The Takesi Trail
27 Feb, 2019 | David O’Keeffe
Photo: David O’Keeffe
Hiking where the Inca once roamed
Having spent a couple of weeks in La Paz, I felt that I’d adapted to the Andean altitude enough to pack my tent and hike the Takesi Trail, a 40-kilometre portion of a grand system of 30,000 kilometres of road used during the epoch of the Inca Empire that stretched from what is now Santiago de Chile to Pasto in Colombia. I’d prepared for a two-day trek, a somewhat leisurely pace compared to that of the chasquis (Inca messenger runners), who would cover that distance in around two hours.
The Takesi Trail is a tributary to the main Royal Road, one of the two centralised main Andean roads known as the Qhapaq Ñan, a transportation network developed to connect various productive, administrative and ceremonial locations for more than 2,000 years of pre-Incan culture in the Andes. Later, they became instrumental for military conquest and territorial control, both by the Incas and later of the Incas by conquistadors. These roads – which have been recognised by UNESCO as having ‘outstanding universal value’ – have proved remarkably resilient to weather erosion and flooding, conditions that still annually destroy many of the contemporary roads of modern Andean nation-states.
After a short taxi ride from Ventilla to the Takesi trail head near the village of Choquequta, I strolled along an unpaved road overlooking vast terrain occupied mostly by llamas and the occasional farming settlement sitting beneath a glacier. At a point where the road diverged, a man and his donkey came towards me on the path. He was the last person I’d see until the village of Takesi.
A man and his donkey came towards me on the path. He was the last person I’d see until the village of Takesi.
Llamas skipped across my path without paying me much attention – but with 5,000 people a year making the trek, they must be bored by passers-by. After a couple more kilometres, I ascended above the llama pasture towards La Cumbre, a 4,600-metre pass. Clouds rolled in, forcing me to put on my waterproofs.
The route isn’t technical, and it’s easy to follow, but hikers must be prepared for the thin air during the ascent to La Cumbre. It’s a mental and physical battle. My lungs held a fraction of their normal capacity and, after covering 20-30 metres, I was almost breathless. But looking back at my progress gave me a boost of mental energy. Once I reached La Cumbre, thick mist blocked any views, but I was delighted to start heading downhill and I breathed a little easier along the pre-Columbian path. I trudged triumphantly through the clouds, which opened to reveal a startled fox darting across the trail ahead. I followed its grey bushy tail with my eyes until it scurried away once again into the mist.
After descending a few kilometres through open pastures of stone-pocked grass (a landscape that looked a bit like the West of Ireland) and passing an eerily desolate lake, I reached the isolated town of Takesi, the route’s halfway point where walkers can stop for refreshments or accommodation. I carefully picked my way across stones and boulders to cross a river before setting up camp beneath a small waterfall just down from the village.
At 8am the rain stopped tapping on my tent, and it was time to set out again. The trail was becoming discernibly more tropical as I struggled for an hour or so down a lengthy section of paved Inca road that was a marathon of wet slippery stones. Although the trail has been resilient to weather erosion, it was also incredibly dangerous with a deathly steep drop for anyone who falls down the valley side. But by gripping my feet on tufts of grass, I was able to manoeuvre through this section with only a few stumbles.
Later, the rain clouds cleared and the gargantuan landscape revealed itself. Tall mountains surrounded me; narrow gully streams rushed with the recent days downpour. Instead of looking behind for motivation, I was filled with excitement to see what was ahead. The previous day’s rocky slopes had transformed into the lush forest of the Yungas, which was beginning to explode with the colours of subtropical plants. Butterflies surrounded me and landed around my feet.
The previous day’s rocky slopes had transformed into a lush forest that was beginning to explode with the colours of subtropical plants.
With the mist now beneath me, I had to remind myself to stop and take in the amazing scenery. I looked down over silvery clouds that had gathered in green valleys, and I spotted bright flowers along the thin winding track. Where a river blocked the route, fallen trees served as a bridge. The trek was simple and beautiful from here, particularly with the abundance of oxygen and sub-tropical warmth. After crossing the Takesi River, I knew there were only a couple of hours left in my trek, so I paused regularly and gawked at the scenery – abandoned buildings and a miners’ post – before exiting the Inca trail onto a paved road that ran to Yanacachi. The final kilometres offered stunning views of mountains towering above me and the steep drop of the valley below. After passing through an unexplainable cliffside propiedad privada checkpoint, I was on the home stretch and felt exhausted. A roaming dog accompanied me to the sloping town of Yanacachi until it was shooed away by a restaurant owner who piled up a heavy plate of fried chicken, rice and plantain in front of me while I reflected back on the journey. I found a cheap but comfortable hotel room a few doors down and prepared to settle down for the night. After I finally changed out of my hiking gear and started to relax, I drank an ice cold beer in the warmth of my bed before I was overcome by tiredness and fell asleep.