The Long Way to Machu Picchu
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, June 1999

In 1990, my wife made an emergency landing at 12,500 feet in Peru after being cleared internationally to Bolivia. Her single-engine Cessna was fine, but the oxygen had failed on an identical plane flying over the Andes with her. Both craft set down on a perfect runway near Juliaca, where Barbara explained the situation to a distressed airport manager while I did the obvious thing: grab my camera and head into the fields toward Quechua Indians herding alpacas.

Minutes later, I was sternly called back. We had no permission to be there or to take off again. No private foreign plane had ever landed there, and they had no repair facility. We had dropped out of the sky into a region controlled by Sendero Luminoso guerillas. After an eerie night in an empty tourist hotel we negotiated permission to depart for the Atacama Desert of Chile.

So ended my first visit to Peru. By 1994, the infamous decade of terrorism was over and Wilderness Travel asked me to lead an Inca Trail trek for photographers. I was hesitant until a guide who had just made an Inca Trail reconnaissance said that personal safety seemed to be on a par with trekking in Nepal, which I consider safer than staying home. Barbara and I agreed to lead ten photographers on a five-day trek to Machu Picchu, with gear carried by porters and camps set at the most photogenic spots. After two nights in a hotel near the classic ruins, we would return to Cuzco by narrow-gauge railroad.

Machu Picchu is inaccessible by road. Most visitors arrive by train, while some trek the 32-mile Inca Trail through cloud forest with no inhabited villages along a seemingly endless quilt of hand-carved granite blocks laid down in the fifteenth century. It was completely grown over when an American amateur archaeologist named Hiram Bingham found it in 1911. He had been searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba, the Incas' legendary last refuge from invading Spaniards, when peasants led him to the partially exposed ruins of Machu Picchu. Though the media touted Bingham as the discoverer, local Peruvians were quite aware of Machu Picchu's existence and an earlier explorer, Antonio Raimondi, had mapped its correct location.

The true importance of Machu Picchu is due to the city not being what Bingham thought he found. Instead of a town built hastily in an unlikely, well-hidden location by Incas fleeing the Spanish invasion of the 1530s, Machu Picchu is the finest surviving example of the "Late Imperial Inca" style of architecture, as yet untainted by European influences. Bingham may not have truly discovered it, but he did reveal its existence to the developed world.

Much of the significance of the ruins is based on their improbably fine construction and endurance. The Inca stonework took decades to complete with a reverence for precision far beyond that of modern stone masons. Blocks weighing many tons with up to 12 sides fit together so perfectly without mortar that I rarely could fit a knife blade between them.

Enroute to the Inca Trail, we stayed in Cuzco's five-star Hotel Libertador built within existing Inca walls because of strict laws for historical preservation. After another night in the Urubamba Valley, "The Sacred Valley of the Incas," we caught the train at Ollantaytambo, a close modern counterpart to a living Inca village. Many of our porters lived here and boarded with us for the brief twelve-mile ride to the start of South America's most famous trail.

The route began out of nowhere up a dry side canyon toward a 14,000-foot pass. Our camps were near ridge crests, where we could wander off to take fine landscapes at dawn and dusk, uninterrupted by meals or chores, while porters watched any gear we left behind. On our fourth and final trail night, Barbara and I were awakened by whispers outside our tent. I unzipped the door and saw two dark silhouettes within arm's reach. Cafe con leche? a voice asked.

Two of our porters were waking us before sunrise with mugs of coffee mixed with hot milk. Other photographers emerged from their tents as the eastern sky was turning crimson behind icy peaks. We were joined by a porter named Francisco wearing a Quechua poncho and eared woolen cap. When first light struck him on the crest of the ridge, the vivid reds in his ornate fabrics came alive. As he played his Andean flute beneath the white pyramid of 20,000-foot Salcantay, I could imagine his Inca ancestors standing in the same spot.

A breakfast of hot cakes, fruit and coffee was served just after the magic hour. As the crew broke camp, we began the final descent toward Machu Picchu. With each step away from arid Andean highlands into moist Amazonia, my powers of perception felt keener. Perhaps the Incas planned it this way, perching their sacred town behind green-clothed monoliths on the edge of these two worlds.

Machu Picchu didn't show itself until the final mile at Intipunku, a notch floored by a walled plaza. My attention was diverted to white numbers painted on all the lower stones of Intipunku's walls, but I forgot about these un-Inca intrusions as I continued on to the classic overlook where the most splendid integration of landscape and architecture I had ever beheld was stretched out before me. The bold coherence between intentional design of stone city and natural splendor of rock walls rising out of jungle veritably defined the intangible rewards of adventure travel.

Every culture breeds pilgrims who voluntarily leave the comforts of their normal routines to experience hardships without hope of material gain. Their intentions and rewards are spiritual and personal—a heightened sense of joy and understanding of a chosen destination, perhaps nothing more. So it is for modern travelers who follow the path of the Incas over three mountain passes to reach a site of great spiritual and ceremonial significance. Yet Machu Picchu is changing forever. The walls that have stood well against the forces of nature are not enduring the influence of Disneyland and its ilk. Like the Spaniards' ruthless pursuit of Inca gold, Peruvians are now sacrificing their heritage in a lust for foreign currency.

Early in the morning, I entered a closed area before government workers appeared to rebuild walls. I watched them use mud for mortar that was never there to fit together an assemblage of white-numbered stones that began at ground level. A supervisor's schematic of the numbered rocks as they had been taken down showed the jagged outline of a typical ruin, but the reconstructed wall before me terminated in a perfect turret of unnumbered rocks several feet higher than what Bingham had uncovered. Behind that turret was another rebuilt one, and another„fabrications to complete what the original structure "might" have looked like.

When I asked the supervisor about the simulation, he gestured toward hundreds of people who had just arrived on the train and said "tourismo." His government, with its economy reeling from civil unrest, had ordered him to recreate a virtual Machu Picchu, mimicking the success of orderly American theme parks.

When I learned that our train would not depart until 3 p.m. on the third day, I decided to run the trail in reverse and hop aboard at the start. For seven magical hours without my camera, I retraced the 32 miles past far smaller, but unretouched ruins rising out of the jungle that took on new significance. Like photographs in a scrapbook, they were visions from the past that could be trusted. Machu Picchu, however worth seeing, now seems to me like a digital advertisement in which apparent reality is suspect.

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