Most people know of the famous “Inca Trail” that goes to Machu Picchu, but almost no visitor is aware that that is only one section of the original trail that connected Cusco and the famous “forgotten” ruins. A couple of days ago I hiked several kilometers of that trail and had the entire route to myself except for local people I passed along the way.
I really had no idea what my plan was going to be when I left home in the morning. I considered going to Ccorca, a vilage west of Cusco where there are some incredible sites to see. I chose to hop in a shared tax (15 soles) taking me to the village of Ollantaytambo where many people begin their trip to Machu Picchu on the train.
I considered going all the way to Ollantataytambo and hiking up to the Inti Punku (“Sun Gate”) high on the mountain above the valley, but hazy skies convineced me that the beautiful vistas I hope to see would not be available.
Once I got to the village of Pachar I got out at the bridge crossing the Rio Urubamba and started a long hike uphill along the new highway that just opened 7 months ago towards the ruins of Ñaupa Iglesia. (More on that coming tomorrow!)
On the way back I decided it would be interesting to continue on down the valley towards Ollantataytambo along what I knew was a road or trail along the river. I was in for a surprise as it turned out to be an upper portion of the famous Inca Trail!
The start of the trail is an ancient Inca bridge that still uses the same support structure built centuries ago by Inca engineers in a style commonly used. While there isn’t much water now, this river flows strongly during the rainy season.
In The Footsteps of History
To be honest, I was sure it had to be the main road because many, if not most, of the Inca roads still exist where they are not covered over by modern roadways and are used daily by local people who still walk to get from place to place most of the time.
This was the only place it could exist and the trail was obviously heavily used. Also, the terraces above and below were much wider and this section had walls that continued for many kilometers — something agricultural terraces don’t do. Finally, I scratched into the dirt path in a couple of places and found paving stones below which confirmed that it was, indeed, the road.
It’s an interesting feeling to travel along ancient pathways knowing that I was following in the exact footsteps of Inca emperors as well as conquistadors including Francisco Pizarro who led the Spanish conquest of Peru. The stone walls that had witnessed the passing of some of the greatest figures in American history continued to stand as I, too, passed through the valley along the Inca Trail.
Spending Time with Local Farmers
At one point I noticed a little farther ahead a group of local people gathered near the trail. I had no idea what was going on as so far I had only passed one many with a group of pack horses heading up the trail.
When I got closer, I realized it was a family of farmers planting crops the old fashion way — by plowing with a pair of bulls pulling a plow on the end of a long, sturdy trunk of a eucalyptus tree while another person followed behind dropping seeds into the turned up earth.
They were extremely kind and friendly when I asked to take a photo. They stopped for a few moments to come over and visit with me to explain that they were planting corn as spring was fast approaching.
The elderly matron of the group even offered me a cup of chicha — a slightly fermented corn drink that has been the preferred drink of farm workers here for thousands of years.
In traditional fashion, I poured a little on the ground as an offering to Pachamama — the Andean Goddess of the Earth — before drinking it. (While Catholicism dominates Peru, the mix of Christianity and the ancient Andean beliefs (known as syncretism) still dominates this region of the country.)
Moments like this are what makes the difference between a traveler and a tourist so clear. One the other side of the river hundreds of tourists passed me in buses and trains on their way to Machu Picchu so they could spend a couple of hours being herded through the ruins and getting selfies to show their friends so they could check off one more place they could say they had visited.
I, however, was able to spend a little time with a local family as they went about their daily routine. We talked, laughed, and shared a culture that has been around for far longer than that of most of the tourists passing us by. Instead of just seeing a place, I formed a relationship with some of the people and their culture.
Ancient Ruins Along the Cusco to Machu Picchu Pilgrimage Route
A little farther the trail joined with a very dusty, dirt road that provided the only real transportation link to the other side of the river, other than walking, for those living along the southern mountains of the valley.
As the family had told me I was now less than an hour’s walk from Ollantaytambo, I didn’t really expect to see much. I was in for a big surprise.
Looming along the riverside in the distance was one of the largest walls I’d ever seen rising up alongside the road. As I got closer I realized this was a complex actually built into the mountainside in the traditional way that the Incas incorporated existing stone into their construction.
Having the place to myself, I did a little exploring of this complex known as Choqana, and quickly realized this was just one more example supporting Johan Reinhard’s now generally accepted idea that Machu Picchu was not only a kind of “Camp David” retreat for the Inca Pachacutec, but also a Sacred Center that involved a pilgrimage of sorts for those coming from Cusco.
Choqana, like a great many other surviving ruins along the this Inca Trail route, was likely a stopping point along the way for the conducting of religious ceremonies — kind of like “Stations of the Cross” — for those those on their way to Machu Picchu.
Indicative of its religious importance were room with symmetrically arranged trapezoidal niches in the walls that once held idols and religious artifacts.
As I neared Ollantaytambo, I passed one more set of ruins in really bad shape that also appeared to be a ceremonial stopping point based on one larger room that had several niches in the traditional Inca fashion on the walls. This set of ruins consisted mostly of really small rooms which were likely workers’ housing that were overrun with thick, cactus that made it difficult to explore.
On to Ollantaytambo
The rest of the way was a quiet walk through agricultural fields still using the same terraces that Inca that slowly gave way to more and more homes.
For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated with these walls and the stairs that are built directly into the walls. The Incas inserted stones which stuck out from the walls providing a kind of flying stairway up the sides enabling farmers to move from one level to the next.
Many of the stones are broken off, but the fact that most still exist and are used after 500 years is amazing. These walls were fairly low, but I’ve seen these same kinds of stairways used on the side of walls over 5 meters (16 feet) high!
Near the end of the hike, I passed through the small, quiet village of Choquekillca sitting along the river below Ollantataytambo. To get to Ollanta, it’s necessary to cross another bridge built on the foundations of an ancient bridge constructed by the Incas.
Another of my favorite, little known places in this region is the old colonial entrance to Ollantaytambo. All the tourists pass right past it and probably only a handful notice, though it is a beautiful that brings back images of new arrivals to the town climbing up alongside two water channels through a well-guarded gate into Ollanta itself.
As I mentioned earlier, these kinds of hikes are what make exploring this region so special. For hours, I never saw a single outsider while walking along a portion of the same Inca Trail that is perhaps the most famous route in the world. Almost no one travels these important parts of history except the local people going about their daily life exactly as their ancestors have done for centuries.
That is what makes living here so special. It’s not just the breathtaking scenery that inspires me, but the opportunity to pass through a bit of history and, in a way, experience the mingling of the ancient with the modern that provides an understanding of how they are really the same in the most fundamental ways.
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