The llama propped his front legs up on a boulder and obligingly positioned himself in the bottom-left corner of my viewfinder. Our tents were in the middle-distance and, from far across the Urubamba valley, snow-capped mountains formed the frame. The llama posed there long enough for me to bracket three exposures. It wasn’t until he was chasing me off the meadow that I realised what he had been trying to tell me. It was a territorial warning. He thought that I was muscling in on the females in the herd around us…well, with those big dark eyes and long legs they were kinda cute but the buck didn’t seem to grasp the fact that they really weren’t my scene.
I backed slowly away, watching in horror as his throat worked to hawk up llama phlegm…and before I could negotiate a hastier retreat he had reinforced his statuesque posing by kicking me in the chest. By the time he had chased me all the way back to the camp our porters were already clutching at each other and sending hysterical sobs of laughter heavenward. As if in gratitude for such an amusing start to the day, my guide poured me a much-needed cup of coffee, letting a little stream drizzle onto the ground: “For Pachamama,” he said “– for Mother-Earth.” Roberto Manco Huaman (who shares a name with the legendary founder of the Inca line) is from a Quechua-speaking ‘Andean’ family – “there were never any ‘Indians’ here,” he points out. As a mountain-guide who gets to spend his working days on the Inca Trail, Roberto believes that he has a considerable amount to thank Mother-Earth for. It seems logical that in a country with the dramatic geological temperament of Peru the ‘Earth Mother’ should be held in such awe.
At five times the size of the UK this magnificent country encompasses a variety of terrain that is almost unmatched elsewhere in the tropics. To the west shimmering deserts slope down to 1,500 miles of wave-smashed Pacific beaches; while, in the east, dense jungles (covering half the country) are defied only by the great rivers that feed the Amazon basin. On the southern border are the moody Altiplano highlands where wild vicuña – leggier, swifter cousins of the llama – graze on the scrubgrass. And hovering over it all, at every turn, are the towering peaks of the Andes. This is a land that is best described in Spanish as muy accidentada. Uneven, jagged, notched, it is ‘accident-prone’ in the extreme. When Pizarro the conquistador returned from the New World he was asked to describe Peru. Ever a man of action, he crumpled up a sheet of paper and dropped it on the table: “It looks like that,” he said.
Only a few days before we arrived in the chilly mountains I had been watching herds of sea lion, almost a thousand-strong, basking in Pacific sunshine. I had been woken in the balmy night by the subterranean murmurs of Pachamama, vibrating up through the warm sand under my back. Now – after a few days acclimatising in Cuzco – I was grateful even for the added warmth that my floppy-eared Andean hat was able to offer. Cuzco in Quechua means bellybutton. As the largest city in the Americas it was once the navel of an empire that spread across 3,000 miles and united 25 million people. If laid end-to-end the Inca road system could have stretched two and a half times around the world but today little remains apart from the famous stretch that leads to the sacred city of Machu Picchu. I had been looking forward to walking the Inca Trail for so long that I had begun to worry if it could live up to expectations. In recent years I’d heard the stories about veritable queues of hikers going over these remote passes, of campsites strewn with litter and of overloaded porters who had fallen to their deaths.
There had been no sign of any of this since Roberto led us across the tumbling Urubamba River the previous day. The sun had risen as we climbed up Cusichaca Valley (‘Bridge of Happiness’) to the village of Huayllabamba (‘Good Pastures’). The only concession that this little mountain hamlet made to the invasion of tourists was a couple of shacks adorned with the red plastic flags that advertise the sale of chicha, maize beer. The crowds of trekkers that I had been dreading were nowhere to be seen but once we had to cede right-of-way to a herd of llamas, descendents of animals that were once used by the Incas to carry provisions to Machu Picchu. We also saw rabbit-like Andean viscachas, eagles and a giant hummingbird – which somehow has the distinction of being ‘the world’s biggest small bird.’ The landscape changed by the hour and shortly after we left the dense sub-tropical jungle we entered a region of sparse woodland, then a moss-shrouded cloudforest, isolated in its own little microclimate. After 8 hours on the trail we reached our campsite on the fairytale Llulluchapampa meadow and toasted Pachamama – several times – with hot chocolate laced with rum.
My run-in with the llama provided an unwanted bout of early morning exercise at the start of what would be the toughest day on the Inca Trail. As we began the steady slog up Dead Woman’s Pass we plugged our cheeks with folded envelops of coca leaves (containing a sliver of charred route to activate the juice). I could still feel the rum hovering somewhere just below the graze where the llama’s hooves had struck and I hoped that the coca leaves might be as effective against my burgeoning hangover as they were against altitude headaches. The Inca Trail is not overly challenging and anyone who can claim reasonable fitness would normally be able to complete it with just a little determination. But altitude sickness is a very real danger and most mountain guides and porters put their faith in coca leaves as the most effective way to combat it. T-shirts in Cuzco bear the legend ‘La hoja de coca no es droga’ (the coca leaf is not a drug) and culturally the plant is seen as the same sort of mild stimulant that coffee is to the Arabs…or tea to the English.
Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4,200metres the highest point on the trek, seemed to turn the page on a new chapter of inspiringly romantic names that could have come straight out of ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’: Pacamayo (‘Hidden River’), Runkuracay (‘Heap of Ruins’), Phuyupatamarca (‘Town in the Clouds’). These names seemed specifically designed to increase the suspense and many believe that this mounting anticipation throughout the trek is more than coincidental. Writer Peter Frost, who has lived in the region for 20 years, believes that the Inca Trail is a deliberate work of art that was designed ‘to elevate the soul of the pilgrim on the way to Machu Picchu.’ Our second campsite below the ruined fortress of Sayacmarca (‘The Hanging Village’) was certainly blessed with soul-elevating views over both rainforests below us and ice-fields above. When the warmth of the morning sun found us we were already trekking along raised walkways, paved by Inca engineers 500 years ago, which led us through the canopy and across sheer rock-faces. Despite hundred foot drops it was impossible to stop our eyes from wavering towards the panoramas. The ruins of Huinay Huayna featured as ‘Forever Young’ in James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy. Redfield used this secluded valley as an example of what he called ‘a high energy environment’ and the most confirmed cynic would be unlikely to deny that these ancient stone terraces possess some sort of weird power.
Thus far we had enjoyed every campsite to ourselves and had been relieved to see that the crowded, litter-strewn hillsides of Inca Trail-lore now appear to be a thing of the past. But the Trekker’s Hotel near Huinay Huayna could play havoc with the ‘elevated soul’ of even the most single-minded pilgrim. It is the closest campsite to Machu Picchu and during high-season trekking groups send runners ahead before dawn – like the chasqui messengers who once ran this trail – to book the party in. We were now barely an hour and a half from the famous Intipunku (the famous ‘Gateway of the Sun’) and our final Inca Trail dawn saw us dogtrotting by torchlight through mist-shrouded rainforest where mysterious tropical birds squawked. Stepping through the Gateway of the Sun at dawn I was struck speechless by something far more powerful than just the natural effect of our early-morning, high-altitude jog. Unforgettable, stunning, daunting, overwhelming even…whatever anyone tells you about that first glimpse of South America’s most famous sight tells you…well, it’s true.
In July 1911 Hiram Bingham climbed these steps to ‘re-discover’ the Lost City of the Incas – he was guided by a little boy whose people used the area among the ruins as a potato plot and who was presumably quite bemused by the gringo’s excitement. ‘Could this really be the principal city of Manco the Great?’ the explorer had asked himself. Almost a century later, as Roberto led me between the mysterious plazas and pyramids, he too began talking about the ‘lost city of the Incas.’ Not about Bingham’s earth-shattering discovery, but about another mysterious city that he believes exists somewhere deeper in the jungle: fabulous ruins that, for the time being, live only through the rumours of nomadic hunters and the occasional vague reports of malaria-crazed explorers. Roberto Manco Huaman’s dream is to mount an expedition to search for this lost city: “It will be the real jewel of the Inca Trail,” he says, “the city to which even Machu Picchu is just a gateway.”