Treasure of the Incas Peru: To adventure travelers, Machu Picchu means 'Cloud Nine.' To local tourism, it means 'Gold Mine.' All agree, it's a sight to behold.

October 25, 1998|By Galen Rowell | Galen Rowell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Perhaps the Incas planned it this way.

With each step away from the arid highlands of Peru's Andes into moist, forested Amazonia, a sense of times past, of spirituality, became stronger. On the edge of these two worlds, where lizards bask in the sun and orchids bloom in the jungle, they had perched their sacred town, hidden behind green-clothed monoliths.

As we walked the last downhill mile, the jungle and orchids grew more profuse, the road receded from view, and then we were there, at the classic overlook of the fabled "Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu.

Stretched out before us lay the most splendid integration of landscape and architecture I have ever seen. The site had clearly been selected to create a bold coherence between the intentional design of a stone city and the natural splendor of sheer rock walls rising out of the jungle.

At that moment, the intangible rewards of adventure travel became clearly defined. Virtually 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 personal - a heightened sense of joy and understanding of a chosen destination, nothing more.

But my exultation was tempered by something I'd seen on the approach to the city. At the Sun Gate of Intipunku, a notch floored by a walled plaza, painted white numbers glared from a nearby stone wall. The markings, obviously of this century and not of Inca origin, were vaguely disturbing and puzzling. The solution to this mystery would come later and fill me with dismay.

Machu Picchu is inaccessible by road. Visitors walk in or arrive by railroad from Cuzco, the old Inca capital. Many young travelers hike the trail on their own, but most hire porters, whether it be one extra person to share the weight or many for an organized group, where each trekker's gear is carried and all camps and meals are prepared. Our tour, booked months earlier in the United States, was in the latter category - 10 travelers plus porters - and we planned to return by train.

Inca village, Inca trail

Before setting off on the Inca Trail, we visited Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman and Pisac and spent a night in Ollantaytambo, populated by Quechua Indians in colorful native dress, in the Urubamba Valley, the sacred valley of the Incas. Ollantaytambo, along the railroad to Machu

Picchu, is the closest modern counterpart of an Inca village, and most of our porters lived here or nearby with their families and herds of llamas.

It was a good thing that we did this, for there are no towns along the Inca Trail today where echoes of those ancient times are found. The trail, a mosaic of hand-carved granite blocks laid down more than 400 years ago, twists 32 miles through jungle and three mountain passes. It begins at 8,000 feet in the gorge of the Urubamba River and climbs rapidly upward out the moist forest into open grasslands at 13,500 feet at the first pass. From there on, secluded Inca ruins begin to appear in the high cloud forest between the passes.

Campsites are few, so several groups usually end up pitching their tents in close proximity.

On our fourth and final night on the trail, we were awakened by the sounds of 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 passing out mugs of coffee mixed with hot milk to wake us before sunrise.

As the eastern sky turned crimson behind icy peaks, the rest of our party emerged from surrounding tents to capture this last dawn before reaching Machu Picchu, where we would spend two nights in a hotel beside the ruins.

On a ridge above camp we were joined by Francisco, one of our porters, wearing a native Quechua poncho and earflapped woolen cap. The vivid reds in his ornate fabrics came alive when first light struck him standing on a ridge in front of the icy pyramid of 20,000-foot Salcantay. While Francisco played his Andean flute in the cloud forest beneath the peaks, I imagined his Inca ancestors standing on that spot, when the trail was the "royal highway" to the sacred town.

Discovery and re-discovery

Within an hour, breakfast was served on a clothed table. While we ate hot cakes, bowls of fruit and sipped a final cup of cafe con leche, the crew broke camp and prepared to hit the trail again.

The name of this last campsite is Puyupatamarca, Cloud-level Town, in the Quechua tongue of the ancient Incas and modern

Indians. It was coined by Hiram Bingham, an American amateur archaeologist who found the Inca Trail grown over and without modern residents after he visited Machu Picchu in 1911.

Bingham was braving the jungle in search of the lost city of Vilcabamba, the Incas' legendary last refuge from invading Spaniards. He was led to the partially exposed ruins of Machu Picchu by local peasants who were quite aware of its existence. In fact, 19th-century

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