A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Aneeka Patel
“What time is it?”
“Dammit we’re never going to make it; surely the sun will have risen by now.”
“Relax…no worries…just keep walking.” Julio’s serene tone and well rehearsed phrase was having little effect on our group this morning. Throughout the trail he had provided us with the history of the Incas, given us positive encouragement when our legs had threatened to strike, and told the timeless lie that our campsite was ‘just around the next bend’; but today was different. It was the culmination of three days of strenuous hiking and the urgency of our final ascent was felt by the group as a whole; in every sharp, painful and raspy breath we drew and every stumble we took on a loose rock.
Whilst peer-pressure cannot be endorsed in a normal situation, it was proving to be an asset today. We had been instructed to walk in a single file line on the narrow path and an unspoken challenge among the group ensured that none of us would be the first to stop or ask for a breather. In my case a mixture of anticipation and the adrenaline rush of a meeting a deadline pushed away any thoughts of stopping from my brain. I instead allowed my mind to wander among the pages of Inca history thinking about the countless Inca worshipers who had made this trip before me. From the ancient Capital – Cusco to Machu Pichu, young and old had ascended to celebrate sunrise and worship the pagan sun god, The Inti. Separated by over 400 years of history and our different reasons for making the trip, I could still feel their urgency and understand the importance of reaching the sun gate, the entrance to Machu Pichu before sunrise.
It is hard to believe that in Inca times people regularly made pilgrimages from their respective dwellings to spots of religious significance often located at high altitudes, which given the nature of the God they were worshiping seems hardly surprising. Although having said that, evidence of the incredible nature of the Incas lives on in the porters, (or Wykies as they preferred to be called, the literal term for ‘brother’ in Quechua.) Working along the Inca trail they carry more than double their body weight on their backs; without the expensive back-pack with all manner of back-supporting features available in outdoor sports shops. On the trail you simply had to shamefully look on as a wykie overtook you every few minutes, nimbly hopping across a well memorised and quicker path than yourself, rivalling even the best GPS equipment money can buy.
Whilst the Inca Trail itself was an undulating challenge, one which had tested each and every member of our group to the extreme, this was only a small sample and by no means the most impressive of the paths the Incas had created all over their conquered territories. The Inca Empire had stretched over Peru, Bolivia and Chile, yet their reign lasted just shy of a century, which surprises many people considering what they achieved during this time. Sadly Inca history has been somewhat overshadowed by seemingly stronger and more advanced empires like the Roman or Ottoman ones, but it has not been forgotten and continues to draw throngs of visitors to Peru every year. Studies of Inca history enjoyed a resurgence after the discovery of the 450 year old Mummy Juanita in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard on Mount Ampato near the city of Arequipa.
My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden traffic-jam up ahead, as I peered around to see what the hold-up was I could see people twenty meters ahead gazing upwards, a look of puzzled disbelief on their face; As I came closer I saw the cause, in front of us was an almost vertical set of what was described as ‘steps’, but really were a set of jagged and uneven crevices cut out of a high wall to allow people to get to the top. Stumped for only a moment, I quickly realised that this was no time for elegance or self consciousness. I ignored cries of ‘oh my god’ and other phrases and words which road rage sufferers would be proud of, and found a gap to begin my ascent. Clinging to each ‘step’ with dear life my fingers trembled; luckily my sweaty palms were covered in powdered sandstone giving my hands the necessary grip. Passing through a stoned archway at the top I saw it, my very first glimpse of Machu Pichu. It was an odd sensation to say the least, whilst it looked exactly as it had in pictures, it was different at the same time. There was a collective sigh of relief from everyone as they arrived, a mixture of having conquered the ‘Oh My God Steps’ as they were nicknamed, and seeing that the sun had not yet risen over Machu Pichu. After a celebratory toast of a packet of fun-sized snickers bars and Oreo cookies, everyone scattered to find a good spot to watch the sunrise which was gradually flowing down the sides of the surrounding Andean mountains like a graceful wave caught in a slow-motion reel of film, heading towards the centre of the Inca ruins.
Not being a deeply religious person myself I had never fully understood the incentive towards sun-worshipping, but witnessing the impending sunrise at Machu Pichu I stopped wanting to understand, but instead just accepted that for something this beautiful to take place there had to be some higher purpose. Smiling to myself at this sudden revelation I decided to cast aside my analytical mindset for a few minutes, take my camera out, and enjoy the magic that was taking place.