Mighy Incas & Their Descendents the Super Porters

Trip Start Dec 21, 2009
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of Peru  , Cusco,
Saturday, May 8, 2010

When Nic and I think about the high level things that we wanted to see and do in South America a couple come immediately to mind. Carnaval in Rio with the Goldsteins is one. Going to the Galapagos Islands is another one. The third one in that list has to be Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail that leads us there. Strap yourselves in, the blog for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is going to be over a few entries.

The Inca civilisation, culture and buildings are so rich that a few paltry blog entries certainly can't do it justice. All I can do is scratch the surface and hope that it’s enough to get you wanting to come to Peru so you can experience it for yourselves. There are only 500 passes issued every day to trek the Inca Trail and 300 of those passes are given to the porters. So if you’re planning on doing the trek, you’ve got to get in early.

We’ve seen the postcards and heard so much about Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail from our travel buddies that it seems like we were always destined to make it there someday. To marvel at the history, skill and sheer hard work that the Incas put into their buildings and roads was something that we have been looking forward to for a long, long time. We were also wanted to test our bodies to see what the walking and altitude would do to us. As we’ve written in our previous blogs, we’ve done some trekking on this trip and spent some time leading up to the Inca Trail at altitude so we felt quite prepared for that the trail would throw at us.

Legend has it that two people who were the founders of the Inca civilisation were sent to the earth from the sun and moon respectively and they landed on the Island of the Sun and Island of the Moon on Lake Titicaca. They met up, and started searching the earth for a good spot to start their empire. They didn’t have to walk too far because one of them probed their golden staff into the ground at Cusco, the staff sunk in and that was the sign to them that this would be the centre of the Inca world. If the earth swallowed my solid gold staff, I’m sure I’d find an excuse to hang around and try to get it back. I’m sure that the history books will have a different more historically accurate version but I like this one better.

The Incas were a smallish group and they didn’t really kick off as a powerhouse vicilisation until 1438. The Chancas were bunch to the north of the Incas and one day they chose to invade their southern neighbours. They won that battle, good for them. The then leader (Inca Wirachoca) was in the middle of turning tail and running when his son, Pachacuteq decided that cowardice didn’t have to be hereditary. He led the Incas to a Rocky style comeback and they drove the Chancas away and won their lands back. Pachacuteq wasn’t even directly in line for the throne, but good luck to you trying to take power off him after the victory. Score one for courage.

I like this story a lot because Pachacutec then launched the Inca expansion. In history books, he’s compared to Alexander the Great and Charlemagne as one of the great conquering statesmen. Under his rule many great monuments were built. He built Sacsaywaman, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and rebuilt the city of Cusco. He was also responsible for Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. While he was a great warrior-king he was also responsible for the basic rules of government, administration and agriculture. The fact that all the construction and monuments are still standing is testament to how great this guy was. They just didn’t cut corners. Everyone’s heard of the Incas, but has anyone heard of the Chancas? Nope. Sorry. On the day the Chancas planned to invade the Incas, they should have stayed in bed instead.

Fast forward nearly 500 years later and a lot has happened. Of course the big thing to happen in that time was the Spanish. Enough said. Some of the monuments have been demolished with the stones recycled to build churches and municipal buildings. Still, a lot of the stone work stayed put because they were too big and heavy to be easily moved or broken down. But Machu Picchu lay undiscovered until the early 1900s when a young American man named Hiram Bingham fell in love with Peru and explored Inca civilisations a little more. Like most important discoveries, he stumbled on Machu Picchu when he was looking or another ruin and even then he didn’t know what he had found. Machu Picchu was being used by local herders as grazing ground. He made a few more trips back to Machu Picchu, took a whole heap of photographs (like 700 shots, and that was back in the old days before digital). The pics were published in National Geographic and the rest is history.

So that’s a little history about the Incas and how Machu Picchu was found. Onto some of the ruins.

On our first day, we wouldn’t actually be doing any trekking. It was a day spent touring the ruins around Cusco before heading through the Sacred Valley to stay the night at Ollantaytambo. The first ruins we went to was on a hill just outside of Cusco called Sacsaywaman. It was built by an Inca Emperor in the mid 15th century and the stone blocks here are colossal. It was built as a fortress as well as a place of worship. The current structure is small compared to what it was at its height, however seeing this place in person, small is not a word you would use to describe it. Massive chunks of stone (some as big as 300 tons) were hefted in place at strategic points of the large zig zagging walls. That’s pretty impressive, but up close is where you’re blown away. They fit all of this stone together WITHOUT mortar. Imagine carting the stone to the location, then cutting it up , then making sure that it all fit together seamlessly, not just on the facade, but depthways as well. They would lay a piece of stone down, then dust the top and sides, then lay another stone on top of it and see where the dust was disturbed. They would then move it off, chip away the offending bits, then do it all again until the two pieces of stone fit perfectly together, grooves and all. The walls were also built sloping inwards so that they would withstand strong during earthquakes. All of the buildings were built like this. Stunning. This would be the theme for a lot of the Inca buildings and walls. They didn’t really use mortar which is why so much stuff is still exactly as they built it back in the day.

We drove through the Urubamba Valley which is an extremely fertile valley used by the Incas for agriculture. It’s still responsible for a lot of food production. With Peru being so mountainous, a lot of the agriculture here was and still is built on terraces making it easier to water and maintain the richness of the soil. This is something that they’ve been doing for centuries. We saw a few more ruins each with very impressive stone work, architecture and design. The engineering and thought that went into each of these structures was immense, dealing with everything from roads (to and from the structure), provision of water, food storage as well as keeping warm and cool at different times of the year. We overnighted at a town called Ollantaytambo where we all rested up and showered, in preparation for a few hard days trekking and a few hard days smelling as well (there would be no hot showers for a few days to come).

Up early the next day and we were all amped to be heading off. We meet our porters in a field which is basically our guides telling us their names, then us telling them our names followed by awkward smiles. I mean how do you say, "Thanks for the work you’re about to do in the next 4 days, carrying absolutely everything over some crazy terrain at high altitude" in fluent Quechua? You don’t really. So we smile, shake hands and smile some more.

Everyone who does the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu comments about the porters so by now, some of you already know how awesome these guys are. For those of you who don’t know, I’ll give you an idea of what they do on the trail. For those of you who already know, it’s important that you never forget how what supermen these guys are.

Most of the porters are Inca descendents. They speak some Spanish but ostly they speak Quechua. If the Incas fought and had the same fitness as these guys, then they would have been a hell of an army.

Each porter carries about 20kgs on their backs in makeshift packs and ropes. A lot of the stuff can’t really fit into a backpack so they just sling a piece of plastic or material around it, wrap that around their chest and they’re off. When I say that they carry things that don’t really fit into a backpack, I’m talking about chairs, gas bottles, foldable tables, tents, pots, pans and kettles. Then distributed amongst the big stuff is the smaller stuff like metal cutlery all of the food that we would be eating for our trip, sleeping mats, our clothes, belongings and so much more. Our camp would consist of a kitchen tent, a dining tent, then as many two man tents as needed for us and our guides. After breakfast every day, we would head off on our trek and they would quickly pack the whole camp up, strap it to their backs and head off in the same direction that we were heading. With one exception. They would positively run by us because they had to beat us to the lunchtime camp so they could set everything up that was needed for us gringos to eat. Even if it was just a lunch stop, they would set up the kitchen tent and dining tents, set up the tables, cutlery and chairs then cook lunch and wait for us to come in to camp. If we were walking after lunch, we would set off while they packed up and raced ahead of us to the next site where they would set up all of the above and our sleeping tents for the night. All the porters possessed quads of steel, calves of granite and super human lungs along with the grace and agility of a gazelle. Downhill, these guys would bound from rock to step to rock, flying down the mountain passes like astronauts on the moon. Except that they had 20kg of bulky stuff strapped to them and they were dealing with 100% of earth’s gravity. Not the 1/6th of gravity that Neil and his cronies were mucking around with. Closer inspection of their footwear showed that they were wearing slippers made out of the rubber from old car tyres. Our porters had their work cut out for them because our group regularly walked much faster than the normal pace so there were a few times when we got into camp and our tents were in the middle of being set up. The porters would look slightly embarrassed before yelling at each other and rushing to complete the job. We told them to chill out but they wouldn’t have a bar of it.

The quality of the food was also great. Meals consisted of 3 courses (soup, main and dessert) as well as snacks like popcorn for afternoon tea or a snack pack for a mid morning snack on the trail. They would even prepare hot water bowls for us to rinse ourselves off before dinner and again in the morning to freshen up. We had a chef and an assistant chef who were always in the kitchen making yummy things for us to eat. The cooking staff weren’t exempt from porter duties either. They still had to lug 15kgs up and down the mountains.

Through it all, the porters were a tight knit bunch with all of them helping wherever they could. Whether they were fetching water, washing up, cutting vegetables or setting up the dining tents, everyone pitched in and helped out. When they finished their dinner (they always ate after us), they would crowd into the dining tent to tell jokes, play cards and eventually sleep.

I know I’ve gone on a little about the porters and the wonderful job they do but I can’t help singing their praises. Without them, the Inca Trail would be much harder and much slower for us. With a support crew like that, you can’t help but do your best trekking and do it with a smile on your face. After months of setting up our own tents and cooking in some crazy conditions on the Dragoman truck, having porters to do all of this for us seemed opulent by comparison.

This has been a long blog entry and you probably need to get to sleep, get back to work or get back to sleeping at work (the guilt on your face gave it away). Join us on our next blog when we write a little more about the trek itself and we continue to be amazed at the ingenuity and hard work of Inca civilisation.
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Kylie on

Wow...absoluteely amazing!
The stonework is so perfect it looks fake!

travellingtans on

Yeah, looking at the pictures, it seems like something from a movie set. The joinery is so tight that you couldn't even stuck a razor blade in between the stones.

Nat on

Love your photos Col. Congrats on getting them featured by Travelpod for their photo section!

goldieworldtour on

Yeah those porters are freaks hey!

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