On The Inca Trail

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Peruvian Andes, cornhusks, stonework, Spaniards, Cusco, Quechua, donkeys, wildflowers, Urubamba, condors, Coleman lanterns, tents, backpacks, terraces & the Southern Cross.

In mid-June the eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes give up their meager summer’s growth to the scythes and sickles of the Quechua. Golden stubble now stands where oats and wheat and barley grew. Small groups of llama, sheep and alpaca silently glean the ridged blanket that remains, picking gently at what they can find amidst the close-cropped swirls of seedless stems. Ragged rectangles of black earth, whose lumpy turnings with more structure could well become adobe bricks, lie baking where potatoes have been dug. What little is left—a broken tuber here and there—is for the skittish, black pigs to harvest before they too head down the hills to market.

In the Urubamba valley, not far from Cusco, on Incan terraces with walls so finely built that grass seeds still cannot strike root between their stones, farmers work the land as their ancestors have for countless generations. Their tools are metal now, but their labor is much the same as when the Spaniards came: digging, planting, cutting, gathering and toting stored sunlight in bundles and sacks to village markets at the mountains’ base. We see mostly women and children in the fields, though there are men here too. I saw one this morning staggering under a sheaf of cornhusks bigger than a horse.

From a distance, these rugged hills look wild and pristine, but walking or riding through them one finds a land that has been supporting human life for almost as long as people have existed on the continent. Judging from the flawless stonework, the terracing on the Urubamba side of the mountains must date from at least the 16th century when the Incan empire extended from its elegant capital in Cusco through much of the Andes. The open hills above Cusco are harder to read, but must have born human populations even longer. Here and there the sites of ancient llama or alpaca corrals appear as faint stone circles overgrown by centuries of grass, moss and lichen.

In the Urubamba valley, not far from Cusco, on Incan terraces with walls so finely built that grass seeds still cannot strike root between their stones, farmers work the land as their ancestors have for countless generations.

The easiest way to access this mountainous country is on horseback, for there are no roads and the thin air at 14,000 feet leaves even acclimatized pack animals gasping for breath. After a brief orientation from our guide, we head off in a sinuous line, winding our way through the golden puna grass of the lower slopes to the shorter grasslands above. The ground is spotted with wildflowers, white and blue, and encrusted with lichens the color of weathered copper.

It has been a while since I have ridden, and the Spanish style stirrups, fully closed and just covering the toe, are very different from the rounded platform stirrups of Mongolia I am used to. The horses here use halters, not bits, making all but the most general directional control difficult. But as these animals are used to traveling in groups, there is little need for detailed navigation. We are freed, instead, to take in the sweeping views that span out in all directions. A Puna Hawk, broad winged and fan-tailed, rides the rising currents above us. I search in vain for a Condor.

Compass Rose

By the time we take our first break, our knees have stiffened and our bottoms grown sore. It feels good to walk again, to touch and smell the ground. The grass is tall where we pause, waste high in places. Between its billowing tufts a scattered flock of sheep and llamas graze, white and tan, brown and black, pausing from their foraging long enough to look curiously at the two figures trying to photograph them.

From their silent spots on the hill above, two young shepherds whose flocks these are, descend to watch as Susan and I record the restless grazers. The boys, possibly brothers, but at least good friends, are no more than seven or eight. They perch gracefully on a large clump of puna grass, arms around each other. The three dogs that accompany them, one a puppy, flop down beside their young owners and watch us with ears perked warily. I greet the boys and ask if they will consent to a photograph. They agree and beam proudly as I capture their gleeful smiles in a backlit halo of yellow grass.

By the time we stop for lunch, we have crossed a pass and descended part way into the Rio Urubamba valley, the sacred valley of the Inca. A table has been set up and a delicious array of foods prepared. Not all of us feel up to eating. One takes oxygen, then heads further down the valley on horseback. The rest walk on from here, happy to be off the saddles and to savor this landscape close at hand.

We pass small farmsteads with thatched roofs, corn drying in the courtyards before them. A woman bundles barley; another drives three donkeys bearing bags of fresh-dug potatoes. In the cool, dry air, there is a sweet smell of thyme or sage coming from the path. The colors are warm and earthy. The clusters of adobe buildings we pass, and the land that surrounds them offer more shades of brown, tan, amber, khaki, yellow, gold and orange than there are English words to describe.

Farther down the valley, the Inca trail takes a turn from the Quechua pastureland and enters a deep gorge. We cross, then follow a small, clear stream whose eager swirls and splashes have cut a canyon fifty feet deep. Bromeliads and other air plants cling to the moss-sheathed surfaces like bristles on the black pigs that glean the potato fields above. It is cooler here and the shade is palpable after five hours of Andean sun and wind. Birds enliven the vegetation with their movement and sound. The echoes of splashing water follow us into the valley beyond.

The town of Lamay nestles between the terraced hills like a pool of muddy water, a modern oxbow in the river that leads to Machu Picchu.

Our party spreads itself along the narrow trail. We are breathless from the altitude and the astonishing beauty of the landscape. The Urubamba valley sprawls out below us. The town of Lamay nestles between the terraced hills like a pool of muddy water, a modern oxbow in the river that leads to Machu Picchu.

Less than an hour of sunlight remains when we reach the Incan ruins of Huchuygosgo. There, among the finely fitted walls and terraces, a young man in clean white shorts and backpack greets us and, incongruously, asks for our tickets. When we confess having none, he politely directs us to our campsite, which we can see beckoning from a terrace a quarter of a mile beyond. Getting there through the ruins and fields that divide us proves more of a challenge than we expect. The camp comes and goes from view like Brigadoon.

Slowly, on a close-cropped marmalade field that hugs the valley’s edge, our party reassembles. We unpack our meager possessions and pitch our tents, donning layers of insulation as the temperature falls. Over dinner, illuminated and warmed by a hissing Coleman lantern, we review a day that none of us will soon forget. Above us, the Southern Cross sparkles in a sky ablaze with constellations, and darker than any of us have seen in a long, long time.


Robert McCracken Peck, a Senior Fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, is a naturalist, writer and historian who has spent more than twenty years chronicling scientific expeditions to South America, Africa and Asia. He has written for Nature, Natural History, Audubon, and The New York Times, and has worked on documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and NPR. In 2015 he was awarded the Garden Club of America’s Sarah Chapman Francis Medal for environmental writing.

Lead Image by Sergejf

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