The Classic Inca Trail

When Hiram Bingham re-discovered Machu Picchu in 1911, he noticed a road leading away from the lost ancient Inca citadel. In a May 1916 National Geographic article “Further Explorations in the Land of the Incas”, Bingham wrote, “Later we located part of an ancient road leading back from the city up the mountain side and across the face of one of the towering precipices on Machu Picchu Mountain. It appeared to proceed in a southerly direction into a region of high mountains, deep valleys, and well-nigh impassable jungles. In 1915 it was my privilege to penetrate that unexplored country back of Machu Picchu, visit its ruins and follow its ancient trails.”

Nowadays, 200 tourists per day share this privilege; that is the maximum number allowed to start the Inca Trail each day. The Inca Trail is the most popular hike in South America, possibly the world, and for good reason. Not only is the terrain physically challenging and the Andean scenery spectacular, it is a four-day history and archeology lesson about one of the greatest empires in the history of the Americas. It is also an invigorating trek spanning multiple ecosystems: from the Urubamba river valley up and over multiple 12,000 foot alpine passes, through cloud forest and down to the beginning of the Amazon jungle. The crowning glory of this trek is the reward at the end: arriving at Machu Picchu for sunrise on the fourth day. This summer, five of us -- our family and my sister-in-law -- hiked the trail.

We started our trek at Kilometer 82, not far from where Bingham returned in 1915 to begin his re-discovery of the Inca Trail. Bingham continues, “…we located the remains of an old Inca road leading out of the valley in the direction of Machu Picchu. It was with mingled feeling of keen anticipation and lively curiosity that Mr. Hardy and I, with a gang of Indian bearers from Ollantaytambo, in April, 1915, set out to discover how far we could follow this ancient road.” We also had our gang of Indian bearers ("indigenous porters" in today’s politically-correct parlance) who were primarily from the village of Chinchero.

Day one was relatively easy as we climbed steadily upward, passing the impressive ruins of Llactapata and following the Cusichaca River. After a few hours of gradual ascent, our group stopped at Hatunchaca and tried some local chicha (fermented corn beer). Near us, a hut full of cuy (guinea pigs) scurried about the dirt floor, each trying not to be the next one selected for dinner. Our group consisted of 21 porters and 16 trekkers, a fun and diverse group coming from England, Spain, Sweden, Australia, Mexico and the United States. As we left Hatunchaca and continued our climb, our porters sprinted past us on their way to Wayllabamba to set up camp and dinner.

When the porters were running in their flimsy sandals and carrying 40-50 pound loads, it was easy to imagine them as Inca messengers (Chaskis) running along Inca roads in Pre-Columbian times. Chaskis were an army of young athletes who ran in relays between staging posts (chaskwasi) set apart every 8 to 15 miles. This communication network worked around the clock, with relay runners routinely covering 200 miles a day. In Victor von Hagen’s book “Highway of the Sun: A search for the royal roads of the Incas,” he writes, “A message sent by relay runner (Chaski) from Quito could reach Cusco over a route of 1230 miles in five days. From Cusco, the same message could be sent to the far end of Lake Titicaca in three days….” The 22 mile section that we were trekking was but a small part of a network of royal roads that once had totaled over 25,000 miles, extending from Columbia to Chile. The extent of the Inca road system was roughly comparable to that of the Romans, possibly more impressive because it was all done on mountainous terrain without the benefit of the wheel or large draft animals.

Day two was the toughest day, as we climbed straight up to towards the top of Abra Huarmihuanusca (Dead Woman’s Pass) for what seemed like several hours. Even the porters looked a little tired; I thought I saw some of them stuffing a few extra coca leaves inside their cheeks. It is the irony of their job that they must look down and carefully plan each step while missing some of the best scenery in the world. Our porters were routinely amazing. In addition to carrying everything necessary for comfortable camping – tents, chairs, dining table, propane tanks, stoves, kitchen implements, food and water – they would take down and set up camp while we were walking and have our meals ready for us as we arrived.

We finally scaled Dead Woman’s Pass and hiked straight down for a few hours, arriving in Pacamayo in time for dinner. Our kids, who regularly charged ahead of most of the group were waiting for us, asking, “What took you so long?” Camp was set up and the porters lined up to give each trekker a standing ovation as they arrived. Dinners were very good each night and representative of Andean cuisine: quinoa soup, papa rellena, lomo saltado, palta rellena, just to name a few dishes.

The next morning we hiked up towards the second major pass at Phuyupatamarca. Ninety-four years earlier, Hiram Bingham was making the same climb: “Half way up the mountain side, 1,500 or 2,000 feet above the valley, we came to a very interesting little ruin, the name of which the guide, who arrived a little later, told us was Runcu Racay. It was apparently a fortified station on the old highway.” Later expeditions have identified Runcu Racay as a tambo, or waystation on the road to Machu Picchu. From here we continued on to Winay Wayna where we would spend the night. Bingham, while in this same area, wrote, “…the trail led along the crest of the ridge, slowly descending toward Machu Picchu Mountain, but when within rifle shot of the city suddenly disappeared; but that did not worry us, for we had actually reached the immediate neighborhood of the celebrated hidden city by what was probably the ancient highway that connected Machu Picchu with Cusco.”

That night, within rifle shot of Machu Picchu, we slept in our tents at Winay Wayna, thinking of the next morning’s arrival at the Lost City of the Incas.

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