09/27/2009 04:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Cuzco to Machu Picchu: A Trek into Peru

Its violent Spanish history aside, Peru is one of the most gentle countries I have ever visited: from the huge grey ocean over the cliffs of Lima to the quiet green lagoons in the jungle of the Amazon, where I swam with the Shipibo Indians.

I also found it surprisingly effortless to travel across this country alone, which can probably be chalked up to the gentleness of the people. In Lima, a friend of a friend, a young anthropologist, met to show me the cool downtown area of Miraflores, bringing me in and out of chic "fusion" food restaurants (from Japanese to French-Peruvian), and helping me, with a gentlemanly hand, into taxis that zipped into the night. Another Peruvian friend of a friend tolerated the fact that I cut our own first meeting short, eight minutes after ordering a glass of Chilean wine (as my leg was festering from a snake-bite), and took me to the emergency room, only to wait three hours in a plastic chair while I saw doctors.

I don't think even my closest friends would dedicate an evening to "waiting"--and follow up with a thank you email.

Indeed, very quickly I got used to expecting the shopkeepers to close their shops to walk me down the street to my next location or jot down directions on the back of a bill. Once a street-woman, selling alpaca socks, volunteered--after my purchase--to walk me a kilometer of winding Spanish streets to a well-known fine quality alpaca store (the wonderful collection Alpaca 111), while she herself shivered in a fleece jacket--as she feared I might get lost.


Of course, another highlight of Peru are the traditional tourist sites, such as Cuzco: the colonial town in the Andes--studded by dozens of Spanish churches-- where one begins the mountain trek to the holy site of Machu Picchu.

I admit I began my own trek a bit decadently: staying in what is perhaps the most elegant and friendly hotel in town: The Libertador Hotel, right across from the Santo Domingo church and the famed religious Inca site of Qorikancha ("The Temple of the Sun")--and run by the wealthiest business conglomerate of Peru (the Brescia family: mining and avocados).


It was an ideal way to begin "a trek". What I loved about the Libertador was not just the usual five star amenities--red roses strewn on my pillow, chocolates at night, thick terry cloth robes draped for wear on a king-size royal spread of a mattress--nor the view of the belfry of the Santo Domingo church from my balcony, the bell tolling in a bright blue sky over the cobblestoned city nor the jolly breakfast staff flipping omelets and fresh fruit--but rather the hotel's strange five-hundred year history.

The hotel is basically built on the ruins of an Inca temple---and I swear some benevolent holy spirit is seeping out the stones of the lounge (and perhaps influencing the over-the-top kindness of the staff, led by a charismatic manager who would hug each maid, bar-person and clerk as he strolled through the lobby). It is also built on the ruins of a Spanish noble mansion (the original columns of the colonial courtyard are the center of the hotel). And soon the entire complex will become postmodern: upgraded to the international Starwood "Luxury Collection."


Upgrade or not, it is this confluence of two intense cultures--this haunting poetic air (a la Stephen King in reverse)--that made this hotel one of the best experiences of Peru. I would walk down long silent corridors, past original Spanish paintings of the Virgin Mary and child, twisted "Salonica" golden snake columns and unbreakable Inca stone walls, to the hotel bar, where I would drink the best Pisco Sours (aside from Lima's Cordano bar) in Peru.

As the bartender explained, rather passionately, pisco is one of Peru's most original products. A kind of fruit, it is fermented into a strong "grappa" -like alcohol, and whipped with egg whites into this frothy light sweet treat (the Belgian director Heddy Honigmann dedicated a whole film to Pisco Sours!).

Everyone, it seems, knows the one or two best places to have a pisco sour in each city of Peru--and the Libertador is one of them.


Then I trekked off...


A recommendation: anyone who has it as their life-aim to trek to Macchu Pichu (I met quite a few people for whom this was the case--including a nerdy elderly spinster, clutching a napkin, who had saved up money for ten years to go), should be aware of some ground-rules before organizing their trip--ground-rules that I regretfully wish some guidebook had clearly stated:

**spend three full days in Cuzco before you go on the trek. The altitude sickness (at four thousand meters) is HORRIBLE. I had thought two nights would be enough--being an athletic traveler--but I did not expect the axe-sharp headache, the morbid weakness in my limbs, the death-bed cramp of breath in my lungs and the sensation of being so lazy that it took eight hours each day to get out of my hotel room.

**do eat those little green coca leaves for the altitude sickness. The Quechua Indians eat coca all the time to keep "up energy" while they herd in the Andes--an ancient tradition, I soon learned, as coca was once the sacrificial religious crop of the Incas, as well as that of indigenous groups 2000 years prior. Healing ceremonies were devoted to coca; leaves were offered to the great Sun God Pachamama; operations were performed with it (anesthesia) and the famed Inca messengers (chasquis) used it to sprint gaily through the mountains. In fact, it was only in 1859, when a German chemist experimented in his lab, that coca leaves were transformed into the more druggy cocaine--nicknamed the "curse of the devil for white men".

**when choosing a trek, be aware that there are five principle ones, and google the pictures to see which one you like best.

A. The traditional Inca Trail--four days of trekking--takes six months to anticipate, as you have to ask for a permit (to limit the tourists as the stone steps are decaying from use). It is also one of the hardest of the trails, as you go up and down "steps", which according to some, is a lot harder than "land"--which made me wonder why the Incas built these trails, running from Colombia to Argentina, in the first place.

B. The Lares Valley trail: a beautiful trek through the mountains, passing a few Inca homes, lots of llamas, and--the best--a spree of Quechua villages. The advantage: practically no tourists take this trail. Note: if choosing this trek (or any other for that matter), do ask the tour operator how much of the hike is "a drive." I was surprised when one trekking day included 5 hours in a car!


C. The Salkantay Trail: after choosing the Lares trail, I regretted not taking this more strenuous trail as it passes by the post-card blue Saint Teresa hot springs, supposedly the most exquisite site in the area. The trail looks extra hard though, as I noted that it goes into "snow studded" mountains, that the Lares Trail does NOT.

D. The Jungle Trek: cheaper than all of the above, made for a "younger" crowd, it is a combo trek of biking (uncomfortably over rocks), hiking, cable-car-ing and sleeping in hostels.

E. The "Cheating" Trek. A short two day experience for those who don't want to trek, or who don't have time to trek. You get transport to the touristy town of Agua Calientes, stay in a hotel and then early the next morning, you trek (uphill!) to Machu Picchu for 2 hours, so you can see that famous sun-rise (or--depending on the clouds--lack there-of). This also might be recommended as a way to save money. When you actually take a train over to Machu Picchu directly, you pay both a hefty train and site fee, and this package trek includes all.

My strongest recommendation, however, about what to do before going to Machu Picchu--or, for that matter, any of the famed Inca sites near Cuzco or in the Sacred Valley: know something about the Incas! Otherwise the whole experience is a pile of useless rocks.


For me, the situation was heading that direction. I knew NOTHING about the Incas, had too much Altitude Sickness to even try to read my 30 page Inca-in-Spanish book, and the first thing I did when I left my hotel room--eight hours after my arrival--was stumble into the town square Plaza de Armas (stunning with a half-millennium old Cathedral, baroque churches, rococo gold flourishes and colonial arcades--all built with Inca stones), and look desperately for a cafe where I could orient myself, feeling it was all a lost cause.

Two elderly German tourists welcomed my question: where can I find a nice cafe with a terrace? They nicely pointed me into a souvenir shop, where a hidden staircase led to a restaurant with fireplace on the second floor, and small tables out on a trellised balcony: the Trotamundos cafe, which, I later discovered is considered by locals the best cafe in town.

Within two minutes of settling in with a coffee--and all the more disoriented--I spied two intensely serious men--one older, one younger--conversing at an animated rate in the corner of the cafe.

Perhaps they would know about which Inca trail to pick? (As I mentioned, the guidebooks are no help here).

Perhaps--and this was my truer hope--they even knew something about the Incas?

Perhaps a little, one man laughed. He was one of the world experts on the Incas, the former chair of the Anthropology department of Columbia University (the other gentleman, Darryl Wilkinson., was his graduate student, working on Inca coca plantations), and extremely generous with his knowledge to boot.

"Read my book!" he first suggested (The Incas).

"I don't have time," I responded. So this man--Professor Terence D'Altroy-- who had arrived from Argentina half an hour before, with jet lag and intense altitude sickness (clutching his head, he recommended that I immediately take altitude sickness medicine, which I did), gave me a two hour passionate lecture on the Incas--with bullet points.

Beat any guided tour.

The most fascinating aspect of the Incas--I soon learned--was they were absolutely pre-capitalism. They had no money. They did not even barter. What they did was "truck" with energy. The Incas--whose empire basically barely existed about l00 years--1430 - 1532 AD--(originally the Incas were a Cuzco-based tribe who, with astonishing speed, "colonized" all the other indigenous groups, from Colombia to Argentina, "Inca" meaning ruler)--demanded that each subject of their empire dedicate thirty percent of their "energy" to the empire, whether it was stone carving or planting--which made them not necessarily so popular, I will add. They even had a word for it: "mit'a."

Quechua women

And they had a curious concept of wealth. Wealth was not how much gold you had, or how big your house was. It was how many people you "knew" --and could get labor from. Because after all, people are the source of "energy", so the more people you know, the more "wealth" you have.

Forget materialism. The wealthiest person of the empire would be today's mega-networker on Facebook. You are wealthy in connections, not in possessions.

Indeed, the Inca Quechua word for "poor" was "waqcha", which means "orphan", i.e. without any relations...


My anthropologist informant chuckled. He had spent 40 years studying the Incas--and they still fascinated him, despite the horrific altitude sickness.

Why, I asked? What makes those short-lived Incas so fascinating?

"The ideology of empire," he noted. "To study the Incas is to study imperialism in operation."

And the reason, he noted, that the Incas were so successful: organization.

Which is why it is quite stunning that this huge empire--so cleverly organized with its 30 % taxation system, its brilliant system of messenger service (covering 25,000 miles of roads) and its awesome edifices of sturdy rocks (each irregular or trapezoid slab fits perfectly against the other, with no cement) disappeared so quickly, when the Spanish came with guns. Machu Picchu, which took nearly 100 years to build--with terraced experimental agricultural slopes and dozens of temples--was abandoned shortly after the last stone.....


Many tourists claim that the highlight of their trip to Peru is the trek to Machu Picchu. I doubted I would agree, as the only thing I despise more than mountains (claustrophobic land masses) is trekking. Indeed, being flat-footed and asthmatic, I prefer any mode of transportation-- swimming, biking, flying, hitchhiking, taxi-ing, surfing--to walking, and spend most of my life avoiding gravitational contact with the earth.

So I was surprised that I loved my three day breathless walk through the Andes!

My guide--arranged for me by LlamaPath Agency (, an ecological tour operator with a solid reputation (there are dozens to choose from in Cuzco, so watch out!)--was, curiously enough, a young Quechua who loved the mountains. He never tired, he said, of making this long trek through the mountains.

"It is always different," he said.

"I hate mountains," I retorted, as we walked uphill on a path, my legs straining to keep up, matched only by my lungs' panting efforts to get a molecule of oxygen.


"They frighten me." I pointed at the huge blocks of greenish earth hemming us in. "You can't escape easily. You can't get out. They keep you locked up."

"Because you are fighting them," my guide said slowly. "Join them instead."

He explained that he himself spoke to the mountains.

"What do you say?"

He told them all about his life and asked them for guidance. Indeed, he consulted with the mountains.


I surmised how they responded--having already been tipped to these secrets by the Shipibo Indians I met in the Amazon.

"Do they give their advice in the form of wind?" I said. "Leaves falling, grass tumbling, clouds forming?"

Exactly, said Luis. We lay down on the grass together (we did a lot of that, as I could not walk very far) and he pointed up at the clouds and told me he saw an elephant. "An elephant is wise and kind," he said--encouraging me.

So I took to speaking to the mountains too.


And thanks to my Quechua guide, I also took to speaking to the various Quechua Indians we crossed, from time to time, on our path: herding llamas, or leading ponies laden with tourists' backpacks or--the most interesting--sitting along the mountain path, feet cross-legged, chewing coca leaves (I asked for a fistful).

Two wizened men with bowler hats and very dusty pants sat with a grey-braided lady with her dirt-streaked face and broken shoes, all three leaning sadly against the cliff, as they talked on and on in Quechua with my guide, with very mournful faces, all the while dropping coca leaves into my open hand.

"What are they saying?" I asked, eavesdropping to the lively litany.

My guide explained that the three were very upset because their cow had died. The cow had died because tourists in the Andes drop their garbage without thinking, including a plastic bag that the cow apparently ate (it was found in its stomach), and upon which, it choked to death.

My guide told this story as we moved along the path, he casually--from time to time--picking up plastic bottles, chewing gum wrappers, and tissue paper, stuffing the trash in his pockets, as it made him personally angry what the tourists did to the mountains.

Nor was he pleased with the story of the gagged cow.

After one last excruciating hill--of literally perpendicular slippery rock, my guide pushing me along, with two hands, while also patiently waiting for me to catch my breath, every ten paces--I looked down over a valley, and saw a thin river running along side a forest: our first camp site. We huddled in a cave, waiting for the smiling cook and grinning porter to come by on their horses, carrying mega-heavy bags of pots, food and tents. The sun turned blue and chilly as the horses came into sight--and, after a brisk enterprising effort in the "canteen tent", a gourmet dinner of avocado-shrimp hor d'oeuvres, steamed trout and mashed potatoes (and iced chocolate cake) soon appeared on a long table.


It was perhaps the chilliest dinner I ever ate--as I wore thick alpaca mittens while eating--but quite pleasant, with the sounds of birds and trees whistling in the night. In fact, this is the real reason I eventually made friends with the mountains: I discovered they weren't as obstinately dumb as I imagined. The mountains rustled and chirped and moved constantly, with winds and grasses and twitters, almost as lively as my (much) preferred ocean.

But the nights were freezing. I felt sorry for all the Quechua I had passed in their haphazardly built homes, the cracks apparent between the stones, unlike the Incas whose ruins--we passed a deserted Inca village--belied an air-tight building system.

I myself froze in my own tent that night--cursing the fact that I had not insisted on a FEATHER sleeping bag--and by dawn, found myself wearing four scarves, two hats, two pairs of pants, and three pairs of socks, as well as a wool blanket.

In the morning, the grinning cook gently surprised me at the tent door with a bowl of sudsy warm water, "for my morning washings", he explained.

Then it was a gorgeous--painful--hike, just me and the guide, through a weird Wizard of Oz gnarled amber forest, up a sunny slope of stones (the guide and I dozed off on a rock), and finally--the guide pointing to a landmark of a dog (which moved)--the end in sight of the uphill journey.

For, being a novice in trekking, I did not know the basic rule: what goes up, must go down. At this climax of 4500 meters, taking a rest with a few horses and exhausted Quechua herders, I looked down and saw the rest of my trip:

A breathtaking series of paths cutting through the mountains, alongside lakes and valleys and streams: all downhill!

The panting disappeared, the legs perked up, I swam in an ice-cold stream, and the guide and I ran down the last slope--a grassy 3 mile hill--hand in hand to the finish: our next campsite by a school.

But our horses never arrived. Over-laden with pots, pans and tents (all this for me! A bit of an energy waste, I thought), the horses had fallen sick to the ground, and one had to be abandoned in the hills.

While I--excited by the downhill journey (trekking suddenly became a high-pleasure sport)--wanted to go on and on, another two miles, another ten miles, downhill, through the Quechua villages, in the drizzling rain, passing the schoolgirls coming home from school, in their uniforms, the boys twirling tops in their hands, the women in their colorful clothes asking me if I had any coca on me--all the way to the Hot Springs, where we camped for the night (the horses revived and took a nap; the cook and the porter hitched a ride and joined us).....

Such a high!

It was only in the morning that I realized I had perhaps walked too far--and could not move.


We slept in a hostel that final night in Agua Calientes--one called Chaska after the messengers--a real pleasure, as the bed was firm, and outside my window, a girls' soccer match, in bright lights, was going on, and the crowd in the bandstand cheered.

Then the next morning--a bit snippy with my guide who seemed to take my request for a sun-rise at Machu Picchu with a yawn ("But all the guidebooks say we MUST get there by sunrise!")--I made it to Machu Picchu just in time to see the white blaze of a sun rise.....over a mountain top about five miles from the religious site.


I could have slept I thought!

But it was true, the place, gloriously huge and built out of mammoth slabs of rock--was empty--no crowds--they all come later, with the eleven o'clock bus--and I wandered alone around the Temple of the Sun (strangely circular), the Temple of Three Windows, the Sundial, the grand-stands, and into the Temple of the Puma.

I liked the little sacrificial bowl cut into the stone where the Incas once sacrificed coca leaves--and I sacrificed half a cigarette.


But I was shocked by the un-marked "prison windows", where the Incas shackled their prisoners behind the stone, in tiny cubicles, where they were forced to stand for years and years. It was images like this--along with a random story from tourists about seeing the embalmed body of a little four-year old girl, dressed like a tiny princess, unearthed from a mountain near Arequipa (she had been sacrificed to the Sun God, gladly by her parents who considered it an honor: the Incas had smashed her head in with a rock, first, however, giving her many anesthesiac coca leaves)--that made me question for a second my fantasy-worship of the sun-god-descended money-less Incas!

Then I embarked on what seemed the most pleasant activity to do in Machu Picchu: I curled beside a rock, way down in the valley, over the terraced lands, far from the arriving tourists, and fell asleep in the sunny grass.

When I awoke hours later--sun-dazed--I skirted over to one of the sixteen holy fountains, carved into the stone complex (a clever irrigation system), and took a refreshingly cold shower, the spigot from the rock fitting perfectly above my head, the ancient water-pressure flawless.

Perhaps it was even a sacred cleansing.


Leaving Machu Picchu, and taking the chitty-chitty bang-bang train through the hills back to Cuzco, I found myself sitting next to a young Polish girl with a rapturous glow on her face.

It was amazing, Machu Picchu, she said, pleasantly smiling As had been Lago di Titicaca--the huge lake bordering Peru and Bolivia--as was as well the colonial town of Arequipa, and the huge bird carvings in Nazca (carved in the rock, they say, for the gods)--

She shone with joy, a stunned gleam in her eye.

"I never knew there were such pretty places in the world!" she exclaimed, opening her eyes wide. "Everywhere one goes."