A Hike through the Incas’ Lost Province
The whole of Peru was once criss-crossed with Inca and pre-Inca highways. They were paved with thick interlocking blocks of stone, and varied in quality and width. On the plains and rolling uplands they might be as much as six meters wide; in the mountains, less than a meter. Sometimes they followed the valleys, but just as often they traversed the high mountainsides, tracing impossible pathways and following narrow ledges above the bottomless gorges of the Andes. The trails were built for men on foot, and lightly-burdened Llamas. Frequently their gradients gave way to stairways, tunnels and long zig-zag trajectories down steep faces.
Most of these highways were useless to the European invaders. Horses balked at the steps and got stuck in the tunnels. Carts and carriages could never pass. The roads of the coast and the valleys became colonial highways, which were allowed to deteriorate in a way the Incas would never have accepted, but kept in use. Many are roadways to this day. But the highland trails were abandoned to the natives, mostly to crumble and vanish over the centuries—even though many an Andean footpath quite suddenly becomes a staircase of huge, carefully-laid slabs, worn down by generations of mules and herders, but still solid, enduring.
One such trail followed the gorge of the Urubamba River. The main highway turned north out of the valley just downstream from Ollantaytambo, to cross the Panticalla pass leading to the jungle settlement of Amaybamba. Perhaps this was the only highway still in use by the time of the Conquest, for the Spaniards never discovered the trail that continued on down the valley to a point where it is becoming a gorge and will soon be a canyon. The Incas built a string of settlements onward from here down the right bank of the Urubamba, and pushed secondary highways down both sides of the gorge far beyond Machu Picchu. But at the spot named Qoriwayrachina (Gold Sifter)—now better known as Kilometer 88—the main Inca highway crossed the river and turned Southwest up the gentler valley of the Cusichaca (Bridge of Joy). This was the royal highway to Machu Picchu—the famous Classic Inca Trail.
The route was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1915 when he returned to Peru to make further studies and clear the ruins at Machu Picchu. His guides took him to other ruins to the south and east. He discovered traces of an ancient road linking the city to a string of lesser settlements in the direction of Cusco. The highway was traced and explored in more detail in 1942by the Viking Expedition, sponsored by the “Wenner Gren Foundation”. Its leader, Paul Fejos, made important discoveries—most notably the stunning site of Wiñay Wayna—and published his conclusions in the United States.
By this time the trail had ceased to be the exclusive territory of archaeologists and scientists. A handful of ragged travelers each year were straggling along its 50 or so kilometers, a trail far more overgrown and difficult to follow then than it is today. And in the years since, the Inca Trail has become a celebrated and popular hike, known to backpackers all over the continent. There are thousands of Inca trails, but there is only one Inca Trail.