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In the path of the Chasquis

Going, coming back and adventures in the Incan Road


There won't ever be enough words to describe the sensations accumulated during the journey through the Incan Road that ends up in Machu Picchu. The archaeological complexes, steep paths, endless descents and the unusual landscape- which combines snow-capped mountains, spectacular dales and jungle sections- are the "faithful companions" in this singular and exciting adventure that lasts four days and starts at the kilometer 82 of the Cusco-Aguas Calientes railway.


Text and Photos: Rolly Valdivia Chávez

     The train wakes up with a vibrant whistle so as to announce the town its imminent departure and notifies travelers the end of their adventure through those roads that make acrobatics on the foothills and those paths… Good afternoon sir, your ticket. It is time to leave. On the way back to Cusco the locomotive grinds, trembles and starts to move.

     Dusk arrives. Shaded light remainders enable us to see, through the windows, the uneven outlines of the hills full of eucalypts and the Urubamba River, mighty and… sir, would you like a coca maté? Hot and comforting drink. The night falls. The train is a fast earthworm that devours rails and sleepers.
 
 
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     The lights are on. An immaculate paper, a slumbering pen. Someone tries to write the adventure experienced on the Incan Road that leads to Machu Picchu… but it is impossible; he cannot put his memories in order; then, he closes his eyes, reflects a little bit looking for inspiration… sir, ups! Excuse me, you were sleeping. You smile and say "it's OK, don't worry, I only was thinking".

     The train stops. Ollantaytambo station. The stars wink at us from the dark vault. Street vendors' cries, noises, ladies offering corn with cheese through the windows: one sol and fifty cents each corn; "no way! One sol or I don't buy" (the bargaining art)… excuse me sir, that book is yours? "yes, sure, thank you"… will inspiration be there?.. You think, remember and start writing.

     The Incan Road is full of mountains and the Urubamba River, sacred and twisting, losses in the depth of hills; suddenly, you discover a woman encapsulated in her sleeping bag. Is she trying to ignore or escape from cold? you wonder before overcoming the last step of an infernal staircase. She does not look at you. Where is the sun?

     Warmiwañusqa dale or dale of the Dead Woman. Released space: hills, depressions, colorful landscapes. You can see a descent of steps and curves. Now you walk next to her, she is quiet, mute, almost gone, even though her eyes- dreamily green- look over the squadrons of letters and punctuation marks that make up the alphabetic armies of books' pages.

     And you are already writing about the Incan Road. Your memories interlace, forming phrases and sentences that begin to recreate four days of pilgrimage, four days of roaming agitation through paths that ascend laboriously up to the most steep dales and then die in Machu Picchu, the lost city, the stone city to which the Spanish armies never arrived.

     Over 40 kilometers of paved paths that challenge cliffs and cross dense forests. The Incas called the sinuous and narrow roads (its width varies between one meter and 70 centimeters and two meters) capac ñan. Said roads crossed all the corners of their vast empire and were walked through by the Chasquis, which were the legendary Andean messengers.

     Cusco-Aguas Calientes railway. Kilometer 82, Piskacucho: bridge over the river, control booth, line of walkers with sailcloth humps. Entrance to the Historical Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, created in 1981 to protect the valuable archaeological monuments and the interesting variety of flora (for instance, 30 genders and more than 90 species of orchids) and fauna (spectacled bear, cock of the rocks, river otters, among others).

     The adventure starts. A slope receives the visitors. First obstacle for your legs, which will face daily journeys of over five hours. Successful ascent. Afterwards, pure plain.., are you tired?, "not yet, everything is fine". A sip of water, a glance at the spectacular panorama. Below, the powerful river, a little bit upwards, the green fields; and, among the mountains- really high, kissing the sky- a snow-capped summit.

     The train wakes up again, but you don't let inspiration go. You keep on writing: second day of the adventure, the most exhausting, pure ascents, you remember the guide's words and evoke your fatigue complaints due to the hard ascent to Warmiwañusqa (4,200 m.a.s.l.), the highest spot of the route: "why did the Incas construct everything so far?". The green-eyed young woman does not hear you. She is reading.

     Her image intrigues you: why didn't she show that smile of exhaustion and satisfaction that appears on the faces of the other walkers? Why doesn't she seem captivated by the devastating beauty of the landscape? She is strange, she only reads, voraciously, with passion, as if every word reveal some mystery… the mystery of the Incas? the mystery of those tall men that proclaimed themselves children of the Sun? probably, who knows.

     A red book… or was it blue? It doesn't matter now. I am leaving her behind. Will I see her again? Sure, the road unites, joints, gathers the pilgrims during the visits to archaeological centers (magical stone precincts) or during camp nights, when a forest of tents invades the Andean culture. Faraway noises, floods of stars, the smell of rubbing unguent, exhausted people that put down their fatigue in sleeping bags.

     Hi… how are you? Yes, I speak Spanish… I want to stay in Peru. Where are you now?... another dale?, yes, Phuyupatamarka?, yes, third day?, yes, height? 3,700 m.a.s.l. "And, what were you reading yesterday?" you ask. There is no answer. She disappears, she walks faster than you: "my knee does not hurt", she laughs.

     Just descents, really easy, says the guide filled with joy; "easy, yeah right! Only if your body does not hurt"… "Uh! I cannot bend my leg"… and the steps are so high, so low, so long, so wide. They are endless. Step by step… oh! "papacho" what a pity! You won't be able to come with me, an old man with torn clothes and "Goodyear sandals" (shoes made with remainders of tires) saddens.

     He has deep-set eyes and his wrinkles look like the representation of rivers in an atlas (geography book). The work is hard, we carry tents, food, gas cylinders, everything, over 20 kilos, I had told you the previous day, when the knee pain was only a threat, an inconvenient stitch in the environs of the Archaeological Complex of Runkurakay, one of the Incan constructions that precedes the great citadel.

     Stone over stone. Doors, windows, galleries… do you like them? Of course, they are amazing. "The Incas were excellent architects", you whisper, without any traces of the bitterness arisen in the exhausting slopes; and you repeat the phrase over and over again on walking through the complexes of Saqyamarka, Puyupatamarca and Wiñaywayna or on observing the distant imposing constructions of the Intipata.

     "You again?". Nocturnal meeting in Wiñaywayna. Last night. Good bye camps. The groups of walkers say good-bye in a lodging. There she is, she is not reading anymore, now she drinks, makes jokes, dances… "I'm sorry, I can't, you know, my knee". A wave of applause. An acknowledgement to the unselfish work of carriers, thank you, thank you sirs. And they use a smile gesture for the first time.

     Cusco is even closer. You have to hurry up; you have to finish the story before arriving to the final station: Fourth day. Time: 4:30 in the morning. Rainy dawn, muddy soil, cold wind. The raincoats are unfolded during a shaded walk to the Inti Puku, the Door of the Sun, ideal place to survey Machu Picchu (2,400 m.a.s.l.).

     The rain lasts longer, the clouds seem to perpetuate under the sky. It is impossible to see anything beyond our noses. Machu Picchu?, it is down there, don't you see? "No, it is blurred", bad luck, weather issues, what can we do. We only have to descend so as to get closer to the citadel discovered in 1911 by the American investigator Hiram Bingham and enjoy the beautiful surrounding landscape.

     Unexpected final. The weather is guilty, any regrets?, "no, never, impossible. I haven't gone yet and I am already thinking in coming back? Long laughs. An adventure is dying… and she, where is she? At the Intihuatana or Solar Clock- that obelisk in where people carried out the ritual of tiding up the sun so it won't ever stop shining- or at the agricultural sector, with its magnificent cultivation terraces.

     The metallic whistle is reborn. The trip is over… there's no time left to continue writing. And, what happened to the green-eyed lady? You get off the train, your hands caress the book of red cover, or was it blue? You walk through the navel of the world.



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