Viracocha's Revenge & Our Near Abduction (and not by aliens), Peru - 4

Commerce House
Today we trekked part of the Inca Trail, 6+ miles through the Andean Cloud Forest. We are picked up from Urubamba, with only a daypack filled with overnight gear; our main luggage is being transported in the opposite direction to Cusco. Our caravan to Machu Picchu begins with a van ride to Ollantaytambo in order to catch a passenger train on PeruRail, not quite the Orient Express, but complete with tables and coach chairs. The Bingham Line, named after the “discoverer” of MP, does have a high-end train with private cars and romantic service. Too rich for our 5 member party! 

The train we take carries passengers as far as Aguas Calientes. The base town for MP. From there you can catch a shuttle bus to the top of MP; alternatively, you can take a free path via steep stairs along an ancient commerce route. There are two other Incan paths from this east approach, the military route, (the fastest), and the pilgrimage route. All three paths link Cusco to MP. The latter follows the peaks along the Andes. This ceremonial path was taken by the high priests and pilgrims and along the way many animal sacrifices would have been made upon carved alters found at various spiritual waypoints.

For us, instead of riding the train all the way to AC, we got off at the Kilometer 104 stop. This is a hiker drop-off. We crossed a quintessential rope (and moss covered cable) wood plank bridge and visited part of the commerce trade route with habitat ruins, a nearly intact stone house. The beam and thatched roofing has been long since swallowed by the rainforest. In fact, much of the type of wood the Incas would have used to beam the house have been highly marginalized due to the Australian invasion of eucalyptus trees.

"Gringo Killer"
And so we began our ascent, 3000’ elevation change over 6+ miles. The Andes are a young mountain range, and as such, the cliffs are very pronounced, and the inclines steep. The Incan loved their steps and terraces, mostly out of necessity to survive here, but even to this modern day, steps are an assumed architectural design. From this commerce site we merge onto the soldier’s route. The trail would be fairly level and direct until seemingly out of nowhere a 30’ incline popped-up with uneven treads and cobbled steps or 30’ decline of slippery, wet stairs; the trail rolling progressively upward towards the skyway.

Along the route were breathtaking views of spired green mountaintops; wild orchids, upon wild begonias, upon wild irises, and in the distance we would spy stone terraced slopes, hinting that an advanced, yet primitive, culture once thrived here. Eventually we would catch up to a terrace and confirm the outcrop was more than just a bunch of well organized, random rocks.

The Incan people believed in a duality between Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Inti (the Sun God). They also venerated three levels of existence: the Condor spirit (afterlife), the earthbound Puma, and the life beneath/before earth, the Snake . Above all else was Viracocha, the Universe Creator. However much, it was not a dualistic religion heavy of good versus evil, (the snake was more of a Kundalini type protector)  They were far more advanced in astronomy then one would think of a “primitive” society. Temples align with tight precision with the sun, moon and stars, as well as building sites and windows. This society created seasonal sun dials and rain aqueducts throughout their villages.

Along the soldiers route, we came to a way station, with terraces, building foundations, and more steps. This area is maintained by the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO, they allow tamed llamas to graze freely. After lunch and a banos stop, we linked with the ceremonial trail. Along this way the path becomes more and more cobbled. The final push was right before the Sun Gate. We arrive at this linteled escarpment to overlook MP from above. The Sun Gate is not unique to MP, all substantial Incan villages had strategically placed sun gates. Both for security and to welcome the rising Sun God. MP sat below, across a slope and out upon a high mountain field. The clouds would mystify the view, in and out, like soft, tranquil thoughts.

Paddington "mama" bear
By now, my knees were aching and my shoulders on fire, we still had 0.5 miles more to make it to MP. The rain came and went with the clouds. The rain was never pouring but it did make the stone path sketchy. I'm not going to lie, having already had a day before of physical intensity via ferrata climbing combined with 6 miles hiking with a 20lbs pack, I became a pathetic old lady, grabbing ancient Incan retaining walls for support and double stepping each step down. I also was wearing a great hat for rain but coupled with my raincoat and backpack straps, I looked reminiscent of Paddington Bear (not completely inappropriate dress for deepest, darkest Peru but certainly not intentional).

Largest Gravestone in the World!
Just prior to arrival at MP was a large outcropped stone. The Incan's often used natural rocks as part of their build-scape, as well, and sometimes would carve the tops into spiritual sculptures, often mimicking the range of mountains off in the distance. This particular area was made into a sort of amphitheater. The archeologist found 68+ fetal laid mummies/human remains. They believe this to be the cemetery for the stonemasons. If you calculate, it took MP ~50 years to build, in the late 1400s, and only 68 possibly related deaths; primitive people engaged in 60 ton monolithic rock movements without an OSHA or modern machinery or medicine, not too bad.

The rest of the day was a descent from MP, by bus to our Hotel El Mapi. We stayed out of the MP reserve area until our tour the next day.

El Mapi was a nice 4-star hotel and spa. I schedule a massage for the next morning knowing I was in for more steps. We ate at the restaurant, but I found the staff a bit unapproachable and set in their conduct. Perhaps this attitude has been developed due to the high tourist respect (or lacking respect thereof).

We decided to delay our MP tour by a few hours the next day, to allow time to sleep, recover and get my massage. Unfortunately, two of us got sick from the dinner. I made it through the massage, (by a six fingered masseuse, no less, or should I say 11?), emerged to see my husband waiting for me and quickly told him I needed to throw-up. We had requested a late check-out, and thank Pachamama, because porcelain was my new Inti. We'll just call it Viracocha's revenge. 

Feeling only slightly better, I had no choice but to carry-on, we were leaving town for good. The other sicko was made better with Imodium. I grabbed a ginger ale, we caught our bus and then proceeded up a bunch of switch-backs to the MP entrance. I tried, I really tried to tour the whole grounds, but I found a nice, flat, chiseled stone and watched my family take in the sites. I could see the peaceful llamas grazing in the quad, undisturbed by the intermittent rains, and I happened to sit next to the only coca plant in the park. I know this because I was told so, in at least 4 different languages, as the tour groups passed. I guess it’s a great forbidden curiosity in many cultures, but the word coca is universal.

I am sure they all thought I had altitude sickness, but neh, neh, MP is only at 8900’ normal living altitude. And, no I didn’t chew the coca, it was roped-off, or else, I think I would have...I felt that bad. Coca is the cocaine plant, illegal in most countries, the leaf has trace amounts of the hallucinogen but tourist chew or drink the tea to relieve altitude sickness. This was the coca that gave coca-cola it’s name. The leaf is freely offered in most hotels for tourist to chew on. I didn’t take any with me, my issue was not related to low oxygen uptake.

So, for details on MP, I guess you will have to just come and see it for yourself. What did impress me was how intact the walls were, especially the stone gables. This area was primarily a spiritual and educational gathering center; a college town, so to speak. Most the educators and astronomers were woman, the culture was very egalitarian. The site was abandoned at the same time as the Conquistador Invasion, but the Spanish never found it. This was an intentional plan by the Incan to protect their holy place. The cechuan language spoken by the Incas was not a written language, no record of MP existed, not until the 1800s when it was rediscovered by an American explorer. A young local boy showed Hiram Bingham the site, as the local farmers were in harvest season and could not take the time to guide him. It was found empty of gold idols but virtually untouched except by the fingerprints of the jungle.

Despite my condition, I was able to see the Temple of the Condor. Designed in such a way, it was a huge natural stone that, if you squint, looks like a bird in flight, the Incans then incorporated stacked stone and carvings to give the impression of a flying bird of prey. It's head was a carved sacrificial alter with channels to direct the blood to the carved beak.

The condor was the last stop in the park, we returned to town, found some dinner with our guide and awaited our return train to “Ollyabama”. John asked our guide which preparation was best to eat guinea pig. Roasted. It arrived, with head and feet still intact. Thankfully, I had nothing in my stomach. I couldn’t look at it or smell it without my stomach revolting. John says it reminded him of duck but was difficult to eat and not very much meat. They did make me steamed water with fresh slices of ginger. I was also able to get some heritage bread into my stomach. After our midday meal our guide departed and we boarded our train

The train ride back was more interesting then arrival. They offered on-board entertainment. A monkey masked dancer with bright native clothing and long, witchy hair. He spiritedly gamboled down the aisle, known as the Virgin del Carmen. And then the other attendants gave a fashion show of real baby alpaca wool. Then, of course, the clothes were for sale.

We arrived around 7:30pm and looked for our new transporter. The ride that should have been waiting for us with a little grease board stating “Wood” was nowhere to be seen. We still had to get to our hotel in Cusco, 1.5 hours away. Our main luggage was in Cusco and all transportation, hotels, and tickets were paid in advance through the travel agency. 

We were tired but our guard was up, we had been warned to only go with our designated driver as others will try to misguide you, steal your luggage and leave you stranded.

You can imagine, with two lovely prime teenaged girls, we were on edge. We called the travel company, they told us one story, “they will find you, stay put.” No one. We called again “they are caught in traffic” (hmm...this is a small village, I could have walked to us in this amount of time). Finally, a women arrived with her young daughter in-tow. She had the paperwork to authenticate who she was, but she was without the driver. She left to locate him. Then a driver approached, and he had “Wood” on his phone and was saying all the right we followed. 

What finally tipped us off that he was a fake was he slipped some sols (dollars) to a ragamuffin street vendor. I stopped in my tracks and called to John. The authenticated agent, still with daughter, caught-up to us and told the other guy, in not so kind terms, to bugger off. Apparently, his plan was to take us to Cusco and demand payment at the end. He had overheard a conversation with the agent and faked a text.

We were still wary, it seemed odd the daughter was in-tow with a professional travel agent, but it was late at night and I know I have had to take a sick child to work before, especially if something unexpected happened. But, I was still dubious. We went in the other van. John tracked the map on his phone with one hand and had his pocket knife (luggage packed) in the other. Thankfully, we were taken to our proper hotel; which serendipitously, happened to have a party of Cusco Doctors-by-day, and Whiskey-Drinking-Club-by-weekend gathering at the hotel bar. John joined in and decompressed. I went to bed with activated charcoal in my stomach (it had been packed in our big luggage).

Click HERE to see more photos of the flowers on the The Incan Trail.