I gazed over my hostel's balcony into central Cuzco. The city below me looked like a garden of amaryllis flowers with its whitewashed walls and red tile roofs. Like every city I had seen so far in Peru, there was a central square called the “Plaza de Armas.” In Cuzco's case, the plaza was framed by not one, but two gigantic churches. Three hundred and fifty thousand people lived in Cuzco, yet there were no office towers. It was as if development had stopped in the 1950s.
I had come to Cuzco the night after Mathieu had left. Rather than flying home right away, I had decided to at least stay in Peru for my Inca Trail trek. I had already paid for my reservation, and I couldn't get my money back. I had a few days to kill before the trek was due to begin. If I was still thinking about calling it quits after seeing Machu Picchu, I would book a ticket home.
Leaving the balcony, I walked to my hostel's central courtyard, with its groomed lawn and stone archways. This mansion had been home to many wealthy families over the last four centuries, but in recent years it had fallen into disrepair. Four former backpackers had bought it a few months ago to convert into a hostel. I had learned about its existence from a traveler in Arequipa. The building was still being renovated, so the dorm rooms seemed cavernous and lacked decorations. But its location afforded it a beautiful view of the city and it appeared poised to become a popular backpacker hostel.
I stepped outside and walked downhill toward the Plaza de Armas. Cars rolled past me with their engines off; their shocks made squeaky sounds as they bounced down the cobblestone streets.
At 11,000 feet above sea level, Cuzco had a cooler climate than Arequipa, with daily temperatures in the sixties. Luckily, this was the dry season, so I was bathed in warm sunshine.
Near the Plaza de Armas, at the bottom of the valley, I walked down an alley with ten-foot walls of rectangular stones flanking both sides like a fortress. A group of middle-aged tourists was standing abreast, facing one of the walls and running their hands over its smooth surface.
A lady broke away from the group and handed her camera to me, saying, “Excuse me, would you mind taking a picture of us?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Great, and make sure to get the wall in the photo.”
“Um, yeah, I can do that.” How would I miss it?
I snapped the photograph and, returning her camera, asked, “What's the deal with these walls? Are they important?”
“Yes, of course! These are Inca walls, left from the original city. The 1950 earthquake toppled most of the colonial buildings, but the walls remain. Look at the precision!”
I examined one of the walls more closely and indeed, it was impressive. There was no cement between the stones and they were cut to an exact size. They were so big they would have been impossible to carry – the Incas must have invented a technique for transporting the stones from a quarry to the city. It was amazing to think that while new buildings might fall during an earthquake, the ancient Inca structures would still be in place underneath the rubble.
The Inca people didn't fare as well as their edifices. After a century of conquering and assimilating civilizations ranging from as far north as modern-day Colombia to as far south as central Chile and Argentina, their empire fell to the Spanish conquistadors. Led by Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniards had superior weapons, armor and military tactics. They faced an Inca empire that had already been weakened by a civil war and the arrival of smallpox. The Incas didn't stand a chance against the Spaniards and were conquered within a few years.
After taking in the fascinating historical architecture, I walked the last few blocks to the Plaza de Armas. A bus pulled up and dropped off a group of tourists ready to peruse the shops along the square. Numerous street vendors sold newspapers, cigarettes and candy. Adults chatted on benches while kids played around a fountain. I took a seat on an empty bench to watch the city life, and soon a man approached me holding a marker and a sketchpad.
“Paint your picture my friend?”
He walked away and a thin man wearing grungy jeans and a ragged t-shirt approached me. This man wasn't carrying anything I could see.
“Charlie, my friend?”
“Ganja? I got what you need.”
“I said 'no',” I replied sternly. He left me alone, but there was a constant influx of people trying to sell me drugs, massages, alpaca wool clothing and other cheap souvenirs. Cuzco was beautiful, historically significant and the gateway to Machu Picchu. But I couldn't be outside for more than two minutes without getting harassed. Soon, I gave up and trudged back to the sanctuary of my hostel.
That night, there was a party in the community room. A mixture of Latin American and European dance music blared from the speakers as beer flowed freely from the bar. Among the fifty or so people in the crowd were three travelers I had already met in other cities. We caught up over several beers and they introduced me to other hostel-goers.
Friends come and go, but I'm never really alone when I travel.
I leaned against a rock to catch my breath. It was only 6:30 a.m., yet our group of sixteen had already been walking for several hours. This was our fourth day on the Inca Trail, and we had finally reached the Sun Gate, which marks the entrance to Machu Picchu. Dawn was foggy, and we could only see a few feet in front of us.
We waited near the gate for half an hour until the fog began to lift. Stone homes and emerald terraces entered my vision, and I imagined the ancient Incas walking through their emperor's estate. The trail we had been following for the last four days once connected Machu Picchu with Cuzco. For reasons unclear, the Incas abandoned the site and the Spanish conquistadors never found it.
Machu Picchu had become one of the largest tourism destinations in all of South America. It was also the inspiration for my trip, and now that I was looking at it, I was overcome with the joy of a massive accomplishment, 1000 days in the making. I started to walk with my group toward the stone structure, ready for a full day of exploration.
I thought: How could I have even considered flying home? Maybe I won't ever get another job in my field, but I can't worry about that now. I made a pledge to try everything, and I'm going to stick to it. It took me years to get here. I can’t leave after less than a month. I have an entire continent to explore.
I have to keep traveling.