As we climb steep steps towards Abra de Runkuracay, our second pass on the Inca Trail topping out around 11,500’/3500m, and leave the circular ruins of Runcuracay behind, our guide Rene explains a bit about communication on the trail. He relates how the Inca Empire was a society very much based on class, one of which was known as the chasqui, a specially trained class who’s sole purpose was to deliver messages throughout the Inca Empire. The chasqui would relay messages and special good, each running at top speed for very short distances before handing off to another chasqui waiting at a relay station, or tambo, on the trail. I was fascinated to hear how a society, that had no written language, was able to communicate across tremendous distances in a relatively short time. The messages were encoded on a special knotted rope, called a quipu, and in each major town there was a Quipucamayocs, or quipu authority, who’s job included creating and deciphering the quipu passed to them. Rene related that while the position of the Quipucamayocs was a revered and protected position, it came with a price. If a town was at risk of being taken over by force, the there were certain people in the town responsible for killing the Quipucamayocs so the secret code was not broken.
We descend from Abra de Runkuracay through dry switchgrass and small shrubs until Rene stops us above a small lake formed in the hollow of the hillside. The shore opposite is heavily forested, as heavily as can be at 10,000′, while our side is notably absent of timber. Rene explains efforts underway by the government to reforest these highlands to their previous glory. In small, four foot wide patches dug into the hill side, he points out small saplings planted in the rich, black earth that lays just under the topsoil. These trees will take over 60 years to reach maturity, growing slowly in the high altitudes often starved for ample sunlight due to a seemingly ever present fog that has followed us most of our trip so far.
Descending further brings us to Sayacmarca, a moss covered village built on a promontory accessible only by a narrow set of stone steps chiseled into a sheer cliff. Afforded excellent protection by the singular, defensible approach, and fed by a water source flowing down the steep hill behind it, Sayacmarca commands a panoramic view down the valley it. No roofs remain on any of the ruins we pass making exploration into the nooks and crannies all the easier by day. Rene explains how Sayacmarca served to protect the trail running below it while its crops were grown in the valley below. We are left to wander the ruins at our own pace as a slight drizzle begins to dampen the day. The fortress is a maze and for a while it’s much like an impromptu game of hide and seek where turning a corner too fast might cause me to run right into one of the other exploring trekkers. A large grassy balcony jets out South from fortress and the feel of ceremony reverberates from the rock walls. I can imagine gatherings, rituals and ceremony being performed on this very soil so many centuries ago.
We leave Sayacmarca behind and head across a short gully to for lunch at Chaquicoucha. I spent some time alone before the meal just soaking in the feel of the place. Off to my left I could see Sayacmarca about 200′ above, imposing from this angle, confirming it’s location an excellent choice for a fortress. This hills behind it are shrouded in clouds, and then visible and then they disappear yet again. This is the way it is all day long in these parts of the Andes. In front and to the right of me the valley drops steeply to the Urubamba River, valley walls covered in the lush vegetation of the cloud forest. Dampness is everywhere but the humidity isn’t bad.
After lunch we continue on the path, impressive at times for the engineering, rock quarrying and transportation that went into making this trail. On the map given to us by Andean Treks is a note for “Inca Tunnel” which ends up being another bit of clever engineering. By widening an existing crack in the hillside, the builders of the trail avoided having to build around a small promontory with with a sheer 80 foot drop off. The crack is large enough for us to squeeze through and Rene takes the opportunity to frighten the beejeezus out of a few, unnamed, members of our group. He obviously enjoys his job.
We reach our campground at Phuyupatamarka in a gray mist that turns to a downpour just after we dive into the sanctity of our tents to wash up and change into camp clothes. Ditches are needed around some tents and the porters do the best with what’s at hand to keep water from pooling under out tents while we enjoy the dryness inside. It’s our last night on the trail and I finally have offers to help unload the wine I have left before we head to dinner while 5 of us are crammed in one tent trying to complete a crossword. The rain lets up for a bit and I take a walk up the hill behind camp to get a better view, but it’s all still clouds and getting dark. Clouds and more clouds. Hiding something. I vow to get up early in the morning if the weather clears and see if I can’t discover just a bit of the secret world hidden tonight.
And now a video of the heavy, heavy rain.