on February 28, 2011
Maybe because of its fame, I wasn’t expecting much of the Inca Trail. An intricate network of thirty thousand kilometers of trails connected the corners of the Inca Empire, from Colombia to Chile. "Corners" is the correct word, despite the territory being rather elongated in shape. The Incas called their home Tahuantinsuyo, literally "The Four Corners." The modern city of La Paz is located in what used to be the "Kollasuyo" quarter. The roads served to move Inca armies, and were wide enough for at least two warriors to walk abreast. A system of runners stationed at tambos (see the Q’enqo entry in this journal for this term) communicated messages along the roadways. The trail was designed to be walked; the Incas didn’t possess any implementation of the wheel even in the mid of the second millennium. Many claim that’s because their territory was in a mountainous area; yet, the Altiplano is large and flat. Half a millennium after the empire disappeared; little is left of this network.The trail in the immediate vicinity of Cusco became a modern travelers’ attraction by itself. All the travel agencies in town offer treks ranging from two to seven days. It soon became obvious that most tourists booking these treks were not acquainted with trekking in other places. In the past I trekked extensively in Nepal, including the long version of the Everest Base Camp Trek. The Andean High Plateau has several similarities to the Tibetan Plateau, which is just north of Nepal. People in both countries look similar and both build their homes with uncovered red bricks. Soon I found that the similarities were just that. Nepal is superbly organized for trekking. Guesthouses are available in most villages and teahouses split the distances among them; a bed in a guesthouse usually costs around a dime, with the condition that the guest eats at the same house. Superb maps and guidebooks are readily available. It is possible to trek while carrying very little equipment on the back and enjoy complete freedom among the highest mountains on earth. The Himalayas are higher than the Andes; its local cultures are richer and older than anything available in South America. Yet, if judging by the external appearances of the industry, the situation is different. This is not the first time I report on these South American oddities. Everything is derived from the fact you can walk through the Inca Trail only if booking a tour through a licensed operator. The operator must provide the list of trekkers to the local government five days in advance and there is a limited quota which counts also the porters and guides. The minimum price is imposed by the government and stands at $350 dollar. In comparison, entrance to the Sagarmatha Park (where Mount Everest is) costs less than $20; and after entering the park you are free to wander around below the 6000m altitude mark. In Peru, the operators commit to provide guides and porters; you cannot walk alone. The porters are legally limited in the weight they can carry to 25kgs; this is checked by local authorities at specific checkpoints. In Peruvian terms, the entrance fee is a small fortune. In Himalayan terms, it ranks as the fee for a Trekking Mountain permit; i.e. a permit for walking and climbing peaks above 6000m (but not special peaks like the Everest).Trekking with a guide is opposed to the spirit of the sport. It implies a carefully planned trajectory, coordination with endless official bodies, choosing paths suitable for the accompanying mules. Moreover, it does not allow spontaneous changes in the route and it brings the constant presence of a sometimes unwelcome guide. Inca Trail treks take the fun out of trekking.Overall, the tours offered are little more than a moving prison closely monitored by local authorities. At first sight this seems surprising and inappropriate, especially after having walked freely through the friendly Nepalese villages of the Himalayas. Then you remember in which place you are. Its recent history, its violence, the endless stories of systematic violent robbery every experienced traveler in the area can tell you. And then, smiling politely at the travel agent, you leave the shop without booking and breathe some still free high altitude oxygen.
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