Peru Travel Log: On Quechua, Consciousness, and Coca

By: Noah Franklin


Raul, our guide, stands suavely at the helm while we catch our respective breaths. We sit under vined slats of wood, our backs to the Urubamba River which snakes below us, brown from landslides. The path ahead blurs into peaks and valleys. A small, old woman emerges from a house I hadn’t even noticed to bring fruit. “No tengo plata,” says Raul. He turns to us. “You don’t have money, right?” I squirm, but smile. Raul plucks a passionfruit off of a tree.

I later learned he had made this trek three or four hundred times. He points at one of us eating chips and chirps, “your snack is processed. Mine — ” he flashes a green grin — “is all natural.” True. He‘s chewing on coca leaves. All of the guides chew obscene amounts of coca. The porters too — local Sherpa-like men who lug tourists’ belongings in packs bigger than themselves, and still sprint past us on the trail. Refined, this could make cocaine. In this form, well, I guess they are just leaves. But we Americans struggle to dissociate the two.

My mom, my dad, my sister, and I are among 16 hikers in our group on this four-day trek to Machu Picchu. We are on the Inca Trail, the route that the Incas took once or twice a year as a spiritual journey to the holy Mecca of Machu Picchu for ceremonial cleansing — we think. The only reason this path and this mythic city remain is because the Spaniards never found any of it. It remained tucked under the mountains and foliage for centuries, the stones almost exactly as they were 500 years ago.

I think about that ancient headspace a lot on the trail. I try to put myself there, and method-act as an Inca for a bit. Unsuccessful. There’s too much learned crap up there in my brain, and I’m too goddamn tired. This may be the most physically exhausting thing I’ve done in my life. My lungs are not big enough nor experienced enough to make use of what little oxygen is up here. I do try the coca, but it tastes pretty nasty, and I don’t want to choke on the leaves while I’m heaving and gasping for air. It is pretty good in tea-form.

Since I’m going to talk about perspective, I suppose it is worth mentioning at this point that the “Inca,” was not an empire or a people. The word referred to one man, or being — the leader of the empire, and the human manifestation of Inti, the Sun God. They called themselves the Quechua people, and they called their empire Tawantinsuyu. I’ll use these names from here on out.

The most puzzling thing about Tawantinsuyu is this: no record of a written language has been found. This is largely why the empire’s history is so speculative. We rely solely on Spanish chroniclers. But when the Spanish arrived, Tawantinsuyu had wrangled and tightly organized some 15 million people. Scholars have marveled at how this was done with no written language. Well, every guide I had in Peru thought it obvious that they did have one; all records must have been destroyed by conquistadors. A different perspective. A local one. Maybe they thought their language sacred, and only communicated on gold and silver, which was lost when the greedy Spaniards ransacked and melted it all down. I don’t know.

We visit several sites with precise, staggering, megalithic structures. The Quechua people used no mortar here, and did not even know of the wheel, and yet made walls more resistant to time and earthquakes than their colonial conquerors could. They had no iron, no drills, yet perfect, rounded holes and immaculately chiseled stones abound. Boulders weighing hundreds of tons were dragged miles from their original resting places, sometimes up mountains. All of this has led some to consider aliens. I consider aliens. That seems like a cop-out.

I credit the cosmos, but differently — as inspiration, rather than an extra-terrestrial labor force. Raul points out that there are many, many, ancient megalithic structures: Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Pyramids of Giza. I don’t know what to make of that. Was everybody in the world on the same spiritual trip? Were these the grandest statements humanity could make? He explains that the Quechua religion was tactile and immediate. They worshipped a Creator God, Mother Earth, The Sun, The Moon, The Stars, Rainbows, Mountains, The Sea, etc. They saw the sun traverse the sky every day, and they witnessed it bring life to everything. I mean, it does.

I remember being veritably scared in AP World History when it became clear how much of the world was shaped by religion. I have never been religious. It frustrated me. But now I see that religion was not an aspect of Quechua culture. That is a strange style of thought that I think I’ve been trapped in. Religion was not an aspect of Quechua culture — found in between food and economy in a table of contents, perhaps — because it was everything to them. Their lives were in service of the Gods. This was the natural order. They owed so much to their creation. I realize this is the life of many today, still. I succeed in a tiny shift in consciousness.

They built such marvels because nothing else was important. They were part of the Earth, a natural cycle, and any pursuits of their own were simply extra. If it took months to move and carve a giant stone for a sun temple, then so be it. Their empire was a willing labor force. Machu Picchu is 8,000 feet up on a mountain ridge. It is shaped like a condor, the Quechua symbol for the heavens. It’s all purposeful. Were they stupider than us? I don’t think so. If you measured on an IQ scale, then sure, but that is a test made to assess thinking in a very specific way. Their context of thought was much different, and they lived fulfilled lives. Perhaps capitalism and hedonism have since gotten in the way.

The coca is odd because of American systems, and schemas, and because drilled into our heads over and over is “don’t do drugs.” Keep your mind clear, whatever that means. Tawantinsuyu ran on Chicha, a type of fermented blue-corn beer, and probably some hallucinogenic beverages, like ayahuasca. And coca. Cocaine is addictive. I don’t know if coca leaves are or aren’t, but I’m in the Andes now. And it seems pretty negligible in a society where physically climbing higher meant getting closer to the Gods. They had to elevate their minds, too.

Noah Franklin