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Peruvian snapshots from the Inca Trail

Tiny Pow

Tiny Pow

I’ve always had a special fondness, very platonic you could say, for South America. I liked its shape on a map and the fine balance of colours representing different altitudes: lots of deep green – for jungles – all the way to dark browns all over the Andean peaks. A part of me used to consider this continent to be my spiritual destination of sorts, which was a little naive since I’d never verified it by actually setting my foot on South American ground. Now, that I finally had my boarding basses printed and my suitcase loaded with specialist trekking gear, there was no way back.

Lima

My first encounter with South America – the Lima airport and its immediate surroundings, leaves me feeling lost and out of place. I suppose that was to be expected but coupled with a bit of jet-lag I’m not very excited and altogether uneasy. For the first night, before the transfer to Cusco the following day, we are booked into a hotel in Miraflores, the quarter of the rich (1% of Peruvian population) and lucky few of the upper middle class (approximately 8% of the total population). When, having passed rows of old factories with the shantytown looming in the distance, we reach the good looking houses and tidy alleyways, my snobby, “comfortable Londoner” side breathes a sigh of relief. For now, I definitely feel more sense of belonging here.

Vase

Vase

A visit to Franciscan catacombs and the Larco museum, with a collection of 45,000 beautifully displayed ancient exhibits, begins to shift my spoilt European tourist perspective. There is a rich, mysterious web of cultures stretched over this land, thousands of stories that can’t be decrypted without utmost sensitivity and attention. Pictures I see on one of the pre Inca vases remind me of weird monsters that scared my mum when I drew them in an art class as a kid. A depiction of a god on another brings up monuments I saw in Thailand a few years ago and the imagery in Bjork’s “Wanderlust” music video. The sense of mysterious connectedness envelops me.

Cusco

The quasi spiritual experiences are mixed with feelings of frustration at obtrusive vendors of all kinds of things and crazy, disrespectful drivers. It’s sort of customary in Peru to make life very difficult and to contribute your part to the humongous sound pollution of the city by honking your horn every minute or so, which in the drivers’ language translates to “come on!” or “me too!” or quite often, nothing at all. Sometimes I have an impression honking is the favourite pastime of mobile Peruvians. We asked one of our wittier guides whether driving with distress lights continually on indicates anything in particular. Absolutely, said he, it tends to mean many different things but most often, “I’M HERE!”.

Alpaca Kiss

Alpaca Kiss

At the same time, every hour I’m gaining more respect and humility towards this land. Sparkles of ancient wisdom shine in our guides’ brown eyes, in the giant, opaque eyeballs of human high alpacas, in the seams of Inca stones, joined together like puzzle pieces.

The glimpses of both the historic and mythical Beyond are everywhere.

The Pilgrimage

Entrance to the trail

Entrance to the trail

Before too long we are ready to set off on the legendary Inca Trail.

Having packed our day packs, and stuffed a few extra kilograms of essentials into bin bags (which will be carried up and down the mountains by superhuman porters), we get on a bus that takes us all the way to where the trek starts. The bus journey seems endless and the whole group (nine people altogether) can’t wait to get started.

During the first day we aren’t following the actual Inca trail (this section is yet to be rebuilt). Whenever we walk out onto a plain or the trees open up, the views of the mountains are overwhelmingly beautiful. This first walk is a warmup in terms of physical challenge. We also get plenty of breaks. This part of the trek is still inhabited so we get to see quite a few colourfully clad women on donkeys and even a house or two, with little kids, dogs and llamas wandering about. I fall asleep in my little tent to the sounds of the jungle, I wake up to the sound of the rain and swollen eyelids giving me a native Mongolian look (altitude-related, I’m told).

On the trail

On the trail

Second and third day of the trek are, well, a different kettle of fish. Climbing up to the Dead Woman’s Pass (known under this name for the shape of a woman lying down, formed by the hills surrounding it) in the thick rain on the second day, and going down the stone steps to descend an astonishing 1,000 m on the third day, I’m gaining even more humility for the Inca civilisation. It dawns on me that the trail was designed to be a challenge. It was to be a sort of a physical “purification” process or a pilgrimage to the Sacred City, one that only the high born and the noble were allowed to take (our guide tells us). Peasants followed a different route to Machu Picchu, down in the valleys. I’m really fond of this concept: if you want to find yourself in the Sacred Place of Rest, you will first make the sacrifice of sweat and swollen ankles to prove you are worthy of being in the presence of the gods (in this case, Sun, Moon and Condor, whose magnificent temples feature in Machu Picchu).

Interestingly, during the toughest passages of the trek I seem to get a powerful surge of energy that sends me nearly flying through climb-ups that make others exhausted and discouraged. As if I had a secret storage of power I can only get access to when I truly challenge myself (a sensation I’ve had many times before!). Does this mean I’m worthy of the Sacred City? Or has it more to do with my fitness regime before the trail? (I’ve you’ve heard about/gone through Insanity you will know what I’m talking about) In any case, somehow I tend to struggle only when, objectively speaking, things aren’t though, as if my body was carefully choosing moments when it can afford to be weak.

The Sacred City

Finally, The Day arrives. It starts with a wake-up call at 3.30 am with 30 min to pack up our luggage and tents. It all makes sense to me since we need to – I’m thinking – get to the Sun Gate of the Holy City before sunrise. I couldn’t be more wrong. We wake up this early so all the groups in all the camps can form an orderly queue in front of a final passport check, a whole hour before the check point actually opens. Funny how Government bureaucracy is comfortable to get in the way of an experience of a lifetime. The moment we are through, most of the group literally runs ahead, to kill the distance of 1.5 hrs worth of trekking in the shortest time possible. Layers of mountaineering clothing, protecting us from the night’s cool, are hastily removed as we hurry, mostly uphill, to greet the Lost City of the Inkas (as referred to by Hiram Bingham, German scientist who stumbled upon it in 1911).

Sun Gate

Sun Gate

As we arrive at the Sun Gate, we need to take care not to step in the way of groups of people taking photos, waving signs and flags of whatever (literally) and cheering. Still, not all of the magic of the moment is lost. The view of the City is truly magnificent and, in a certain way, unearthly. Astoundingly, in the heart of the jungle rises an intricate labyrinth of stone terraces, buildings and towers. In all its unexpectedness, though, it doesn’t disturb the raw beauty of the mountainous jungle, in a mysterious way the jungle embraces the City, and the City complements the jungle.

The Incas definitely knew how to choose the perfect place for this construction, which strikes me many times during the Machu Picchu visit. But it’s apparent for the first time there at Sun Gate, when the rising sun reaches the right level to shine on Huyana Picchu, the mountain towering over the City. Suddenly its triangular shadow appears of slope of the bigger mountain behind.

Sun Gate - Steps

Sun Gate – Steps

It’s only after I saw this picture that I spotted the shadow of the Sun Gate forming the “three steps”, a powerful symbol for the Incas, often featured in temples, in the constructions of altars, and also of course the blue print for the Incan cross.

The more I look, listen and quietly focus, the more I’m convinced that I’m getting a peek into a different reality which is at a stretch of a hand, available for me to touch and explore if only I have enough patience and humility.

Panorama from the Temple of the Sun

Panorama from the Temple of the Sun

The visit to Machu Picchu itself isn’t as significant as I would have hoped. Our guide rushes us through the most important sites, as we are closely followed by other groups, waiting for their two minutes in front of the Temple of the Sun, in the Observatory, the Temple of the Condor, etc. I’m struck with the thought that this must be the exact opposite to the experience the Inca intended for visitors of the Sacred City.

We decide to stay behind, roaming around the ruins long after the last members of our group have departed. We walk down alleyways caressing the stone walls, and we spend a good chunk of time just sitting in one spot, taking in the view of the landscape and the surrounding holy mountains. Omnipresent groups of tourists, the hustling of the guides and noises of conversations in dozens of languages somewhat cease to matter. The elusive door to a slightly different dimension seems at an arm’s length again.

Putukusi

Ladders

Ladders

The day after, as if in a mirror, we look exactly at the spot where we sat – and the entire Machu Picchu of course – from Putukusi, the “happy mountain”, the smallest of holy mountains guarding the Sacred City. The climb up is unbelievable – most of the lower section of the mountain were punctuated by ladders going vertically up.

Finally we don’t have to rush through the stunning rainforest – during the Inca trail we were always on a tight schedule to get to our camp before nightfall – and we can lose our senses in the beauty of massive pink orchids, moss covered trees, birds and insects.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes

The upper section of the climb is arguably easier but still steep and, since we’re not covered by a ceiling of thick branches anymore, steaming hot. The two of us are completely alone on the mountain which is incredible (and so unlike the Machu Picchu experience). We can hear the sound of our footsteps, almost covered by the omnipresent buzz of Life the jungle is bursting full of. We can see the fragments of “life” we were used to scattered below in the valley. The small town of Aguas Calientes we set out from, with its wildly colourful, metallic roofs, resembles a litter dump, contrasting sharply with the deep green of the jungle around.

Centipede

Centipede

The City of Machu Picchu though, visible on the opposite side of the mountain once we reach the very top, looks like a crowning of the jungle, in its harmony of perfect design and its majesty. We can also see the zig zag bus route (carretera Hiram Bingham) going down the mountain and buses, carrying hundreds of explorers, moving up and down it like centipedes.

The message from Pacha Mama

On our way down Putukusi we meet again Lauredano, the elderly guardian of the mountain who checked our passports and made some notes in pencil in a big book when we started our climb in the morning. He is sweeping the narrow jungle footpath with great attention and care. There is something moving and dignified about his work. He is genuinely happy to see us again. He greets us in about about twenty languages, including Romanche, which hardly anyone, my Swiss husband tells me, knows how to speak. We are delighted to add to his knowledge by teaching him the greeting in Romanian (all the other languages we could think of were already covered).

Looking out

Looking out

Up on the mountain I have found a massive pink orchid flower that fell away from its branch. I expected I wouldn’t be allowed to take it with me and so I hand it to Lauredano. He insists that I keep it as a gift from Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). He also hands me a gift of his: a piece of quartz found on the mountain, important to Incas as a symbol of the three powers of Mother Earth.

It sits on my desk today as I write this. I know my adventure with South America has only just started. The next chapter of this story is waiting to be written as I will experience Buenos Aires in August. What I’ve seen so far though has left one of these precious memories that make up who you are.

Paulina Sygulska

Paulina Sygulska

As well as being an intrepid adventurer, Paulina Sygulska is a serial entrepreneur and a networking junkie. She founded GrantTree three years ago to help tech start-ups to get equity free funding from the government, and it has been going from strength to strength since. GrantTree’s team of 14 have raised over £9m for 200+ companies in the last three years. In her spare time, she likes to indulge in cabaret and performance art.

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