Persian on the Inca Trail
From Persepolis to Machu Picchu
By Ali Hosseini
March 24, 1999
"from air to air, like an empty net,
dredging through streets and ambient atmosphere, I came"
- Pablo Neruda
I won't say I am the first Persian to walk the Inca Trail but I do believe
I am one of the few. Machu Picchu is a travel destination at an international
level and a goal of the young and fit, and some not so young and fit, is
to walk the ancient stone trail that wends through the Peruvian Andes and
leads finally to the lost Incan city. About my companions on the trek,
I could say the less said the better, but then I wouldn't have a very long
story, would I? First there were the Greeks. She thought she was Cleopatra
and walked around Machu Picchu holding her large orange scarf up to the
wind. He was young and tall and after the first day arranged to have one
of the porters carry their pack. Then there were two young men from Holland
whom we told apart by the color of their jeans. There was a group of young
Americans of whom more later. And finally a couple from Italy who must
be thought lucky to have understood so little English. Our guide, four
porters, and the cook completed the group.
We picked up the trail beside the river Urubamba that cuts through the
Sierra and flows in a broad arc around Machu Picchu. The first day was
windy and dusty walking along the river, the landscape dry with a few low
bushes and an occasional cactus with bright orange flowers. It didn't take
long to sort out the different categories of people along the trail. There
were the fast and the slow of course. And then those that were good or
bad going uphill and good or bad going downhill. Later there were those
that had trouble with the altitude and those that didn't.
Our first sight of an Incan ruin came the first day when we hiked up
a small river valley and saw across the other side the remains of a small
Incan town named Llacta Pata that was built in stone following the curves
of the mountain and the river. From there we went up and up and up the
valley to our first night's campsite in the front yard of a Peruvian family
who somehow survive by growing corn and potatoes and from the business
they get from the foot-traffic along the trail. We wondered if these were
the people a friend of ours had called the poorest in the world and what
dreams of revolution floated across the mountain valleys. There were twelve
in the family, living in two mud houses with single rooms that functioned
as kitchen, bedroom, living room, and a place to keep the young piglets
during the winter nights. It reminded me of the houses in the village were
I grew up and the way we would bring the newborn baby lambs and goats inside
to keep them warm by the fire. We were tired that night but not too tired
to admire the star-studded sky enclosed by the dark shapes of mountains.
The second day of the trail is said to be the hardest and it lived up
to its reputation. We were going up again, but this time more steeply.
The trail climbed steadily over the six hour hike up to the first mountain
pass at 4200 m. The strongest hikers went ahead, along with the porters
who always needed a head start to be able to set up camp and have our meals
ready. A few local people were at hand with horses and mules for those
lacking the stamina or with feet too raw from the first day's trek. From
low dry scrubland we climbed through mountain forest and then into puma,
the low vegetation of grasses and herbs that grows above the treeline.
There were orchids amidst purple lupines and snow on the distant peaks
of the Cordillera Negra. By now the air was thin and every step took an
effort. Ten steps would set your heart pounding. The many stops along the
way were a chance to admire the mountain scenery and also to contemplate
the progress of two men carrying the sides of a house up the mountain pass
in relays. Lunch at the top consisted of oranges, soup, and stew. Our guide
circulated among the group making sure none of us had a headache, one of
the first symptoms of altitude sickness.
The second night's campground was in a high valley a short way down
the mountain. Darkness fell early and the evening was frigid. There was
nothing to do but retreat to the tents and the warmth of our sleeping bags.
What went on elsewhere I cannot say but the two of us had as our diversion
Neruda's long poem, "The Heights of Machu Picchu," which had
been adding to the weight in my backpack. I had read it many times without
feeling that I fathomed Neruda's meaning. By candlelight we read the lines:
Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle's thickets
until I reached you Machu Picchu.
Tall city of stepped stone,
home at long last of whatever earth
had never hidden in her sleeping clothes.
In you two lineages that had run parallel
met where the cradle both of man and light
rocked in a wind of thorns.
We awoke long before the sun's rays could penetrate the valley bottom.
There was frost on the ground and we were glad for the coca tea that must
be drunk on the trail to ward off the effects of the altitude. The drink
is made from the coca leaves that are the raw ingredients for the processing
of cocaine and have been in use from time immemorial by the highland people.
It was either a stimulant or a soporific depending on whose opinion you
went by. By now I had gotten to know the porters through a combination
of body language, my rudimentary Spanish, and the few words of English
the cook had picked up over his years working on the trail. I was as a
consequence the only one permitted to cross the invisible line that separated
the common area from the campground's "kitchen." When they found
out I was from a small village in Iran they had all sorts of questions.
Si, si we grow papas. Papas (potatoes) are native to Peru - all 80 cultivated
varieties - and an essential element in Peruvian cooking.
On the third day we came to a ruin up a long flight of stone stairs
beside the trail. Runturaqay was a holy place once run through with flowing
water from high mountain glaciers now less extensive than in the past.
Our guide showed us how the water was diverted to the ceremonial baths
and explained that this was a special place where hunchbacks lived. Alongside
the mountain we saw a special stairway constructed for them.
Then we were on the true Inca Trail, an amazing engineered footpath
of large stones fit and leveled, with carefully made stairs in the steeper
parts. It was only 40-50 years ago that the trail, overgrown and forgotten,
was rediscovered. More ups and downs, followed by another pass not quite
so high or so steep. Then down to another ruin, Phuyupatamarca, with yet
more ceremonial baths. We had lunch nearby and by now could anticipate
the conversation of our companions. The woman who always wanted dessert
and had been reduced to canvassing the others in the group for anything
sweet to eat. Those who spoke of spiritual energies and had come to South
America in search of shamans and mystical experience. The woman whose voice
carried so well you heard every word of her constant conversation and whose
serious blisters made her the slowest but never the quietest.
After lunch there were the Inca steps, more than ten thousand of them
leading down into the river valley. Walking down took a different set of
muscles from those we'd been using. Most of us proceeded carefully, watching
those few who ran down effortlessly on legs that were either much younger
or made of different stuff from ours. Our camp that night was beside a
hotel run by a local family. We were told the story of how one day many
years ago one of them discovered the remains of an ancient Incan city that
had been retaken by the forest. The hotel was as close to civilization
as we'd been in some time, although we were only camped beside it. And
who got a hot shower and who didn't after three days on the trail shall
remain a secret.
That evening our guide and the cook and porters celebrated their success.
Another group brought to Machu Picchu without major problems. I was given
a special invitation to join them. A bottle of wine and a glass were passed
around the table. When it was your turn you raised the glass with a salud
- "to your health" - and drank. I found out our guide was considered
a veteran of the trail, having hiked it more than one hundred times.
The next morning the porters and the cook left us, our guide having
engineered the collection from our budget tour group of their tip, which
they certainly earned having carried like human mules all the food, the
stove and cooking things, our tents, and frequently some of our companions
packs as well. Then we were off for Machu Picchu a short two hours walk
away through the darkness of the early morning. We had descended so far
that were now in what is called the ceja de selva (the eyebrow of the jungle),
the uppermost part of the Amazon basin. A green lushness was all around
us. I stopped for a while and watched a hummingbird spreading a rainbow
on invisible wings a few inches from my face. Down the valley the Urubamba
River was singing as it has for years untold. The trail was easy now and
when we got to the gate leading down to the city, there it was, Machu Picchu,
first in the shade of the nearby mountains and then a green jewel in the
sunshine. We sat for some time, until our quiet contemplation was broken
by the yells and shouts of an arriving group about whose nationality I
will only say that they were from the Middle East and seemed to have just
gotten out of the army.
We were there. It was very beautiful, rock upon rock, a stonework city
one with the mountain. Stones fit perfectly without the benefit of metal
tools, for the Incas had the wheel and worked magnificently in gold but
had not discovered iron. Others complained of the crowds but to me the
conflagration of sights and sounds was intriguing. There were dozens of
Machu Picchus that day. One for every pilgrim tourist. One for every Inca
guide. Some people walked barefoot to absorb the energy of the place. My
thought of doing the same was discouraged by the idea of having to put
my boots on again. I eavesdropped on a group of Peruvians being told in
graphic detail of the sort they seem to like about the sacrifice of the
llamas and the way the priests told the future by reaching into the chest
cavity and taking out the animal's heart. Some groups had their mystical
inclinations catered to by the dramatic accounts of the guides. Our guide
on the trail had already conveyed to us his vision of the Incan past as
a civilization in harmony with nature - Cusco in the midst of forest groves
and Machu Picchu a garden city lush with tropical flowers. Here in the
ancient city he had arranged for a special tour with a guide who set a
rather different tone. Oh yes, he told us about putting your head in the
stone niches and reciting your mantra and waited patiently while some of
us did it. And yes, he told us about how some people thought the central
stone had been raised by UFOs. But when I asked what he believed of all
this, it gave him his chance. All the New Age talk was pure silliness and
no one knows anything really about what the Incas believed. The interpretation
of a good Marxist, we later found out.
It was almost time for our group to disband. People were very much themselves
I thought in those last hours. There had been a bit of an incident at the
end when, after arriving at Machu Picchu after four days and nights on
the trail, before the tour that we had been waiting for so long, the Americans
proceeded to the nearby hotel to order their second breakfast of the morning
since one of them found he could use his credit card. Some of my Persian
impatience showed I must say, but we arranged to start without them. The
Danes were in good spirits as usual. The quiet Italians went off by themselves
at the earliest opportunity. We found we could hear the voice of the loud
woman all the way across the site. When one of the Americans asked what
the people who lived here did when they had to get away, our guide tried,
in his polite and patient fashion, to make some kind of sense of the question.
The Greeks kept telling everyone they should see the Acropolis and pointing
out that at the time of the Incan empire (1330-1420 AD), Europeans had
had metal tools and swords for centuries. I should mention that I never
brought up Persepolis, even having grown up only three kilometers from
it. The truth is I did think of it, but fleetingly, the genius of this
place seeming so different.
Well, whatever is or isn't true about the Inca city, whether it is the
last city of the Incas (probably not), whether they practiced human sacrifice
(probably), whether they were a spiritual people (who knows), whether Hiram
Bingham, the American "discoverer" of Machu Picchu did or didn't
find gold there (probably, although he denied it), I can attest to its
being as much an amazing conjunction point now as it must have been in
the past. Dirty and tired, we boarded the bus that took us down to the
train for the long ride back to Cusco, New World hajis having come and
sought and, who knows, even found. And had I found what I was seeking?
As the words of Neruda's poem melded with the images of the day, I thought
of the unbroken chain of being and the still remaining loneliness of the
human race, and thought I had.
My thanks and appreciation to DW, my comrade on the trail.
- Send a comment to the writer
- Send a comment for The Iranian letters