The history of Peru’s Inca Trail
Was it a Royal Road to a special site? A supply route to an outlying settlement? Or simply inspired marketing by some 20th century entrepreneurs?
Today, in late 2017, The Inca Trail is a globally recognised four-day Andean hike from “kilometre 88”. You get off the train and cross the Urubamba river to end up 4 days later at the historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu. Modern would-be trekkers need a permit to trek the trail.
The network of roads built by the Inca is vital in understanding their ancient empire. Think of the system as the spine of a fish with smaller bones radiating out from head to tail. A main artery for communication, food and fuel distribution, and possibly conquest.
Pachacuti, the sapa Inka or leader of the Incas at the height of their empire (late 1400s in our calendar), expanded to reach north to Quito in Ecuador and south along the Andes in modern-day Chile and Argentina. The roads were conceived and built differently from our European mindset: ours flat, straight and avoiding steep inclines with horses’ hooves and wheels in mind. The Inca’s beast of burden was a man, or a llama: both physiologically adapted to very high altitudes. The Inca roads were built over high mountains and instead of zigzagging up, stone steps were cut into the bedrock, or by dressed blocks to build up the trail.
Pachacuti appears to have created a royal estate at the most astronomically significant place in the empire, a flat saddle-plateau of granite between two mountains. He named it ‘old mountain’ or Machu Picchu in Quechua. The inference from this is that there would have been a “royal” road to reach this special site.
Is there any evidence for this royal road? There’s no denying that Machu Picchu’s situation is spectacular; high above a loop in the Urubamba river, it would be strategically easily defensible. The route of The Inca Trail arrives at Inti Punku overlooking the complex, with a gentle incline down to the site. Inti Punku is vulnerable to soldiers on foot, but definitely not horses. None of Machu Picchu’s 20th century chroniclers has suggested it’s a fortress, and it seems certain that the conquistadores were never aware of its existence.
Hiram Bingham famously ‘scientifically rediscovered’ the site in 1911 (there were probably looters in the 1860s), and his book praises the mule-track road that was built in the mid 19th century along the Urubamba river to bring coca and aguardiente from the surrounding hills to Cusco. This road enabled locals to penetrate the thick forests, and whilst looking for more fertile land to grow crops, stumbled upon ancient Inca terraces high above. The present railway which opened in 1928 replaced the mule-track, and is still the means by which tourists (and locals, but not on the same train) take every day to visit Machu Picchu. Bingham used maps drawn up by the Railway company in his searches in the area.
After leaving the train at KM88, the first stop for trekkers and evidence of Inca buildings along the trail is Patallacta. In 1915 on his second visit, Bingham here noticed the remains of an Inca road leading out of the valley in the direction of Machu Picchu; but his detailed reports attracted little attention. Paul Fejos found details of that second expedition, and in the 1940s he retraced the route taken by Bingham, clearing vegetation and water channels and discovering additional sites. Patallacta was not extensively excavated until the early 1970s by Ann Kendall’s Cusichaca project.
Archaeologists now believe that Patallacta was a type of agricultural processing plant for crops grown regionally, and several Inca roads intersected here. A fitting start to the modern Inca Trail.
As Manco Inca, the last Sapa Inka retreated into the hills after his defeat at hands of the conquistadores, he destroyed many of the agricultural sites and roads as he went – a “scorched earth “ policy - including Patallacta. This destruction, the damage from the iron-clad horse hooves which followed him, centuries of erosion, landslides and earthquakes have meant tracing any royal Inca road from here to Machu Picchu is difficult.
All along the modern trail there are remnants of Inca settlements and road building, so it is entirely feasible that this route is the way that the royal Incas took en route to the royal estate, but it could equally be part of a supply route to and from Machu Picchu.
In 1969 the then military government of Peru received funding (the Copesco grant) to help set up Cusco as a tourist destination. In the early 1970s a new airline, Aeroperu, ran colour adverts with images of Machu Picchu in US and European magazines promoting flights from Miami to Lima. A lost city deep in the jungle, gold, an ancient civilisation with no written records.
This marketing effort was aimed at travel pioneers in search of new, undiscovered lands. They weren’t targeting backpackers, but that’s what they got.
There is a brief mention of the Inca Trail in the 1974 South American handbook; in the mid 1970s you could buy in Cusco a cheap blueprint of a hand-drawn map which showed a route to Machu Picchu by foot and off you could go, no guide, no permits just you and a trail - The Trail - to a lost Inca city.
Entrepreneurs in Cusco took full advantage of it.
Postscript: The most recent rules regarding the issue of permits are due to take effect on 01 October 2017. We hope to publish these in the next few days.
For those dismayed by the number of trekkers on the classic Inca trail, there is another nearby ‘lost’ Inca city, and another Inca road that leads to it. Less than 40 people a day visit it, and no permits are needed to walk there. But that’s a different story...