Hik­ing past sa­cred Inca peaks in the An­des

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - BY GIO­VANNA DELL’ORTO in Salka­n­tay Pass, Peru

Our hik­ing group had reached the high­est point of our trek through the An­des to Machu Pic­chu. Now our guide was lead­ing us in a Quechua rit­ual. We took turns plac­ing stones in an a pa­cheta pyra­mid over herbs and bits of choco­late bars, of­fer­ing them to Apu Salka­n­tay, the spirit of the moun­tain sa­cred to the In­cas. Its ice-cov­ered peak shone above us, spotlit by the sun.

Three days ear­lier in Cuzco, the re­gion’s gate­way city, I had watched hun­dreds of peo­ple carry glit­ter­ing stat­ues of Catholic saints in pro­ces­sion around the main plaza, past rip­pling baroque churches and white­washed houses with carved wooden bal­conies. In an­other three days, I would see the dawn’s first sun­ray fill a stone win­dow in the 550-yearold Tem­ple of the Sun at Machu Pic­chu.

The In­cas’ “lost city” is one of the world’s iconic des­ti­na­tions, with over 1.2 mil­lion vis­i­tors in 2015. But to ab­sorb the mes­mer­iz­ing his­tor­i­cal and spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance of this re­gion, I first ex­plored Cuzco’ s fu­sion of na­tive tra­di­tions and colo­nial her­itage, and then trekked with lo­cals through the steep 4,500-me­ter moun­tains sur­round­ing it.

World’s navel

Cuzco was built on a 3,400me­ter-high An­dean plateau. By the mid-15th cen­tury, it be­came the um­bil­i­cal cen­ter of the In­cas’ con­ti­nent-span­ning em­pire.

The per­fectly fit­ted, mas­sive, mor­tar-free walls of their palaces and tem­ples still line many of the nar­row streets, though most build­ings were re­built af­ter the vi­o­lent con­flicts dur­ing the Span­ish con­quest a cen­tury later. The rounded boul­ders of the In­cas’ cen­tral sanc­tu­ary, Qor­i­can­cha, be­came the foun­da­tion of Santo Domingo, whose con­vent court­yard en­closes the tem­ple’s ta­pered niches.

Euro­pean and indige­nous im­agery mixes in Cuzco’s cel­e­brated paint­ings, most con­spic­u­ously in an 18th-cen­tury Last Sup­per can­vas in the cathe­dral that fea­tures a paws-up, roasted An­dean ro­dent as the meal’s en­tree.

I pre­ferred seafood ce­viche at Limo restau­rant and lo­cal char­cu­terie at Museo del Pisco, paired with po­tent pisco sours. But I did try cuy (guinea pig) in chir­i­uchu, a dish in­clud­ing fish eggs, corn frit­ters, seaweed, sausage, dried meat, cheese, chicken and singe­ing ro­coto pep­per pre­pared for the Cor­pus Christi celebration, held 60 days af­ter Easter.

That hol­i­day and Inti Raymi, the win­ter sol­stice celebration in late June, are Cuzco’s wildest min­gling of piety and par­ty­ing. They fall at the start of prime hik­ing sea­son (May-October).

Above the clouds

From my glass-cov­ered igloo, the swirls of stars fram­ing Salka­n­tay were breath­tak­ing, even more so than hik­ing to this camp at 3,850 me­ters on the Salka­n­tay trail, which fol­lows an­cient routes and is con­sid­ered the best al­ter­na­tive to the of­ten sold-out Inca Trail.

For four days, we hiked past glaciers and through cloud forests to Machu Pic­chu. Our guides, Ken­neth Leon and Irvin Llacta from Salka­n­tay Trekking, showed our group of nine from four coun­tries turquoise moun­tain lakes, tiny mud-brick vil­lages and cen­turies-old Inca chan­nels.

They also grounded us in lo­cal life, ex­plain­ing Quechua tra­di­tions like medic­i­nal uses of plants they picked by the trail, where we also found mouth­wa­ter­ing av­o­ca­dos and granadil­las (a type of pas­sion fruit). Their team of cooks and horse­men pre­pared eight­course meals and af­ter­noon teas of mate de coca, which al­le­vi­ates al­ti­tude sick­ness.

To­ward the sun

From the vil­lage of Aguas Calientes, I looked across the river straight up ver­ti­cal peaks and cheated, tak­ing the shut­tle in­stead of 1,500-plus steps to Machu Pic­chu.

In the mid-15th cen­tury, the In­cas built this im­prob­a­ble citadel nearly 2,400me­ters up on a skinny ridge be­tween precipices where the An­des meet the Ama­zon basin, and aban­doned it a hun­dred years later. It lay cov­ered by the rain­for­est un­til the 1910s, when Yale his­to­rian Hi­ram Bing­ham brought it global renown. (Many ar­ti­facts he took were re­cently re­turned to Cuzco, at Museo Machu Pic­chu Casa Con­cha.)

For two days, I wan­dered the main site along steep stair­cases, climbed the “you-slip-you-die" path to the ru­ins on Huayna Pic­chu, the peak over­look­ing the citadel, and walked the Inca Trail to the In­tipunku view­point.

The nearly 200 gray houses, tem­ples and agri­cul­tural build­ings are haunt­ing, but the prac­ti­cal and cos­mo­log­i­cal engi­neer­ing is mind-blow­ing. From ev­ery per­spec­tive, the view de­fies logic: Ter­races cling­ing to sheer, 500-me­ter drop-offs hold up colos­sally heavy gran­ite palaces and sanc­tu­ar­ies. Carved stones, foun­da­tions and win­dows pre­cisely trace the sun’s trav­els and line with sa­cred peaks like Salka­n­tay.

Late onmy last af­ter­noon, a white llama graz­ing inches from my feet woke me from a doze on a ter­race over­look­ing the citadel. Most of the thou­sands of daily tourists had gone, and work­ers raked high­lighter-green grass in the­main plaza.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists still de­bate why the In­cas built this citadel. As I watched the sun slant through the peaks, tinging wisps of clouds at eye level, the real and sym­bolic magic of Machu Pic­chu’s place­ment seemed an­swer enough.


A panorama of Machu Pic­chu, built by the In­cas in the mid-15th cen­tury nearly 2,400 me­ters up on a skinny ridge be­tween precipices where the An­des meet the Ama­zon basin in Peru.

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