Machu Picchu, Peru


Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2004

Hard by the gates of Machu Picchu, the Santuary Lodge should be ideal for lazy moonlight tourists: sightseeing without leaving the premises. Except that you can’t see into the ruins from the hotel – and anyway, the night we stayed, there wasn’t a moon. Oh well, there was still our promised after-hours visit with a shamen to look forward to. Only the hotel’s assistant manager had cancelled the shamen. “Most of those guys are fakes and will rip you off,” she said, “But I can arrange for a very nice paco [a sort of qualified white witch] to perform a ceremony. You can borrow flashlights and go and meet her when the ruins close at dusk.”

The Inca ruins must be very beautiful by moonlight – they’re certainly lovely at dawn when, swathed in an undulating blanket of fog, they are tantalisingly revealed and concealed in turn. But at dusk – in the eerie half light – they’re rather spooky.

No one knows for sure why the Incas built this mountain-top citadel only to abandon it. They were animists – they deified the sun, the mountains, the stars – so they almost certainly thought its altitude would bring them closer to all three. But how did they worship? Did they make human sacrifices, as some experts believe? Was the large number of female human remains really because most of the men died in battle, away from Machu Picchu? Or was it, as some experts suggest, because this is where nustas, or virgins, were educated? And what about the mummies found here? Gingerly we picked our way through the darkening ruins, taking care not to fall too far behind our guide.

Nohemi, the paco, was waiting for us in an open-fronted shelter, crouching over a mat, arranging what looked like a selection of canapés. The shelter was lit by lanterns, with three candles burning on the mat; Nohemi had also uncorked a bottle of wine and a bottle of chicha, or beer. Could this be cocktail hour, Inca style? No, this evening’s ceremony was a thanksgiving to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. The “canapés” were offerings; so were the wine and the beer. “I have to offer Pachamama things that I love to eat – like sweets and chocolate. The beer and the wine are what men like to drink and they are for the mountains, which are male,” explained Nohemi.

By now darkness had inked out all but the inside of our little shelter and we could hear only the click of cicadas and the dull roar of the distant Urubamba River. Nohemi began her ceremony, circling her mat with a lighted taper then rubbing a blob of alpaca fat – the “energy of life” – between her palms. She put the blob on a piece of paper in the centre of her mat and sprinkled the offerings – seeds, beans, M&Ms, rice – over it. On her instruction, we each took three coca leaves, breathed on them and added them to the pile. Next, we selected a tiny charm, made a wish and stuck it into the alpaca fat. Nohemi poured the wine and beer into separate beakers, and turned to face the mountains. She whistled several times to attract their attention and raised the beakers in salute. Then she turned back to her mat and sprinkled a little wine and beer on the floor.

The ceremony continued in a similar vein for several minutes – during which time we, too, were invited to raise a beaker of wine and say a small prayer of thanks to the mountains – until the offerings had all disappeared into the central package and the candles begun to gutter. Finally, Nohemi tied up her package with string, offered it to the mountains and put it to one side, to burn at dawn the following day. She hugged us in turn and the ceremony was over.

Outside the shelter, the clouds had parted to reveal a sprinkling of stars. The Incas thought the stars were heavenly guardians; that animals and birds had their own star or constellation.

We couldn’t resist a 21st-century scoff. But as we made our way back along the path, we all had the strangest feeling that the mountains were watching us.