By Stephen Light
It is said that the Sun God, Inti, created
the first two Incas, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, by causing them
to rise from the sacred waters of Lake Titicaca. He then commanded
them to people the earth and to lead his chosen people in search
of a more fertile land where they might settle and prosper.
Our journey retraces their path, taking
us from the green hills of Cusco, back in time through the harsh
expanse which is the Altiplano, to the shores of the Great Lake.
Shortly after the Spanish conquest,
the great Inca capital of Cusco fell into decline, virtually
abandoned in favour of the coastal city of Lima by the seafaring
people who had stripped it of its wealth.
Cusco's long isolation was ended by
the arrival of the railway in 1908, an occurrence which enabled
the region to begin to export its agricultural wealth to Bolivia
and Argentina. Although condemned still to provincial obscurity
by the rest of Peru, Cusqueños now found themselves reading
the Buenos Aires newspaper "La Nacion", which took
only eight days to arrive by rail from the Argentine capital,
whereas Lima's "El Comercio" was already fifteen days
old when unloaded in the Plaza de Armas by the mule drivers who
had brought it across the Andes.
From Cusco, nestled towards the western
end of its well-watered valley at 3,310 metres above sea level,
our train heads south-east, following the Huatanay River through
green fields dotted with willow trees and eucalyptus groves,
and passing outlying communities gathered around colonial churches
that conceal their artistic treasures behind crumbling adobe
Twenty-five kilometres from Cusco we
clatter through the station at Oropesa, an early-rising community
whose forty-seven bakeries have provided Cusco with its daily
bread for generations.
Before reaching Lake Muina, the train
turns to the left, crossing the valley road, to join the Vilcanota
River at Huambutio (Km. 32) as it plunges sharply into its gorge
before widening into the great Urubamba canyon.
At Rumicolca (Km. 40), we are close
to the great stone gateway of the same name which, for the Incas,
silently guarded the southern approach to Cusco, and, for the
much earlier Wari culture, served as an aqueduct, channelling
water from the picturesque Laguna de Lucre to their walled city
The church at Andahuaylillas (Km. 45)
is, without a doubt, one of the jewels in Cusco's colonial crown.
Known locally as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas, and devoid
of all the baroque grandeur of Cusco's temples, which were built
at least half a century later, Andahuaylillas's church of Saint
Peter boasts a magnificent series of murals and superb colonial-era
paintings, all on diverse religious themes designed to steer
a recently-evangelised and illiterate peasantry closer to the
new rulers' Christian god.
There is another very fine colonial
church at Huaro, a further 7 km down the line. The chilling effect
of this temple's mural depicting hell is moderated somewhat by
the floral motifs which adorn its ceiling, and a beautiful painting
of the tree of life.
At Urcos (Km. 59) lies the lake which
gives the village its name. Urcos is both a popular spot for
weekenders from Cusco and as local legend would have it -- the
repository of Inca gold hidden there forever by local chieftains
anxious to prevent the Spanish from melting down their sacred
Apparently indistinguishable from the
many other small communities that surround them, the two villages
of Cusipata (Km. 80) and Checacupe (Km. 99) in fact hide unexpected
treasures of both pre-Columbian and colonial origin, from fine
Inca and pre-Inca remains, to yet another ornately-decorated
17th century church.
At Raqchi, some 120 kilometres from
Cusco, just before the San Pedro railway station (Km. 123), the
remains of the great temple of Viracocha, the creator god, can
just be seen to the left of the train, dwarfing the local church
like a colossal Roman aqueduct spanning a medieval European town.
Raqchi has been described by John Hemming as "probably the
largest roofed building ever built by the Incas", and Peter
Frost calls it "a unique building in its day, a cathedral-sized
space, with a tall central wall supporting the roofline, and
a row of cylindrical columns on either side of the wall, giving
extra support to the roof".
Seventeen kilometres beyond San Pedro,
the train grinds to a halt at Sicuani, a bustling island of commerce
amid a barren landscape. Robust, bowler-hatted Aymara women ferry
their goods around this important market town on nimbly-chauffeured
taxi-tricycles, or sit impassively before their wares awaiting
At Marangani (Km. 186), where an English-style
manor house built in the last century is still home to the descendents
of the wool barons who established the regions only textile factory
there more than one hundred years ago, Cusco's fertile hills
finally give way to the high plain known as the Altiplano. This
is a wild, high, windswept and sunburnt prairie of isolated communities
of shepherds and cattle farmers, wedged between the two distant
branches of the Andes visible occasionally on either horizon,
when not melting completely with the giant cumulus clouds that
dominate the skyline.
The train continues to climb for another
twenty-seven kilometres, past the thermal baths at Aguas Calientes
to La Raya, some 210 km from Puno. At 4,321 metres above sea
level this is the highest point on our journey, a cold, remote
place whose surrounding snow-draped peaks are often shrouded
by mist or fine rain, and whose eerie silence is at least partly
attributable to eardrums blocked by the dizzying altitude.
Crossing this great watershed, and sensing
the land fall away almost imperceptibly on the other side, the
train's locomotive begins to gather speed, carrying us on across
a sea of seemingly-endless coarse grassland, crowned by an even
more immense sky, through villages lost to time for all but the
Coca Cola company and local breweries, whose logos dominate their
rain-battered, sun-baked main streets.
At km 281 we reach Juliaca, a commercial
railway-junction town of around 150,000 inhabitants, whose rampant
buying and selling seems at times to virtually spill onto the
tracks and force the train to pick its way through their stalls.
Juliaca is our last stop on this journey
through Andean highland culture before reaching Puno (3,855 metres),
an expanding, low-roofed university town spread around an austere
cathedral, which, since its foundation in 1668, has strengthened
its tenuous grip on the shores of Lake Titicaca by gradually
scaling the surrounding hills.
© 2013 Inka's Empire Corporation, Machu Picchu Luxury Tours. All rights reserved.