I drop my pack at The Sun Gate, descend the trail to the mud and the fog; Machu Picchu nowhere to be seen. I close my eyes and hear the jingling of bells, the rhythmic tramping of sandaled feet, relays of caravans from far-off jungles and deserts.
Shaggy lines of llamas are closer now, breaking into a nervous trot, coloured ribbons waving in thin, cold air. They sense I’m here, eyes big and round; pools of black. Flickering eyelashes are white, long and unreal. They turn their heads, and stop briefly. I’m frozen in time – maybe 1460 – llamas pushing past, long skinny necks craning to see the way ahead. They carry gifts.
Bells are louder as the animals shake their heads, ears twitching this way and that, complaining of heavy bundles strapped on woolly sway backs. They stamp feet and spit at their handlers: wild-looking men with pierced noses and harsh voices. Behind are fancy-clad emissaries, walking tall with straight backs; important men in long alpaca cloaks that brush my legs as their owners lift hems clear of the mud at the edges. Courtiers and attendants are next, dressed in blue and saffron macaw feathers, condor-head staffs denote positions of power. The earth thumps with each stride as staff hits stony ground.
They pass by and I wait, not daring to move, the procession not yet complete. There’s shuffling and the clap of hands. A man is carried by porters on a raft above their shoulders.
This man’s head is held high. He gazes about, then up to the sky; a royal badge framed with gold, pinned to vicuna vest and cloak, the fabric lined with emerald and turquoise. A coloured headband has feathers of the rare golden hummingbird, but his face is a blur: the face of a king, a god, untouchable.
I hear the porters’ grunts and sharp gasps for breath as they jostle and push in the sparse mountain air, guiding their load away from the edge of the path. I turn as they pass, dark eyes downcast as they focus on matters of the earth: the stone steps and the splash of mud.
The man they carry is unperturbed, the back of his head high above the bobbing mass of toiling attendants, his shining black hair in braids. Gold rings dangle from extended earlobes.
I open my eyes and return for my pack, the spell broken by chatting sisters from Saskatchewan; the fog lifting to reveal terrace after terrace, the famous ruins still somewhere below.
Photo: At Inti Pinku – Machu Picchu, Peru _ Ian Cochrane