My mother arrived at the Cusco airport with the same deep cough that she shared with the entire Grogan family over Christmas. I’d brought a thermos of coca-leaf tea to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness as the city lies 3,400meters (just over 11,000ft) above sea level, from where she’d just arrived. Nonetheless, the cough, travel fatigue and oxygen deficiency put her flat on the bed of our eerily quiet hotel room in the middle of this Inca capital. While she rested, I feasted on the Reese’s peanut-butter cups and Ghirardelli dark chocolates she’d brought from the homeland.
Cusco, layered with Killka, then Inca, then Spanish history, was transformed into a grand city by the Inca in the shape of a puma whose head rises out of the hillside at the ruins of Sachsayhuaman (say that out loud), the walls of which rival the awesomeness of Machu Picchu.
In an attempt to get my mother fully healthy before our four-day hike along a small and very mountainous portion of the over 50,000 km of road built by the Inca, we decided to focus on relaxation during her first week. This meant taking the bus down to the lower-altitude town of Pisac where we lounged about, ate delicious vegetable-rich food, tasted our first alpaca meat (delicious), sipped on happy hour pisco sours and enjoyed the surrounding Sacred Valley views. We then moved to the best-preserved Inca village in Peru: Ollantaytambo. Its stone streets are too narrow for cars and even the infamous moto-taxis due to the space taken up by the babbling street water canals.
We happened to be in Ollantaytambo during one of their most festive celebrations, the “Fiesta de Reyes,” during which the entire town and the surrounding villages parade up and down the streets all morning and into the night in an exhausting, dance-filled tribute to the three Kings. Music was heard from every corner of the town, including at 5:30am when the parade marched by our hotel over several days.
History Minute: It was in Ollantaytambo in 1537, where the Inca army (temporarily) defeated the Spanish army by hastily turning their Sun Temple, built just above the town, into a military fort. Stealing the symbol of Spanish military strength, the royal heir Manco Inca commanded his troops from horseback while archers shot off arrows and soldiers fired slingshots and let boulders roll atop their attackers. The last surprise, though, as the Spaniards retreated, was diverting the River Urubamba on cue and flooding the plains below the town, making the path for the Spaniards’ horses quite muddy while they struggled to make it all the way back to Cusco and bring reinforcements. Since we already know the ending of the Inca-Spanish story, it is at least good to be reminded of the ways in which the Inca used nature – the force of the great Urubamba River – in a clever attempt to save themselves.
One thing the Inca Empire did not do, however, is invent the switchback. No zig-zag pathways for them. Their narrow yet solid trails, with super-human sized stone steps, mind-numbingly steep ascents and descents at altitudes reaching 4,200 meters (nearly 14,000 ft) were not constructed in consideration of 21st century, altitude-sick tourists. As we hiked and camped along the trail, my mom, who has hiked the Alps and tango dances and practices yoga multiple times a week, confessed that it was the hardest physical work she had ever done. Even more impressive than the trail and the spectacularly rewarding views were the 10 porters who carried four-days worth of equipment for our 11-person group. With private tents, food tents, kitchen tents, fuel, food, medical gear, camping gear and their own personal gear piled onto their backs, they all but ran up and skipped down the mountainsides in their recycled-tire shoes while conversing in Quechua and calling out “porrrrterrrr” as they slid past the panting tourists. With 500 tourists allowed to begin hiking the Inca trail a day, imagine the number of porters who passed us, setting up and breaking down our lunch spot and then racing past us yet again to set up our camp for the night. Both of our guides, Victor and Guido, had worked previously as porters before deciding that they never wanted to do such gruling work again. They then began the five years of study required to become a professional guide. Up until recently, porters carried more than 40 kg (nearly 90 lbs) on their backs until regulations were made that limited their loads to 25 kg (55 lbs). We heard (and saw) that these regulations are still not strictly followed. In our vacationing bliss – despite our sweat and shortness of breath – we were intimately reminded along the Inca trail of the back-breaking work that is put into creating a comfortable experience for tourists. Such work is impossible to hide along the narrow trail.
On our final day we rose at 3:30am, rain pummeling our tent. The porters hurried us to pack our gear, we all ate our breakfast in dazed silence as the rain continued to celebrate its wet descent. We piled on our water-proof clothing and headed out on the final 6 km to the grand upper entrance of Machu Picchu: the Sun Gate. We were 2 km from this destination when we heard the shouting. “¡Por atrás, por atrás!” “Go back, go back!” Due to the rains and construction of water lines into the hillside for a new hotel in the town below of Aguas Calientes, a fresh landslide had blocked the trail. Unlike the year before, when a guide and an Argentinian woman were killed, this landslide caused no deaths (of humans, at least). We reluctantly
retreated and our short morning hike turned into 15 km of a steep descent (Legs!!) and then a long walk along the train tracks. Tired, we arrived in Aguas Calientes where we, together with 2,000 other tourists a day, took the bus up to Machu Picchu and from there gazed longingly up at the Sun Gate.
So! What’s next? What’s next? Right now I sit on our hotel bed while my mom packs into her suitcase the beautiful items of textiles and knitted hats she’s received in exchange for supporting the Peruvian economy. Tomorrow, I will once again be on my own and heading south on the familiar saddle of my bike. The bike has been named, by the way: Mi Burro. After five and a half months of travel with Mi Burro, there is an end in sight. It is appropriately called “The Peace”, otherwise known as La Paz, Bolivia. There, on February 1st, I will pack my belongings into boxes, fly home to San Diego and call Naomicycle complete. For now.