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The Inca Trail "Exploring the Inca Heartland"
September 1, 1999


(Click on map for larger version.)

Qechua porters

First explored by Hiram Bingham in 1911, the Inca Trail was opened for walkers by Peruvian archaeologist Victor Angles in 1970. Like Machu Picchu, the trail may never have been totally lost. Parts of it were likely used in colonial and later times by smugglers of cane spirit and coca, produced at planatations deeper in the jungle, seeking to avoid paying taxes. The trail, which would have connected Machu Picchu and other lower Urubamba Valley sites to Cusco via Ollantaytambo and the main portion of the valley, is just another link in the vast Inca road system. Estimated to have covered 40,000 km (25,000 miles), the system was based on two main north-south roads, one coastal and one in the mountains, joined by numerous east-west trunks.

Most people start at kilometer 88 on the rail line, we started at kilometer 77, unloading the vans and carrying the duffles across a bridge. Each of our porters carried the duffle, along with a share of the general camp equipment and supplies, while we softies would traipse along with knapsacks only. The basic routine was up early to a breakfast (already prepared) and then set out while the porters were breaking down camp. They would load up and run past us on the trail, a detail of them stopping and fixing lunch for us, then set up camp and have water ready for tea by the time we arrived. A pretty impressive display of stamina and fitness on their part.


A royal courier


Inspector of roads


Inspector of bridges


Traveling inspector

Don't fret about the porters, even if the whole thing seems a bit colonial and you may be wondering where the sedan chairs are. Working as a porter on the trail pays well in terms of the local economy and carries some prestige. Besides, these guys are tough. You can explain part of it by the altitude thing--they grew up here, they are used to it, they are barrel-chested with out-sized lungs--but that's not all of it. They are just in better shape than you are. End of story.

There are plenty of decent lists of worthwhile suggestions about how to behave and what to carry on the trail. Here's my 2: what you carry in you out; no litter (and that means pick up any you see and pack it out); no open fires; leave the ruins, plants, and animals alone; and camp only in designated areas. Because of the altitude and tropical latitude you must have decent sunscreen. SPF 14 doesn't cut it. Remember film is cheaper than airfare and an extra battery for your camera doesn't weigh that much. Above all don't rush enjoy the views for their own sake then do the photography bit. If you are into taking pictures at all bring a telephoto and wide-angle lens.



Day 1. At km 77 we begin walking along with the river and snow-capped Veronica to the right. Sunny, bright, with brisk wind all day. Good birds: parakeets, hummingbirds, and, very high, a condor. Smallish cows with the agility of mountain goats graze on steep slopes. Lunch is marinated chicken and yucca (fibrous and pretty much tasteless). Impressive ruins of Llactapata (town-on-a-site), which we see from about 400 feet above on the opposite side a valley. Except for the missing rooftops, it looks as if you could move in. First camp after 18 km.

Day 2. Over the Huarmiwañusca Pass, aka Dead Woman's Pass (for no known reason). Guide books put the height of the pass at 13,600 feet, but a recent GPS reading came out at 4,225 m or 13,866 feet. The day's hike is only 10 km, but there's a 4,000-foot elevation gain up to the pass and the last hour or so of that is just a matter of pushing when you can and stopping frequently to catch your breath. It became chilly when we stopped for lunch a bit below the far side of the pass and a mist rolled in, but the sun soon returned for our descent to camp. Runkuracay is the ruin of the day. The name may mean basket [-shaped] building, a reference to circular main structure with curved chambers opening onto a central courtyard. The site was probably a lookout point and travelers' lodge. Johan Reinhard, who has investigated local beliefs, speculates that it may have had importance in a water cult. He notes that the site overlooks a river source and that during a 1988 drought men climbed up to a lake above a nearby waterfall and threw in rocks to awaken a mythological being living in it so that the creature would bring rain. At night, good views of Milky Way and the Southern Cross.





Day 3. A pancake breakfast, then off and over Runkuracay Pass (13,100 feet) and down to Sayacmarca ruins on a rocky promontory with a commanding view of the Aobamba River Valley. First called Cedrobamba (cedar plain) by Hiram Bingham in 1915, it was renamed more appropriately Sayacmarca (dominant or inaccessible town) by the Viking Fund Expedition's Paul Fejos in 1940. A narrow staircase is the only entrance to this compact, walled site. It features an elliptical tower(?) at one and and a triangular plaza at the other, along with a few ritual baths. It lacks any terraces, and must have been supplied from outside. A well-placed checkpoint and travelers' lodge. The trail winds through jungle with orchids and bromeliads, through a tunnel, and along ridge above Urubamba River to Puyupatamarca, our third camp (14 km), with stunning views of Salcantay, Veronica, and Pumasillo. Puyupatamarca (cloud-level town), spreads out on either side of the trail with many agricultural terraces, a long series of baths (one and than a run of five going down the slope), and at the top of the site a large bedrock platform. Reinhard interprets the site as primarily a place to worship the mountains, but also sees important water source association with the springs feeding the baths. A group of seven American women on pilgrimage to Machu Picchu see it as a fine place to worship their earth-mother goddess.


Huiñay Huayna

Day 4. The trail descends from Puyupatamarca via a steep staircase to Huiñay Huayna, a small Inca city discovered in 1941 by Paul Fejos. From a large round-fronted building at the top of the site hangs an apron of terraces sweeping down a steep, rounded valley head. Paralleling a staircase going dowwn the center of the terraces in a series of ten ritual baths (there are 19 at the site, more than at any other) at the end of which is a small residential area. After a break exploring the ruins, we returned to the trail. The day heated up as we continued, but after a final upward slog on a steep flight of stairs, we arrived at a ruined gate, the Inti-Punku or Sun Gate through which we could see the tall peak of Huanya Picchu and, spread out on ridge below it, Machu Picchu.


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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America