Tracing the Rise and Fall of the Inca Empire

A Totora reed boat on Lake Titicaca
A Totora reed boat on Lake Titicaca – photos by Martin Li

Excerpt from Inca Trails, by Martin Li

[Inca Trails tells the story of a thrilling journey by mule through some of the most remote, rugged and beautiful wilderness in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes.

My quest was to trace the rise and fall of the Inca empire through a journey from its birthplace in Lake Titicaca, through the remote Apolobamba range of the Andes, to its pinnacle at Cuzco and Machu Picchu, and beyond to the scene of its final stand against the Conquistadores in the densely forested mountains of Vilcabamba.

Woven throughout the tale of the journey is the gripping, poignant story of the rise and fall of the glittering, but short-lived, Inca empire.]

In the Land of the Kallawayas

A shiver ran down my spine as the solemn Kallawaya hurled alcohol over the fire to invoke the spirits of the high mountains. Leaping flames lit up the darkened stone room and showed off the kneeling figure’s striped scarlet robes in their full splendour. The Kallawayas are the healers and fortunetellers of Bolivia’s remote Cordillera Apolobamba. This one was about to foretell my future.

The Kallawaya took out a bag of coca leaves, placed one on a cloth on which he had already placed a cross, chewed some others then threw small handfuls onto the cloth. After several tense minutes, the Kallawaya pronounced my journey through the Apolobamba mountains would go well. “Go ahead,” he said, “go ahead.” I sighed with relief.

I was in Curva, the heart of the Kallawaya region, on the way to Pelechuco and beyond to Peru, on a journey tracing the rise and fall of the Inca empire. Curva is a peaceful mountain village of antiquated stone houses. Pigs graze around the village and herders drive sheep through its narrow streets.
Kallawaya healer and fortune-teller

Apolobamba mountains

The Sacred Mountain

My guide for this stage of the journey was Paulino, a local Kallawaya. With packhorses and mules loaded, we climbed a crest out of Curva and the glaciated Apolobamba summits came into glinting view. We passed sacred sites where Kallawayas sacrifice llamas to ask for Pachamama’s (Mother Earth’s) blessing for harvests, work and health.

For two days, we climbed towards Akhamani, the Kallawayas’ most sacred mountain, its lower slopes verdant, carpeted with terraces and grazed by llamas, alpacas and sheep. Ancient, stone-walled enclosures and small streams criss-crossed the landscape. Isolated, thatched stone cottages housed local herders.

In Jatumpampa, we caught trout by hand from a tiny stream, which we devoured for supper in the dark, cosy, smoke-filled interior of a Quechua house. We climbed steeply over dark rocks to two high passes and, as is the custom, placed white stones on their cairns to ask for good luck and strength. Our requests were answered almost immediately as a condor soared magnificently over our heads at the second pass.

Chased by low cloud drifting over the pass, we descended into a misty bleak wilderness. Dark, lichen-covered rocks towered above us in near-vertical cliff faces, some overlain by frozen waterfalls. Small ponds and tufts of paja brava grass broke the monotony of the thin, pale green grazing. Not a sound could be heard and the enveloping mist added to the eerie silence.

A Thousand Curves

Crossing an area of open country, we climbed steeply again up a path called “Mil Curvas” (Thousand Curves), which clawed its way up the mountain by way of short, steep zigzags.
Ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Pisac

Caption: Ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Pisac

“Mil” is fortunately an exaggeration, though not by much, although loose rocks and gravel made the going difficult. It was perhaps for the best that a cold, muffling mist blocked the view of the pass high above us. We could see nothing except the next few curves as the path climbed relentlessly into the clouds. The temperature plummeted. Where there had been occasional pockets of snow lower down, there were now large slabs of permanent ice.

The next dawn, ice made it difficult to unzip the tents and emerge into a bitterly cold, although crisp and dry, morning. After an evening of interminable drizzle, we could barely believe the sight of Akhamani bathed in brilliant morning sunshine against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky and nearly full moon.

We bounded to the summit of Mil Curvas and descended into a wide bowl of golden-brown turf interspersed by tufts of ichu grass. Looking back down the valley, dense cloud once again smothered everything except the distant glassy peaks of the Cordillera Real spearing through the mist.

Sunchulli Pass
Apolobamba mountains

Apolobamba mountains

Skirting trout-filled lakes and an open landscape fringed by dark mountains and occasional gold mines, the glaciated peaks of Sunchulli and Cuchillo came into view. We camped at the foot of Mount Sunchulli, where we endured a particularly cold evening exacerbated by high altitude (4,700 meters – 15,400 feet). However, we were treated to a brilliant, starry sky with the Southern Cross dazzling at the fringe of the Milky Way, giving me my bearings.

Waking next day to early morning sun, although still bitterly cold temperatures, we climbed towards the 5,000-meter (16,400-ft) Sunchulli Pass. The view back down the valley with Sunchulli village dwarfed by Andean ranges was as striking as that of the mountain we were climbing.

We reached the pass and a staggering vista of the broad valley beyond. To our left, Cuchillo displayed her perfectly formed, angular profile while the rest of the cordillera’s snow-covered peaks stretched into the distance. To our right, the Sunchulli glacier towered above the calm turquoise water of Laguna Verde, beyond which scowled a dark, brooding ridge, protected at its base by impossibly steep scree.
Morenada dancers, Island of the Sun, Lake Titicaca

Morenada dancers, Island of the Sun, Lake Titicaca

Watery Wonderworld

We skittled down a steep gravel slope to a beautiful landscape of springy bofedales and myriad rushing streamlets and tiny waterfalls, much of this watery wonderworld still frozen by late morning. We reached pretty, pastoral scenes of lonesome shepherds watching flocks of sheep grazing by the babbling river. Not quite so idyllic were some worryingly large puma tracks prowling along our path.

Continuing past the stone village of Piedra Grande, several sharp peaks dominated by the spear tip form of Keansani rose before us at the valley head. We camped in a delightful meadow and Paulino made a soothing tea from muña plants (good for altitude and digestion) he had collected earlier in the day.

As darkness fell, bright stars filled the sky, the Milky Way forming a diagonal sash across its middle. This spot was so tranquil and still (with just the murmur of the river, grazing horses and occasional owl), and the sky and shooting stars so mesmerising, I sat in the vestibule of my tent for several hours, not wanting to zip away the scene.

Skidding and Stumbling

We continued climbing towards the impressive, albeit snowless, peak of Keansani. The effort of climbing the long, arduous switchbacks to the Keansani Pass was eased by the glorious view back down the valley every time we paused for breath, which in my case was often. We could follow the entire sweep of the river, from the lower meanders upwards to the source of the tiny stream high in the glaciated peaks of the cordillera.
Elaborate Inca stonework at Machu Picchu

Elaborate Inca stonework at Machu Picchu

Pausing only briefly to place a stone on the cairn, we hurried down into another watery world of bofedales and small lakes. Skidding and stumbling down a steep, stony path strewn with boulders, in a thick, damp, enveloping mist, was bearable only after we sighted a huge male condor gliding down the valley beneath us, also heading towards Pelechuco.

Tired and damp, we arrived in Pelechuco almost before we could see it. Pelechuco comprised a cluster of old stone houses, many thatched. The town was that day celebrating the festival marking its founding. Bands played the traditional Kantus music of the region.

Drunks s taggered around and danced. Bulls then entered the square, taunted by makeshift matadors, some using striped tablecloths or ponchos as capes, and members of the crowd. The bulls made several charges at their tormentors, who either performed basic bullfighting passes or rushed for cover behind benches or railings.

Leaving the still-celebrating town, we continued upstream following the Rio Pelechuco. Shadowing us across the river, a ridge of dark, gnarled mountains rose above steep scree.

The Katantika Pass

We climbed slowly towards the Katantika Pass, inching towards the magnificent, glaciated summits of Presidente and Flor, their white snow tinged with glacial blue, with several sections torn apart by fields of crevasses. Large herds of alpacas and llamas grazed on pastures beside the river. A lone herder’s hut and stone corral were the only signs of human settlement.
Mountain track through the Apurimac Canyon

Mountain track through the Apurimac Canyon

We slogged upwards towards increasingly awe-inspiring views of glaciers, crevasses and snowy peaks. The view back down the valley was also becoming grander as we rose high above the dark scree slopes and meandering river.

As we neared the rounded pass, I literally stumbled across a section of Inca paving, running west towards the ancient imperial capital of Cuzco. We were still marvelling at the remnant of Inca road when a condor flew across our path to a rocky perch high above the pass.

The Katantika Pass itself is marked by several turquoise lakes and some of the most striking scenery in the Andes. The glaciers and crevasses of Presidente and Flor glinted in the afternoon sun, plunging steeply towards the valley far below, and seemingly rimming a tranquil, trout-filled lake bordered by Inca paving.

And a condor perched somewhere not far above my head. A stone cross marks the most sacred point of the pass, the landscape beyond mellowing markedly from jagged, icy summits to rolling undulations. This was Andean grandeur at its most sublime.

Out of habit, I laid a stone at the cross, more in gratitude for this staggering vista than to ask for any more good fortune. After all, what more could go right?

Martin Li

Martin Li studied physics at Cambridge. A keen skier, horse rider and trekker, he has a passion for exploring the adventure and culture of the world’s great mountain regions, especially the Himalayas, Alps and, above all, the Andean countries of South America. In 2000, he spent four months writing for The Bolivian Times in La Paz, covering diverse subjects ranging from privatization and the Bolivian stock market to cock fighting.

Martin won the 2005 Wilderness Award for this expedition, and has subsequently given several lectures on the journey. Martin’s other adventures have included riding a horse across the Namib Desert, trekking to Bhutan’s most sacred summit, close encounters with black bears in Alaska and rafting the thundering rapids of Panama’s Rio Chiriqui. He is the author of Adventure Guide to Scotland (Hunter) and contributed to V!VA List Latin America. He lives in London and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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