By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Your eyes open wide as you enter the new, permanent location of the Long Island Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame, housed in a former Ward Melville Historical Organization building in historic Stony Brook Village, and realize the prominent musicians who grew up, got their start, built their careers on Long Island. That is, the whole of Long Island, from Queens and Brooklyn through Nassau and Suffolk.
While the Hall of Fame has been inducting honorees since 2004, this is its first permanent home, so is the first opportunity to really see the breadth and depth of the talent nurtured on the island. And it is so much fun to see the original posters, costumes, musical instruments, memorabilia from inductees including Twisted Sister, Zebra, Blue Oyster, Public Enemy, Vanilla Fudge, even Billy Joel’s actual motorcycle and Joan Jett’s 1983 Jaguar.
Jay Jay French, founding member and bassist of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, manager and record producer, went so far as to declare, “Without Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens, you got nothing. The circuit never existed before, and will never exist again.”
That might be hyperbole, but he can be forgiven when you go up to the second floor, where there is the “Hall of Fame” with plaques and exhibits that recognize over 120 inductees, displayed across the walls the inductees year by year. In fact, you can easily imagine they will soon run out of wall space entirely when beginning next year, they also induct people from television and film. There are also cases chock full of memorabilia such as Perry Como’s Emmy (you have to really search – it’s like an attic).
There are also areas for a library, classrooms for educational programs, and master classes, a surround sound theater, and a gift shop with music and entertainment-themed memorabilia.
Having an actual space means that the Hall of Fame also can present special exhibits.
Its first exhibit now on display re-creates those cherished clubs. Created by renowned designer Kevin o’Callaghan, “Long Island’s Legendary Club Scene – 1960s-1980s” is laid out to be like a club crawl, sparking those pangs of nostalgia for those places. The exhibit features replicas of clubs – My Father’s Place, The Mad Hatter in Stony Brook, Oak Beach Inn, Malibu in Lido Beach, Speaks in Island Park and Pips Comedy Club in Brooklyn -with videos of artists performing, ads, posters, instruments. There is also a replica of a typical 1960s stage, complete with vintage equipment and sound system (donated by Zebra).
At the opening, guitarist Randy Jackson, bassist Felix Hanemann and drummer Guy Gelso of Zebra performed on that stage with the very sound equipment they used at clubs in the 1970s and donated to the museum (in order to better re-create the sound), and below a poster which showed their 1970s selves. Surreal time warp.
Also performing, bassist Joe Bouchard and drummer Albert Bouchard of Blue Öyster Cult, Paula Janis and Carole Demas of “The Magic Garden,” singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy, and Jen Chapin, daughter of Harry Chapin.
The newest honoree in the Hall of Fame, Wayne Robins, had to wait two years (because of COVID) to officially be inducted. At the official opening, Robins, who for more than 50 years has been a leading music and pop culture journalist, waxed nostalgic as he recalled being at Shea stadium for the Beatles Concert, Diana Ross sitting in his lap at her concert at Westbury Music Fair, using fake ID to get into music venues before he was 18. He began his career in 1972 at CBS Records, then writing for Rolling Stone, the New Musical Express, Melody Maker, the Village Voice and Creem Magazine before joining Newsday in 1975 as its pop music writer, where he worked for the next 20 years.
Throughout, there are compelling visual elements and artifacts on display. Among the inducted artists who have donated memorabilia, are Billy Joel, Joan Jett, Debbie Gibson, Blue Oyster Cult, Twisted Sister, and the families and estates of Harry Chapin, Guy Lombardo, John Coltraine. Donations include various musical instruments, performance outfits, vintage automobiles and motorcycles, rare posters and photos, and handwritten lyrics.
Dee Snider, frontman of Twisted Sister, donated 12 costumes that hadn’t been seen in years, designed by Suzette Snyder. Suzette was 15 years old when she first met Dee, having borrowed her cousin’s ID to sneak into a show. She designed an outfit – pink with fringes – and created the ‘Twisted Sisters look’.”
The opening night event included performances by guitarist Randy Jackson, bassist Felix Hanemann and drummer Guy Gelso of Zebra, bassist Joe Bouchard and drummer Albert Bouchard of Blue Öyster Cult, singer/songwriter Jen Chapin, Paula Janis and Carole Demas of “The Magic Garden,” singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy, and Jen Chapin.
Rich L’Hommedieu, one of the co-founders, said, “The music industry started on Long Island – song sheet sellers came from Manhattan, Jazz musicians who couldn’t afford Manhattan had homes in Queens. Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong. Then there were the street corner doo wop groups, the hip hop. Garages in suburbia incubated rock bands.
In fact, every musical genre is represented among the122 honorees (so far) – there’s Aaron Copland, Brooklyn (2008), Barbra Streisand, Brooklyn (2008), Beverly Sills, Brooklyn (2008), Eddie Palmieri, Queens (2010, George Gershwin, Brooklyn (2006), George M. Cohan, Kings Point (2006), Carole King, Brooklyn (2008), Ervin Drake, Great Neck (2012), Cyndi Lauper, Brooklyn/Queens, (2006), Guy Lombardo, Freeport (2008), Marvin Hamlisch, Westhampton Beach (2008), Morton Gould, Queens/Great Neck (2010, Oscar Brand, Brooklyn/Great Neck (2010), Perry Como, Port Washington (2006), Simon & Garfunkel, Queens (2008), Steve Martin, Long island (2010), Tony Bennett, Queens (2006), Vince Giordano, Brooklyn/Hauppauge (2016), William “Count” Basie, Queens (2008), and Cousin Brucie Morrow, Brooklyn (2018), Arlo Guthrie, Coney Island (2008), LL Cool J, Bayshore (2008) (The full list is mind-blowing.)
Among the groups with roots on Long Island: Gary U.S. Bonds; the Lovin’ Spponful; Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge; Public Enemy; Salt-N-Pepa; The Ramones; The Shangri-las; The Tokens; Twisted Sister, Vanilla Fudge, Zebra, Blue Oyster Cult, little Anthony and the Imperials
Also among the honorees: My Father’s Place, Dream Theater, WALK 97-5 FM, Westbury Music Fair, Jones Beach theater, Stony Brook University, CSS Security Service.
The idea for the Hall of Fame originated with co-founders Jim Faith, Rich L’Hommedieu and Norm Prusslin, who met at Stony Brook University in the fall of 2003 and by January 2004, launched the nonprofit without any government assistance at all, but with lots of volunteer help.
It was created as a place of community that inspires and explores Long Island music in all its forms. In addition to the Hall of Fame, the organization also offers education programs and scholarships to Long Island students, sponsors the Long Island Sound Award, and features traveling educational exhibits, including a state-of-the-art mobile museum.
In 2014, when the Billy Joel Band was inducted into the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, Billy Joel said this in a statement: “After The Stranger was released, people began to recognize that the ‘Long Island Sound’ wasn’t just a body of water.” Indeed, it isn’t. Over the years, Long Island has produced some of the most talented and accomplished musicians and has become a respected music scene.
But, according to the museum’s history, it didn’t start off that way.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Long Island music landscape was rather barren and more of a stepchild to that of New York City, which had become a focal point of the music industry, with recording sudios and iconic music venues such as Max’s Kansas City, Fillmore East, and Electric Circus. Beside some local bars, schools and Westbury Music Fair (which had sporadic star performances, such as Judy Barland in 1967, The Who in 1968 and Bruce Springsteen in 1975), there were few live venues on Long Island.
According to Norm Prusslin, music historian and a founding member of the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, in the late 1960s Stony Brook University, emerged as an important venue to bring music to Long Island.
FM radio stations began popping up on Long Island, giving national recording artists Long Island airplay, and college radio stations began to showcase Long Island’s burgeoning musicians.
“Long Island college radio stations were important in bringing to the airwaves local musicians of all genres, and that certainly contributed to Long Island artists getting heard and getting spoken about,” Prusslin stated.
At the same time, Long Island-based publications, such as Good Times magazine, began pioneering local music coverage and talking up Long Island artists. And venues, such as My Father’s Place in Roslyn, brought in a lot of local bands who didn’t have the opportunity for commercial exposure before.
By the early 1980s, some of the commercial radio stations, particularly WLIR and WBAB, began to follow Long Island college radio’s lead, focusing on Long Island artists.
By the early 2000s, Long Island had become a hotbed for upcoming musicians as well as a sophisticated music scene. It now had its own music festivals, such as the Great South Bay Music Festival (established in 2006) and the Long Island Bluegrass Festival (which premiered in 2002), as well as the establishment of music-specific societies and organizations such as the Long Island Blues Society and the Long Island Traditional Music Society.
In August 2003, Prusslin had been reading an editorial in a local music magazine written by Richard L’Hommedieu—who would go on to become the founding chairman of the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame—about the new Georgia Music Hall of Fame, which had opened in 1996. L’Hommedieu wrote that it would be great if Long Island had its own music hall of fame.
In January 2004, this enterprising group of founding members including Prusslin, L’Hommedieu, and other music educators, held an event at the Patchogue Theater announcing the creation of “a nonprofit organization that would recognize, honor, and preserve Long Island’s longstanding and diverse music heritage—a heritage that fought its way out of the shadow of New York City and would go on to inspire generations of music lovers.”
The Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame was born.
“This is your home, your place, personal space, when can come and remember where great music came from on Long Island,” Jay Jay French said. “It’s your legacy.”
LIMEHoF is open Wednesday-Sunday, 12-5 pm. Tickets are $19.50/adult, $17/seniors (65+)/Veterans; $15/students with id, 12 and under free.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Traveling this holiday season? There are so many special activities and attractions to enjoy. Here are some of our favorites:
Shimmering Solstice at Old Westbury Gardens
Shimmering Solstice at Old Westbury Gardens, a Long Island landmark, returns for its second year. You are enchanted by a series of magical light displays as you walk along the beautiful meandering paths through Old Westbury Gardens’ Walled Garden, Rose Garden, South Lawn, and Allée.
“This walk-through light show is uniquely designed specifically for Old Westbury Gardens, a beautiful Long Island landmark” said Nancy Costopulos, President and CEO of Old Westbury Gardens.
This year, even more beautiful visuals have been added including a re-designed interactive area featuring three new exhibits that will engage adults and children alike; seasonal music throughout the expanded illuminated event path, a new illuminated water feature on the West Pond, and the Garden of Appreciation will be turned into a lively warming area with a concession stand for seasonal snacks and drinks.
Shimmering Solstice is a completely custom-built show by Lightswitch, a collective of internationally recognized lighting, media, and visual designers that has been uniquely designed to highlight the features of Old Westbury Gardens. The goal was to turn the gardens into a visitor location that can be enjoyed during the fall and winter holiday season and that would remain consistent with the mission of Old Westbury Gardens.
“Shimmering Solstice was designed to be a celebration of our space,” said Maura Brush, Director of Horticulture at Old Westbury Gardens. “The features that define Old Westbury Gardens such as the formal allées, ponds, and statuary are all illuminated so visitors can view them in a completely different light.”
This walk-through show is a family friendly experience people of all ages can enjoy and is designed to explore at your own pace. For the exciting finale, you are again be dazzled to see the south facade of Westbury House come alive with magical lights and seasonal sounds—this year with an exciting twist!
Tickets are $34.95/adults, $19.95/kids 2-13, $26.95/Senior Sundays (65+), $80/Anytime, Any Day.
The show runs on select dates through January 1, 2023. The admission time starts at 5:30 p.m. Check website for available dates and times.
Amaze Light Festival, NYC’s Newest Holiday Attraction, Dazzles at Citifield
A million lights fashioned into fanciful characters and iconic symbols of the holiday season – so big you can walk or climb through, sit inside a train locomotive, a gigantic teddy bear, a Christmas tree, Santa’s hat, a giant Frosty the Snowman. Teams of reindeer. A Castle of lights. This is the Amaze Light Festival – a new immersive, interactive holiday attraction for New York City, taking up a sprawling 50,000 square feet of outdoor space at Queens’ Citifield where this is plenty of space to run around in the winter night air (bundle up).
The Amaze Light Festival is produced by Artistic Holiday Designs, a holiday decoration design firm known for designing interactive experiences, in partnership with Leblanc Illuminations. Debuting last year at Rosemont in Chicago, Amaze Light Festival has expanded this year to two new sites, running simultaneously in New York City’s iconic Citi Field and Chicagoland’s Odyssey Fun World in Tinley Park, Wednesdays through Sundays through January 8.
Amaze Light Festival, designed as an ‘immersive” storybook experience, takes you on an “illuminous holiday adventure” inspired by storybook characters Zing and Sparky through five thematic displays, each one offering dazzling photo opportunities.
There are also a couple of optional rides available: a cute Arctic Express Train ride through a light display headlined by a giant Frosty the Snowman ($10 pp) that takes about four minutes, and a tubing experience down Zing’s Thrill Hill ($5/per ride or $10 for 3 rides) that lasts about 10 seconds.
There are also live performances every two-hours and a light show every 30-minutes. Throughout, classic holiday music plays, weaving together the experience.
German-styled cottages housing goodies and featuring local small business offering special gifts fill the Amaze Market, a version of a Christmas market. You can also find an array of sweet and savory dishes and festive beverages including: baked goods, hot cocoa, savory plates, sweet dishes, and crafted cocktails, plus various items from food trucks.
Additional highlights include the candy-fueled Sparky’s Sweet Spot, an enclosed candy emporium, and Zing’s Toyporium, selling a selection of educational-style toys, where you also find Zing’s Buddy Builder, a toy machine which provides the opportunity to donate to Make-A-Wish Southern Florida, Hurricane Ian Relief (American Red Cross) or Toys for Tots (simply press a button and watching the magic happen). Participants can choose the charity and Amaze Light Festival will donate $1 for each participant.
Amaze Light Festival is open Wednesdays through Sundays, 4-10 p.m (you choose your time slot, but VIPs can stay as long as they like), with the last ticket sold at 9 p.m. In Chicago, ticket prices start at $30 for children and $36 for adults while in the New York City location, adult ticket prices start at $44 and $36 for children.
There is the option of a VIP upgrade ($50 more) that provides reserved seating during the live performances and light shows; exclusive access to mingle with the Masters of Light, Zing and Sparky; enjoy complimentary holiday themed food items (it was Greek souvlaki from a truck when I visited), in a heated indoor lounge where you can purchase hot chocolate ($5 and $6) and premium craft cocktails.
An Amaze App provides pre-arrival information including festival maps, venue details, food and beverage menus and Frequently Asked Questions. Customers are able to purchase festival tickets and buy add-ons in real time, such as to Zing’s Thrill Hill and the Arctic Express Train Ride and use the Amaze Pay mobile wallet, a completely contactless method of payment.
If you drive, there is parking at the Southfield lot and Stadium View lot, which costs $30 per car (credit or debit card only, no cash accepted); or you can take the 7 train or the Long Island Railroad to Mets-Willetts Point.
Amaze Light Festival runs through January 8, 2023. Tickets for Chicago are available at amazelightfestival.com/chicago-tickets/and tickets for New York City are available for purchase at amazelightfestival.com/newyork-tickets/. There are limited tickets for peak time slots and guests are encouraged to purchase their tickets in advance for this limited season run. Additional information for New York City can be found in the NYC FAQ and for more information on Chicago see the FAQs.
Polar Express at B&O Railroad Museum, Baltimore
Our kids, 5 and 8, were so excited about the prospect of riding the Polar Express at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, they purchased special pajamas for the trip. This wasn’t just a hop on a train through some holiday scenery. We were amazed by how closely to the story/movie (really recommended to see the Tom Hanks movie before you go), the event tracks – down to the golden ticket (exactly like the movie), the conductor, the flush of steam and blow of the train whistle of the vintage train, where you meet the Hero Boy and the Conductor from the classic tale.
The event starts with a DJ and dance party (reminiscent of the scene in the movie with the kids dancing as the boy gets on). Then you get on an actual train (not vintage)- its windows frosted just like in the story – for a 45 minute train ride. Chefs dance to the “Hot chocolate” song, delivering the sweet beverage and a sugar cookie. At the end, the kids come into the North Pole – the historic Roundhouse (just like in the movie), decorated for Christmas, with a 35-foot tree, and get to meet Santa.
Then there are activities (spend as long as you like) – making tree ornaments, and holiday crafts, see model train layouts and enjoy the museum exhibits. All the participants receive the “first gift of Christmas” – an actual sleigh bell (just like in the movie). With such high expectations, I was worried the event would fall flat, but the kids came home more excited than they left. (Purchase timed tickets in advance at https://www.borail.org/events/polar-express-4/)
Zoo Lights has returned to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore through January 1, with seasonal lights, including displays shaped like the Zoo’s animals and a full roster of special events like BRRR Fest (which includes unlimited beer and wine sampling), food truck rallies, ice sculptures, holiday choruses, crafts, Santa Saturdays, and Hanukkah readings provided by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Free rides on the popular carousel and train are included in the admission price. Proceeds directly benefit the Zoo’s animal care and conservation programs. All event information, including times, entry prices, and the event schedule is available at: Marylandzoo.org/events (1876 Mansion House Drive, Baltimore MD 21217, www.marylandzoo.org ).
Ride Vintage Train, Trolley Car in a Hidden Valley in Pennsylvania
The East Broad Top Railroad, a small narrow-gauge railroad, and the adjacent Rockhill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace (Orbisonia), PA are celebrating the holidays in true retro style with a one-ticket/two-ride event themed “Christmas in Coal Country” through December. Enjoy a one-hour train ride aboard a selection of heated cars. The train departs from the historic Orbisonia Station and travels north, where you encounter Santa who gives every child a special gift. Trains leave at 5p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Each “Christmas in Coal Country” ticket includes a ride on a vintage trolley car through the Blacklog Narrows, decked out in holiday lights. Trolley rides depart frequently throughout the evening and can be enjoyed before or after your train ride. Tickets also include writing letters to Santa. Every passenger enjoys a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie and each child takes home a gift. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for children. If you want to ride in the caboose, the cost is $30 for adults and $25 for children. For more information visit www.eastbroadtop.com
Newport Mansions Add More Sparkle to Holidays
Holidays at the Newport Mansions, in Newport, Rhode Island, returns to The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.daily, through January 1. Beautiful seasonal decorations, including themed Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and fresh floral arrangements, add a festive holiday décor to these spectacular Gilded Age houses.
Once again, the 15-foot-tall poinsettia tree in the Great Hall of The Breakers – made up of 150 individual poinsettia plants – provides a wonderful holiday photo opportunity. New this year, the Music Room of The Breakers – prominently showcased in Season 1 of Julian Fellowes’ “The Gilded Age” series on HBO – will feature a vignette of mannequins dressed in elegant Gilded Age fashions.
New at this year’s “Sparkling Lights at The Breakers” visitors can stroll in a complete loop around the property, enjoying a half-mile-long path glittering with hundreds of thousands of holiday lights while music fills the air. Highlights include a dazzling 50-foot-long tunnel of light and illuminated snowmen and reindeer. Guests will also want to stop by the Van“deer”bilt selfie station, or pause to watch the tree of lights change colors above the illuminated façade of the mansion. Also new this year, five fire pits light the way and help visitors stay warm. The back terrace has warming stations and adult beverages. holiday sweets and treats including s’mores kits to cook over the fire pit, are available to purchase. The Breakers Welcome Center also has snacks and non-alcoholic beverages for purchase.
Now in its third year, “Sparkling Lights at The Breakers is open Thursdays through Sundays, 4:30-6:30 p.m. through December 23, and every evening from December 26-January 1, 4:30-6:30 p.m. Tickets are for a specific date and time and include admission to the interior tour of The Breakers.
Zoo Lights presented by Florida Power & Light Company’s FPL SolarNow™ is illuminating Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society for the holidays on select nights through January 1, 2023 for the fourth year. New this year and to add a little extra icing to the night, “snow” will fall periodically in the Fountain Plaza. Each evening of Zoo Lights features a WILD holiday celebration including photos with Santa, decadent treats, snowfall, a DJ dance party and plenty of holiday charm. The Zoo’s Winter Wonderland Pavilion will include a special holiday visual experience, not to be missed. Zoo Lights attendees can select from two specific times for entry; 6:00 PM and 6:45 PM. Tickets are limited each evening to allow for plenty of room to move about the Zoo.
The Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express Train Ride
Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel’s perennially popular Polar Express onboard holiday experience brings the pages of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic children’s book to life, with chefs offering hot chocolate and cookies, and, of course, Santa Claus himself. Now in its 22nd season, The Polar Express runs on select dates through December 30, departing the Railway’s historic depot in Williams, Arizona, to the North Pole, leaving at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The train rides and visits with Santa at the North Pole last 90 minutes. Tickets are available Sunday through Thursday for $57 (adults) and $38 (children); Friday and Saturday for $69 (adults) and $52 (children); and The Christmas Eve Limited for $95 (adults) and $64 (children). The Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel also offers the POLAR EXPRESS™ Package, which features overnight accommodations and POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride tickets for guests. Included in this package is the POLAR EXPRESS™ train excursion, a one-night stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, and breakfast and dinner at the Fred Harvey Restaurant.
Yuletide at Winterthur: Through January 8, Henry du Pont’s mansion is transformed into a magical holiday spectacle, with food, music, exhibits, a gingerbread house, holiday programs and activities, and a Christmas tree display featuring decorations inspired by past First Ladies. Reservations are recommended for the Yuletide exhibits, and it’s your last chance to see Jacqueline Kennedy and Henry Francis du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House before it closes on January 8.
Holidays at Hagley: Step back in time to 1803 as you visit the du Pont ancestral home Eleutherian Mills decorated in vintage holiday charm. There is also an “All Creatures Great and Small” exhibit celebrating stories of pets, wildlife, and other animals which made their habitat at Hagley over the last 200 years, both in the historic home and outdoors. “Holidays at Hagley: All Creatures Great and Small” features Holiday Home and Garden Tours, the fifth-annual Gingerbread House Competition, Santa Days, evening Twilight Tours, and more.
A Longwood Christmas: Through January 8, stroll past poinsettias, pinecones, snowflakes as you tour the special holiday gardens. As the sun sets, you see thousands of dazzling lights strung across miles of trees; warm up in the four-acre Conservatory with holiday sing-alongs sung to a 10,010 pipe Aeolian organ – the largest organ ever constructed in a residential setting. You can also grab a hot chocolate and cozy up to one of the many fire pits.
Brandywine Christmas at Brandywine Museum of Art: Renowned for its collection from three generations of Wyeth family artists, during the holiday season the museum is famous for showcasing the region’s most impressive model train display, this year, celebrating its 50th anniversary. Throughout the season they display festive trees and have crafts, live musical performances, and imaginative “Critter” ornaments made by local volunteers.
Holiday Light Express: In Wilmington, throughout the month of December you can take a 45-minute ride in 100-year old (heated) coaches and experience thousands of holiday lights of decorated homes along the route.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Candlelight Theatre’s performance of White Christmas. Filled with laughter, romance, spectacular dance numbers and the unforgettable songs of Irving Berlin.
Washington, DC is that Shining Holiday Beacon on a Hill
Destination DC (Washington.org) offers up a score of holiday happenings including the 100th annual National Christmas Tree. Highlights include:
Dazzling Light Displays
“Season’s Greenings” returns to the U.S. Botanic Garden. Model trains run each day in the gated outdoor gardens and the Conservatory features poinsettias, holiday decor, and D.C. landmarks made from plants (through Jan. 2, 2023).
Explore the world’s largest light maze, Enchant at Nationals Park through Jan. 1, plus ice skating, holiday beverages, a holiday market and a chance to meet Santa Claus.
Environmentally friendly LED lights and dozens of glowing animal lanterns transform the National Zoo into a winter wonderland with ZooLights, through Friday, December 30, 5-9 pm
SPECTACULAR FACTORY at Artechouse invites visitors inside an enchanting and experiential multiverse world filled with candy canes, nutcrackers, and more.
Georgetown Park transforms to a holiday wonderland with multicolored lights, holiday décor and photo perfect visuals.
Capitol Hill lights up Sunny, its prized tree, on Nov. 26 at Eastern Market Metro Park.
The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, chosen from Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, glows nightly on the West Front Lawn through New Year’s Day.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Machu Picchu, Peru’s jewel, along with the Galapagos, Ecuador’s treasure, are both national parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites. And both are models for the risks of overtourism and the rewards of responsible tourism.
Without tourism, Ecuador would not have the funds to protect the animals or the habitat of the Galapagos.
Without tourism to Machu Picchu, there would not be a Machu Picchu to visit, nor any of the other Incan sites along the Inca Trail, resurrected from 400 years of overgrowth. Without tourism, these porters who come from mountain villages would not have the income to supplement subsistence farming to provide a better life for their family. That was clear during the COVID pandemic lockdown.
Both Galapagos and Machu Picchu limit the numbers of visitors, require visitors to visit with a licensed tour company and be guided (otherwise they muck up the place) and, similarly, put constraints on the tour companies, as well as development. In the Galapagos, ships are limited to 100 passengers; in Machu Picchu, trekking companies are limited to groups with a maximum of 16 trekkers, two guides and 22 porters, with each porter carrying a maximum of 25 kilos.
The reality of the benefits of tourism is harshly apparent when it is taken away – as during the COVID pandemic lockdowns, or conflict, or natural disaster – when so many lose their livelihoods and agencies and organizations lose the capital to maintain and preserve the historic, heritage and natural sites.
Tourism goes even further than that. I believe tourism the greatest force for peace, understanding , cooperation and progress that humanity has ever devised. Tourism has provided the funding – and the demand – to unearth these Incan sites, and in the process, sparked a renewed desire for Peruvians to appreciate their heritage.
But yes, tourism has to be kept in balance, to avoid exploitation and the negative impacts overtourism can have. That is what Sustainable, Responsible Tourism is about.
Many travelers these days have Responsible Travel in mind when they choose destinations, experiences and travel companies – down to the airlines, cruiselines, hotels and tour operators. Indeed, Alpaca Expeditions highlights its Sustainability bona fides at its website (alpacaexpeditions.com).
And on this four-day, three-day Inca Trail trek, I could really assess how well Alpaca Expeditions’ fulfilled its lofty promise of being a “sustainable and responsible” tour company, with a “unique service philosophy dedicated to our porter welfare equally to our client services, fair and kind travel, equal employer with a focus on women’s rights in tourism.”
In fact, all of these promises were confirmed during our visit. Alpaca Expeditions can stand as a model of the importance of responsible, sustainable tourism – both in preserving Machu Picchu and the historic sites along the Inca Trail and as a model for other travel enterprises. You can see it in the comparative prosperity of Cuzco, once the capital of the Incan Empire and the epicenter of the Incan world.
So, on the third day of the four-day Inca Trail trek – in the morning before we head out and again this evening – our Alpaca Expeditions guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, creates opportunities for us to get to know who our porters, chefs and staff are who are making this experience possible, and they to know us. This is what Responsible Tourism is all about – a connection, appreciation and an opportunity to improve the lives of the local community, and, similarly, an appreciation for the guests whose tourism dollars provide them a better quality of life as well as the funds to preserve and protect their heritage.
The porters, chefs and guides – 22 of them to 15 of us (there is actually one fellow who is the “sanitation engineer” charged with maintaining the private portable potty; two of the porters are brothers, aged 62 and 68, and one is a woman, which is still unusual) – come mostly from the same mountain village and leave their families for weeks on end in order to do these treks, but at least they have the camaraderie of their friends.
Lizandro’s own story is illustrative. On our first day of the four-day Inca Trail trek, as we walk through one of the mountain villages, he tells us that village was where he grew up – his family is among 96 who still live there. He used to lead a pack horse on the trail since he was 4.
“In my community there was no school. My parents sent me for education –I stayed with an uncle for three years until my parents couldn’t pay for school. I met a chef and became a porter at 18 years old, 15 years ago.“ He learned English from the trekkers . His first word, he tells us, was “baby spoon” when he was 18.
“Fifteen years ago, porters were exploited by companies – they hired fewer to make more profit,” Lizandro tells us. “Then, they carried 40-45 kilos; companies didn’t provide uniforms, equipment, back support, not even food. They had to carry their own blanket and did not have a tent. Salaries were 50 Soles for a four-day hike – not even $15.
“My first hike was so difficult, a porter made me take coca leaves. I got 50 Soles for a tip. 15 years ago in Peru, 50 Soles was a lot – 1 sole could buy 20 breads, now it only buys 2 breads.”
Then, 15 years ago, the porters organized with the help of the Cuzco government, and got regulations to provide better conditions. Now the porters carry a maximum of 28 Kilos (the first 2 days are still heavier because they are carrying food supplies, and the packs are heavier when it rains, but lighten as we consume food) and guests are restricted to bringing 7 kilos including a sleeping bag in the duffel which is supplied.
“It’s difficult for porters (from mountain village) to be away from family for these periods of time, but typically they come from the same community so have friends. Some commute six hours by bus/train and then 2-3 hours walk back to home, so many prefer to do 5-6 groups and then go home for 5-6 days, do some farming and then come back to hike. Normally, they do 6-7 trips a month.”
When the COVID pandemic forced a lockdown and there were no tourists coming (one Japanese tourist actually had to stay in Peru a full year before he could go back to Japan, which was closed to the outside, and was the first visitor back to Machu Picchu), Lizandro had to go back to his village and do farming.
The government has yet to restore the full numbers of visitors to Machu Picchu after reopening from the pandemic – before, 7,000 were allowed per day; the number had just been increased to 5,000 from 4,000 (only 200 trekkers per day on the Inca Trail). “We thought it would take a couple of years but recovery has been quick,” he said.
Now, even though the porters are protected, some companies still make them carry heavier packs and do not provide hiking boots; some porters still hike in sandals instead of boots, Lizandro says.
Raul Ccolque who founded Alpaca Expeditions, grew up in a small town in the Sacred Valley and while he was studying tourism, worked as a porter (from 2000-2003) and later as a tour guide. Ccolque witnessed firsthand how companies exploited their porters – not only were they poorly paid, but they would also be badly bruised or injured due to carrying heavier loads than necessary, without proper hiking boots or uniforms, sleeping bags. They even had to supply their own food.
Raul set out to create a company that would remedy this inhumane situation.
“Most of our porters live in a village outside of Cusco – typically 2 to 4 hours away. We cover all entrance fees (45 soles – $15 US per porter) and transportation to and from the trek for our porters, separate from their salary,” the website says. “They are paid directly after the trek, which prevents them from traveling back to Cusco before heading home. Unfortunately, this is an uncommon practice. They receive better wages, health insurance [not a given in Peru] and all of their equipment for free. This includes hiking boots, pants, jerseys, fleeces, jackets, hats, flashlights, sleeping bags, and amazing food to eat. We make sure they have a comfortable bed in a lovely room to sleep before (and after if needed) the trek instead of crashing on a floor like others.” Alpaca Expeditions built Porters House where they stay between trips.
“While the government allows each porter to carry up to 25kg, we keep our limit at 20kg. Each porter will carry up to 15kg from the company and 5kg of their own personal stuff. This is why it’s so important to keep your personal duffel within weight restrictions and not exceed our allowed 7kg. You will see other companies carrying more than the allotted weight, but we will not allow our porters to carry this burden. Every year Alpaca Expeditions provides new sleeping bags and sleeping pads for each porter. We provide them all the gear they need along the hike, our jackets, for example, are all lined and warm, and our boots are all waterproof. Our porters eat the same food as the guests; the chef cooks enough for all the trekkers and porters [that’s why our platters are so enormous and there are so many dishes made]. Of course, the porters are carrying the food supplies, so with each day, at least that load gets lighter.”
Also, “In keeping with the Andean concept of ‘ayni’, or giving back to the community, Alpaca Expeditions has numerous social projects,” the company states. “Our pride and joy has been ‘adopting’ the highland villages where our porters’ families have lived for centuries as subsistence farmers. Several times a year we go to these villages to help supply their schools with books, computers and basic hygiene supplies. We have even provided the funds necessary to employ a teacher. We have also started a tree planting project that reintroduced 3,000 of the indigenous, but rapidly disappearing Queuña tree. Alpaca Expeditions is dedicated to improving our community and sharing these social projects.” The company is also working with a local clinic in Cusco to provide dental care and skin examinations for the children of each of its porters’ villages.
Lizandro tells us that most of the porters, even though they have done the trek umptium times, along with their families in the mountain villages, have never actually visited Machu Picchu themselves – the porters leave our group early on the last morning to make a 6 am train back to Ollantaytambo. But among the programs that Alpaca Expeditions offers is an opportunity for the porters to visit Machu Picchu with their families.
The company says it has bought land in Cusco to build dormitories, classrooms and teaching kitchens for its team. “We will have English classes, computer classes and cooking classes here for any member of our team and their family to use, free of charge. This is a huge project for us that we are really excited about.”
People used to be able to do the Inca Trail trek on their own, doing their own camping. But they left such a mess, the government now requires every person going to Machu Picchu to obtain a permit and go with a licensed tour company. Still, Alpaca Expeditions has found the need to extend its “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” values beyond its own staff and guests. “Not only do we clean up after ourselves, but we even have campaigns where our staff cleans up the messes others have left behind. There is a key concept in the Andean cosmovision known as ‘ayni’. It means ‘reciprocity’ – that as you take, you must give back. We are dedicated to treating our beautiful Mother Earth, known as Pachamama in Peru, with respect and honor in exchange for all the abundance she gives to us.”
When it comes to my turn to introduce myself, I can’t help but reveal that I turned 71 this day, and this “trip of a lifetime” could only be possible because of them. (Later that evening, the chef presents me with the most magnificent, decorated birthday cake, which took three hours to prepare with the camping-style equipment he uses.)
At the evening gathering, the night before we will reach Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, Lizandro suggests that if there is anything that we would leave behind, that we donate it to the porters. Sarah and Eric compile a bunch of their stuff (the Inca Trail trek was the grand finale to six months of their travel odyssey) and bring it to the Alpaca Expeditions office the next day when we are back in Cuzco.
Alpaca Expeditions is clearly on the same page in appreciating the importance of responsible, sustainable tourism. But I would suggest there is still more to do, and perhaps Alpaca Expeditions, because it has become such a leader, could persuade the government to make some changes.
The trekking companies used to only hire uneducated men from the mountain villages – just as Lizandro was – whose opportunities were limited (considering how smart and articulate he is – basically learning English from the trekkers, one can only imagine all the opportunities he might have had if public education was available to him growing up). But not that long ago, the government made public education universal. And as a result, fewer are coming forward to be the porters because other opportunities are open to them. Now I wonder, whether a shortage of porters will inhibit the increase in tourism and trekking, which provides most of the dollars necessary to support the preservation and conservation, and the economic activity and jobs. In fact, all of us trekkers are not just appreciative of the porters, but feel somewhat guilty as we make way for them to pass us (!!) on the trail, thanking them as they go by.
So here’s an idea: the government, which already has campsites with public restrooms, and facilities for the Park Rangers, that they build storage sheds at the campsites so the operators can store the tents, tables and infrastructure for the season. In this way, they can reduce the loads that the porters have to carry. Then, more young people would probably sign up for the experience – if not a career – and in this way, the companies would have enough porters to support the number of trekkers, whose dollars fuel this virtuous cycle. That’s human ecology.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We are awakened at 3 am when the Alpaca Expeditions staff bring hot coffee to our tents. We have everything ready for leaving the Wiñaywayna campsite by 3:15 am (I had packed everything the night before and only kept out what I would be taking on the trail), and set out, our bagged breakfast in hand, wearing our headlamps in the dark for the surprisingly short distance walk to the check-in point for Machu Picchu where we wait until it opens at 5:30 am.
Our guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman wants us to get up so early to be first on line (he claims to have a 98% success rate) and also to get to the Sun Gate as the sun rises, and to Machu Picchu in time for the first rays to illuminate the scene. In fact, there is only a group of six ahead of us and something like 200 behind us, checking our passport against the list of permits granted for the day.
Somehow, I wind up leading our pack of 15 trekkers and I surprise myself at the pace I set for the one-hour hike on this mostly flat portion of the trail to the Sun Gate. I am in the lead until we get to what Lizandro calls the “Gringo killer”- 50 of the steepest steps – more like a rock climbing wall – where you need to use your hands to crawl up like cat.
Lizandro has prepared us for the fact that the sun only comes through the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise on the solstice. But from here, we get our first view of Machu Picchu in the distance (it’s still an hour’s hike away).
One of the many nice aspects of our guides, Lizandro and Georgio, is that they have been patiently taking individual and group photos of us with our phones and cameras at each of the key spots along the trail, and so we stop at the Sun Gate to take our turn posing for those shots. (Everyone wants to be at this small point for the sunrise, which is why Lizandro wanted us first.)
And then we continue (downhill!), from the Sun Gate at 8956 ft. elevation, an hour more to Machu Picchu, descending to 7,873 elevation over the course of three miles from the Wiñaywayna campsite. At the same time, the temperature which had been cold at the highest elevations, becomes warm, even balmy, so we are actually sweating (need sunscreen and hat!) at the site.
This part of the Inca trail gives us views that show how Machu Picchu is positioned – we see the entirety of the Lost City (I can only imagine what it was like before it was excavated) and how it is etched amid the contours of the mountain peaks – which is how it was kept hidden from the Spanish when they invaded in 1538 and for 400 years.
Literally 10 seconds after I pass a scenic overlook, the sun pokes out. (These views and so much more, are why we take the Inca Trail trek.)
At about 7:40 am, we walk in what seems to be a back entrance into the city, where we are perched on high terraces and the views are the iconic ones of magazines and postcards (and I suspect are not available to the day-trippers who come in from the bottom entrance for the tour). How lucky we are because the sun breaks through, highlighting the structures, for exquisite scenes.
We actually walk down and out of Machu Picchu site to wait for our ticketed time to re-enter (you can only stay 2 ½ hours and can only come in with a guide). While we wait, we have to use the bathroom before we reenter and check bigger backpacks and hiking poles.
Our scheduled time to enter Machu Picchu to begin our 2 hour private guided tour with Lizandro is 8:30 am, who leads us on Circuit #4 (there are four different circuits to control crowds) to the highlights: the terraces, Sun Temple, Royal Mausoleum, Palace, Plaza, Sacred Rock.
Machu means “old, ancient, big). Picchu means peak , so Machu Picchu actually means “Ancient Mountain,” but that was not its indigenous name.
Lizandro tells us that it was built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, the 9th Incan king but its first emperor, who was the “Alexander the Great” of the Inca, the Empire Builder. Beginning in 1438, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui began a far-reaching expansion that brought much of the modern-day territory of Peru under the ruling Inca family control. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. He built Machu Picchu up in the mountains, instead of the valley, to be closer to sun, to connect the sky and the earth in one place, as well as for protection. “Mountains were gods that protected the villages and the animals,” he relates. Almost all of the construction faces east to catch the sunrise – the Inca rulers claimed to be the children of Inti, the Sun God.
Over the next 100 years, the Empire ultimately expanded to what are today six South American countries, connected by 25,000 miles of roads, suspension bridges and trails, and controlling a population as many as 18 million.
The Sun Gate was built as a check point to enter Machu Picchu, but positioned so that on December 22, the summer solstice, the sun beam would come through gate; and on June 21, it comes through the other window.
Machu Picchu is built in two sections – an urban sector has some 200 units of which 172 were homes, and the rest were temples, and a sun dial.
There would have been 700-800 people living here full time – 60% were nobles, the rest were farmers and workers.
How did they build Machu Picchu without slaves, without animals to carry, without a wheel, iron tools, or written language? Consider that China’s Great Wall and the Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor, draft animals, a wheel, iron tools and written language.
What they had was a culture and a labor system based on principles: Ani – reciprocity – one for all, all for one; Minka – community benefit – vulnerable – collectivity (how the Peruvians got through Covid despite a poor health care system); and Mita – paying taxes by work, labor (not cash) to benefit the whole.
It took 50-60 years to build Machu Picchu for Pachacuti, the first Incan Emperor, who ruled from 1432-1472, but it was never finished. I can’t help but wonder how many men were impressed to build this enormous complex of structures in that amount of time.
When the Spanish invaded in 1538, Machu Picchu was abandoned before it was finished and the Incan forces fell back to arm Vilcabamba, the Inca’s last stronghold. “They promised to come back but didn’t,” Lizandro says.
It is mindboggling to contemplate that as complex a construction as what we see, the scale, and the fact that more than 60% is still unexcavated, under 400 years of overgrowth.
The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest.
“He set up tents at base, met a local to ask where Vilcabamba might be. The man didn’t know, but on July 24 1911, with machete in hand, Bingham had a big surprise: the sight of Machu Picchu took his breath away. Two families were living here, cultivating the terraces two years before Bingham arrived. They were running away from paying taxes to the government.” [Off the grid?]
Bingham returned for a second, then a third expedition. He uncovered eight Inca trails (the Inca destroyed many of the trails to prevent the Spanish from reaching Machu Picchu) and took away artifacts, he claimed, for two years. “More than 100 years later, Yale still has the artifacts and is requiring Peru to build a museum to hold artifacts near Machu Picchu. But Peru wants it by the river. In 2015, the United States sent 11 percent of the artifacts back – but not all were real, some were replicas that they returned. The Peru government wants all of it back.”
The photos Bingham published brought international attention to Machu Picchu, the “Lost City of the Inca” – and tourists. The first tourist following the Inca trail came in 1954 and this Incan Citadel has become the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. The site was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
We trekkers follow Circuit 4 (there are four circuits, to spread out the crowds): starting at the Main Gate (where we must present our passports and permit), to the Sun Temple, House of the Inka, the water foundation; Granitic Chaos; Sacred Plaza; Intiwatana Pyramid; Sacred Rock; Three Gates; Water Mirrors; and Condor Temple.
We climb the steep stone steps and come to the Sun Temple. It was built as a royal tomb to contain the mummified remains of the king. Lizandro points to how a temple would have the highest quality building stones and most precise placement and its architecture emphasizes the “harmony between people and nature. They always incorporate the natural bedrock. The windows are aligned for summer and winter solstice – a solar observatory. There are three steps – the Inca triology. The mummified body was placed in the tomb in fetal position.” There are no mummies left in the tomb, but there would have been mummies of the 12 Inca kings (others were buried). On the day of Ayamaki, the mummies would have been paraded from the mausoleum.
Lizandro notes that the word ‘jerky” – the dehydrated meat snack – comes from the indigenous Quechua word, “jakky charky” (related to mummification).
We come to the Royal Inca Palace, where we can see that instead of windows (too cold), there would have been shelves for idols. “Bingham got here in time to see some.”
How would they have set the weighty keystone in place? With ramps, aloe vera to make it slick, he says. The enormous stone building blocks, weighing tons, are trapezoid shape and set at a slight incline angle, for stability against earthquakes. Indeed, Peru suffered two big earthquakes – in 1650 and 1950 – when the colonial buildings collapsed, the great cathedral in Cuzco collapsed, but these structures remained (in fact, the 1950 earthquake in Cuzco unearthed Incan structures). We see under one massive block a roller-shaped stone – a precursor to the wheel.
You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps. The straight lines and perfect angles, the precision, the sheer size and bulk of the stones, and how this entire city is nestled on a plateau amid these sheer mountain peaks.
There is a large open area, like a field, which would have been used for festivals, activities, an amphitheater. And in the middle, is what would have been a sundial. In 1978, the then president invited the Spanish King and Queen to visit, and their helicopter landing in the field, broke the sundial. (I find it ironic that the Spanish were still destroying Incan heritage.)
In this small plaza, Lizandro points out a huge section of bedrock cut to mimic the shape of the mountain behind – mountains were considered sacred.
He explains a bit of the Incan society hierarchy – the Inca were the royal family and nobles – perhaps 20,000 who ruled over a population of dozens of different tribes totaling as many as 18 million across much of South America. Professionals could become nobles (rise to that privileged class) because of their expertise, skill and function. Teenagers could show a talent and go into a profession.
We sit around for a bit of a rest, and Lizandro explains some of the contemporary politics. Apparently, in the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori [a fixture in Peru’s politics from 1990 to 2003] wanted to privatize Machu Picchu – selling it off to Chilean investors, drawing an outcry of protests from the people. “The president did well his first five years – investing in industrial farming – but after he was reelected, he sold off or privatized without people knowing.” Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, wound up being investigated for corruption. He tried to flee to Japan and was captured enroute in Santiago with eight suitcases of cash. He was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.”
Lizandro says the Peruvian constitution (which I subsequently read has been rewritten and set aside multiple times since the country’s independence, while the government has undergone a series of coups back and forth from dictatorship to democracy, socialism to capitalism) favors foreign companies (they don’t pay tax). Because 50 percent of Peru’s population lives in Lima, he tells us, the people who live in rural areas, in the mountains, have little say.
Several of our group have obtained permits in advance to climb Huayna Picchu – that famous nub of a mountain, like an overlord, in the iconic Machu Picchu images – and Sarah has obtained one, while the rest of us continue touring Machu Picchu with Lizandro.
Sarah reports back that the 45-minute hike is extremely arduous – much harder than the Inca Trail hike – almost straight up to a tiny perch at the top, at 8,835 ft., 850 ft. higher than Machu Picchu, where everyone has to take turns for the photo, but you get a famous view of Machu Picchu. The trail was built by the Inca who also built temples and terraces at the top. “I would definitely recommend it to fitter hikers looking for one last challenge. It’s not super long and being able to see the scale of Machu Picchu from above was really impressive.”
We finally come back down to the entrance/exit to Machu Picchu and Lizandro hands us a ticket for the bus that takes us down an extremely winding road to the village of Aguas Calientes. We meet for a last lunch together in a local restaurant – kind of a celebratory meal ( optional and not included). Lizandro gives us our train ticket, departing Aguas Calientes 3:20 pm (you need to take seriously the notice to be on the platform at least 30 minutes ahead of time, which is when the train loads) to Ollantaytambo.
The train is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the two-hour trip (which for some reason takes us much longer). At Ollantaytambo, we are met by the Alpaca Expeditions bus for the two-hour drive back to Cuzco and drop off back at our hotel.
Candidly, I had been so obsessed about getting passed Day 2, Machu Picchu was more of an end-goal of a quest than the prime attraction – being here means I had gotten over the Dead Woman’s Pass, completed the 26 miles, going as high as nearly 14,000 feet – much as it would have been for the pilgrims who undertook this journey of a lifetime. It is personal.
For me, it is not just a trip of a lifetime but a now or never proposition.
I am not the only one celebrating an important milestone. Indeed, this is the sort of bucket-list trip that warrants a milestone – Peter timed reaching Machu Picchu for his 35th birthday; a couple had just gotten engaged at the start of the hike; another 30-something couple (he’s Italian, she’s Dutch) is on their honeymoon .That’s how special this trek is, embodying physical, spiritual – just as it did for the Inca, a triumph of will and willpower. A test of character then as now.
You are at the same time amazed by the ability of these people to construct these sites at all, but then wonder at the level of control exerted, the role of religion in maintaining that control and how authoritarians throughout human history use religion (the divine right). No surprise: the Inca kings claimed to be the son of the Sun God, Inti. And yet, you can’t help but marvel at the accomplishment of that government capable of building the 25,000 miles of roads, in producing the amount of food to sustain the population, and unifying a population of 18 million into a society.
You appreciate the social structure that produced these extraordinary mountain villages in a society that did not have slaves nor currency, did not have the wheel or beasts of burden, did not have compass, ruler, alphabet or written language.
Most astonishing, these structures were built within 20, 40 or 60 years’ time – apparently, each chief would select a project to be completed within his own lifetime.
Photos do not do justice, you have to stand next to the rock walls, trace how the boulders link to perfectly together, see the curve at the edge, the inclined angle (for stability against earthquake) with such exquisite precision, hoist yourself up the steep stone steps, look beyond to the distance these boulders would have had to be transported from their quarry.
You stand perched on these terraced structures built into the side of a mountain and simply cannot fathom what it took to build.
All these thoughts come to me as I step, climb, step, climb the trail.
At each site, Lizandro tells us more of the story of the Inca and the society they created – but unlike the sturdy bedrock that these sites were built on, the Inca’s hold on the people was really not that strong because it was not a bond. At a certain point, their hold was by force. “The Inca weren’t very nice people,” he says softly.
What was unexpected was to come away with an understanding of the limits of authoritarian control. Indeed, the Inca ruled for less than 400 years, but the empire existed only for a century before it was toppled, too weak and lacking support of the people, to withstand the Spanish invaders. There are lessons for day. And as we learn, Peru is still going through these cycles of economic struggle, political ping-pong between dictatorship and democracy, socialism and capitalism, since becoming independent from Spain in 1821. The more things change, the more they stay the same, may well be the lasting lesson.
Alpaca Expeditions offers many ways to get to experience Machu Picchu – the trek is its own experience, and when you think about it, is very inexpensive (from $650); it’s not even that difficult or expensive an airfare to reach (at this stage, you fly through Lima or Quito to Cuzco, but a new international airport is being built closer to Cuzco). The tour company also offers many different programs – like the Sacred Valley excursions – to different areas.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
On our third morning on the Inca Trail, we are wakened at 5 am at our tents in the Chaquiccocha campsite to be packed up, have breakfast at 5:30 am and out by 6:30 am to begin what is generally considered the most relaxed day of the four-day trek, when our Alpaca Expeditions group will hike 6.2 miles mostly downhill, and visit two Incan sites, Phuyupatamarka (Town in the Clouds) and Intipata (Terraces of the Sun), before reaching the campsite, where, we are told, a special activity awaits.
I’m still on a high from surviving Day 2 and the dual challenges of Dead Woman’s Pass and Runkuracay Pass, so I feel I can handle anything (and not just on this trek).
It’s a foggy morning and before setting out, Lizandro organizes all of us in a great circle with the porters and staff and guests (Giorgio calls “family” and Lizandro calls “team” and both are true in the way we have bonded) so we meet each other. We learn that the porters all come from one mountain village, that two are brothers, 62 and 68 years old, that one of the porters is a woman (very unusual, but Alpaca Expeditions has made an effort to recruit women).
Each of the trekkers introduce ourselves, as well, and I mention that today is my 71st birthday – mentioning it because I am pretty pleased with the achievement (and our guide, Giorgio, at one point guessed I was 55 – perhaps just being polite) – to emphasize that they have made this an experience of a lifetime possible for me.
We hike for 2 hours along what they call “Inca flat” (gradual inclines) and begin to enter the jungle, known as the Cloud Forest. As we walk, we have the opportunity to see Salkantay, the second highest snow-capped mountain in the Sacred Valley, and get glimpses of a fantastic panoramic view of the Vilcabamba mountain range through mist and clouds.
Towards the end of the Inca flats, we begin to make our way up to the last peak and our third pass, Phuyupatamarka (Temple Above the Clouds) at 12,073 ft. from where we have great views overlooking the Urubamba River. Down the valley, we get our first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, but the famous “Lost City” itself is still hidden from view.
From Phuyupatamarka it´s a 3-hour walk down a flight of steps to our last campsite and the grand finale for this day, exploring the Incan site of Wiñaywayna (Forever Young).
On the descent, we stop in a small cave, and just as the pilgrims did 600 years ago as they came closer to Machu Picchu, the religious center, Lizandro uses this site, the Temple Above the Clouds, to discuss religious beliefs and practices at the time of the Inca.
This would have been one of the religious sites where pilgrims would be able to show their devotion and purify themselves before they reached Machu Picchu. It could have been a place of offerings, a ritual shower, of sacrifice (animals, Lizandro says, not humans, which he says would happen only rarely).
At the time of the Inca and thousands of years before, the many different tribes were polytheists, worshipping many gods mostly associated with Nature. They believed that nature, man and the Pachamama (Mother Earth), lived in harmony and perpetual interrelationship. The Inca state promoted the worship of a creator god (Wiracocha), sun god (Inti), Moon Goddess (Mamaquilla), thunder god (Illapa) and Earth Mother (Pachamama), and a host of other supernatural entities. But the ruling Inca established Inti, the sun god, as the most important (the first Incan king declared himself to be the son of Inti, to establish his divine power and authority).
Lizandro points to a trinity that organizes the belief system: “The Inca thought three lives (past, present and future) ran parallel – one underneath (past), one above (future). They divided the world in three dimensions, three stages of life, which they depicted with animals – the condor (the heavens), the puma (the middle world of earth), and the snake (the underworld).
The snake represents knowledge, wisdom; because everything known is from past; the puma represents strength, energy; the condor connects this world to next world because it could touch heaven and carry heavy things, he says. “The Inca saw life as a circle, not a line, so life never ends. They believed life is reborn and when they were buried, they were placed in fetal position pointing to the sun and mountains; rulers were mummified and their mummified remains taken and paraded around one day a year. Children didn’t inherit property – people were buried with their belongings (for next life). Machu Picchu would have taken more than a lifetime to build, but the Emperor Pachacuti believed he wouldn’t enjoy it in this world, but the next.”
And the linchpin to it all, the basis for the Inca emperor’s power and authority, was religious faith.
So, while the Inca did not have slaves, they had a system of labor, whereby the men would give two to three months of service to the rulers (the first Incan Emperor, Pachacútec, the Alexander the Great of the Inca, had them build Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the various palaces and temples, and gave 50 percent of what they harvested to the nobles and the priests out of religious devotion. And the people were kept ignorant – only the nobles and priests were educated.
He says there would have been six water fountains here – so people could take a ritual shower “to purify mind and body before going to Machu Picchu.” He also points to a sacrificial rock.
There appears to be an altar carved into the bedrock facing sunrise.
We have about 45 minutes of a steep downward hike before it levels off again.
We come to an Incan site, Intipata (Terraces of the Sun) that interestingly, overlooks our final campsite waaaay down the mountain. Lizandro points out what would have been a platform for sacrifice. “Not for human. That would be rare” indicating that it would take place only in extreme circumstances, like a famine and would be mainly girls 11 and 13 years old who belonged to Cuzco noble families who were told they were born to be sacrificed as offerings to stop a national disaster. He describes one instance when the king sacrificed his daughter. (I’ll bet it was a period of famine, because they needed to reduce population to keep in balance.) The sacrificed were given fresh vegetable hallucinogenic flower to eat. “They offered them not death, but life.”
More typically, it was a llama that would be sacrificed. “The Llama represents spiritual life and the black llama, a symbol of material life, would be sacrificed.”
The Inca did not have a written alphabet, yet they had to figure ways to communicate across distances – to alert the villages along the Inca Trail when the king was coming, when enemies approached. They did it using runners – sometimes in relays (they could do the 26 mile distance we did in four days’ hike in four hours), using conch trumpets. Also, the patterns and colors of their clothing would identify who they were, what tribe, and so, whether friend or foe.
But they also had a system of colored strings and knots, called quipu, that recorded and relayed information, which he shows us as an example. Lizandro says (not disguising a sense of resentment) that only a few of these quipu have survived but some 1500 of them have been taken to foreign museums (in fact, most of what the archeologists have taken from the Incan sites have yet to be returned).
(I imagine that the quipu could be read like Morse code and while they did not have an alphabet, the code was probably based on mathematics- perhaps a computer could decipher?)
At the end of our third day hike – relatively short and easy (it doesn’t feel like five hours!), we get into camp at 1 pm and Lizandro tells us to look forward to an “activity” – a cooking class, where Chef Mario shows us how to cook a popular Peruvian dish, lomas latudo. We get chef’s hats and aprons and the platters of ingredients – beef, red pepper, tomatoes, onions, yellow pepper, ginger, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, pepper, cilantro, oil to fry potato (served with French fries and rice) – which we learn how to properly cut, dice, stir and sauté – before enjoying our handiwork for lunch.
Later in the afternoon, after time to relax, we walk a surprisingly short distance (less than 10 minutes) along a trail from our campsite to one of the most impressive Incan villages of all, Wiñaywayna, and (unlike when we go to Machu Picchu the next day) we have it almost to ourselves to explore.
Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu and the most popular campsite because of its proximity to Machu Picchu.
Winawayna was discovered by a local archaeologist in 1942 who was there excavating different site, Chamchabamba, and found it hidden under dense vegetation and cloud forest and amazingly, they found orchid flowers growing on the wall. Lizandro explains that Peru has 435 species orchids, but they mostly bloom early or at the end rainy season, some bloom only every 4-5 years or for only one day year, opening at sunrise and dying at sunset, but the ones found here bloom year round, which is why they named the site, Winawayna – Forever Young – for the orchid. (If Dead Woman’s Pass, thankfully, did not prove prescient for me, perhaps Forever Young on this, my birthday?)
We explore the site, climbing up and down the steep stone steps, walking through the corridors, really getting into the architecture and engineering, the logistics, as if the people left only yesterday. You realize these ruins were buried under overgrowth for 400 years and can only marvel at what was involved in the archeological excavation so that we can appreciate it today.
Most of the Inca sites have yet to be uncovered and are still buried, and the ones that we do see have only been partially excavated. Indeed, only about 40 percent of Machu Picchu has been excavated.
We go through a room with three walls and big windows which, Lizandro tells us, means it was a storage room – the windows provided ventilation for better preservation of the supplies, while homes had no windows because it would be too cold; instead, there are spaces in the walls where they would put idols for decoration.
We see what would have been a watch tower. There would have been guards with weapons at the ready to protect Machu Picchu – like sling shots (a rope of wool with a bag in the middle with rocks), arrows, lances, spears, hatchets – fine for use against another tribe, but fairly useless against the weapons the Spanish invaders wielded. The guard would have been able to recognize if someone coming was friend or foe by the colors and design of their clothes.
The temple here has three different architectural styles, which Lizandro says shows it was built by different generations and different engineers. A wall of this temple has seven windows that look out to the peak, arranged in a curve. The round shape was to reflect the sun, to provide different places to observe sun, like a sun dial. The seven windows are homage to the Seven Sister stars of the Pleiades.
The terraces here at Wiñaywayna were Inca laboratories – narrow and concave to follow the curves of the mountain, every seven levels is a different ecology, using granite and quartz to absorb heat from the sun to keep plants from freezing overnight. “The Inca realized that elevations produced better potato and corn adapted to altitude.”
This site, along with the others purposely abandoned in 1538 with the Spanish conquest.
The first Spanish expedition, in 1532, had only 167. “They were invaders, not explorers. They came to destroy the culture, the civilization. They took gold and silver and brought disease,” Lizandro says. The population at the time of the Inca was as high as 18 million before the Spanish.
Machu Picchu and the other sites were built at the same time in the mid 1400s, over a period of about 60 years. Less than 100 years later, the population started decreasing– the human ecologist in me can’t help but wonder if the massive building projects and empire building didn’t take its toll on the population.
“European diseases came even before the Spaniards came. Cortez brought disease to the Mayans, and the Mayans, trying to flee the Spaniards by going south, carried the diseases to Inca along the same network of roads the Inca used to conquer and unify its empire. The 12th Incan king, Huayna Cápac (it is believed) died in 1525 from smallpox and there was no king to follow.”
He says that it is wrong to think of an Incan civilization, rather than an Incan ruler and ruling family of perhaps 20,000 that dominated a population that ranged in size from 10 to 20 million. “When he passed away, he was mummified to continue guiding.” Because the Incan ruler could have as many concubines as he wanted, Huayna Cápac likely had 500 children throughout the kingdom, but only three who were sons of the Queen, were in line to be king. Two of the brothers were fighting a civil war for control at the time the Spanish came to Cuzco in 1533.
They saw amazing gold, silver – a city of gold – buildings covered in gold, a temple that had life-sized animals of gold. The Spaniards melted them to make coins. Then the Spanish king sent more soldiers.”
The Incan kingdom, weakened by civil war and not exactly supported by the masses they had subjugated for a century, abandoned this place to protect Machu Picchu, which was holy to them, like the Vatican. Machu Picchu was hidden amid the mountain peaks. To protect it from the Spanish invaders, the Inca destroyed the trails that led to Machu Picchu, and ultimately, abandoned Machu Picchu as well, making a last stand at Vilcabamba.
“The Inca weren’t the nicest to build such a civilization. For 100 years, they had to kill to control, so not all people were happy, so they didn’t help the Inca against the Spanish,” Lizandro says.
None of these grand projects were ever finished, which is more understandable than if they were completed.
We have as much time as we want to explore until darkness begins to fall because we can just stroll back to the campsite.
When we sit down to dinner, Chef Mario presents me with the most amazing birthday cake I have ever had in my life – completely decorated. It took him three hours to prepare it with the camping equipment he cooks with. I share the cake with Peter who timed his Machu Picchu ascent for his 35th birthday the next morning.
Lizandro then asks us what time we would like to wake up in order to get to the check point to Machu Picchu before the other 200 trekkers who will be on line: “3 am? No? Then 3:01,” he says, noting that he has a 98% success rate in being first in line for the checkpoint when it opens at 5:30 am. The check point is only about 10 minutes walk from the campsite. Why so important to be first? Well, to get to the Sun Gate by sunrise, and before the small space gets jammed crammed with people all elbowing to get the best views and photos.
Tomorrow is the day we will reach the goal of our trek: Machu Picchu.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
This is the day I have been dreading for weeks. This is the day of reckoning. Dead Woman’s Pass.
Everyone – and not just my about to turn 71-year old self, some 25 to 40 years older than the other 14 in our pack – it seems had the same anxiety over Day 2, which is the longest, most challenging day, when we will hike for four hours up to 13,829 ft over what I hope is not presciently named Dead Woman’s Pass (the name comes from its shape, not an event).
In fact, the climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass is only the first four hours of the full day’s hike, followed by two hours down, then rest and lunch. But then (and this is what could have done me in), another hike up another mountain, to Runcuraccay Pass at 13,020 ft albeit not quite as high, but steeper, 1,378 ft in elevation, more like a stadium staircase times 100 that I had imagined the whole way up to Dead Woman’s Pass would be, and then a steeper (1,220 ft), challenging decline to our campsite at Choquicocha. Indeed, it is theRuncuraccay Pass that proves the more fearsome, as I soon discover, but actually unfolds to some of the most dramatic and interesting views and sites of the entire four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek. In all, we will hike a total of 10 miles, which includes a mile’s worth of up and downs.
One of my fears is that I won’t make it into camp before dark (there are 12 hours of daylight) so I keep my headlamp handy in my day pack.
(I used Day 1, the second hardest of the four day-hike, as a test, fully well expecting that our guide would politely tap me on the shoulder and suggest I walk back down the way I came, which also was my strategy if I decided the trek was too hard. But he didn’t. And I didn’t. But pressed on.)
It’s 5 am when we are wakened in our tents with basins of hot water and soap and hot coca tea (to help with the altitude).
Breakfast is sensational, providing excellent energy food (porridge is especially good). Indeed, breakfast typically offers some combination of scrambled eggs or omelette, pancakes, porridge, cereal, fruit salad, toast, orange juice, milk, tea, coffee, hot chocolate. We are always supplied enough drinking water – tap water that is boiled for us.
As we leave camp at just about 6 am with the first light, the porters line up and applaud for us, giving us that extra boost of encouragement.
As we get higher, Lizandro stops to tell us little stories – a clever ploy so that we rest and acclimate to the higher altitude (in fact, I hear that older people such as myself do better with the altitude precisely because we go slower and stop more often).
At another point, he distributes coca leaves and instructs us how to stuff it into a cheek and let the liquid blend with saliva to get its benefit of countering altitude sickness. Then, at another stop, he distributes a kind of plant oil (like eucalyptus) and shows us how to clap three times, then breath in the vapor, which opens up our air passages so we can breathe better.
Before the last ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, there is a rest stop at Llulluchampampa (the best public restrooms on the trail!) and a stand where locals sell snacks and such. There are llamas with a baby grazing and hummingbirds. We see snow on the peaks.
Actually, I make it up to Dead Woman’s Pass by 9:15 am – coming in not at the end of the pack as I expected, but more towards the middle, Eric tells me. Everyone cheers. I honestly don’t remember feeling pain or discomfort, though I know I stopped several times along the way.
On reaching the pass, we stop for a short break to enjoy the views and take photos (our guide, Lizandro, patiently takes each of our photos and a group photo), and we each indulge in the self-satisfaction of the accomplishment before setting off again to descend to Pacaymayu Valley, Hidden River. It’s another hour and a half down the side of the valley – to our lunch spot.
I get in at 11:15 am to the cheers of the porters and fellow trekkers, where I find mats have been laid out for us to rest, but Mary Kate (who is part of the group of six women who are friends or friends of friends or friends of friends of friends of Caroline), is leading yoga stretches.
We enjoy a snack and then a fantastic and welcome lunch served in the dining tent (delectable chicken salad appetizer; Sara Lawa soup which is a kind of egg-drop soup made with corn flour, eggs, ginger) and I am struck by how really excellent the food is, I mean as good as the finest restaurant in Peru. Alpaca Expeditions boasts the best chefs in the mountains, and I am inclined to agree.
Chef Mario seems to use spices, flavors, textures (hot soups, energizing carbs, reinforcing proteins) that are medicinal or at least appropriate to the activity, whether to hike, rest, sleep or wake. All the food is prepared from fresh ingredients purchased in the Cusco local market and carried up for us by the porters, then prepared by the chef (no canned or rehydrated food) who also caters to vegetarians, lactose intolerant and food allergies with heaping platters.
Lunch typically includes a delicious soup (like corn or mushroom) and some combination of chicken and rice, sausage, fried fish, ceviche, steak, beans, fried rice, french fries, boiled potatoes, vegetables, salad.
There is such a lot of food but it is not just for us – the porters and staff eat the same food as we do (which, we learn, was not always the case for the trekking companies and a feature of Alpaca Expeditions that we really appreciate).
After this delightful lunch, the realization sets in: this is only the half-way mark of this challenging day. We actually have another mountain to climb and descend.
In fact, the two-hour climb up the next mountain to Runcuraccay Pass is steeper though shorter and really what I had envisioned (and feared) the Dead Woman’s Pass would be like and altogether more challenging.
We stop at a small Inca site (Runcu Raccay) and see two huge waterfalls cascading down the opposite side of the valley.
After the second pass, it’s another hour of a steep downhill hike to reach the magnificent Inca site, Sayacmarca (an otherwise inaccessible village).
This part of the trek has actually been the hardest. Eric and Sarah, who had just 10 days before hiked Rainbow Mountain, a 6.2-mile out-and-back trail near Pitumarca, Cusco, where they hiked 1,627 ft in elevation up to 16,000 feet (and suffered altitude sickness), are skipping up and down these peaks like a mountain goat. I’m a tortoise, taking my sweet time, going slow and steady, stopping for the views.
The trail disappears as a thin line hugging the mountainside, the people are mere dots of color, and then, in the distance, this amazing and improbable fortress, Sayacmarca, appears. This is an astonishing view as we descend (it is steep), with the mountain mist – even more astonishing because you are not prepared for it as you are for Machu Picchu. And to realize that this construction was basically to protect Machu Picchu. (Here, though, as Lizandro warned, we encounter the meanest mosquitoes.)
In 1941, an archeaologist came upon Sayacamaka, which was completely buried under the overgrowth and named it “inaccessible village.” The site is strategic – on top of mountain, surrounded by valleys, and protected. We see what would have been a watch tower. These structures were used for resting places, like a hostel, for the pilgrims, nobles and travelers, spaced 20-25 km apart, they could be reached in a day’s hike and knew there would be food and drink ready, Lizandro tells us.
The Incans would build a temple just for storing idols (gold), but worshipped in open area – more important than temple, because they were in contact with nature, which was the essence of their religion.
Some 16 small rooms have been excavated – the ones with windows were storage rooms; homes did not have windows (too cold). There were no farming terraces here; food came from other places, supplied by other community people.
There is a huge rock in the middle of house that was natural, part of mountain, in the same shape as mountain. “The Inca made a replica to be closer to mountain (it was considered a god).”
How did they get the building stones there? Lizandro points to where a quarry would have been on the other side of the mountain, that would have been brought up the steep trail using only human power. How many would have built the village, and over what period of time, I wonder.
They also engineered canals to bring drinking water – we see three small, square constructions that served as water fountains.
Peru’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Environment is responsible for these sites; rangers protect. While they excavate and can restore, they cannot rebuild any of the structures.
In 1915, the archeologist Hiram Bingham, who is most responsible for uncovering Machu Picchu, 1915 found 8 of these Incan trails – portions have been revived. One of the trails led to Vilcambaba, the last refuge of the Inca. In 1538, these sites along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu were abandoned by order of Manco Inca, the last Incan king to protect them from the invading Spaniards.
After exploring Sayacamaka, it’s only 20 minutes further to our second campsite, Chaquicocha (Dry Lake) at 11,808 ft. altitude, as the sun sets over the Vilcabamba mountain range.
We reach the Chaquicoche campsite at around 6:30 pm, just as darkness descends, having met the toughest challenge of the trip (and my life).
The Chaquicocha campsite is described as a recently restored Inca settlement at the gateway to the jungle, nestled between two eco-systems – high ground and cloud forest. It has one of the most picturesque settings with a fantastic view of the night sky to observe the stars, except it is cloudy tonight. It is also quite cold, and I am so happy with my $4 purchase of knee-high alpaca wool socks.
“Happy Hour” ( tea time) before dinner consists of popcorn, fried wontons, tea, coffee, followed by another superb dinner (the menu might consist of some combination of stuffed chicken, vegetable tortillas, pizza, spaghetti, pork cutlet, sauteed vegetables, salad).
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
For me, the first day of the four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu is a test – like throwing down the gauntlet. It is the second hardest (Day 2 is the day I have been dreading), when we will hike 8.7 miles, and climbing 1,866 feet to an altitude of 10,829 feet where our campsite will be. My strategy is that if I find it too difficult, I will simply walk back the way I came, rather than continue on to Day 2.
The day actually begins the evening before, when our group meets at 6 pm (we arrive late from our Sacred Valley day tour) at the Alpaca Expeditions offices for an orientation and to pick up the duffle bags (we are limited to 7 kg which includes the sleeping bag, so only about 4 kg of stuff), as well as a rain cover for our day packs, a rain poncho and hiking poles that we have rented (we will leave the rest of our luggage at the hotel or can store it with Alpaca). A team of porters will carry not only our duffels (they carry 3!), but the camping gear (tents, sleeping bags and mats), a dining tent and stools, cooking stuff, our food, and even a private potty tent.
Our adventure starts with a pick up at our hotel, Amaru Inca, in Cuzco’s historic district at 4 am. We pick up the other participants at various locations (didn’t realize we could have overnighted at Ollantaytambo!) and are taken to Piskachucho, Porters House, where we enjoy a marvelous and energizing breakfast. This is a bunkhouse where the porters – who come from mountain villages hours away – stay between expeditions.
We stop off for a bathroom break at a fantastic shop where I purchase a treasure: the most marvelous alpaca wool knee-high socks for $4 which I adore to keep me comfy cozy on the cold nights in the tent.
We drive to Km 82, and go through the first Inca Trail checkpoint to begin trek (we have to present our passport and be checked off against the list of permits, which are limited to 200 trekkers a day, which is why you have to book this trip sometimes months in advance). Machu Picchu became a national sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. There is a small museum there and our lead guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, uses this opportunity to gather us all together to reintroduce ourselves (after the orientation meeting the night before), and give us a little intro and pep talk.
We are a group of 15: a couple on their honeymoon (he from Italy, she from Netherlands), a couple from New York (actually he comes from my hometown and she from Miami) who just got engaged; a couple from Norway living in Guyana; a couple (she from New Zealand, he from Ukraine) doing remote work in Lima; a group of six ladies organized by one who actually did not know each other until the trip, but were friends or friends of friends, who come from NY, Kentucky, California; Eric and Sarah who are finishing up six-month travel odyssey with this grand finale, and me. Every one is well traveled and adventurous (also between 25 and 35 years younger than me. On the trail, I find a family taking a private tour where the parents are in their mid-60s, so I think I am the oldest trekker on the trail at this point.)
What we call the Inca Trail was part of an immense network built Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s. These roads linked the main cities of the empire with Cusco, the capital, and Machu Picchu. During the time of the Inca, the trail was the only way to get to Machu Picchu.
Our guide, Lizandro, tells us about the animals we may encounter: puma and condor (not surprisingly, they are also sacred animals that appear in architecture), speckle bear (a herbivore), and birds like fly catcher and hummingbirds (32 species).
We head out and cross a bridge over a rushing river after scouts tell us the trail has been reopened. It had been closed down for a month after a rock slide killed two porters. We are the first group of trekkers on the trail – which saves about an hour.
Lizandro stops to point out an insect on cactus – cochinillia – which the Inca used for dying textile. The prickly pear on a cactus, he says, should be eaten before sundown or it will cause an upset stomach. He points to a kind of bean which is made into a powder as a base for aspirin.
The green agave was used to make string, while ichu grass was woven into rope, strong enough to haul the massive building stones and build suspension bridges (an Incan invention). Part of the bridge’s strength and reliability came from the fact that each cable was replaced every year by local villagers as part of their mit’a – their public service obligation.
Indeed, the Inca did not use currency, nor, apparently, have slave labor; their society was organized on a system of Anyi (reciprocity, like barter); Minka (communities work together) and Mita (a labor tax, where every man was obligated to do two to three months of service to the government or serve in the military each year). By combining their political authority with religious authority, the people who were impressed to build temples and palaces did it out of devotion.
The first morning’s hike takes us through a few mountain villages – now set up to sell drinks, snacks and items to the hikers, I’m thinking, much as they would have to the pilgrims 600 years ago.
At the last village we encounter before ascending into mountain wilderness, Lizandro tells us this is actually the village where he grew up, and where 96 families still live. From the age of 5, he was leading a pack horse on the trail. There was no school in his community, so his parents sent him to live with an uncle for three years, until his parents couldn’t afford to send him. He met a chef and began as a porter at age 18 (one of the youngest) and spent two years as a porter and then a chef before becoming a guide, which is how he learned English; our other guide, Georgio, lives in the Sacred Valley and joined Alpaca Expeditions this year.
The first 2 hours of the trek are relatively easy – a warm up – as we make our way to our first Inca site where there is also a stunning overlook.
Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike (each time, giving us time to rest and refresh and acclimate to the altitude and recover energy to progress).
This site would have housed travelers and soldiers who manned the nearby “hill fort” of Willkaragay, and a shrine with rounded walls known as Pulpituyuq that had religious and ceremonial functions. Patallacta was burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, the last Incan emperor, who destroyed a number of settlements along the Inca road system during his retreat from Cuzco in 1536, to block pursuit from the Spanish conquistadors. This is one reason why the Spanish never discovered the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
“The culture that built these weren’t the only civilization,” Lizandro tells us. The peoples who lived here were one of the oldest cultures in the hemisphere: the Caral civilization of Peru is the oldest known civilization in the Americas, dating back to 3200 BCE, who built pyramids before the Egyptians.
Pre-Incans like the Paracas performed skull surgery 2000 years ago. I learn that Inca was one of the first cultures that could do surgery; surgeons in ancient Peru commonly and successfully removed small portions of patients’ skulls to treat head injuries; the surgical procedure—known as trepanation —was most often performed on adult men, likely to treat injuries suffered during combat.
Besides the Paracas, there were the Nasca who were responsible for those mysterious lines etched into plains that could only be seen from high up in the shapes of monkey and toucan even though these animals didn’t live here (sometimes I think we imagine what the shapes represent); Chimu, believed to be the first civilization to practice human sacrifice (500 skeletons were found in one tomb near Lima); Tiajuanacas who were the first culture to domesticate animals – llama used to carry goods, alpaca for their fur and meat, and vincuna, all three in the family of camels.
These civilizations and cultures all preceded the Inca but the Inca, a ruling family that imbued themselves with divine authority, were the first to conquer the Andes and establish such a vast empire. The Inca reigned from 1150 to 1533, but the history is mostly lost – eradicated by the Spanish – because the Inca did not develop a written language (that is that they know of).
How did they build such big monuments and conquer the Andes?
According to myth, Lizandro relates, around 1100, the first Incan king and queen emerged from Lake Titicaca floating islands, traveled north looking for good soil and came to Cuzco Valley which was already inhabited; the couple transformed the land – built homes, established religion (the sun god, Inti, being the most important, and the Incan king anointed himself the son of the sun), conquered the tribes around Cuzco and made Cuzco the center of their universe and the spiritual center of the Andes. Then they discovered (and conquered) the Sacred Valley – sacred because of the production of corn.
Over the next 350 years or so, the Inca expanded their empire, built a road system (known as the Royal Road in Quechua) was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America. It stretched to Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile and was at least 25,000 miles long. It was also a communications system, similar to the Roman Empire – they connected the three regions, the coast, Andes and rainforest.
Most of the Incan sites we see were built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, who was the “Alexander the Great” of the Inca. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. These Incan sites we encounter along the Incan Trail were built specifically as resting places for pilgrims and travelers headed to Machu Picchu, for religious purpose and for protection of Machu Picchu.
They would send messages by relay runners who carried quipu – messages based on strings and knots (they did not have written alphabet). The runners – who might announce the impending arrival of a noble – could make it to Machu Picchu in four hours (we take four days).
From Patallacta it’s another 2-hour hike to Hatunchaca, a kind of way station, where we have lunch, actually served in a small building (avocado salad, a sensational pumpkin soup – the soups are so welcome, comfort food – garlic bread; trout (outstanding), rice, roasted potato, corn.
The next hour (for me, more like 1 hr 20 min) is all uphill, making me all the more anxious for Day 2 hike, which will be the real challenge. I am imagining that tomorrow will be this times 10 – four hours of this just to get to Dead Woman’s Pass.
On this last stretch, we pass through two small communities where we can buy an energy drink, snacks, or essential items like batteries.
We come to a ranger station at Wayllabamba (9,842 ft elevation) where it begins to mist and we delight in seeing a rainbow (auspicious? Some indigenous people worshipped the rainbow, associated with fertility), then drizzle, then thunder, and as we get into camp, at 4:30 pm, it is a real downpour but we get cozy inside our tents at the Ayapata campsite (10,829 ft elevation) where the sleeping bag (winter grade) and mat and our duffels are already placed (whew!).
We settle into our tents and relax. Then it’s tea time! with snacks (popcorn!), and by 7:30 pm a marvelous dinner.
The rain clears out and the stars are amazing.
Lizandro points out the constellations so important to the Inca. For the Incan culture, the Milky Way was believed to be a river, Mayu, the source of all water on earth. For the Inca, earth and sky are connected, sacred, alive and parts of one whole. The sky had special, even religious significance in managing this civilization and organizing daily life. Astronomy was key to agriculture and food production was tied to religion. The Incas could identify the solstices, equinoxes, the changes of season in order to better identify the time of sowing and harvesting. We see how the Incan sites were constructed to connect to the solstice – even Machu Picchu site was constructed around the stars. In the magnificent Southern Hemisphere sky, away from all the artificial lighting, you can appreciate the wonder the sky evoked.
We hiked 8.7 miles this day, and climbed from an altitude of 8,923 ft to 10,829, to the Ayapata campsite, the hike helping us to acclimate and get used to the Inca Trail. I’m feeling fine after today’s hike – at first feeling sensory deprived because I did not bring a book with me (too much weight) so I look over old tweets. I fall asleep anxious about what Day 2 will bring.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The day after we crossed over Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,829 feet above sea level on the Inca Trail and the day before reaching Machu Picchu – the destination of this Alpaca Expeditions four-day/three-night trek – I celebrated my 71st birthday. I say this because I am not a habitual hiker or climber, am reasonably but not especially fit and live at sea level. So I was really, really anxious for weeks about whether or not Dead Woman’s Pass, named for its shape, would take on new meaning.
And while age would normally be a private matter, I say this because if I could do it, anyone who is determined (it is mostly about mind over matter) can do it too.
But my success (and yes, I do considerate it a major life accomplishment, if only to overcome fear and go outside my comfort zone to take on the challenge) has a lot to do with how well Alpaca Expeditions runs this trip –all that our guides do to make the trek as comfortable and enjoyable as possible; how the porters (who are carrying our gear) all line up to applaud and cheer us when we come in from the hike; the quality of the camping and trekking equipment; the incredible food, snacks and teas (tea time!) that chef Mario serves that are not only the quality of a fine restaurant but seem perfect for the task; providing basins of hot water and soap and delivering hot coca tea as our wake up call. (The private porto-potty tent, and an actual “sanitation engineer” assigned to keep it functioning, is also extremely appreciated.)
The hike itself – 26 miles with some fairly steep ups and downs – is actually considered moderate difficulty, along a trail of stones, albeit some high (especially for someone like me with short legs), some narrow, and some that can be slick.
The main problem comes from the altitude. And my great fear that inhabits my mind with each step as I try to prepare myself by walking up and down the steepest hill in my neighborhood for an hour (fortunately, it is on my corner) is Day 2, when we climb not one but two mountain passes – the first to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13779 ft., which will take four hours, and the second, Runkuracay, at 13020 ft, a distance of 10 miles that involves 10 hours of hiking. I calculate the amount of sunlight in the day and am concerned it will take me 12 hours and I won’t get into camp before dark. I console myself by giving myself an escape plan: I figure that if I have difficulty on Day 1 (the second toughest day) when the hike is 8.7 miles taking 7 hours to get to the campsite at 10,827 feet elevation, I can decide to simply walk back to the start. (I believe the tour operator also has this as a plan; in fact, we ask what happens if somebody is injured along the way and we are told that the porters, who carry huge loads, would carry the person on their back.) It is also a comfort to know the guides carry satellite phones which they can use for an emergency. I also pack my headlamp in my daypack.
And I prepare myself for altitude sickness – not having any alcohol before the trek, taking Sorojchi pills (mainly aspirin and caffeine, sold over the counter in Cuzco) and drinking plenty of water (which works!). I also have Ibuprofin with me.
Our guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, cleverly stops at opportune times to talk to us about plants, insects (used for medicine as well as for dyes, cactus for rope for bridges and to haul stones), the tribal people who still inhabit the mountain villages where he grew up, the Incan sites along the trail, the history, culture and legacy of the Inca Empire. This not only enhances the experience as our imagination fills the images of what we see, but (cleverly) gives us time to rest and acclimate to the higher and higher altitudes, get back our legs and our fortitude, and get revitalized for the next stage.
And on Day 2, Lizandro takes out a bag of coca leaves and shows us how to pack it into a cheek and let the juice mix with saliva to help avert altitude sickness, and before we are about to ascend the stage to Dead Woman’s Pass, he whips out a vial of an oil, like eucalyptus, which he puts into our palms, tells us to clap three times, then inhale the vapors to open our nasal passages and make our breathing more efficient. That works too.
But we also go at our own pace – our guide, Georgio, typically stays in the back of the pack – so we can stop as often as we need, and admire the view, take a photo, take some extra breaths.
I am surprised the trek is not as much about the landscape, scenery, or nature– the views of the pointed peaks with clouds and mist are beautiful, to be sure – as it is a conversation with the people who built the trail, laid the stones that line the entire trail, built the fortresses, enclaves, resting places for pilgrims and nobility on their way to Machu Picchu.
You feel a oneness with the pilgrims, as you walk in their footsteps. It all becomes a matter of personal challenge and self-discipline, mind over matter, just as it would have been for the pilgrims 600 years ago when these sites were built. Each step engages you with the human dimension in time, space and substance.
And I can’t help thinking about the people who actually built all of this.
Our voyage in the Galapagos, where we had just traveled, was about natural selection, survival of the fittest and the ecosystems in the natural world. Here, trekking on the Inca Trail, going from site to site, we learn about the human ecology. I can only wonder as I plod up these trails, what was involved to hoist those multi-ton boulders and set them in place to build these structures, the amount of food production that must have been required to sustain a population with the numbers of laborers and soldiers to build, expand and secure the Empire, and the sheer amount of calories to create and sustain all of this, without the benefit of draft animals, the wheel, iron tools, written language.
So much surprises me about the Inca Trail trek, but most of all was the number of Inca sites – resting places along the pilgrimage route, defensive forts built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s in support of Machu Picchu his greatest project– that we encounter. Like Machu Picchu, they were rescued from the overgrowth after 400 years being abandoned to Nature. How meticulously they were restored (not rebuilt) by the government– so that we could better appreciate the society, the culture and the history in their context.
They were built to accommodate people making a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. This is once in a lifetime for me, as well, or as I tell myself, “now or never” as the window of opportunity closes for me. So seize the day, which is my motto.
You read about these sites, see photographs of it (indeed, the photos archeologist Hiram Bingham published of Machu Picchu, “The Lost City of the Inca”, is what inspired the excavations and spurred this multi-million dollar tourism industry that supports preservation and conservation). But it is only when you are physically here, climbing the steep stone steps, seeing how they are built into these mountains, the scale and the precision with which they were built 600 years ago, feeling the stone, that you can understand and can appreciate.
The story unfolds as we haul ourselves up the heights, over mountain passes and down onto plateaus.
Lizandro says, “Okay, team.” Giorgio calls us “Family” and we are off and in no time at all, we are as we set out on the Inca Trail.
Tips to prepare: Comfortable hiking boots are essential. Since so much of the four-day, 26-mile hike involves steep stone steps, I wanted a light boot with good grip and as comfortable as possible (hard for my hard-to-fit feet, I went through several different brands). I broke them in (and tested them) on my daily “workout” going up/down the steepest hill in my neighborhood.
After several trials and errors, I am exceedingly happy with the Altra lone peak all-weather mid (Wide) hiking boots I bought at REI just before came – as comfortable as sneakers, but great grip, ankle support. I broke them in (and tested them) on my daily “workout” going up/down the steepest hill in my neighborhood.
Hiking poles are essential (if you don’t bring your own, you can rent from Alpaca Expeditions). They provide the tents but you rent the sleeping bag, mat (really recommended). Bring power bank to recharge phone and camera batteries (no place to plug in for four days; bring extra, charged batteries for camera). Bring a light, compact camera, like a point-and-shoot, to hike with so you don’t carry any extra weight (I packed my Nikon Z5 in the duffel and hiked with it the last day into Machu Picchu).
Bring two water bottles (they provide boiled drinking water to fill). Bring layers and hats for cold and warm weather; expect rain or mist (you trek through the Cloud Forest). The first two nights camping are likely to be cold – the sleeping bags are excellent quality winter grade but I was thrilled with my the warm knee-high alpaca wool socks I bought for $4 at the shop just before starting the hike). A headlamp is a must. I loved the Black Diamond Astro 300 lumens from REI)
Bring altitude sickness medicine (there is a prescription medicine, but I was happy with the Sorojchi Pills you can purchase over-the-counter in Cuzco), also people bring coca leaves or candy; have ibuprofen on hand.
Definitely do what you can to prepare yourself physically (and mentally). As I was walking up/down the hill for an hour, I was contemplating doing this for 9 more hours and it wasn’t a pleasant thought. I resigned myself to feeling very uncomfortable for 12 hours, and that in itself was comforting.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance.This is roughly made up of 200 tourists and 300 porters, guides and support staff. There’s also a limit to the number of visitors allowed to enter the site of Machu Picchu – capped at 5000 people per day.
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Incan ruins at Pisac in Peru’s Sacred Valley, are our first introduction on this one-day Alpaca Expeditions tour to the massive scale of Incan building projects. Though there were settlements here before (there were two other major empires before the Inca), who built terraces, but after the Inca emperor Pachacuti conquered the area in the mid 1400s, he ordered the building of a large complex covering 162 acres, on the mountain.
Pachacuti (who also built Machu Picchu, our ultimate destination on Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day/three-night Inca Trail trek) built Pisac as a multi-purpose residence, citadel, observatory and religious site – a secluded royal retreat outside of Cusco where he and nobility could “relax” between military campaigns, undertake ritual and religious ceremonies and be a defensive refuge. Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca complex in the early 1530s.
In fact, it seems most of what we associate with the Incan Empire came under the rule of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui, whose name meant “earth-shaker”. Beginning in 1438, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui began a far-reaching expansion that brought much of the modern-day territory of Peru under the ruling Inca family control.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Incan Empire extended 3,000 miles, connected by an elaborate network of roads, and had built these monumental structures at Cuzco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu– without the benefit of draft animals like the horse, the wheel, iron or steel tools, written language or currency.
How was that possible?
Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Jaime explains how the Incan society was organized – its principles of labor and work.
“Taxes” consisted of a labor obligation of a person to the Empire – each man had to devote three months of the year in service either building the Incan monumental structures or in military service. The Inca rulers (who theoretically owned all the means of production) reciprocated by granting access to land and goods and providing food and drink in celebratory feasts for their subjects.
“The Inca had three layers of labor,” Jaime tells us: Anyi (reciprocity); Minka (communities work together) and Mita (a labor tax, where every man had to do two to three months of service to the government or serve in the military each year). By combining their political authority with religious authority, the people impressed to build temples and palaces did it out of devotion.
Societal behavior was governed by three moral precepts: Ama sua: Do not steal; Ama llulla: Do not lie; and Ama quella: Do not be lazy.
How long would it have taken to build Pisac? Jaime says that each ruler would have designated his own project that had to be completed in his lifetime and not left to a successor (which is why most of these sites we see were not finished).
At the high point of Pisac, 3,594 meters (11,791 feet elevation), there is a watchtower, from which guards would have sent and received messages by blowing a conch. It might announce that the Inca king was coming and to be ready, or a threat.
The Inca worshipped the mountain and the rocks, and would integrate the structure into mountain contour, building on top of the bedrock.
Jaime explains how the terraces were built – how they would build from the bottom, to the stone wall, digging a couple of feet into the ground, use a tree as a lever, filling three layers of material – soil-gravel-big stones – so that the water would drain to the lower terrace. They used a rudimentary tool – a long stick with a stone or metallic point, and one man would use it like a spade and a second would turn the soil over.
The Inca family was “pure”, but could name a non-Incan as chief. Someone could ascend to noble rank if they had a skill. An Incan ruler would have an official wife who would also be Incan, and only her children would inherit, but he could have as many concubines as they liked, and would have dozens of children.
“It was a very organized (and controlled) society.”
At another overlook, we see where some 3,000 holes have been made in a cliff – created by grave robbers. At this site, people were buried in caves with their belongings so they would have them for the next world. The king and nobles, though, were mummified and put into a mausoleum.
We also see the remains of pre-Incan cliff dwellings. “They were afraid of cannibals” who believed they could ingest their victim’s power. “It was practiced until the mid-1800s.” Also, 1000-2000 years ago, there more wild animals and the people lived in cliffs to be safe.
We drive down into the town of Pisac which was built in the valley below the ruins by Viceroy Toledo in the 1570s, where Eric has found a local Andean restaurant online for lunch.
Pisac is famous for its market. Official market days are Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday filling the Plaza Constitución but the market is biggest on Sunday when indigenous Quechua communities from the surrounding area come to town to sell their produce and stock up on supplies for the week. We have very little time to explore the market. (We need to be back in Cuzco at 6 pm for our mandatory orientation for the Alpaca Expeditions trek to Machu Picchu.)
We would also have liked time to visit the museum, Comunitario de Pisac, which openedin 2009 with exhibits on the production of ceramics and the traditional textiles produced by local Quechua communities. A room is dedicated to the Incan presence in the area covering its development from the archaic period (7,000 to 800 BC) to the period of imperial expansion of the Inca state (1400 to 1535). The museum includes a graphical presentation of the various areas of the imperial city, as well as various ceramic objects and remains (including Incan mummies).
After lunch, we drive 1 ½ hours further to Ollantaytambo, a fascinating and massive Incan site built during the Inca’s heyday which provides an excellent preview of what we will experience at Machu Picchu. Here, we see rock formations representing the Incan god, Wiracocha (the god of creation), and the Church of St. James on top of Inca site.
The large boulders, 40-50 tons each, were so finely finished with curved and convex edges and placed, indicate that this structure would have been the temple; boulders that are basically piled up show that it was never finished. He points out the slight angle of the wall – meant to for stability in the event of an earthquake.
“They believed rocks were beings,” Jamie says. “From the quarry to the structure they may whip the rock (and not the person).“ He says that at the quarry, there would have been a model of the structure they were building in ceramic or stone and most of the carving would have been done there, where there was more room, the finishing touches would be done at the site. We see in the distance where there two quarries that supplied the stones, and walk over the terraces for growing potato, a staple food.
At the Temple of Water, we see how the Inca used water for irrigation as well as for drinking. The window opening was cut to align with the solstice, and water, diverted from the river, would be directed back into the channel.
I was concerned that I was huffing and puffing climbing around the site – realizing this was part of my acclimation to the altitude but anxious that it did not bode well for the Inca Trail trek we would be starting the next morning. I half imagined the Alpaca Expeditions guide telling me I wasn’t suited for the trek. But we pressed on.
You could easily spend 2-4 hours here – there is so much to explore – and then spend time in the gorgeous market in the absolutely charming village with its hardware stores, kitchen and home supplies. But we have to rush back – it’s about 3 hours drive back to Cuzco – to get to our mandatory 6 pm orientation at Alpaca Expeditions’ offices for our Inca Trail trek.
The next morning, when our bus taking our group to the start of the Inca Trail trek stops here in this very village to pick up a couple from their hotel here, we realize we could have organized it differently – done the orientation the night we arrived and stayed overnight Ollantaytambo in a hotel so we could have had more time to really enjoy the site and the village. (In this scenario, we still would have left our luggage back at the Amaru Inca hotel in Cuzco where we will return after the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek, and just had with us what we were taking on the trek. Also, instead of getting picked up at 4 am, we would have been picked up here at 6 am.)
It is also possible to combine a stay in Ollantaytambo with Machu Picchu without doing the four-day Inca Trail trek. Alpaca Expeditions has various tour options with shorter or no hiking.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance.
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We prepare for our Alpaca Expeditions four-day/three-night Inca Trail hiking/camping trek to Machu Picchu by spending an extra day Cuzco and the Sacred Valley – the absolutely best way to begin to acclimatize to the high altitude before the trek, which goes up to nearly 14,000 feet. This is the best way to avoid debilitating altitude sickness, but also to lay the foundation for appreciating what we will see and experience along the trail.
While it would be best to have arranged two or three days to acclimate before the trek – which would also provide more time to visit the extraordinary sights in Cuzco, Pisac and Ollantaytambo – having come from a week in the Galapagos for this grand finale to Eric and Sarah’s six-month odyssey, we only have one full day before starting out on the trek, so Alpaca Expeditions’ one-day Sacred Valley tour is ideal.
Our guide, Jaime, picks us up at 8 am our charming boutique hotel, the Amaru Inca (Cuesta San Blas, 541, Cusco City Center, Cusco, 84) which must once have been a hacienda, and we set out in private car into the countryside, where we immediately see neighborhoods, villages and communities.
The road begins its twisting rise into the mountains and Jaime stops just before the Sacsayhuaman fortress at a point where we are level with Cuzco’s most famous monument, the statue of Christo Blanco with open arms that overlooks the city. Eight meters high, it was created by Cusco sculptor Francisco Olazo – a gift from Palestine in 1945 – and a mini version of Rio’s statue. From here, the Cathedral and churches and Spanish-style buildings are most prominent.
Cuzco was the capital of the Incan Empire, and according to its lore, the “navel” of the world, and at its peak, had 30,000-40,000 inhabitants.
“There is nothing like Cuzco in any other part of South America,” Jamie says, “for the concentration of people and sites.” There are some 1,250 sacred sites in Cuzco.
The hostels we stay in today were once homes – first of Inca who began to take over Cuzco in 1000 AD, then rich Spaniards who came in the first century after conquest, in 1536.
The Incan heritage pretty much had to be resurrected, because the Spanish did their level best to eradicate the culture, and especially the religion which was based on nature worship – literally building their palaces and churches on top of Incan palaces and temples -you can still see the foundation stones.
‘It’s as if they were saying, ‘We are upon your god. Submit.’”
The center square, would have been the city’s market place and where religious ceremonies would have been held, was renamed by the Spanish the Plaza de Armas – the place of arms – where they would have held executions of rebels.
Our guide Jamie explains that the Inca were actually the ruling family – not the people – who basically ruled over some 50 different tribes and city-states, speaking different languages. Some 20,000 to 40,000 Inca nobility ruled over a population of 10 to 20 million that at its peak, spanned as far as Columbia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. The Inca expanded its empire from Cuzco by conquest and “diplomacy” between 1000, reaching its peak in the mid 1400s, 125 years before the Spanish conquest in 1536.
What is so remarkable is the Empire the Inca built – the monumental architecture and 3,000-miles of road network reaching all corners of the empire – was accomplished without the benefit of draft animals like the horse, the wheel, without iron or steel tools, a written language or currency.
How was it possible for a few hundred Spanish conquistadors to conquer the Incan Empire with a population of 20 million? The Spanish seemed to arrive during a perfect storm of turmoil and weakness in the Empire. The Inca Emperor Huayna Capac had died in 1529 after contracting smallpox, that likely came from Maya fleeing south along the roads the Inca built; two brothers were embroiled in a civil war to become the new Emperor.
Atahuallpa, the 13th and last emperor of the Inca, was victorious in a devastating civil war with his half brother, only to be captured, held for ransom, and then executed by Francisco Pizarro.
The tribal people were not motivated to battle the Spanish invaders. Many were happy to be rid of the Inca rulers and allied with Spaniards (“The Inca weren’t very nice,” Jamie says), and for some, the Spaniards seemed to be the incarnation of the priests’ prophesy of Armageddon and to have superhuman power. The first group of 90 Spaniards arrived in Cuzco in 1533 in Cuzco and lived together with Cuzco population for three years; a second, larger, more militant group came in 1536, determined to take the Inca’s gold and silver and forcibly replace the indigenous religion based on nature worship, with Christianity.
The Spaniards intentionally built their churches and palaces on top of the Incan temples and palaces and did whatever they could to eradicate the pagan religions. (Some continued to observ their religious rituals in secret – even up to modern day and as recently as 15 years ago would practice secretly. Today people openly practice. “The church knows our religion was respecting nature,” Jamie says.)
The Incan leader Manco realized the Spaniards weren’t leaving, so rose up against them, but the Incan weapons were no match.
After the third battle, the indigenous population abandoned Cuzco and the Spanish took over their properties.
If the Spaniards would have come 50 years later, Jaime says, the Incan Empire may have taken over Mexico and been powerful enough, unified enough to drive the conquerors out, he says.
We stop at the Manos de la Comunidad, a handicraft center where we see the different varieties of llama and alpaca, learn about how the wool is produced, the raw materials that the dyes are made from, and watch villagers at their looms, make stunning textiles (there’s also a fantastic gallery, museum and a large store).
This visit provides fascinating insights into the culture and heritage – the human ecosystem that shaped and sustained the Incan Empire – the environment that supports agriculture (enough food and calories to fuel the building of these monumental structures and support an army) and domestication of animals, how the natural materials at hand shaped the culture, and the structure of society.
You realize how critical to the success of the Incan Empire the domestication of llama and alpaca were – they could carry goods, and for producing wool for clothes. Also, the grasses were food for the animals but also used to make the ropes for bridges and hauling the massive stones (I suspect were also used to make the straight lines without the benefit of rulers.)
These finely-woven textiles and the monumental architecture were the main arts of the Incan Empire; instead of written communications they used knotted strings (quipu), which still cannot be deciphered but which (Karen postulates) might have been a kind of Morse code. The colors and patterns of clothes would communicate tribal affiliation, friend or foe.
The Inca’s success at farming had much to do with the fact the Inca calendar was tied to astronomy. Inca astronomers understood equinoxes, solstices and zenith passages and the Venus cycle. Religious leaders –the only others besides the nobles who were educated – used their knowledge as power over the people who were kept ignorant. The priests would use the solstice as if the people’s religious devotion would bring back the longer days. They couldn’t predict an eclipse, but they well understood how it operated.
The Inca also used mathematics to divide up political governance (a system of 10s), assess taxes, keep the census, and to do the calculations necessary to create such monumental architecture.
We also see guinea pigs in cages. These were used for food at important festivals, and even today are served for festivals as well as in restaurants.
But the Inca could not have accomplished what they did – labor, military might – without enough food (calories) to support the population, which is why the Machu Picchu Sacred Valley was so vital.
We stop at a famous overlook known as El Mirador (Lookout Point) from where we can see the Sacred Valley – an abundance of fertile plains in this high area of the Andes – spread out in front of us.
Manco Capac, around the year 1000, claimed to be the “son of the sun god Inti,” sent to earth to become first king of the Inca. He was known for his courage, and taught the people how to grow plants, make weapons, work together, share resources and worship the gods – in other words, set the parameters for the society. Karen suspects Manco was an agricultural genius and that was the source of his power – political and religious – over the people.
Besides military might and a brutal form of “justice,” the Inca ruled through religion – and superstition. Essentially, their religion was based on nature and the different tribes had their own local gods and idols – they worshiped the gods and goddesses of rain, lightning, rainbow (connected with fertility), moon, sea and water. The Inca imposed sun worship of Inti over other cults such as Pachamama (Earth Mother). The people drafted to build their palaces and temples did it out of devotion to god, Jaime says, rather than being impressed into service.
The success of the Inca was in cultivating crops – maize and potato –the domestication of llamas and alpacas as a pack animal and source of meat, wool and rope (the only domesticated animals in pre-Hispanic America), the terraces and irrigation technology.
The elevation of the valley provides the perfect climate for growing corn (maize), so Inca named in Sacred Valley (a golden staff also comes into play). The maize was also used to make a fermented liquor that was used in religious ceremonies, adding to the “sacred” nature of the valley.
They modified the river bank with sand bags to control flooding and perfected irrigation techniques to create more arable land; the terraces created micro-climates for producing different crops.
The Inca society was a combination of feudalism and socialism. While they did not have currency and technically did not use slaves, instead, the exchange of goods and services was based on reciprocity between individuals and among individuals, groups, and the Inca rulers. Farm production was divided up with 25 percent going to the Inca rulers and nobility, 25 percent to the priests and religious institutions and half kept by the farmers. The Inca rulers (who theoretically owned all the means of production) reciprocated by granting access to land and goods and providing food and drink in celebratory feasts for their subjects.
When the Spanish came, they introduced a feudal system – where the Spanish owned all the land. That persisted up to as recently as 1969, when a socialist (nationalist) president came to power.
“The government bought the land to give to farmers, brought more freedom, and the right to go to school. For the first 15-20 years, it didn’t work well because farmers didn’t know business like the landlord, didn’t have the export connections, and were used to being bossed. The government had to step in, ‘Remember the Inca time’ – and get them to act in as a cooperative. Today, every farmer has his own land. Peru’s biggest export is avocado; its corn is shipped to Japan, Germany and Canada.”
As we drive into the countryside, we see women in traditional dress, we pass markets. Many of the houses – still made of adobe – were swept away in a massive flood and are being replaced with brick structures which do not seem completed (to save taxes?). There is an election underway and we note campaign posters painted on whole buildings.
Before the day is done, we will have a chance to explore the archeological sites of Pisac and Ollantaytambo before making our way back to Cuzco for our 6 pm orientation with Alpaca Expeditions for our Incan Trail trek the next morning.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance.