After riding the pre-Colombian moto for half the length of the Inca empire in about two weeks, I decided to stop in Cusco for a while where there is good food and coffee. Cusco was the capital of the Incas, the largest South American empire, that violently imploded with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. The Spanish in 1532, with a troop of 168 soldiers led by Francisco Pizarro, tricked the Inca emperor Atahuallpa (who had 80,000 troops) into a meeting at Cajamarca, high in the Andes. They captured him and demanded an enormous ransom of an entire room full of gold for his release. In fact, the payment was so large it took eight months to collect. After the gold finally arrived, the Spanish killed Atahuallpa anyhow, thus sparking one of the most devastating encounters between people in history (95% of the Inca population of an estimated 10 million subsequently died of European diseases).
Ironically what we now have in Cusco, 600 years later, is Europeans returning the gold. They come in their droves with their credit cards and euros, dollars and rubles, willing to pay many hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the opportunity of selfie in front of an Inca ruin or a photo with a slightly overweight Spanish bloke dressed up like an Inca in the Plaza de Armes. The most expensive hotel suite in Cusco is $5000 USD a night (and this is in a country with an average per annum salary of $7000 USD), the train to Machu Picchu can cost up to $450 or more and the Inca Trail, one of the Inca walking tracks to Machu Picchu, is many hundreds of dollars and is packed with pre-literate New Zealanders, Australians, Brits, and Catalonians. Still, where there is a will there is a way, and it is possible to get to Machu Picchu without conflating the market for history.
There is a beat-up road that goes to the romantically named town, Hydroelectrica, where one can walk along the train tracks for a couple of hours to the pueblo just below Machu Picchu. There you can stay the night, get up at 430 AM, then hike up the mountain (in the darkness of night) to the entrance of Machu Picchu that opens at 6.00 AM. At this time of the morning, there isn’t as many pre-literates and the view of the ruins in the mist with the sun sneaking through the magnificent Andes is one of the great images of South America.
Although Machu Picchu has been captured, it is still one of the most beautiful ruins in South America, and it is possible to hike to it for free on many different trails or even walk the entire length of the train line, along the scenic river valley. And around Cusco many other Inca trails haven’t yet been captured by Francisco Pizarro, thus, one can walk like the Incas (but unlike contemporary Andeans they must have had long legs as some of the big steps up are a real pain).