The series of seven bangs which ricocheted around the valley sounded decidedly like gun shots and put me on edge. Others in the group were less concerned and thought they were fire crackers let off to celebrate May Day. Our very affable and charming Scottish guide, Dougie, clearly had some concern as he got us to sit down on the ground.
It´s day one of an eight-day trek to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and what has already turned into a complicated hike for Dougie just got a little more challenging. After a brief pause we continue our walk to the ruins of Vitcos, the last stand of the Incas. We later find out that we had heard gun shots fired by police stationed in the valley as a warning – about what is anyone’s guess! The police are based in the valley to deter drug trafficking which is very reassuring. What is less reassuring is how we in any way resembled drug traffickers. Half our group were in their 60s, we were decked out in colorful gortex rain coats and ambling slowly towards Inca ruins in the middle of the day. Maybe the cops were just bored and thought it might be fun to put the wind up some gringos!
Plan A was to trek to Choquequirao, the site of some significant Inca ruins but we had to scrap this because flooding had wiped out a key bridge. Plan B also had to be changed due to bad flooding and Plan C was a bit unknown. Dougie took it all in his stride and did a very good job of convincing us all was in hand. He had a pretty tough audience – the retirees of our group were east coast women from well-to-do families. They were great fun, and their hiking ambitions impressive, but they had high standards and were not ones to mince their words. We also had two honeymooners and four of us travelling alone. The 10 of us were supported by two guides, 16 mules, two horses and at least six others who looked after the mules, put up camp and cooked meals. It was quite the expedition and we travelled in a style that I was not accustomed too. Each meal involved multiple courses and was taken in large dining tent, we had a tent housing a sit down toilet with a flush and each morning we were greeted with tea in bed. And we were given pillows. Luxury!
The Andes are at their most majestic in Bolivia and Peru. Our hike took us from stunning mountain valleys, over high passes, before plunging us into valleys very different from those that we had just left. The steep, high terrain means very different microclimates exist from valley to valley. The highest peak we crossed was 4500m and just before reaching Machu Picchu we descended through lush cloud forest overflowing with fruit. Rotting avocado littered our path and we gorged on wild strawberries and a fruit similar to passion fruit but better.
One day we bought a whole lamb and were treated to Peruvian hangie called Pacha Manca. For those of you who aren’t kiwis, a hangi is a traditional Maori way of preparing food for large groups and the process is remarkably similar to that used in Peru. For a Pacha Manca you build an oven made of stones and light a fire in it until the stones are red-hot. You then break up the oven and mix the stones with lamb wrapped in tin foil and shed loads of potatoes. Next you cover the mound in straw, then tarpaulin and finally earth. After 45 minutes you are good to go – the lamb comes out beautifully tender with a smoky, earthy flavor. Yum.
On our second to last day we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from a far. It is perched on a jagged ridge in a stunningly beautiful valley, completely different to others we had walked through. The setting for the site is absolutely spectacular. The first thing you think on seeing the ruins is “How?” shortly followed by “Why?” It looks like the most impossible location to build such a huge settlement and its remoteness, while certainly beautiful, doesn’t seem practical.
The visit to Machu Picchu was incredible. As with all great sites such as the Great Wall or Taj Mahal, the reality is not diminished by having seen pictures of the ruins many times over before arriving. It’s huge and we had to really motor to get round all the parts we wanted to visit. Over the course of our hike Dougie had talked a lot about the Incas, their culture and demise, making our visit so much richer. The Incas had such a sophisticated society and it’s incomprehensible to me that their entire empire was brought down by 157 Spaniards. What’s even more galling is that aside from being exceptional soldiers it’s not like the Spaniards who invaded matched the Inca in class – they were adventurers and soldiers who came to steal gold, women and land. If you want to read a riveting book on the fall of the Incas I recommend The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming. It’s tragic but a rollicking read full of bravery, deceit, betrayal, gore and lust. The Incas weapons and fighting tactics were never going to beat the sophistication of the Spanish but I can’t help concluding that they were undone so quickly by sheer naivety.
On a lighter note, it got out in our group after a heavy night of drinking amongst the boys that the honeymooners with us were trying to conceive. As the new husband so eloquently put it – “Why conceive in a hotel room when you can make a Spirit God baby at Machu Picchu?!” We were all supportive of the cause and the couple were given a wide berth on our visit to the ruins. It’s a pretty busy place but rumour has it sufficient solitude was found. More on this in nine months time.