Hosted by

"Inca Trails and Tribulations"
May 30, 2000

Children in Cusco

I rocketed into Cusco with all the energy I could muster. Fueled by the steep descent that led me down from the ridgetop town of Anta, my entrance to Cusco was a blur of brick buildings, colonial churches, and ice cream vendors. This was my victory lap; reward for days of slogging along uphill, rocky, potholed, dirt roads, and I was going to take it for all it was worth.

It didn't last long, however. As quickly as it had started, my joy ride came to an end with a deafening thunk. The smooth pavement of the approach had been replaced by the street worn slabs of concrete of the city roads. My rear tire slapped into a step between a set of slabs, and my wheel immediately began to whine in protest. I slammed on the brakes and brought the bike to a stop, squandering all of my hard earned speed in a fraction of a second. I pushed the bike over to the sidewalk, where I did an emergency truing job. I continued my entrance at a much less exciting pace.

The tension in town was palpable, as the chants of crowds could be heard from all quarters. It was a critical moment in Peruvian politics. The elections were only a few days away, and the Peruvian election board had just rejected the opposition candidate's request to move the election date. This was the runoff election between Alberto Fujimori, the longtime incumbent, and Alejandro Toledo, the political upstart who came from working class Peruvian farming roots. By all accounts except Fujimori's, the first round of elections was fraudulent. Once an independent body had ruled that there were signs of possible fraud in the runoff, Toledo pulled out and called for the elections to be delayed until the irregularities could be addressed.

News of the decision sent thousands of people to the streets in protest all over Perú. Never one to miss a good protest, I circled around town, trying to home in on the din coming from the crowd. I managed to reach them at the same time that the riot police did, and they quickly formed a wall to shore up the flood of protesters. Moments later, a wayward group that was trying to join the main protest arrived from the other direction, but they were cut off a block away by another wall of police. And there I was, stuck in the demilitarized zone between the two, with no way out. I left my bike on the street, calculating that the police lines would hold and that the oasis of peace and quiet in which it was parked would not be overrun by angry protesters.

Riots in Cusco I threw a handful of lenses into the pockets in the back of my cycling jersey, and started to scale the stone wall which lined the street. I worked myself over to the corner, right above the teeming masses, and started snapping away. Protesters started hamming it up for the camera as I scanned the crowd for the perfect iconic image of the rage of the moment. Every once in a while, things would get heated, and the riot police would whip out their billy clubs in preparation for an attack, but only minor skirmishes erupted. The awkward tension would occasionally be broken by the sounds of ice cream vendors pushing thier way through the crowd. I was glad to see that they realized that ice cream is a necessity on all occasions, not merely a luxury saved for moments of calm.

After shooting a full roll of film, I headed back to the ground. I bought an ice cream and started making friends with a few people who were also caught in the DMZ. One was a lady from a nearby village, who had brought her old splintered cookspoon and battered pot to symbolize the financial plight of the villagers. She was not alone. The crowd was filled with little old ladies you'd expect to see in a bingo parlor, not protesting in the streets, screaming at the top of their lungs.

The Incan ruins of Sacsayhuman My ice cream consumed, I figured it was time to break through the crowds and start looking for a hostel. Things had calmed down considerably, and as I approached the police line in front of the smaller of the crowds, they parted, leaving me a nice passageway through the crowd to the empty streets beyond.

Cusco is the capital of the Incan state of Cuzco. Rich with such colonial treasures as the churches of Santo Domingo and San Francisco, it was also ground zero for travelers in Perú. Nearly everyone who visits Perú ends up in Cusco at least once, often for weeks at a time. No longer the novelty I was in the country, I soon faded into the mob of tourists that were awash in the main plaza.

I moved into an area that could rightfully be called "Little Israel," from the huge population of Israeli tourists that had taken over. As it would turn out, much of South America had been overrun by rude, drunken Israelis who were celebrating the end of their military service by forming packs and partying in the four corners of the globe. They apparently had an intricate network which allowed them to guarantee that wherever they went, they would be surrounded by their drunk, partying brethren. The Israeli invasion created quite a rift in the traveling community; many would change hostels until they found an oasis where they wouldn't be kept up until 4am. And alas, even with all of the restaurants catering to the Israeli palate, a good bagel (or any bagel, for that matter) could not be found (I'm told that's because it isn't really an Israeli specialty as much as it is American Jewish.)

An obligatory llama shot My main objective in Cusco was to walk the Inca Trail, and old Incan route which ended at Machu Picchu, the crown jewel of the Incan Empire. But before I began the three day trek, I wanted to check out the sights in and around town. Biking distance from town were the Incan ruins of Sacsayhumán, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay. The stonework at Sacsayhumán was mindboggling - huge boulders, five feet tall and weighing several tons each, fit together with such precision that there was barely a 1/4" gap between them. Archeologists are still unsure of how they managed to hew the stones with such precision. Strangely enough, the ruins sites were the first place I saw women and children wearing the colorful and elaborate traditional clothing - apparently they could make good money just sitting near the ruins and being paid to have their pictures taken. I wouldl give the kids rides on the back on my bike while they waited for the next tourist bus to arrive.

A woman spinning wool There were several ways to visit Maschu Picchu. The easy way was to hop on a tourist train to the town of Aquas Calientes, then take the bus right to the base of the ruins. There was also a day hike option, but the most spectacular way to see the ruins was by walking the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail is a stone pathway that connected the various cities of the Incan Empire. It is believed that couriers would run from one end of the empire to the other delivering news; the original "sneaker net," or perhaps, more accurately, leather thong net.

You could hike the trail as part of an organized tour, where they would carry all your gear, set up your tent, even cook the meals, but I of course opted for the solo option. I rented a stove, but decided against a warmer sleeping bag or tent, in order to make room for all of my camera gear. I also cut corners on the food, bringing as little as possible to get me through my three days. Cutting out chocolate, however, was not an option.

You need to take a local trian to get to the start of the trail, but for some reason, they segregated all of the backpackers into one car. The train had to climb the same hill that I descended several days before, and so it zig-zagged all the way up, creaking to a halt and switching direction every couple of kilometers.

The Inca Trail I had started alone, but before I had detrained, I had a new group of friends. There were only a handful of us doing the hike without support, and we all stared out together. But before too long, I found myself alone again, absorbed in the grandeur of the mist enshrouded foothills. Along the way, I met a fellow solo hiker named Jason, one of the very few Americans I had met my whole trip. Jason was a writer, a free spirit, and had come to Peru as part of a greater journey, a journey of discovery, which would also lead him to follow the footsteps of Jack Kerouac to Big Sur, California. Jason and I talked a lot that day, and ended up hiking together all the way to camp. After taking several rest stops to munch on some snacks, the friends I had met earlier caught up, and the group of eight of us continued on together.

Me on the trail The last few hours of hiking were all uphill, and I pulled out some of the coca leaves that I had bought in the market in Cusco to chew on while I hiked. Chewing coca is an ago old remedy for altitude sickness. Not being susceptible to altitude problems at 13,000 ft. and having long been acclimated from my biking, I can't really say if it helped or not, but it sure did a good job of numbing my mouth and helping me produce copious amounts of green spit.

Camp eventually appeared, in the form of a small plateau, which seemed out of place in the steep valley that we were climbing. The morning hike continued with steep climbing, but eventually the saddle yielded to our efforts. We were rewarded with a beautiful view into the next valley, where, way off in the distance, we could see Runkurakay, the first of the major Incan sites.

Runkurakay The further in we hiked, the more elaborate the ruins. I could almost imagine what it must have been like in Incan times; people from the suburbs heading into the city on the Inca Trail for a night on the town. Since I was doing the trail in a day less than everyone else, I forged ahead on the second day, arriving at the ruins of Phuyupatamarka by 4pm. I set my bivy up on the side of a hill, with a spectacular view of the ruins below and snow capped mountains ringing the horizon. I was above the cloudline, and as the cloud layer streamed into the valleys below, I felt as if I were in heaven. As darkness fell, I sat and watched the stars appear and disappear with each passing cloud.

I wanted to get to Machu Picchu before the crowds, so I was up before sunrise. A thin layer of frost had covered everything, and my water bottle had frozed in the cold of the night. I brushed the frost off my bivy and headed off, just as the surrounding peaks wre being bathed in the glow of the early morning sun.

Sayajmarca The final hike was nothing but a long, continuous set of stairs down. The Incans must have had thighs of steel. I had consulted my topo map before heading out and realized that there was a lesser known alternate trail to Machu Picchu. Apparently, this alternate route was what was used prior to the discovery of the one in use today. It approached Machu Picchu from a more interesting direction, and it seemed like my one chance to get off the beaten path of the main Inca Trail, so when a fork appeared in the trail, I took it.

Phuyupatamarka The trail was clearly less traveled, overgrown and covered with leaves, but it was clearly a trail. About an hour in, however, the trail started thinning, an it was soon joined by a three inch diameter water pipe. Fairly quickly, the water pipe became the defining feature, and the trail all but disappeared. The "trail" was cut into a steep hillside, and every fifth step my foot would break through the leaves that I would be stepping on, and I would sink in to my waist. I soon found myself using the water pipe to support myself, climbing hand over hand as my feet flailed desperately for purchase. Things got worse, and I had to resort to removing my pack and lowering it so that I could downclimb trees. At that point, I realized that I was not on an alterate Inca Trial, but rather the path that was used to install the pipline, and it probably hadn't been traveled since the pipe had been installed.

I thought about turning back, but I had already invested a couple of hours in the route, and it was heading in the right direction.

The broken 'bridge' At one point, I reached a small rockface, about twelve feet across and ten feet high. Two three inch diameter logs had been lashed together and layed alongside the face as a makeshift "bridge." I was relieved to see any evidence of human passage, and started inching my way along the logs. Halfway across, an abrupt snap sent me from a state of relief to a state of panic, as I plummetted down the face. The logs had broken clean in half, and I found myself at the botton, in a tangle of leaves and branches. After gathering my wits, I slowly pawed my way up the muddy wall alongside the rock, attempting to return myself to the "trail." Moments later, I noticed my digital camera and water bottle were missing, and I headed back to where I had fallen. I found my camera suspended ten feet off the deck, the strap caught on a branch. I carefully retrieved it. The waterbottle was somewhere halfway down the mountain, so I decided to go on without it.

By that point, I was ready to abort the mission and head to the main trail, but it wasn't clear that turning back was any safer than pushing on. When a gully appeared, I took it, mostly sliding down on my butt on the wet and muddy chute. After ten minutes of slipping and sliding, I reached the unmistakable stone steps of the Inca Trail. I kissed the ground in relief.

Machu Picchu I hiked the next few hours without water, and by the time I reached the "sun gate," the crest of the hill from where Machu Picchu could first be seen, I was a mess. I was tired, dehydrated, and covered in mud. I collapsed on a rock to admire the view and recover some strength, but I was soon joined by flocks of tourists, all shiny and clean, wearing white skirts and high heels. They had walked the 15 minutes from the lodge for the view, at the lodge which they had arrived at without doing any more than lifting a finger to pay the bus driver $5 to drive them from the train station.

Machu Picchu was spectacular, delicately balanced on a saddle, terraces spilling over the plateau down the hillside. After several hours of just sitting and soaking it all in, I decided to figure out where the trail I had attempted to take eventually ended up. A narrow trail snaked up behind the ruins and headed towards an old Incan bridge. The bridge was built against a cliff face, and the idea was that the Incans could simply remove the logs that made up the bridge to keep invaders from passing. Unfortunately, the next section of the bridge, which was clearly made in recent history, with steel poles drilled into the cliff to suport a wood boardwalk, had been ripped up to prevent passage. Apparently, someone had died on it a few years earlier. On top of that, the trail continued across the face of a sheer granite cliff, with only a tiny ledge to keep you from falling down the 500 ft. face. That was the trail I was heading towards. It was a good thing I bailed when I did.

The Incan bridge The conclusion to my trip was anti-climactic, as I paid my $5 along with everyone else to sit on a luxury bus, which wound itself down the dusty switchbacks to the train station, and the train slowly chugged its way back home to Cusco.

Copyright © 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.