The Incas built their civilization in the Andes Mountains in Peru. Know how high the Andes are? Real high — over 22,000 feet at the highest peak. There are temples and towns that the Incas lived in at 14,000 feet. That’s almost three miles up, and at that height the air gets really thin and it becomes difficult to breathe, especially when you’re climbing steps as high as you can see.
Interesting side note: The word Inca means king, or ruler. The actual name of the people was Quechua, but the Spanish adopted the term Inca as an ethnic term referring to all the subjects of the empire, which I will use since it’s the name most commonly use when referring to them.
Now since the Incas lived in the Andes, they had to develop a way to level the ground so they could grow crops, so they terraced the landscape. As you drive through the Peruvian Andes, you see terraces etched into the mountains everywhere; the majority of them built during the Inca dynasty. Now these terraces climb up the mountainside, and when I say up, I mean way up. So, how do you get to the upper most terraces? You walk, and everyone knows how difficult it is to walk up a mountain, sometimes to the point of being impossible. So the Incas built steps, and I can’t imagine how many they built during their rein, which lasted only about a hundred years. But I’ll tell you what; we walked for miles on end going up and down steps.
Two of the sites we visited were Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, and guess what? That’s right … steps! Now when I say steps, I’m not talking about the flat steps we’re used to with a nine inch rise. No, I’m talking about steps made from stones and rocks that aren’t flat, nor is there a given rise to each step. There were times when the rise was over a foot. The question was asked, “Why are the steps so high. The Incas weren’t tall people, so why did they build such high steps?” Danny, our guide, informed us, “Speed governed the design. Taking a lot of little steps doesn’t allow fast movement. Big steps allow assents and dissents to be made much quicker.” Yeah, I thought, as long as you have the strength to take those big steps. David, who was born in Peru, had absolutely no problem with steps, either going up or down. But then David was in his early thirties; the rest of us in our late sixties or early seventies, which proved a point I already knew — older people cannot move quite as well as younger people can.
Ollantaytambo was our first stop at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. We would walk for a few minutes and then rest to give ourselves time to catch our breath. By the time we reached Machu Picchu, which is about 8,000 feet, we were a little more acclimated to elevation and able to carry on for longer periods. But Machu Picchu has far more steps. There are two hikes that extend up two different mountainsides, which take the better part of an hour to hour and a half to climb. I found out that climbing up is easier than going down, especially when it’s raining, which, of course, it did.
It was a wonderful trip, and one I would encourage everyone to go on if they ever have the opportunity.