Being dead is a very public matter in Lima. We come across great displays of remains: dried-up bishops, mummified ancients, and – in the San Francisco Monastery – a stack of 25,000 skeletons. But, for me, one difunto stands out. Long thought lost, he now has a fancy sarcophagus in the cathedral. Alongside it are his pathology reports and, although he died almost 500 years ago, they describe an uncomfortable end: throat slashed, and then skewered through the eye. Peruvians aren’t sorry. No man has plundered this continent more than him. He is, of course, Francisco Pizarro.
In the popular imagination, Pizarro was a sort of renaissance Terminator, obliterating an entire culture – the Incas. But did he succeed? What happened out in the hinterlands of the Andes at 5,000m? Is there still a cultural resistance? My wife and I packed our boots and set off to see.
Tracking down Inca history and culture need not necessarily be uncomfortable. This is partly because the Incas perched themselves in such remarkable places that it’s easy to forget the sub-zero nights, or that your legs feel on fire, or your lungs full of gravel. There is nowhere in the world more illogical or beautiful to build a city than in the Andes. Just when you think you’ve got an impressive peak framed in your viewfinder, you realise there’s another mile of it, tumbling vertically into the valley below. No wonder experts believe much of what remains from the Tawantinsuyu, or Inca empire, has still to be found.
Then there are the hotels. When I first came to Peru, as a student, the accommodation was something to be endured. In the past 30 years, however, hoteliers have been at work building, as the Incas did, their creations in the most improbable places. Even in Lima, an otherwise flat, rather featureless city, we found ourselves out on the cliffs in a sparkling glass obelisk (the Miraflores Park), with the Pacific rumbling away below.
We began our trek 650 miles to the south, near Lares. The so-called “Lares Trail” is really a network of paths, linking up the passes south of the town, and ranging from 3,000m upwards. Unlike the more popular Inca Trail (for which demand is so great the authorities have imposed a limit of 500 people, including guides and porters, starting the walk each day), there are few foreigners here – but plenty of villagers – and you don’t need a guide or a permit. Our group was due to start near Calca and totter up through three huge valley systems, walking about 25 miles in four days.
We were an unwieldy entourage: five trekkers, a guide (Efrain), a cook, six tents, six chairs, two tables and a loo. Most of the gear went on our van’s roof, and so we set off like a large, untidy cake. Later, we were joined by two horses and their riders, who wore bright red ribbons in their bonnets.
Soon, we were out on an Inca footpath. From now on, vast interlocking stones would be a powerful reminder of the empire: watchtowers, granaries, fortresses and temples. But it was the paths that were the most impressive. At times, they turned into magnificent staircases, thrusting upwards towards the snow. For many, these are still the only routes through the mountains, all engineered more than five centuries before. Once, this network – the Qhapac Nan – extended over 25,000 miles, linking up an empire covering more than 750,000 sq miles.
Each day, we rose early, ate a feast of a breakfast, and scrambled up a pass. By lunch, we would have walked four hours and dropped into the valley beyond. It was like clambering through a vast empty house, each room slightly stranger than the last. The sun burned down, the streams were frozen and the lakes glowed an improbable peacock-blue. Alpacas would appear, and then huge rodents called vizcachas – similar to giant hamsters, except with horse’s ears and squirrel’s tails. Sometimes, caracaras would swoop, intrigued by the rattling of human breath at 4,600m.
Best of all were the people. Unlike other treks, on the Lares trail you are never quite alone. Whenever I found myself wondering if humans could really survive up here, a boy would pop up festooned in ribbons, or a man cooking potatoes in burning turf. This was richly inhabited emptiness. Even at the highest reaches we would find farms, with their fields of vertical potatoes and small stone shacks, leaking smoke and children. I once took a look through a door, registering a life of few possessions: a fleece on the floor and some shiny pans on a shelf.
At dusk, we would descend 1,000m to a village: Quishuarani the first night, then Huancahuasi and Patacancha. Often, the villagers had been road-building or performing some other minka, or public service, and they would be drinking chicha (corn beer), a reward unchanged since Inca times. Like the farmers above, they lived spartan lives but made up for it with exuberant outfits: white top hats, flame-coloured ponchos and a garnish of ribbons and sequins. Most hardly seemed to notice us – perhaps they hadn’t noticed the last 500 years, and the arrival of the Spanish?
I asked Efrain if they were Catholic. He hesitated. “Yes, but we still worship Pachamama – Mother Earth.”
Efrain often talked about his ancient world. He described people for whom modern medicine and Spanish were still an innovation, and who relied on curanderos, or shamans, and their own language, Quechua. Once, he showed us a cemetery from the Inca era. The bones were still laid out, facing the sun. “We’re buried in the foetal position,” he said, “That’s how we arrived, and that’s how we’ll leave.”
Somewhat surreally, this exhausting, exhilarating walk through the Inca hinterlands ended with a luxury train ride. Our last day had been one of the most magnificent, a ramble down through the water channels and andenes (or terraces) of Pumamarca. No one can soberly explain the lifting and engineering that must have been involved in their creation. But it all contributed to the food surplus upon which the empire was built. Across the end of the valley was the dizzying fortress of Ollantaytambo, built to keep out the Amazonians out. And it was here we caught the 15:37, heading up the Urubamba valley, a little glass-roofed train that serves afternoon tea.
Ahead lay one last stopover, perhaps the greatest Inca spectacle of all: Machu Picchu. Writers, from Che Guevara to Pablo Neruda, have always struggled to describe it. For me, it is the maddest, most brilliant ruin in the world: a mini-city made from car-sized boulders, dangling hundreds of metres above the Urubamba river. Up here, dawn is an extravaganza of eyeball-popping greens and blues, a perfect place to worship the sun.
But for the Incas, Machu Picchu was probably not a success. Within 100 years of its creation (in about 1450), it lay abandoned and forgotten. That is how it remained until 1911, when the explorer Hiram Bingham hacked his way up here. For his pains, he has had another luxury train named after him, this one finished off in velvet, and it was on this we found ourselves the following day, nibbling alpaca steaks and throwing back the pisco sours, and wondering which parts of our journey were just a dream.
Back in Cusco, the end of the empire began to make sense. I’ve always loved this city. It’s all so ostentatiously Spanish and yet defiantly Inca: the frilly baroque facades tottering on massive temple foundations, the roasted guinea pigs, the beggars with their llamas, and the wool shops selling vicuña at $800 a scarf. The cathedral has a 1,250kg silver altar, and yet people come here to worship the sun. I love the museums too, with their suggestion that – in their own lives – the Incas loved nothing more than naughty statues and a good pair of silver tweezers.
Meanwhile, at the heart of it all is the Plaza de Armas, which, with all its animals and peasants, is like a piece of the countryside lost in the city. Everyone hangs around here – even the riot police – just waiting for something to happen. Perhaps it was like this on March 23 1534, when Pizarro and his thugs appeared, ending Inca rule forever.
As it happened, we stayed in a property that once belonged to one of those thugs. These days, Palacio Nazarenas is an ultra-swish boutique hotel, with an infinity pool, monogrammed butlers, Japanese-Peruvian food and extra oxygen pumped into the rooms. But all this has been delicately inserted into a much older building. Over the course of its history, this has been an Inca palace, a Jesuit college and a nunnery. Back in 1589, however, it was the home of Mancio Serra de Leguizamón, the last-surviving conquistador. His will, written that year, is tinged with regret. “I find myself guilty,” he wrote, lamenting the destruction of a diligent empire, built on public service.
But did it really vanish? I wonder. There is still a brilliant, top-hatted, generous world at 5,000m and, while the Incas may have gone to their gods, something of their spirit lingers on.
John Gimlette is the author of ‘Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge’ (Profile) which last week was named winner of the 2012 Dolman Travel Book Award.
John Gimlette was a guest of Last Frontiers. A nine-night trip like the one described costs from £3,090 including domestic flights and transfers. The writer stayed at Palacio Nazarenas in Cusco; the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu (doubles from $1,243); and the Miraflores Park in Lima (doubles from $352)
More alternative treks: Where to wander lonely as a cloud
Instead of Everest base camp: K2 base camp
The two-week trek to K2 base camp gets far fewer tourists than the Everest trail, and is much more impressive. The highlight is camping on the ice at Concordia, the confluence of Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers, surrounded by four of the world’s 14 8,000m peaks.
Instead of Kilimanjaro: Mount Kenya
Kilimanjaro is a classic adventure, but attracts an estimated 25,000 climbers each year. Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak, is 696m lower but much less popular, and the five-day climb offers the chance to see elephant and buffalo and camp by beautiful lakes Ellis and Michaelson. Meanwhile, in Morocco trekkers are beginning to choose M’Goun (4,068m) as a quieter alternative to north Africa’s highest peak, Toubkal (4,167m).
Instead of West Highland Way: the Speyside Way
National Geographic recently named Scotland’s West Highland Way in its list of the world’s top 20 classic treks, but the 96-mile walk from the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William can be busy. The quieter 65-mile Speyside Way travels between the seaside town of Buckie and Aviemore in the Cairngorms, passing several whisky distilleries along the way.