Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail and Rainbow Mountain

Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail and Rainbow Mountain

Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail and Rainbow Mountain

“From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Wes Chapman

May 1, 2017

Machu Picchu in the morning mist

(Huayna Picchu in background)

I was in the 6th grade, in Mr. Crooker’s Social Studies class, watching a movie – one of the movies that teachers show when they don’t want to prepare a lesson – and this one was about Machu Picchu. The scenery was simply unbelievable (despite being a mass produced 8mm tape), and the story compelling; the ancient refuge of the Incas, where they fled to escape the invading Spaniards, and all died out because they got old and became celibate. It sounded like a pretty sad, dreary story, which raised more questions than it answered.

Like almost everything about Machu Picchu, it was a story best told in pictures, long on speculation, short on fact; reflecting the imagination of the raconteur rather than any objective evidence. And like almost everyone who falls under the spell of Machu Picchu, I didn’t care to separate fact from fiction then, and I still don’t. The hook was set, I was fascinated with the stories, the setting and I had to see it for myself.

Celebrating the enigma of Machu Picchu

Over the years I tried to sate my curiosity, reading what was available about the place, by Prescott, Bingham and MacQuarrie, reveling in the contradictions, obvious exaggerations and outright lies. Finally, last month Martha and I found ourselves with my sister Susan, her husband John, and 14 of her hiking pals from San Diego, making the pilgrimage along the Inca Trail from Cusco to the object of my desire for 50 years – Machu Picchu. The group from San Diego was, at its core, an informal ladies hiking club, which led our head guide to name our group “Team Lovely”. I’ve never hiked in better company.

Team Lovely at the start of the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail hike is about 30 miles – up and down some fairly steep terrain on the original Inca Trail – subsequently maintained and resurfaced with loose paving stones. This trek involves a tremendous number of stairs, so bring your hiking poles. In addition to our three guides, Valentine (head guide), Neelo and Lizette, our team included 27 porters (carrying up to 60 lbs. each) and 2 cooks. The outfitter, Mayuc Tours, ensured good food, clean tents and toilets, and a safe journey.

A Few Facts

The ruins of Machu Picchu lies about 80 kilometers NW of Cusco, the ancient Incan capital. The site is simply spectacular, sitting in the cloud forest at 8,000 feet elevation, atop 1,500 foot cliffs of white granite, above the Urubamba River. The origins of the city are speculative, but the best evidence is that it was built around 1,450 as a winter retreat for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, had around 700 inhabitants at its peak, and was abandoned in the 1570’s, along with a tremendous amount of Incan civilization – largely due to the chaos of the Spanish rule and severe depopulation (estimated up to 60% of inhabitants) due to smallpox and related European diseases.

Pilgrimage route – the Inca Trail

Inca Trail Profile

Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu Summit

Machu Picchu is irrevocably tied to the misery and myth associated with brief and brilliant rise and fall of the Inca Empire – which lasted only 95 years – and ended in the improbable catastrophe of the Spanish Conquest by Francisco Pizarro and less than 170 Conquistadors. The Inca Empire was roughly the size of Western Europe, extending down the Andes from Colombia to Argentina, with a population of over 10 million. The Inca was the king, the personification of Inti, the Sun God, as well as supreme legal arbiter. The Inca people had only a crude written language consisting of colored and knotted yarn called quipu, useful principally for counting and administrative functions. Their society had no currency, functioning on limited barter and centralized command economics – Soviet style.

Inti – Sun God

Because there was no written language, and the interpretation of the quipu has been lost to time, all of the written historical accounts about the Inca society are provided by the Spanish, who had an enormous cultural bias to discredit the history and accomplishments of the indigenous people, based on their pagan beliefs. Recognizing this limitation, it seems safe to say that the Inca economy responded like most central economies – when times were good, they did a great job at producing commodities, including grain, cloth, buildings and religious symbols made of gold and silver. It was this last bit of industry that really led to trouble with the Spanish.

Sunrise from Camp 3, Above Machu Picchu

The Inca Empire at its Zenith

The Spanish Conquest was, perversely, the defining element in creating the mystery of Machu Picchu. Francisco Pizarro, led a band of land based pirates, commissioned by the King of Spain to find gold and convert the heathen in the unknown lands of South America. Pizarro was part of one of the great martial cultures of Europe – the Spaniards who successfully, and improbably drove the Moors out of Spain in 1492. Pizarro and his 4 brothers (who ultimately all participated with him in the plunder of Peru) was the bastard son of a Spanish Army Captain from the desolate Spanish region of Extremadura. These guys were tough, ruthless, well trained and extraordinarily motivated – if they didn’t get this job done, there would be another bunch of Spaniards along in a year or two to finish it up.

Pizarro arrived to an empire devastated by smallpox, and engaged in an internecine civil war between two pretenders to the throne of the Inca, the brothers Huascar and Atahualpa. Pizarro arrived in 1532, shortly after Atahualpa had defeated Huascar in a pivotal battle, and was busily engaged in killing off all of Huascar’s wives and children as he could find them. In an extraordinary feat of arms and guile, Pizarro took Atahualpa prisoner in the midst of his army of over 80,000 men, and held him ransom; a ransom of a room 21 ft. x 17ft. x 8 ft. filled with gold, and two equivalent rooms filled with silver – 13,000 tons of gold and 26,000 tons of silver. For scale purposes, the total gold reserves of the USA are 8,100 tons. The initial Inca ransom represents a fortune worth $500 billion at today’s values. It took Atahualpa almost a year to amass the metal and comply, but he ultimately met Pizarro’s demands, and then Pizarro killed him anyway.

It took another forty years to finally destroy the final fabric of Inca civilization, but in 1572 the Spanish finally killed Tupac Amaru, Atahualpa’s grandson at Vilcabamba, the jungle based last capital of the Inca, and the famous Lost City of the Inca. Vilcabamba was sacked and abandoned, and passed into myth until the “discovery” of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu was “discovered” by a photogenic Yale professor and adventurer named Hiram Bingham. Bingham was raised by missionaries in Hawaii in the late 19th century, from which he set out to, “do something magnificent”. He graduated from Yale, then received graduate degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard (Ph.D.), taught for a few years at Princeton, and finally returned to Yale to head the South American Studies program in 1907. Bingham overcame the missionary poverty of his parents by marrying an heiress to the Tiffany fortune. Indiana Jones, of the eponymous movie series, was loosely based on Bingham.

With his newly found money, and some additional amounts contributed by his college friends, Bingham mounted a mission in 1911 to Peru to find the Lost City of the Incas. With maps in hand which actually identified Machu Picchu, he discovered the ruin, then occupied by several farming families, and containing graffiti from prior discoverers – one signed “Lizarraga 1902”. On this expedition he did go to Vilcabamba, the actual last Inca Capital, but found it overgrown and much less interesting than Machu Picchu, and so declared that Machu Picchu was the mystical Last City of the Incas, and returned the following year on an expedition sponsored by National Geographic and Yale. This expedition was focused on three activities; photography, archeological science and looting. Bingham’s looting remains a bone of contention between Peru and Yale to this day – the Peruvians want their stuff back.

Hiram Bingham

Adventurer, Fighter Pilot, Governor of CT (for 1 day), Professor, Senator,

Discoverer of Machu Picchu

Trip Highlights

Our trip began in Cusco, with a tour of the local Inca and Spanish sites. Cusco lies at over 11,000 feet, and demands respect from those uninitiated to high altitude. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, and included a magnificent plaza, palaces and temples; almost all of which were dismantled by the Spanish (regarding them as heathen abominations) and used to build churches and cathedrals. Some of the incredible Inca stonework remains as foundations of subsequent structures. Using bronze tools and hematite hammers, the Inca built superbly fit stone walls without the requirement for mortar. These walls are built of stones up to 20 tons, and so closely fit that you cannot fit a credit card between the stones. Some of these stones had up to 12 sides smoothed and fit to other stones in the wall (see below). All of the Inca architecture was done with self-reinforcing sloping sides to mitigate the effect of earthquakes.

Martha demonstrates famous 12 sided stone

First day visits with the Mayuc guide team included the Inca waterworks for the city of Cusco, Tambomachay, the vast original Inca fortress overlooking the city, Sacsayhuaman, and the central Plaza Mayor, including the Spanish built Basilica de la Virgin de la Asuncion. Perhaps of greatest cross-cultural interest in the Basilica was the enormous rendition of the last supper, featuring cuy (Guinea Pig – a local delicacy) as the center of the table dining attraction. In fairness, it must have been a miracle, as the cuy on offer was clearly too small for 12 people.

The last supper of cuy

Llama in the ruins of the Ina fortress Sacsayhuaman

Cusco from Sacsayhuaman

The first day on the trail, kicked off with a big outdoor picnic meal, followed by a brief hike to the campsite at Wayllabamba – an impressive Inca agricultural town and resting place for messengers called a Tambo (resting place or inn). These were at least every 10-15 miles along the Inca road system, which consisted of almost 25,000 miles of roads – designed exclusively for foot traffic. The Inca had no beasts of burden, other than the llama, and had no use of the wheel – understandable given the terrain. I was amazed at the proliferation of terraces, fortifications and tambos all along the trail, and Wayllabamba was a good example – including lodging, farming terraces and small religious shrines. Wayllabamba was also close enough to town to afford the delivery of after hike beer and soft drinks – POSH.

Clive Having breakfast tea at Camp 1

Sunrise over Camp 1

Team Lovely, porters & Staff at Wayllabamba

Day two was a long day of walking, visiting ruins along the trail, and participating in group oriented, semi-religious ceremonies directed by our lead guide Valentine. These took place in ruins beside the trail, and included coca leaves, flowers, aromatic lotions, and minor touching. I was glad that it was minor.


These ceremonies were clearly designed to bring us closer to the Inca history, and also to each other as a group. I must confess, that it was all terribly New Age for me, and I took comfort that even the folks from California found it strange and a bit ponderous – I accept folks from California as experienced judges in such matters and ceremonies.

Sharing a laugh at dinner – Camp 1

Martha, un-tempted by New Age remedies

Climbing through the forest to Camp 2

Well paved trail to Dead Woman Pass

Temple of trail side ceremonies

The reality is that Inca history seems to be entirely subjective, based on the inconsistent stories of our guides, the guide books and historical accounts. Nobody seems to know what took place here, and most people seem just fine with making it up as they go along. There is even a theory that most of the development was done by aliens – and I treat it with the same credibility that I greeted our trail side rituals.

A hole in the clouds

Camp 2 was just a few hundred vertical feet below Warmiwanusca – Dead Woman Pass at 13,800 feet. Day 3 was an early start to a long day, starting in the rain. The trek to the Pass was brief and relatively painless, but did not afford much in the way of a view – we were really socked in and wet. The Pass was cold and breezy, and we did not tarry long before heading down, out of the wind and rain. We made it over 13,000 ft. Runkuracay Pass before a leisurely lunch, finally out of the weather.

Wet kin folk on Dead Woman Pass

Martha coming up Dead Woman Pass

John Coming off the Pass

Lunch time love

Limited view from the summit

The third day culminated with camp at Sayacmarca, socked in with clouds, but with the fond hope for a view of Machu Picchu in the morning. Day four dawned clear, with clouds below and in the cordillera. The pictures tell the story.

Sunrise over the Cordillera

Machu Picchu Mountain in the valley fog

Salcantay Mountain at Sunrise

Team Lovely saying goodbye to the porters at Camp 3

Misty Morning

Team Lovely gets first look at Machu Picchu

Valentine enjoys a moment of morning passion

Day 4 was a downhill trek off the heights, and into the valley to see Machu Picchu. By this point we were properly stoked with excitement, but a bit footsore and ready for a night at the Sanctuary Lodge (strongly recommended), a nice meal and a shower; not necessarily in that order.

Porter coming off the hill and into Machu Picchu

Neelo – giving his version of the past

Day 4 involved a few more ruins at Phuyuputumarca and Winay Wayna before entering the Machu Picchu complex via the Sun Gate. This affords a terrific view of Machu Picchu, as well as an introduction to the throngs of people that mob the place on a daily basis – reportedly between 2,500 and 3,500, with a cost of admission just under $100, this place makes around $300 K per day just in admission fees – I’ll bet Pizarro is rolling in his grave that he didn’t hold on to it.

View from Sun Gate

In the afternoon clouds

Urubamba River

Stonework – beaten into shape with hematite hammers

Work in progress – abandoned

Valentine describing what used to be

We spent a couple of hours on the afternoon of day 4 touring the ruins with Neelo, knowing that we would return in the morning for a quick climb up Huayna Picchu, and then doing another tour through the grounds, before heading out that afternoon.

The Sanctuary Lodge was incredibly expensive, but given the place and circumstances, well worth it. The next day found us fortified with food, sleep and healthy doses of vitamin I, and ready to take on a sweet but short climb up Huayna Picchu. Huayna Picchu, like Machu Picchu, is a hard granite intrusive into the surrounding country rock. Like all intrusives, it generated ring type faulting around it. The ruins of Machu Picchu rest on one of the fault blocks associated with these rings faults and dikes. The river follows the path of least resistance – the faults around the intrusives – creating the spectacular topography around the site – sheer drops of up to 2,500 feet from the summit of Huayna Picchu. Some of the popular literature incorrectly identifies the faulting around Machu Picchu as Horst and Graben block faulting, which is associated with tension faults in basin and range type settings.

Huayna Picchu

Susan & Wes on the Huayna Summit

Machu Picchu from the Huayna Picchu summit

Saying goodbye to Machu Picchu

Sunset over the Cordillera, returning to Cusco

The trip out of Machu Picchu was complicated, bus/train/bus sequence, but well organized and efficient. The scenery was fabulous, and the trip bitter-sweet, but the next day held the promise of a trip up Rainbow Mountain. Rainbow Mountain is about three hours from Cusco, and involves a 10 mile hike from 13,000 feet to 16,500 feet to see some colorful hydrothermal alteration of rock in the Cordillera. The deal breaker for most folks was a 2:00 AM start, and our original group of 6 deflated to just two, my friend Chris and me.

The tour was advertised to include a hearty breakfast before the hike, a lunch afterwards and experienced guides. It turned out that this trip was incredibly popular with the under 30 crowd that visits Peru – apparently equally motivated by travel and psychedelic experiences. The development of the Rainbow Mountain attraction was undertaken as an alternative to a mining development in the same area – sponsored by the local people and the government. As a result the trail – open pasture given the altitude – is thronged by local entrepreneurs, offering horse rides (I estimate about 100 horses), bottled water and beer – all the way to the summit. I estimate that 300-350 people made the trip with us that day, turning the trail into a bit of a muddy mess, covered with horse manure.

Mud brick hovel – home of our hearty breakfast

Our group grew to include a software developer from Seattle, a hairdresser from Boston, and opera singer and her brother from New York, a cook (who cuddled up next to Chris in the van – taking half of his blanket) and two Austrians, a young architect and a tax advisor named Wolfgang, who went by the name Bill. Bill, Chris and I were the only over 40 in the group, and among a small minority on the Hill; and we were the only ones who actually walked.

Start of the Rainbow Mountain hike

Horses awaiting the troopers

The cavalry headed up the hill

I was amazed, but all of the young people in our group rode horses, and the young were the only ones who rode – it was really surprising. It is a generational thing that I can’t explain, but it does give me pause.

The hydrothermal alteration of the limestone layers of rock was simply magnificent – the pictures tell the story.

Rainbow Mountain

Color and light across the valley

Chris walking up the summit ridge

Cokes and beer at 16,000 feet

Simple living on the way up Rainbow Mountain

The Inca Trail was a great trip, made so in equal parts by our hiking crew and the spectacular scenery. The history of this Peru is tormented by tyrants, murderers and rulers dedicated to the exploitation of their people – Spanish and indigenous alike. At least since Pizarro, Peru has been a magnet for the young and adventurous, and remains so today – if what we saw on Rainbow Mountain is any indication. Sorting through all of the historical dross to try to figure out what actually occurred appeals to my innate curiosity, but certainly isn’t required to enjoy the mystery and beauty of what I saw. Perhaps culminating with the accomplishments and failures of Hiram Bingham, what seems most clear is that Peru’s history will always be wrapped in the desires of the individual traveler – and perhaps it is best left that way.

Adios, from Machu Picchu

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

9 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    May 07, 2017

    It was fun to revisit Peru, we loved it! Missed Rainbow Mountain, beautiful pictures! We too loved the Last Supper painting. I did eat cuy as well, as it is the national dish. Mary


  2. Avatar
    May 08, 2017

    Nicely done mate. I was a pleasure hiking and getting to know you, sharing a seafaring ditty to dull the pain of rock stairs and precipitous drops.
    By the way, if you’re heading west, I think it best, you heed my tail of sorrow……………………..


  3. Avatar
    May 08, 2017

    Wow, Wes! This is a great piece of writing. Thank you for sharing your insights and words.


  4. Avatar
    May 08, 2017

    Wes, This is fantastic. I love the pictures. Martha is Wonder Woman!! m.


  5. Avatar
    May 08, 2017

    A most magnificent journey wonderfully captured in pictures and prose. Thanks for sharing.


  6. Avatar
    May 08, 2017

    Misery and myth. Well done.


  7. Avatar
    May 10, 2017

    These are great pictures.Can’t wait to get all the real stories that go along with the adventure.


  8. Avatar
    May 10, 2017

    Brings back great memories of our family trip…


  9. Avatar
    March 22, 2019

    You have captured the true beauty of rainbow mountain in photos . Looking forward t visiting this as a part of our honeymoon soon.