Inca Civilization

Destination Revealed

Many things reveal themselves in the Andean cloud forests. Many of which we were never really able to appreciate until the weeks and months after returning to the corn fields of Ohio. I remember this photo being one intended as a greater study on the flora of the Sacred Valley with Machu Picchu’s manicured terraces providing the backdrop. Not until later did I recognize what a stunning setting was transpiring all around us.

The day began brisk and sunny – not a cloud in the sky. However, things change rapidly in the Andes and soon the bright early morning sun faded and the skies thickened with clouds, and lots of them. Through the majority of the midday, the trail was a complete white-out. Our ignorance was a virtue as we weren’t wise to what we were missing. At the very moment we were within eyeshot of Machu Picchu, the skies serendipitously began to clear. The winds swiftly evacuated the deep valley of the stalled-out clouds, and they rolled over the jagged ridges just like the white-water over the boulders in the river below.

Ramiro reminded us every few minutes of our good fortune, something we took quite seriously, as he’s a man who had yet to show a morsel of emotion. I couldn’t imagine traveling so far and being deprived of the opportunity to lay gaze on the ruins let alone in a fashion this dramatic. Yet, ignorance is bliss, or something like that. I must confess, at that moment I was simply waiting for the nuisance of the process to finish so I could focus all my attention on the ultimate destination. Ironically, the process was nearly as spectacular as the final product.

Nooks, Crannies and Secluded Sanctuaries

There’s something obnoxious about teenagers when they gather into groups. It seems to be a universal truth crossing all cultures and geographies. When the late morning field trips begin to arrive in Machu Picchu, it’s best to just stay clear. Those wise enough to arrive the day before and spend the night in Aguas Calientes will have hours of unpolluted ruins to explore. The site can be reached as early as five in the morning when the sun begins to brighten the deep navy-blue skies and the air is brisk and laden heavy with the morning moisture of the spongy cloud forest. So it’s understandable to feel a bit defeated when the silence is broken by the sounds of puffing adolescents more concerned with their current social status than their heritage.

But not to worry! Machu Picchu has countless surprises. It’s a place that almost seems tailored to the individual, allowing everyone to make what they want of their experience. The many boulders and walls provide great perches for soaking up particular views. Conversely, there are also lush grassy plazas where many choose to stretch-out and relax as though they were here to decompress and even nap – and napping wasn’t an uncommon sight.

Those wishing to establish a more spiritual connection to the site will still find success only a few steps off the well worn tourist trails. Their sanctuary may require a quick vault over a low wall or may be at the bottom of a staircase a little to dangerous for the casual visitor. It might be found in the maze of the east urban sector homes, occupied only by the wild chinchillas, or it may mean descending to a lower agricultural sector as these young ladies have done.

Everyone’s perfect place can be realized with a little adventure and creativity.

Mobile Munchies

Big fat corn, the biggest kernels I’ve ever seen, roast on open-air grills and are more fun to munch on than movie popcorn; Servings of chicharron or what we would call fried pork rinds are distributed from narrow shops, often only the width of a doorway; Adobo, a marinated chicken dish, makes messy on-the-go grub – and beef and cumin stuffed empanadas, often with egg, are available on just about every street corner just as they are all over Latin America. Even wheel barrows of fresh produce like pineapples are sliced and served, sometimes in the middle of the street. The wheelbarrow makes a mobile stand able to serve just about anyone and anywhere, even from moving vehicles.

A Pilgrim’s Reflection

Only about half a day’s trek from KM104 of the Inca trail, the air noticeably thinned and my breath increasingly depleted. It didn’t take long for us to reach exceptional heights. For the majority of the morning my eyes were firmly affixed to the smooth stone beneath my feet, carefully “looking” each foot into its new grip like a wide-receiver “looks-in” the football during each reception.

However, at this midday location (and several others like it) we were presented with an inspiring opportunity to leer back and reflect on our progress. The thin ribbon of white that clings to this mountain side is the Inca trail and the dots of bright green are the ponchos of fellow hikers. I welcomed the warm sense of satisfaction that coated me as I watched those bright pieces of plastic slowly creep across the trail.

Not only were the views spectacular but this very image is one that I’m glad I wasn’t wise-to before tackling the trek. I scoured the internet fairly exhaustively for visuals of what I would encounter on the Inca trail. Yet I did so reluctantly because I knew that little, shy of top-roping, would discourage me from accepting the challenge. I was emotionally and financially committed. Any additional insight I would obtain into the truths of the trail would only add to my lingering altitude apprehensions. In the end, I faithfully referred to the only comforting line in the trekking company orientation brochure that clearly stated: “No experience is required.”

Looking back on this photo, I suppose I learned little from the experience. Still I wonder, as I probably did when I took it, how I didn’t violently tumble down that precipitous peak.

Street Kings

I love dogs – and it’s a common sight to see them rule the road in excess numbers in many under-developed nations, where reproductive control is lacking. However, in Cusco the situation is slightly different. While the majority of these second citizens live in the streets, their physical heath is higher than one might expect. These canines generally sport coats that are shiny and mange-free and rarely do their ribs show. Their days aren’t typically spent browsing the local garbage sources or tailing feeding human friends, hoping to score a morsel. Nope. Instead, they live a dog’s life, lazily lounging on doorsteps or in packs on street corners. Visitors can always expect these street kings to be friendly and social and often interested in saying hello.

In Cusco, however, I get the feeling that the attitude toward domestic pets is different from my own. While the vast majority of these dogs appear to be stray, I suspect that each pup can be paired with a human companion who feed and care for them as we would expect of any other pet. Yet it looks as though these pets have more independence than our own when it comes to leashing, kenneling and monitoring in general. Possibly, this is because they possess a sub-family status or, conversely, are honored as equal citizens. In either case, this laissez-faire attitude generates a few health concerns that would alarm any American public health and safety official as I’m not sure who’s responsible for cleaning up after this wild bunch. Apparently, they haven’t figured that one out yet.

The Final Descent

The initial jolt of exhilaration was beginning to subside when we started our final descent from the Intipunku, or the Sun Gate, over the ridge and down to Machu Picchu. I suppose the tingling in my finger-tips was due to the fact that Ramiro was, once again, on-the-move and the Inca Trail had transformed into a series of steeper, downward-snaking staircases that required a certain degree of concentration. My knees quivered slightly, as I tried to slowly navigate one step at a time, blindly ensuring my foot-grip before committing my full boy weight. All of this was done while carefully trying to not fling my camera thousands of feet to the valley floor.

My mind raced because there was too much to look at. I suddenly wondered how I could be expected to process the view, capture my experiences and navigate the trail and come close to doing justice to any one of them let alone all three. I tried to equally distribute my focus while, for good measure, placing a slight emphasis on safety.

Unfortunately, the peculiar Hiram Bingham road was stealing most of my curiosity as it cuts a Zorro-esque swath from the mountainside. The unorthodox angle at which I was viewing the road made the busses appear to defy gravity, as they traveled the jittery terrain. My depth perception and sense of up and down was thrown for a loop in the disorienting vast spaces. After a few more sets of winding stairs, things started to level-out and I could finally divert the necessary attention back to appreciating the spectacular views and documenting them.

Turning Back is not an Option

I recall a time when I a child with my friends at an amusement park. We stood in line for a brand new roller coaster heavily touted and advertised as being the tallest and fastest ride built to date - a milestone in engineering. The line is huge and stretches far beyond the hour time marker estimate. But this is the reason I’ve come. We’ve cycled through the turnstile and passed the heath disclaimers. After about fifteen minuets I look back to see how far we’ve come and see nothing more than a mass of snaking people anxiously occupying every crevice. All of a sudden I realize that I’m committed. In an instant my heart races and a lump grows in my throat inhibiting the ability to swallow. Turning back is not an option.

Welcome to my adult roller coaster. I had a similar moment a couple of hours into the Inca trail but with no full-body safety harness fit for Hannibal Lector. Faced with a growing concentration of steeper staircases I make the mistake of asking Ramiro, our guide, if there are ever injuries.

“Sure, sometimes,” he shrugs. “Well . . . what happens with them?” I ask. “We just move forward” he replies. “Uhh . . . and what if they can’t keep going? What if the injury leaves them unable to walk?” I utter, increasingly breathless. “Well then we send for help” he explains, “there are no helicopters or emergency options. We can use horses.” he states matter-of-factly. “Sometimes it is difficult.”

Ramiro was much more sure it would never happen to us than I. I’m sure his impeccable record and reputation with his cohorts depended on it. But I couldn’t be thinking about that I just needed to concentrate on remaining upright and not stepping on my ballooning pancho.

Aliens? Seriously, People!

“This is what Hiram Bingham called ‘the most beautiful wall,'” our personal Llama Path tour guide, Ramiro, proudly tells us on our second day in Machu Picchu. Many might say, “So what? It’s a friggin wall!” Using only stone hand tools in a process still not understood the ancient Incans carved these stone blocks to perfectly fit using no mortar. As we can see in the photo the stones weren’t mass produced and shipped in but were carved on site and tailored to fit every neighboring stone like a chunky jigsaw puzzle. The particular stone that Ramiro is touching has 8 sides and is so precisely carved that a piece of paper wouldn’t penetrate the cracks.

Aliens? Seriously, People! - "The Most Beautiful Wall," Machu Picchu, Peru

With that being said, I think we all can appreciate the mind blowing craftsmanship and technical ingenuity of theses ancient peoples. And since Pizarro and his ilk nearly hunted and bred the Incans out of existence there’s no one left to provide us inferiors with the knowledge they possessed.

Evidently, however, there is quite a large contingent out there that find these facts wholly unacceptable. Since we don’t know how these structures were made and since we can’t reproduce them without the aid of modern machinery then they must have been created by aliens, extra terrestrials, gods or whatever entity is popular at the moment. I’m not sure if the speculation is an insult or a compliment. Maybe it’s just simply comical. We assume that we are superior to all who have come before us and when we discover evidence that would suggest otherwise we choose to suspend all logic and lean on fantasy for explanations.

I’ll admit, the arguments are pretty interesting (or at least fun) when presented to fruition – aircraft runways in Nasca, spacemen hieroglyphs, apparent machine drilled building stones weighing tens of tons and quarried hundreds of miles away. But it’s a discussion that should never happen to begin with. The moment we tell ourselves that the Incan’s couldn’t have possibly built Machu Picchu we then conclude that little green men from Mars would be the only ones capable. Remarkably, many climb on board even though every bit of real evidence clearly points to the Incan civilization as the true constructors.