Our first glimpse of life in the highlands of the Andes was at the end of our last dirt road before ten days of walking. We were descending on Cachora in a van and encountered a girl-woman of 14 or 15 years of age. She was running fast uphill, above 9500 feet, number 11 on the back of her jersey. JB thinks she is training for football: Peruvian women do better at it than the men. IH imagines her in the next Olympics. One of the great things about being on holiday is that we can imagine, and also believe, everything we are told.

The runner was instantly our heroine: but number 11 turned out to be on the back of all the jerseys we saw, including the several that followed her up the mountain. In Cachora the young men played football until dusk: a lot of real skill here. A ten-year-old boy and girl were doing cartwheels. Their evident joy reflected our growing sense of the happiness of the children in the Andes. An Arcadian fantasy for us Northerners, no doubt, but how often in our lives do we encounter a hamlet, of a hundred families at most, literally the end of a dirt road, and feel so much life around us? There is a little money coming in from the mules, which are hired by tourists visiting a famous Inca site a couple of days away, but the only other source of income are the very small plots of farmed land on the hills.

To get an idea of the topography for more than half of the walk, imagine chipped axe-blades set upright. Between the bases of the blades run tributaries of the Amazon, at between 5000 and 7000 feet; the Apurimac (‘the Great Speaker’ in Quechua) is the most famous. We crossed passes over the mountains: chips in the blades. The first was at 12,000 feet, the next at 14,000 and then 15,400: up and then down to the next river. The two of us were on a luxury tour, reminiscent of 150 years ago. We had five mules for the gear and a spare one for emergencies. We had Miguel, an exceptional guide. We had a cook – his name was pronounced Cecilia. Vicente, his apprentice, was nicknamed Rosie after Rosita de Espinar, la diva del sur, on whom he dotes. Two muleteers hired in Cachora rounded off our team. We all got on cheerfully, even though we knew not a word of the language around us, Quechua. Among our group, only Miguel spoke Spanish well, and, for us, English.

We started a day early; originally, we had planned to arrive in Cachora on 27 May, but all the roads would be closed that day because of a national strike called in protest at government plans to privatise public resources, including water. (Remember, we are telling what we were told.) A couple of days later, we heard on Cecilia’s transistor radio that 24 people had been killed in the jungle on the eastern side of the Andes. The natural gas and mineral rights are being handed over to capitalists, mostly foreign, in exchange for ‘reserves’ for the jungle peoples. That is what happened in Canada 150 years ago, with catastrophic consequences. The lands of our walk were innocent of these barbarisms, and they were also far removed from the coca trade, which is managed by Colombians and, it’s said, government cronies. Coca nevertheless became an integral part of our experience on the walk: coca tea before breakfast and throughout the day, essential for altitude sickness. We weren’t, however, offered lime to chew it with – that would have released its happy-making properties. We regretted that we weren’t taught the profound rituals of exchanging coca leaf.

Our first camp was above the Apurimac. Here, we began to be aware of ‘vertical agriculture’. We were now at about 6500 feet, and the plot of land on which we set up camp was in a lush smallholding. A few pigs, and superbly proud turkeys, so different from the freaks bred in our Northern meat factories. Chickens of endless varieties. There is something wrong with Mendelian genetics, if these profoundly isolated poultry can, with a couple of roosters, go on reproducing so many shapes and colours of chicken.

Fruits flourish at this altitude, both those such as papaya and passion fruit that have been cultivated in the Americas for ever, and others such as the small sweet banana that came with the Spanish. Some sugar cane is grown. We watched it being ground, the stone turned by a mule. Next, a bonfire beside our tent forced us to relocate, for the syrup was boiled down through the night; in a couple of days it would ferment. Neighbours three or four hours’ walk away would come to buy it. Our crew got a treat.

Most of the beer we encountered was brewed from purple corn, which is first sprouted to liberate the starches, and then drunk a few days later. From this point on we were struck by the age-old plant diversity. Not one variety of maize but many, adapted to different altitudes; grains unknown to us, and the ubiquitous quinoa, rich in protein. It is possible to imagine that when the industrial world suffers a dreadful blight on its monoculture of crops, only the Peruvian highlands will survive.

Down to the Apurimac at 5000 feet – happily for us, the suspension bridge now uses steel cable, not the vines that crossed it for several thousand years – and then up. And up. Our first official destination is Choquequirao, above 10,000 feet. This first part of our walk is not uncommon for tourists. JB is sceptical of a guidebook that says ‘any reasonably fit person can do this.’ We are both over 70 and so don’t count, but we take some solace in the blog of an adventurous couple, a third our age, who did much the same walk and at this stage in their journey wrote: ‘Exhausted, we crashed and were asleep by 7 p.m. We had difficulty [the next day] walking up to the actual ruins.’ They stayed another day to recuperate. Well, we slept ten hours a night, every night. JB isn’t so good at walking uphill as she used to be, and IH’s knees complain going downhill, so we are a doddering old couple. With JB eating twice as much as her usual frugal intake, we began to feel like metabolism machines, whose sole purpose was to move up and down hills. There was some pain, too, aside from the aches of exhaustion. Mules are sometimes attacked by vampire bats that leave nasty wounds. For us it was bugs, inside (despite obsessive cleanliness) and out: JB’s bites became infected and she had to take antibiotics; meanwhile, our bowels collapsed. IH required some jungle surgery – a red hot wire to drill through a toenail and release a fine fountain of blood.

And yet as Miguel told us, ‘You are so lucky: you have time to see what is around you, not like those young people on some of my trips.’ We passed out of the hot riverbed and encountered jungle at about 8000 feet – a tangled garden of flowers, with vines worthy of Tarzan. Miguel told us the names in Latin, English, Quechua and every other language he knew, but the names and, alas, sometimes the shapes and colours blurred in our crowded minds. The rains had ended three days before our walk began, thank goodness. There are said to be more orchids in bloom at the height of the rainy season, but we were sated in any case.

Above the jungle was what is called peña, at first sight barren, but where potatoes grow. The rest of the world’s potatoes descend from a species in southern Chile, but Peru has six species of its own, which prosper only where days are of the same length throughout the year. There are said to be 3000 varieties of these; many have been selected for high altitudes. Miguel’s father cultivates 128 kinds of potato at 13,000 feet. The Andes people have rotated crops from time immemorial. Here there grows a type of lupin with blue-purple flowers lovelier than any domestic lupin in an English garden; six to ten feet tall, it thrives in the peña. It is a legume: it fixes nitrogen. Lupin is cleared, and a plot is sewn with potatoes for three or four years; then the lupin is replanted. Some years later, it is cut and burned, and the plot is fertile again. Other types of lupin are grown at a lower altitude. They must be soaked for a long time to get rid of toxins – the soaking liquid is used as an insecticide. A week later, after light boiling, they are delicious eaten cold.

Each family has plots of land at all altitudes and grows different plants on each, which gives them a truly diverse diet. That’s vertical agriculture. High up – above 14,000 feet – there are beef cattle with a few bulls among them. Content with their small herds, the bulls take no offence at the presence of people. Most places we passed kept guinea pigs, the meat of feasts for many centuries. A famous painting of the Last Supper in the cathedral at Cusco has a roast guinea pig set before Christ. Although all the animals wander around as if wild in the daytime, they have to be protected from marauders at night, including puma and condors. All are owned by individuals, though ‘owned’ is not quite the right word for a commune.

Talk of potatoes reinforces our new anti-Chilean attitudes. The Pacific War (1879-83) is still a sore point, for Chile annexed Peru’s southern provinces, which were rich in nitrates and coveted by British mining consortiums, for whom Chile was then a puppet. (The rich families of Peru refused to tax themselves to pay or equip their own army, much like California’s prosperous classes today, who are driving the richest state in the world into bankruptcy by rejecting taxation.) So we become irked when told that the world’s potatoes descend from Chile, not Peru. Not so fast! North American potatoes are increasingly dominated by the Yukon Gold variety, which became public property in 1981, after being developed by a potato research station in Ontario. A breeder there was brought some yellow potatoes by a Peruvian student; he liked the flavour and crossed them with a variety of a more standard size and shape. So the potatoes that we ourselves eat at home are Peruvian half-breeds.

Chile was the only South American country to support the UK in the Malvinas War. Worse still: the national cocktail of Peru is the pisco sour. Pisco was first distilled from grapes by Spanish colonists four centuries ago; it was named after a colonial city north of Lima, named in turn after the Quechua word for ‘bird’. But the Chileans too lay claim to pisco sours, and have (we were told) renamed a town in Chile ‘Pisco’ in order to cement this claim. If we started to check facts, they would probably turn out to be much more complicated, but with pisco sours, we are content to be loyal, prejudiced Peruvians.

We originally came for the Inca stones, and we saw many of them before we began our walk. Choquequirao was the first recovered ruin we encountered on foot. By nightfall several tourists had arrived at our campsite, but earlier in the day we had the place to ourselves, with all the tranquillity of an obscure English cathedral. The French take a proprietary interest, as they were the first foreigners to get here, some 150 years ago: Eliane Karp, a French anthropologist and the wife of the previous president, Alejandro Toledo, helped raise French money for work on Choquequirao. There are lots more sites to find in the bush; we sometimes pass by what even to our untutored eyes are obviously ancient relics. At Qoriwayrachina, a day further on, there is a vast network of buildings spread out between 6000 and 12,000 feet, all over a massive ridge. The area has hardly begun to be cleared.

After Choquequirao we had the walk to ourselves; most travellers go back to Cachora. The next day we lunched at Pincha Unuyoc: more typical Inca terraces, laid out in a fan shape, with about ten layers of terracing now much restored. A local man has the job of taking care of the site. He uses some of the terraces to grow big white gourds, before drying them and cutting them in half to turn them into bowls to sell. He sported a coat given him by the Ministry of Culture, which employs him, and Wellington boots, surprisingly common footwear in these parts (remember there’s a rainy season). He is a man of dignity, perhaps even a dandy, for he looked as well dressed as an English farmer of some substance. We ‘layered’, wearing everything we had with us at high altitudes, where there was ground frost, and stripping to shirts at river level, where it was hot, but the highland people wear their alpaca garments all the time. The animal oil in the raw wool of the ponchos makes them waterproof and they insulate heat and cold alike.

The Inca terraces we came across from time to time were crafted with great care. There were solid stone retaining walls, and on the level, below the surface, two sizes of stones, then gravel. After that, good soil was laid. It is conjectured that dirt for the terraces at Machu Picchu was brought on a week’s walk by llamas, from the Sacred Valley’s fertile plains around Cusco. Irrigation systems direct water around the terracing. It comes from the glaciers above us, at 20,000 feet. Inca were brilliant at water control: Pincha Unuyoc itself means ‘water gushing forth’.

We also saw terraces in concentric circles going up the mountain. Types of maize, and a tree commonly grown in Cusco at 11,500 feet, were acclimatised by gradually changing the altitude at which they could survive. Here, Lamarck and Lysenko still have their truths to teach.

Terraces are only part of the Inca system, which includes granaries on higher land, often remote from cultivation. They are exposed to wind for ventilation and cooling during the hot season. The empire seems to have required tribute of each subject in the form of a third of a year’s work for imperial food production, and another half a year’s labour for moving stones for monuments to the Sun and his earthly manifestation, the Inca, as the sovereign was called. There was no concept of money – just a labour theory of value. The masons built earthquake-proof walls from enormous carved polyhedral boulders, locking them into each other like jigsaw pieces. Inca had bronze but no iron, no wheel, no writing. There was a system of record-keeping using knotted coloured strings that no one now understands. The empire stretched from modern Colombia to mid-Chile, but was never able to get into the jungle on the eastern side of the Andes. The killings after 27 May are just the latest incident in thousands of years of struggle between the jungle and the highlands.

We were more taken with two curious little girls at a spot named Maizal than with any stonework. They were perhaps three and six. They followed every motion of our camp, and gradually lost their shyness. Miguel knew how to play with them in ways we didn’t. Perhaps we were the ones who were shy after all? Although they lived half a day from anywhere, they were fashionably named Ruby and Eliane (after the ex-presidential wife). Their mother moved her laundry so we could get some extra time in the sun (which left the valley at three in the afternoon) and dry our clothes. We all enjoyed a rooster unrelentingly chasing a piglet, pecking at him to get the cob of corn he had in his mouth. Although he complained and moaned to his mother, the sow didn’t come to his aid.

The nights here were cloudless but the new moon made the night so bright that we couldn’t properly see the southern constellations. In particular, the Milky Way, the heart of Andean cosmology, was dimmed by the waxing moon, so we couldn’t see the dark shapes that inhabit the band of light, and are the focus of Andean attention. The locals are closer to the reality of the stars than other peoples, for our constellations are just visual figments of our imagination, but the Milky Way, a galaxy, is a fact.

Our second highest pass, Minas Victoria, at 14,500 feet, is a jewel. Cecilia and Rosie set a folding card-table for lunch on the saddle, with a perfect view of the peaks all around. Two Andean condors visited. Their wingspan is ten feet. They are vultures whose powerful beaks drill through the skeletons of large animals to get at the organs which are their preferred food. Later in the day we were walking along a very narrow trail of the sort from which you Do Not Look Down when a condor buzzed us, hoping, no doubt, to make us lose our footing and so make a tasty dinner.

Minas Victoria was given its name because it was extensively mined for silver. Corridors were dug out of the rock. Miguel and Cecilia explored, and found small chunks of silver ore as a present for Miguel’s one-year-old daughter. We descended to Yanama, a village where a handful of families live relatively close together. Ever since the reforms of 1969, land has been held communally. Although members of the commune have rights to the land that they live on or cultivate, they cannot alienate it. Velasco, the military dictator who introduced the reform, is remembered outside Peru as a disaster, the man who ruined the economy; he in turn was felled by another general. We don’t favour Mussolinis, but the land reform seems to have lasted for the good of all except the rich.

There is a school for children aged between about six and ten. The walk there takes them as long as two hours each way, every day, but all we could see was cheerful playing along the paths. Of course, we were figures of fun. The government provides a sort of porridge of mixed grains as a school lunch. There is a rota for the children to bring sticks of wood to cook the porridge, for there is no wood in the village: this is the peña. Families collect dead bromeliads from the jungle to use for cooking fuel – these are epiphytes, plants that live in trees, abundantly. (Some kinds look a bit like giant pineapples.) For light, punk rubbed in llama fat has to serve. The houses in the highlands are usually of stone and clay, beautifully thatched. To us, they seemed terribly dark. They have no chimney; cooking smoke filters through the thatch. We had the constant feeling that although subsistence farming is rough, these isolated people are content; it isn’t just our nostalgia for a simpler world.

We asked Miguel how Ruby, for example, would meet young men when she was older. (Boys will travel as muleteers or porters.) We were told that the Andeans living in isolation will ride a mule or a horse across the passes to a village where there is an occasional market, and will spend the night there. Three families live within that radius. The young people get to meet. We don’t know how often there is a market, but Yanama isn’t big enough to have one, or even a shop. There is a small church building, used occasionally by an itinerant priest for confirmation and marriage. There is a government dispensary, powered by a solar panel that also runs an emergency satellite-serviced telephone, which seemed to take an entire minute to transmit Miguel’s single-sentence message to his wife in Cusco.

All this will pass. There is a good reason to think that the glaciers at 20,000 feet are vanishing, and with them a year-round source of water. A dirt road is getting closer, creating the ecological havoc of slides in the mountain that nature will find difficult to repair. A road brings electricity, television and mobile phones. New wants eat into the old ways. When we finally reached a road in La Playa, we found people living under tin roofs with more dignity than in a shanty town, but you couldn’t say that life was good. We got off the dusty road after an hour or so of walking, crossed an old Inca path and headed into the hills again. The Inca roads were a delight: paved, unlike most of our walk, which had been over loose rock or, at times, mud. Here the jungle had been tamed almost into parkland, with small patches in which coffee was grown. We tasted some dregs in a cup, which were superb, and bought our only souvenir, a kilo of raw beans. A handsome young woman charged us a sum she seemed to pick at random, 10 soles (£2).

The Inca path took us up to a campsite overlooking the amazing Machu Picchu. We were still alone with our gang, but were being warped back into the real world: 2500 tourists, most arriving by train, but some doing a four-day walk, are allowed into Machu Picchu every day. Mules are banned up here. The local porters’ association judged that three boys would suffice to carry our gear. The oldest was 17. When IH was that age, he worked in the rainforests of British Columbia in a job that required him to pack enough food and gear for up to two weeks in mostly virgin forest, so he isn’t a stranger to the idea of young men carrying big loads in rough country. But he had never seen the likes of this. All the gear – tents, propane tanks, the folding card-table, the chemical toilet, the lot – was amassed on three plastic sheets. Each porter made a bundle, which he hoisted onto his back. Each weighed a good 150 lbs, more than the lads themselves. The oldest one fell over backwards while loading his burden, prompting hilarious laughter. Then they set off running. Miguel began this way, and worked up to being a leader, fully trained in first aid, botany, history. He is now 31. He hopes to become the mayor of his father’s commune, on a platform of making education more accessible to the children.

We saw a poisonous snake on the trail here; another was killed by the boys. Miguel put it in a container with the same alcohol we used to sterilise our hands before meals. Later, he chopped it up and let it soak in spirits with herbs; the liquid is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Only when we made it down to Hidroelectrica (Hydroelectric Town) did we stop believing everything we were told.

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