I was coming to the end of a backbreaking four day hike from the well known city of Cuzco to the lost city of Machu Picchu. Known as the Salkantay trail, it involves a grueling hike up and over the Salkantay Mountain that stands at just over 20,000 feet above sea level, although the trail passes at only 15,000 feet. Whilst most people come this part of Peru to hike the fabled Inca Trail, I soon learnt that it costs a hell of a lot to do and involves a climb that mostly involves steps. Eventually after much back-and-forth between tour operators to find a cheaper and better climb I was sold the Salkantay hike. Although when the shuttle bus came by early in the morning on the first day and swept all of us climbers from our hostels, I soon learned that we had all booked with different operators, at different costs, but were loaded onto the same hike.
The first day was tiring. After doing very little exercise on the previous months, to be forced into a situation of a seven hour hike was exhausting. The minutes ticked on and on as we climbed and then descended hills. As the sun began to sink lower rumours were through the group saying that we would be arriving soon. No luck. Eventually we did arrive, although probably later than expected as the hired men who walked ahead with our bags on their horses had already set up camp and were looking bored. We settled down with a soup for a silent dinner. Everyone was too tired to talk and just wanted to knock the soup back and leap in the tents.
Day two was the big one. Our guide woke us at four in the morning with a cup of coca tea each. So people refused but he assured them that it would be necessary for the morning to come. Everyone sat around shivering as he explained to us that by late sunrise we should make it to the top of the mountain. Either side of it the peaks were capped in snow and the clouds lay low on the fields. We packed and I shoved my first wad of coca into my mouth for good luck. No one had explained to me the proper way of chewing it so the gurned on a bitter lump for the next few hours.One of our group hurt his foot and slunk along at the back. I was third to the top, a feat I took pride in, and with the others we sat on a pile of stones to wait for the others.
(me, second from right)
The next few days passed much alike. We hiked all day and camped at night. On one of the stops a squirrel monkey took a liking to us and remained clamped to my hand all night. I almost killed the little beast trying to pry him off before getting into my tent. We also hit a hot water spring, at which I forgot my shorts and had to run into the water with my boxers.
But on the last day, the fourth and final one, we started the ascent to Machu Picchu early in the morning. Others take the bus but we decided to hike and feel worthy of its beauty. Our guide explained to us a few of the history and how the crumbled buildings were originally used. Then he said his goodbyes and left us watching as the clouds parted and two immediately recognizable hills became clear. We sat in awe.
Then I set to climbing Huayana Picchu, the tallest of the hills. After the exhaustive four days my legs barely made it. And as I write this now, in a tattered notepad, I am looking over the valley and over the Lost City. It is a fantastic site far too complex and breath-taking for words. That is why my camera is busy snapping away. But two thoughts keep on coming back to me. First is my guide’s outburst about the gringos lack of knowledge yet considerable impact on traditional customs. And second is Che Guevara. Long before he found fame in Cuba, when he was still called Ernesto, he published his first piece of writing on Machu Picchu. He called it the “pure expression of the most powerful indigenous civilization of America”. But he also said that Gringos, “bound down by their practical world view, are only able to place those members of the disintegrating tribes they may have seen in their travels among these once-living walls, unaware of the moral distance separating them, since only the semi-indigenous spirit of the South American can grasp the subtle differences”.
And as I watch over this artifact of indigenous culture, I am saddened that Guevara may be right. Whilst I may respect, be interested in and sympathize with the plight of the Indigenous peoples and their cultures, or try my best to integrate into a Latin American way of life; perhaps it will always be something alien and intangible to me. Maybe it is like looking at a masterpiece in a gallery, understanding its form and structure, but never being able to fully comprehend the suffering of the artist or his emotions.
Or maybe the tiredness is just getting to me and Guevara was speaking bullshit all along. Although I doubt it. In the end I am knackered and as I sit and watch this view that few others will ever get to see; I have a guilty longing for a hostel room and a long nice sleep.