I was 39 years old when I decided to do the Inca trail. I was no spring chicken but boy did I have a zest for adventure! I had always heard how sacred the Inca Trail was. Part of my family in Argentina had also lived in the northeast region where the Incas had once ruled. My grandfather who as an immigrant from the Middle East in Argentina had become a travelling salesman in the 40’s and spoke Quechua, the language of the Incas so he could sell his goods.
The Inca culture still has a tremendous impact in South America. They lived mostly in the Andean mountain range which today includes Peru, and parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia. It arose in the highlands of Peru in the early 13th century and its capital was in Cusco, which is where you start to acclimatize yourself if you are smart and want to do the trek without falling apart.
Here is what I mean. Doing the Inca trail requires you to climb 14,000 feet. This means you can get the “soroche” or altitude sickness. How did the Incas avoid this? They chewed coca leaves which is legal and seems to help with the lack of oxygen and whatever happens to your body when you are not used to being that close to heaven. We chose to have coca tea to lessen hunger and stayed in Cuzco for 3 days before we decided to climb.
I had always been curious about the Incas. I had studied them in middle school but being here was another story. I had always admired the Inca architects, engineers, masons and artisans. They were detailed and precise. They worked with very heavy stones and didn’t use wheels so to this day I have no idea how they got those heavy stones around. That’s why you can imagine I was not about to complain about hiking the Inca trail.
To this day, Cuzco natives sell exceptional goods. The Incas were great weavers. The women spin wool from alpacas and llamas into cloth so I got a great sweater while I was in Cusco.
Most hikers who do the Inca Trail hire locals to carry their backpack. It is a very tough trail which goes through cloud forests, alpine tundra, settlements, tunnels and many Inca ruins before you reach the mystic Machu Picchu, the Inca site built in the 15th century around 8,000 feet above sea level. As you hike you also notice terraced fields, which is where the Incas once cultivated 200 types of Peruvian potatoes. I must admit I spent some of my favorite moments taking photos of the llamas that were all around us at the highest points.
This was by far the hardest trek I have ever done. We had to go up almost 14,000 feet (Dead Woman’s Pass) and back down to sea level. Two in our group had to quit. They couldn’t handle the altitude.
We were in a group of 10 people travelling together with a guide. I remember most Stephanie and her husband from Australia. They were both in their 70s but they were in the best shape you can imagine. They taught me how to go up and down so I would not hurt myself. I have no idea why but I always arrived 2 hours after everyone else. I think it might have to do with my filming and stopping to look at things and study them. (Or just maybe I am finding an excuse for being the worst hiker in the group!)
The last day I decided to get up really early because I wanted to get there first. I practically ran towards the valley of Machu Picchu and we arrived around 5 am. My first reaction was WOW! I couldn’t believe it. There was something majestic, spiritual, and peaceful about the place. It was no doubt for me a sacred site (because whoever wrote the books was not there when the Incas were there). The explanations by the guide were quite confusing. I never really felt I could trust his knowledge. I had read a few books about Machu Picchu, which was supposedly built around A.D. 1450 for about 500 to 700 people, but it didn’t much matter to me. I just knew how I felt. I felt a tremendous gratitude for the gift of arriving, seeing and enjoying it. It had not been an easy four days but it was worth every minute. Here is what I believe Machu Picchu is about.
Historians have claimed Machu Picchu was a defensive stronghold for one of its emperors, Pachacuti. Others suggest it was an escape for the upper echelons of the Incas. Most believe it was a sacred site and I have to agree. A National Geographic Explorer Dr. Johna Reinhardt researched it for years enough to believe Machu Picchu was built in the center of a sacred landscape. To this day, modern day Incas also revere the river that runs through Machu Picchu, the Urubamba River. Machu Picchu is also the site of many mysterious temples.
Researchers also found the landscape, especially the mountains are in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas. So as you can imagine, I have no doubt in my humble mind, Machu Picchu was a religious site.
I could go into detail about what I saw but I don’t travel so much to just see structures. I travel to feel differently, to meet people, to get away from my regular existence, to enjoy the aesthetics of what I see, and most importantly, I travel because of how places like Machu Picchu allow me and invite me to feel closer to the divine. I can’t imagine arriving at this site and not feeling awe, or curiosity or gratitude. That’s why dates, historical facts, geographical locations, or perfect details don’t matter so much to me. I care about how I feel when I see these extraordinary monuments, sites and natural landscapes. I feel like I am part of something bigger than me. I feel connected to the people who once lived there. I feel like I am so incredibly lucky to be present, that I can’t fit all that beauty in my soul. It is just overwhelming.
Machu Picchu is becoming very crowded and undoubtedly all the visitors are impacting the site, but I can’t blame them. I would want the whole world to see this site. I would want them to feel what I felt… tremendous peace and gratitude for I could see it with my eyes, feel it with my soul and walk it with my feet. What a gift.
Patricia Gras is a seven-time Emmy Award-winning journalist. She is the founder and producer of the online series Passion Time. Her Twitter is: @PatriciaGras
Posted: October 25, 2015 at 9:42 pm