Saturday, October 7, 2017

Peruvian Adventure 1. Inca Trail, Inca Warrior

Imagine you are perched on a granite stone, high in the Andes looking down through primary cloud forests into a river valley that slices through almost vertical mountains. All around you, glacier-topped peaks soar more than 15,000 feet into the heavens. A rainbow emerges from the mist and lights the sky with its spectrum of colors. Above and below you, stone-edged agricultural terraces mark the archeological site, Phuyupatamarca, a town named “cloud-level” in Quechua, the Inca language which is still spoken in the Peruvian highlands today. Phuyupatamarca is a sacred place – a place of beauty where you and, centuries before you, the Inca kings rested just a few kilometers from the more famous citadel of Machu Picchu.

After trekking almost 25 miles, up and down steep stone staircases and across several mountain passes 12,000 feet in elevation, I sat quietly at Phuyupatamarca with my trekking family, breathing in the moist air and experiencing the mysterious power of this civilization. The Incas left us their rich culture, their temples and monuments, their agronomic practices, their carefully engineered highways and villages, their water and drainage systems that still function 600 years after they were built.

A grandmother preparing the soil for spring planting
The Incas believed in hard work, honesty and cooperation. They believed in community and in the power of Pachamama – literally mother earth, the spirit that gives us life and loves us unconditionally. They developed a sophisticated mathematical system, told time by sundials and navigated by the stars. At the height of their power in the 16th century, their empire stretched across western South America from modern day Ecuador south to Chile and encompassed coastal plain, tropical jungle, high mountain and desert environments.

An Inca Warrior overlooking Cusco
My husband Jeff and I visited Peru to trek the Inca Trail, to experience the mystery of Machu Picchu, to visit the cities of Cusco and Lima and to explore the Tambopata headwaters of the Amazon River near Puerto Maldonado. One of my brothers, his wife and two close friends from Florida joined us on the adventure. After arriving in Lima, we met the other members of our expedition and flew to the former capital of the Inca Empire, the city of Cusco. Cusco is located more than 10,000 feet above sea level on the eastern slope of the Andean mountains. The city is an interesting blend of Incan and Spanish architecture, history and culture. It is the jumping off spot for Andean expeditions, treks, historical tours, river adventures, and spiritual journeys. Its high elevation and the availability of modern medical and mountaineering resources make it the perfect place to acclimatize to the high elevations. The company who arranged our trip, G adventures, ( from Toronto, Canada knows how to do it right!

Upon arrival in Cusco, we toured the city and met our wonderful guide Rumi. Rumi is a Peruvian whose heritage, like many people in the Cusco region, includes both Inca and Spanish blood. His knowledge of Inca history and culture was impressive. Rumi also had an extraordinary ability to connect with each of the members of our group on an individual level. Three members of our group took the train to Machu Picchu – an option for folks who do not have the physical abilities required on the Inca Trail. Our trekking group of twelve was diverse – we ranged in age from 26 to 71 and hailed from five countries – the USA, Canada, Australia, Scotland and South Africa. Along with Alex, Rumi’s competent assistant and 21 brilliant porters, Rumi was our Inca warrior as we bonded together on the rocky paths of the Inca Trail.

Our first day was a delightful sample for what was to come – we drove by bus to a Women’s Weaving Co-op near the town of Ollantaytambo. Here we met Peruvian women who raised alpacas, dyed the wool with plant materials and wove brightly colored fabric to make traditional Andean clothing, sweaters, shawls, hats, scarves, tablecloths and purses. They shared coca, chamomile and anise tea with us and demonstrated how they used the same wooden looms to weave as were used by their ancestors 500 years before. The Co-op women were strong and industrious, often carrying a young child in a colorful “back-sling” while doing their work. Some women took care of the animals, some did the weaving, some made the garments and others sold the finished products. The collaborative nature of the settlement helped us understand how fundamental reciprocity and giving back to your community are to the Inca culture. This supportive society is in contrast to the aggressive, often militaristic dominance that many other cultures, including some western and eastern European and Asian societies embrace. Perhaps modern day leaders could learn from the Incas.

Causa - the Delicious Yellow Potato Appetizer
We ate lunch at a nearby cooperative restaurant, toured the ruins of Pisac – a former Inca citadel famous for its agricultural terraces and its tombs where mummified bodies of royalty and important Inca artifacts were found. In addition to being master stonemasons, architects and engineers, the Incas were skilled agronomists – building perfectly drained agricultural terraces and hybridizing multiple species of potatoes, corn, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables. Culinary expertise goes back centuries in Peru – there is a reason that the Incas were successful in inhospitable environments. They learned how to grow food by taking advantage of microclimates and how to preserve food through dehydration long before NASA figured out how to dehydrate food for the astronauts! The current trend of eating local and organic has been practiced for centuries in the Peruvian Andes.

In the Meditation Room
We checked into the Hotel Inka Paradise in Ollantaytambo town and toured the Inca ruins in the small town. There we climbed steep stone steps, and gathered strength for the coming trek from the meditation room and the red granite temples. The next day we left at 7 am and drove to the beginning of the Inca Trail – 82 km away. We met our powerful porters, a group of 21 men ranging in age from 21 to 62. These men carried our food, gear, tents, propane tanks and other equipment on their backs in enormous packs that often weighed close to 60 pounds (~25 kilos).  After passing through the first checkpoint – the Peruvian government controls access to the Trail and Machu Picchu – we wished our porters safe travel, donned our packs and started up the trail in single file.

Glaciers in the Andes
For the next three days we climbed up and down increasingly difficult terrain, ascending and descending endless flights of ancient stone steps cut into the steep mountainsides. On Day 2 we crossed WarmiwaƱusca or Dead Woman’s Pass that at 13,769 feet (4,198 m) is the highest point on the trail. Often the stone path ran along the edge of vertical drop-offs that fell precipitously to deep valleys hidden in mist. On the third day we walked through a cloud forest where bromeliads and orchids clung to the sweating trees and flowers filled the air with soft colors. All along, Rumi and Alex cheered us on, encouraging us to focus on the slippery downhill steps and stopping to let us catch our breath when the air became so thin we gasped for oxygen. We chewed coca leaves, drank coca tea and high fived the porters when we reached our camping site at the end of each day.

Jeff and Katy with some of our incredible porters
Most remarkable, our porters covered the trails in less time than we could, despite carrying four times as much weight – and had our tents, the kitchen and dining tents all set up by the time we arrived each afternoon…and then, they all cheered and clapped us into camp as we entered. Our cook, Emerson was a five-star chef from Lima who decided to change his life and cook on the trail. His culinary skills were extraordinary – every meal was delectable and presented beautifully, from the origami-folded bird napkins to the individual plating of each meal. 

Chocolate Cake Inka Trail style!
Fresh sauces, homemade salsa, tasty soups and delicious vegetables and fruit accompanied each meal – and by the way we ate in a dining tent sitting on stools and enjoying the brightly colored table cloth. As a highlight, Emerson baked a chocolate cake and frosted it with jelly and icing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of two of our team. How do you do that at 11,000 ft after three days on the trail? Brilliant.

Our second campsite at Pacaymayo
Every morning the porters woke us at 5:30 am, greeting us with hot cups of coca tea and bowls of aqua caliente (hot water) so that we could wash in the comfort of our tents. These are luxuries you don’t get at home and here we were on one of the highest trails in the world – several days hike from “civilization”. All along the trail, Rumi was our Inca warrior, supporting each of us, explaining the meaning and purpose of different archeological sites and cultural habits, naming the flowers and the birds. He taught us the fundamentals of the Inca’s logarithmic-based mathematical system; he helped us to focus on the difficult passages; and, along with Alex, shared with us the sheer joy of being in the moment.

Orchids along the trail
One of my favorite memories happened one afternoon when the mists swirled around four of us as we carefully traversed a section of trail set on a steep narrow ridge. The stone cobbles were soaking wet and slippery. The ridge fell straight down 11,000 feet into a hidden valley. We walked carefully, using our trekking poles to stabilize our steps through rocky caves and past exotic bushes filled with spring flowers, sharing the mystical feeling of being in our own private world. I felt a peace that comes when you accomplish something physically demanding and experience the natural world in an undisturbed state, just as the Inca warriors experienced it more than 500 years ago. Trekking the Inca Trail is epic – an experience that fills your soul, your mind and your body. 

Jeff and I rest at a waystation on the Inca Trail
On our fourth morning, we woke at 3:30 am, ate a quick breakfast, broke camp and walked in the dark by headlamp to the checkpoint that leads into Machu Picchu. I will leave that experience for my next blog – suffice it to say that while Machu Picchu is extraordinary and one of the world’s wonders, it is the experience of our magical journey along the Inca Trail that I will remember forever.

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