bear.

I’m reminded that not so long ago, Peru was the home of the armed terrorist group Sendero Luminoso, the “Shining Path” guerrillas who warred with the state for a generation, killing thousands in a low-grade civil war intended to bring about, of course, the ‘pure’ communist state.  In 1992 their leader Abimael Guzman was captured, slowing their agenda considerably.  It was more than ten years since they were at their strength, but I’m reassured to see these three guards here,  if only to deal with the odd bandit. Out here, we’re pretty far from any law.  They hike politely around us, the metal of their assault rifles a stark addition to the usual kit.  In a moment they are gone, disappearing into the forest.

Reaching what seems to be the day’s apex, I’m satisfied we’ve come to the most remote part of the earth when we make the last bend, and see several white guys standing in the path, drinking beers in the shade of a small house.  There’s some kind of station up here.

“Hi,” they say, waving us to come in.  They sound Australian.

I swear to God, you could literally find the end of the planet and some Australians will have beat you there, along with the odd Kiwi and an adventuresome German or two.  So while I’m a little surprised, I’m hardly shocked to find them up here.  There’s a few groups up here already actually, and what appears to be a small store that sells water and candy.

Inside the store there are dozens of other people, including a guy I recognize from New York.  We’d trained martial arts for a couple of months together before he left the school.  There is something obvious about running into someone you know from NYC up here, it’s more likely than running into them in certain parts of the Bronx, that’s for sure.  We share a couple of laughs.  As my friend Tim once said, it’s a small upper-middle class world.

Apres-Ruins Beers.
The gang enjoy some apres-ruins beers at the apex of the second day.

It starts to really pour.  Dinner is in the tent, and afterwards we find some more squat toilets– the local variety, and eventually bed up for the night, as the rain starts to come down.  We enter the tents at a belly flop, then rolling over to take off wet shoes without tracking them into the tents.  Everyone knows we’ve come in the rainy season, we did this deliberately of course, to find the trail less crowded, but the forecast isn’t good for the next day, and there is an unspoken unease that the high point of the trip may be rained out.  One of the most dramatic points of the trip is supposed to be the so-called “Sun Gate,” the dramatic vista that presents the whole of the Macchu Picchu complex from above.  At this rate, the sun gate won’t be much to see, as everyone is coming to understand.

In the morning after breakfast we start the final leg of the trip.  Predictably, we arrive at the Sun Gate, and it is encased in fog.  Nothing is visible at all, not fifty feet in front of us.  I’m surprised our guides can identify it.  Juan steps in front of it, and spread his arms open in welcome.

"Welcome to the sacred valley of the Inca."
“Welcome to the sacred valley of the Inca.”

“My friends,” he says,  slightly embarrassed, gesturing into the fog, “Welcome to the esacred valley of the Inca.” There is some game applause.

As we arrive at the site, there is a gate to enter, and a tourist office.  Buses are starting to come up bringing the tourists from below, those who elected not to walk the trail but drive up from Aguas Calientes, the settlement below.  We are early, and get some time to ourselves with the other hiking groups before the real groups start to arrive.  Picture time!

Naturally, it is amazing.  Over the morning the fog quickly burns off, and my agoraphobia is given the breathing room it so desperately desired.  My shoulders tighten.  Apparently, there are no such things as railings anywhere in Peru, just stairways to the open air and inexplicable drops.

Iris, another one of the local guides, finds my fear of the heights hysterical.  By way of encouragement, she does the most amazing thing, and turns herself into a human bannister, stading between me and the open drops by resting her toes on the stairs and leaving her heels out over the precipice.  It is a dazzling display of bravado, and, I appreciate, mockery.  I insist that her gymnastics aren’t necessary.  In short order I’ve explored most of the highest precipices anyway, and continue on to take the rest of site in at ground level.

Macchu Piccu vista.
Macchu Piccu vista.

We spend a few hours at the site, and after all the last pictures are taken, we head down.  A harrowing bus ride later– my cousin Joe told me before I arrived that the buses only ever seemed to “keep three wheels on the ground,” which is true, especially when passing each other– we rejoin for oven-baked pizza in Aguas Calientes, the group’s last meal together.

Stories are told, numbers are exchanged and by the end of the lunch, everyone is pointed off to their next destinations.  To my surprise, while hugging one of the Polish girls goodbye, she spontaneously bursts into sobs.  It occurs to me, that this twelve year old, fourteen-year old girl– this has been a formative event in my life for sure, how intense must this have been for this young kid?  Not knowing exactly what to tell her, I whisper to her by way of encouragement, “we’ll always have this trip together though, won’t we?”  She nods, tears running down her face.  Her father and Woycek and I embrace warmly.  Time to go.  The Irish girls pose for photos.  Laughing, hugs.  The bonds of a short adventure, like the end of summer camp.  These have been good friends.

A bridge over the Urubamba in Aguas Calientes.
A bridge over the Urubamba in Aguas Calientes.

I learn: sometimes you have no idea what kind of effect you are having on someone’s life, so be kind with people.  I wonder what kind of time I would have had as a twelve year old, and I know the answer of course.

I would have remembered everyone.  It would have been, simply, the most amazing time of my life.

I let it be.

Peru, Part 2. Inca Trail!

Entrance to Inca Trail
A man wrestles with his donkeys at the trail entrance.

(Note: This story is part 2 of 3.  See part 1 for what got us here, and don’t forget to read part 3 after this! -Ed.)

Day 1

With my trusty walking stick, Pepe.
The author brandishes his trusty walking stick, Pepe.

This has surpassed my expectations.  I approached this with trepidation, afraid of the heights, the physical challenge.  But it is not so bad as I thought.  So far, very few sheer precipices.  Actually, a fair amount of relatively flat terrain.  The scenery is superlative, easily the most amazing I’ve seen, anywhere.  Broad green mountain with fissures like walnuts crest out into the clouds, mist rising from them like volcanoes.  The mountain before me here is an example.  I’m writing by the last evening light, overlooking a neighboring campsite.  It’s cold, I’m in my white Peruvian hat.  It’s difficult to write.

A moment ago one of the Polish girls in our group could be heard singing “Memories” from her tent, beautifully.  Now, just the sounds of scattered conversations, post tea, pre-dinner.  Darkness is falling, and it’s getting harder to see well enough to write.

The first day’s trek was pretty easy.  I’m feeling no effects of the altitude, having had a few days in Cusco to prepare.  A lot of the people on the trip are sucking wind.  A pair of Irish girls, fresh off the plane earlier that day, looked to be really struggling.  Also in our tour: two Polish families from Chicago, with young pre-teen daughters, clearly very excited to be a part of it all.  A group of friends, men and women, of indistinct relation, a single woman from Sweden, a pair of sisters.  Everyone seems well-prepared, and well-traveled.  We play the role of the couple from New York.

Campsite, day 1.
The view from our campsite, day 1.

We did a group shot at the trailhead, and then waited for a man to get his donkeys to cross a creek, before we could gain entry.  You enter an international sanctuary when you enter the trail, and there is actually passport control at the entrance.  Naturally, we all get our passports stamped.

Also, I have to say that these Asolo boots are performing incredibly well.

Things I don’t want to forget: Jose’s lecture at the second waypoint, describing the history of the Inca.  The “Incan Alexander the Great” – Pachacutec.

A few other notes I made but can’t make out:

* 9 Incas

* 1500’s, height of the Empire

* Piglets

* My walking stick, which I named “Pepe”

* Climbing the stairs

* The Sound of Music

Day 1 concludes with me racing one of the men from the group to the campsite.  It is a race up the huge stone slabs that make up the stairs that undergird so much of the trail.  Rarely is the trail flat, indeed the “Inca Staircase” might be more appropriate so far.  So our race is a series of 2- and 3-foot leaps upward from stair to stair.  We tie.

Juan, our guide, later tells us the story of a guy he raced on a brief portion of the trail.

“I won, of course, said Juan.  But I shouldn’t have done it.  Still, he looked in such good shape, I thought he could handle it.  A real athletic guy.”

“What happened,” we asked.

“After the race, he started to turn purple,” said Juan.  We had to get him taken off of the mountain.  He almost died.” He pointed to his head.   “Cerebral edema.”  Brain swelling.

An evening view from the first campsite.
An evening view from the first campsite.

So, important safety tip.  No more races.

The campsite is a dramatic mountain valley, wide bright grass fields settled between twin mountain peaks surrounding us.  I could not make a more serene setting if we were in a movie.  The scene is completed by a creek that pools at the edge of a foggy cliff.

As if that weren’t enough, two wild Llamas, obviously on the payroll of the Peruvian Board of Tourism graze pacifically in the distant field, dramatic peaks rising behind them.

We all sleep well.


Day 2.

Its was very foggy outside, and it rained– hard– throughout the night and morning.

llama waking us in the morning
An early morning Llama surprise.

I awoke to find the two llamas, maybe Alpacas, quietly eating from a bush just steps away from where we had pitched our tent.  They were dirty, with mottled brown and white fur and sneering expressions on their lips.  Crawling quietly past, I wandered the campsite, ate crackers, brushed my teeth, and waited for others to have breakfast.  The mornings are as cold as the evenings, almost.

I should mention.  Last night night we had a bit of a minor crisis at the site.

First, a bit of background: historically, there have been a number of different ways to tackle the trail, by oneself or with a group and guide.  At the time of our trip, the law was such that solo trips were no longer permitted.  This was a government response that followed a series of tourist robberies and issues with overcrowding in campsites.

To promote safety and effective traffic and trail management, all groups now would require  guides, and it was encouraged that visitors hire bearers/porters– called porteros— to carry their equipment.  Our group was followed by several porteros, eight to 11 skinny men from the local Indian groups.  None spoke English, and just a few even spoke Spanish.  None were formally schooled in any way and there was a clear, unsubtle hierarchical difference between the porteros and the guides.  So while the macho in me wanted to carry all of my own stuff, the discretionary part of valor also realized that I could carry more equipment this way, and could frankly afford to contribute to the local economy a little more freely.  Furthermore, as part of a group, there were group supplies that needed to be carried, dining tents, cooking stoves, etc.

So the porteros were a regular addition to our group.  It was a common site to see them run– I said run, by the way– past you at any point of the trail, skittering ahead, hopping up the enormous stone stairs in flip-flops, all the while with a box of supplies wrap-tied in blue tarpaulin the size of a 50’s black-and-white TV set and borne on the back.  I was reminded of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who regularly used to wander into extreme endurance events, casually run a 50-miler in jelly shoes and laugh on home with their friends.  I believe this now, I have seen it.

Los porteros
The porteros, in a rare minute of repose.

So, as everyone’s things were unpacked for the evening, it became clear that everyone had received their sleeping bags but J and I.  The guides and porteros talked frantically among themselves.  What became clear, according to one of the porteros, was that their companion, presumably the one carrying our sleeping bags, had suffered an epileptic seizure somewhere below.  He hadn’t even known he’d had epilepsy.  The two porteros with him, quite superstitious, thought he was possessed and had to carry him all the way back to the trailhead.

Realizing this, Jose dispatched a lone runner to go fetch the equipment.  We watched as they strapped a headlamp on him, patted him on the ass and sent him, flip-flops flapping in all directions, into the dark.  We watched the little beam bob and weave along the side of the mountain until finally taken into the black.  Remembering that day’s climb, we all realized this man was careening past cliffs and drops that were pretty hairy by the full light of day.  Despite Jose’s practiced group management, there was no one on that mountainside that didn’t appreciate that the situation was serious.

So we waited.

As I paced the campsite, I noticed an interesting thing that happened that night: stars.   Stars like nothing I’d ever seen, a new night sky unpolluted by any nearby city lights.  Primordial darkness.

One of the fathers, a Pole by the name of Woycek, fancied himself something of a scientist, and had a high-powered laser pointer (“illegal in the US, I had to get it on the internet”), a thick bright green beam that punched a hole into space, easily pointing out stars, landing on them really, one by one.

Woycek checked his watch a few times, he had something planned for us.  The porteros trickled in, fascinated by the wagging laser, here for the light show.  “Almost there, says Woycek.”  And then, from behind a mountain crest, passing us at speed, a bright, multi-lit object, spinning in place, framed by the two massive black peaks.

“And that,” pointed Woycek, with his incandescent beam, “is the international space station.”

Up until now, I’d been translating Woycek’s remarks for the benefit of our porteros, and I find myself speechless.  Everyone is looking at the sky, watching the space station fly by, and it occurs to me that while I can translate– literally– the words for space station, it isn’t clear that they have the framework to understand what a space station is.  Either that, or they have the world’s greatest poker faces.  They look as if I could tell them anything, and they would nod agreeably.  In the end, I settle for “space boat”, which does the job, but misses a layer of subtlety, somehow.  They get it, and are happy for the chance to stand and watch the thing fly by in the pure clarity of an unpolluted, unobstructed sky, with a backdrop of what feels like every star in God’s creation.  All of us stand in silence, and in seconds it is over.  I feel the etching of a moment in my personal history.  I will never forget this as long as I live.

I also enjoy a laugh to myself picturing the astronauts’ befuddlement seeing a bright green dot on the interior walls of the spacecraft.  Any cats on the ISS are going batshit right now.

Not long after, we heard some commotion back by the tent.  As we approached, we could see, just off in the middle-distance,  a lone light bobbing in our direction along the mountainside.  Our runner had done four hours worth of trek in what must have been 50 minutes.

He entered the campsite looking disoriented and a little bedazzled, and was showered with applause.


So breakfast was porridge, pancakes (with caramel) and yogurt, granola and fruit salad. Then, we hit the trail.

Dead Woman's Pass
Looking back down from Dead Woman’s Pass.

This was the dreaded ‘Dead Woman’s Pass.’ A lot of uphill, large slab steps the whole way.  It was a long ascent, and this was when we first started to see our first fellow travelers from other groups, Germans, Australians, an American couple from Seattle (who took all the pictures of us at the summit).

At the pass, everyone rested.  Birds alighted here, eagles and hawks walked around on two legs.  I fed a small hawk from my snack.

The rear of the pass, of course, was a descent.  We climbed down into a mystical cloud staircase.  The rain began to pick up here, and it was cool, so we all donned raingear and later full ponchos.  The group took this part very, very slowly, as the rocks became increasingly slick. The changes in pace further separated our group, until we were scattered all along the mountain.  When we finally arrived at camp at the bottom, we broke for lunch– alpaca (not those)– and tea.  Everyone was cold and looked a little zonked.

Wiñay Wayna Ruins
Wiñay Wayna Ruins are the last site outside of Macchu Picchu itself. The name is Quechua for “Forever Young.”

We stopped at an archaeological site along the way where Juan, our guide, explained the basic precepts of the Incan religion.  After lunch, it was back to the trail, this time up, up, up  again.

Read the next part in the story: go to Part 3.

Peru. Part 1

Two women in downtown Cusco.
Two women in downtown Cusco.

(Note: This story is part 1 of 3.  See part 2 and part 3 after this. -Ed.)

November 19 2005, Saturday

We arrive.  The airport in Cusco is quasi-tropical.  Booths have been crammed in like a wondrous jungle trade show, icons like parrots, llamas, all in the ubiquitous native patterns.  We are met as we leave the airport by Monica, out contact supplied by the travel agent.  She is, like so many of the women, of indeterminate age, with crooked teeth, in a suit-top and pants.  Her jet-black hair is kept in a braid, local style, and she explains to us the rundown of our week here.

Homes and storefronts in downtown Cusco.
Homes and storefronts in downtown Cusco.

Cusco is a tourist mecca, no doubt the largest in Peru.  The center of the city is designated by two ancient churches, one the city Cathedral and the other, I believe, is the Jesuit’s church.  The rectangular square is demarcated by cafes, artisans’ shops and restaurants, all top-end.  Many have second-story balconies that offer a view of the plaza below, the bright flowers, the children in the square trying to extract money from the tourists.

The first thing to mention is the altitude sickness.  The case for this may have been overstated.  I’m feeling OK, although I could tell the moment we stepped from the plane that the lack of oxygen was kicking in, first it makes you feel slightly buzzed, slap-happy.  After a while, a mild headache sets in, the tea, served everywhere and called Mate, is critical here.  Basic tasks, like climbing a set of stairs, take on a new dimension. Imagine the rhythm of your breathing being off, needing to exhale suddenly , needing to breathe in when you thought you would have to push out.   I found myself panting, even drooling slightly from the corners of my mouth.  So we chose to nap in our hotel, which was more necessary than we had anticipated.  Then, by about 2pm, we hit the town for a late lunch.

Women and children (and a sheep), Cusco.
Women and children (and a sheep), Cusco.

So, skipping ahead, we spent the next few days exploring.  We did a river raft “adventure”, which due to rain ended up being us and a guide, and a fairly mild river.    We explored ruins on horseback.  Sacsayhuaman, the “Temple of the Moon”.  We explored the city on foot.  And most of all, we prepared, acclimatizing ourselves for the trek ahead.  We dodged the children, who were amazingly persistent, breathlessly alive.  We take photographs.  They can separate your from your money near-instantaneously.  “You are a bad man,” One of the girls says to me after I don’t give her all the money she wants.  J gets a photograph of the moment, of the girl’s expression (and, expertly, later delivers this to me on the side of a photo-customized coffee mug some months later).

It’s all pretty amazing.

On the return trip from the horseback ride, I catch a view of something that sticks with me.  My horse is being led by a local boy, our guide’s assistant. Our guide has abandoned us a few minutes into the tour, when its clear we’ve already paid and are unlikely to give him any hassle.

Sacsayhuaman ruins, at distance.
Sacsayhuaman ruins, at distance.

We are at a breakpoint, having seen two of five points of interest he has sold to us on the tour.  He introduces his helper, the young boy, thanks us, and leaves.  He has to walk across a wide field to return to the tourist pick up, and watching him leave takes a very long time.  Somewhere around the moment where he is midfield, I helpfully add “he’s not coming back” to the otherwise perfect silence.  The moment is not meaningfully improved.  Despite this awkward moment, there is no getting around it.  The scenery is incredible.  We are, quite literally, in a city in the clouds.

So we just ride the horses from site to site, as led by his younger helper.  I see two young boys sitting on a rock in front of an abandoned shack.  No parents, no windows, no nothing.  He is crouching and just sobbing, screaming really, with the full force of human misery.  Alongside him is his brother, who lays there noncommittally, possibly starving, possibly hurt, possibly just enduring a moment of existential unpleasantness.  It’s not clear.  Whatever emergency they are in the process of enduring is clearly happening in very, very slow motion.  He is screaming at the top of his lungs.  It’s not pain.  He is just very, very unhappy.

It’s as if the older brother has suddenly had a piercingly clear view of his options, and realized he has been consigned to the half of humanity that will, in the words of Johan Galtung, be told to “have a cigarette, maybe a coca-cola, and wait to die.”  He is not hurt, he is dying.  And he knows, and he is screaming.  The brother does nothing, it’s as if he cannot move.  I picture us from his perspective, not even trotting, just horse-walking, behind our own film of dust and debris, a few feet away, disorientented.  There is something indecent about this revelation, a self-satisfaction, a realization of my own safety and a confidence and appreciation of my choices.

An alternate interpretation is that I’m projecting.  I’ve seen a lot already that has me spinning.

It’s not clear how to respond, or what type of intervention is appropriate, or even if one is appropriate. Indeed to the contrary it feels like that would be exactly the wrong thing to do.  The brothers barely notice us.  No, they don’t notice us at all.  I am caught in a strange loop of inaction, caught between the imperative for encounter and the uneasiness that comes from breaking a self-imposed prime directive, Star Trek-style, to observe, but not to interfere unless there is some emergency.  I do nothing.  They do nothing.  We ride away.

Later we took a taxi back to the hotel and went out to dinner.

Next: Part 2, Inca Trail