15th Apr 2012 7:12am | By Janine Kelso
Hiking the Inca Trail to the Lost City is one of the world’s top travel experiences, but it’s still possible to avoid the tourist traps.
Perched on a lush-green ridge sandwiched between two mountain peaks and shrouded in swirling mists, Machu Picchu is an arresting sight. After the four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek, we are rewarded at dawn with a sunrise over one of the world’s top archaeological sites. The trek was challenging, but this drop-dead gorgeous, once-in-a-lifetime view is well worth the blisters and lack of oxygen.
At this hour, the site is gloriously quiet and free of the snap-happy tourists donning multi-coloured ponchos and hats with earflaps that arrive mid-morning. For now it’s only the llamas that wander between the ancient stones, chomping on the fluorescent-green turf speckled with wild orchids.
As we stroll around the fabled ruins, our guide, Alf, gives us a potted history of the place. Built circa 1450 for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, the Lost City was once a plush palace used by noble folk, but it was deserted during the Spanish invasion. According to legend, the Incas chose to build their precious citadel here because of cosmic astronomical factors. At a ritual rock positioned to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice, we’re instructed to press our hands to it to “ground ourselves” and feel its hidden energy. I don’t know if it’s the rock itself or the drama of Machu Picchu, but I feel as though I’ve been touched by something magical.
Although a visit to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail has been on most travellers’ radars for some time, millions having followed the famous trek, there’s a renewed buzz about the place at the moment, as the ancient site celebrated the anniversary of its re-discovery last year. Located 120km from Cusco, Machu Picchu lay forgotten – well, by Westerners anyway – for 400 years until it was unearthed in 1911 by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham – apparently the inspiration for Indiana Jones.
Of course, the natives had known about the existence of the site long before Bingham decided to swing by, but they understandably wanted to keep it to themselves. In fact, some Peruvian scholars are fed up with Bingham being hailed a swashbuckling hero, because he looted the site, taking 44,000 skulls, bones and artefacts to Yale University, a mere 366 of which were returned to Peru in March last year.
After four days of uphill tramping, our burning muscles are in need of some TLC, so once we return to the nearby village of Aguas Calientas, we head to the hot springs to which the town owes its name. Soaking in an outdoor hot tub filled with sulphurous waters of 38°C, far-reaching mountains providing the verdant backdrop, we’re soon joined by two local teenagers, who waste no time in telling us about their ancestors.
“I’m descended from the Incas,” one of them tells us proudly. “We’re a tall and strong tribe.” Standing just over 5ft, he doesn’t look too tall to me, but I’m impressed that the locals are so proud.
Even though we’ve become accustomed to the high altitude, we indulge in a cup of coca tea, the alpine beverage of choice in Peru. Known as “the divine plant” by the Incas, coca leaves increase the absorption of oxygen into the blood. Cocaine is made from coca leaves but drinking coca tea doesn’t result in any unnatural high – or cause any damage to your health. Leaving behind the remains of Peru’s Inca civilisation and the country’s most visited site, we take a night bus to the dusty city of Nazca where more mysterious legends abound. We’ve come to see the town’s famous lines, created by a civilisation that existed long before the Inca Empire. Only viewable from the sky, we head to an airfield where we climb aboard a six-seater Cessna.
“I hope you girls have strong stomachs,” the pilot grins as we get strapped in. “A lady threw up during the ride yesterday.”
With these reassuring words ringing in my ears, I clutch a plastic bag and hope my breakfast stays put. As the smallplane swings from side to side, I feel faintly nauseous but I soon forget all feelings of sickness as a raft of fascinating shapes springs into view.
There’s a giant pair of hands, a monkey, a condor and a humming bird among the cartoon-like geoglyphs. Aside from animals, there are perfectly shaped triangles, rectangles and straight lines.
Etched into the dry plains by the ancient Nazca people more than 2,500 years ago, the lines were only discovered in the 1920s when commercial airlines started flying over the desert. Following reports by pilots who had spotted the mysterious shapes, North American historian Paul Kosok went to take a closer look and he is now credited as the official discoverer. Created by removing reddish pebbles that cover the landscape to expose the stark-white earth underneath, the lines have been preserved by the desert’s arid and windless climate, which has hindered erosion.
After the flight, we head to a small museum by the airfield, which attempts to explain why the Nazca people created these gargantuan shapes. Baffled scientists have spent years coming up with weird and wonderful theories. Some have suggested they provided a landing strip for aliens from outer space, while others believe the lines were to be viewed by the Gods from above. Because Nazca people were involved in shamanic practices, others say the lines were for shamans to fly over after taking psychedelic drugs.
Two hours from Nazca is the tiny resort of Huacahina, in a region dominated by giant far-reaching dunes that rise up to 300 metres. To escape the tourist hordes, I decide to take a leaf out of Bingham the explorer’s book and attempt to get off the well-worn path, heading to the pretty town of Arequipa to see the second-largest canyon in the world. Forget the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is twice as deep and doubly impressive.
Although the Inca Trail is famously well-trampled, a two-day trek into the Colca Canyon offers a departure from the gringo massive. At dawn, the mist-cloaked bottomless pit seems other-worldly but, as the haze begins to fade, we spot a condor, or Andean vulture, gliding over the canyon from cliff-to-cliff, riding the thermals, showing off its three-metre-long ink-black wings. Soon the canyon is a hive of condor activity, hundreds of the creatures taking to the sky.
It’s no wonder the birds inspired what must be the world’s most overplayed panpipe tune, El Condor Pasa. As the sun rises, the birds disappear to hunt for food and we begin.
My heart begins to thump as we begin to descend into the abyss, taking tentative steps, as the path is rocky and slippery. Terraces have been carved into the canyon’s hillsides, built by the Collagua and Cabana people in the ninth century. Even today, the locals grow their crops in the same way on these huge staircases. Stretching four miles across at some points, the canyon is an impressive site, all green valleys and mighty rivers, flanked by two volcanoes.
We set up camp for the night before rising at 4am the next morning. My legs turn to jelly as we climb uphill for three hours but, at last, we make it and celebrate with a hearty breakfast in the village of Cobanaconde, before driving back.
The days of experiencing Peru as an undiscovered destination – as Bingham did 100 years ago – might be over, but my short adventure has proven it’s possible to go beyond the obvious and fully explore this region’s hidden treasures.