Documentarian Thomson’s travels to the center of the Incan landscape are intelligently enthusiastic though with a taste also of the just knocking about.
The author’s two periods of significant roaming in the Peruvian outback come nearly 20 years apart. The first is in 1982 when, on something of a lark, he sets forth to rediscover Llactapata, an Incan ruin described by Hiram Bingham but subsequently mislaid. With the help of a local man—discovery, Thomson notes, is accomplished mainly by “discovering reliable local guides”—he achieves his mission, then proceeds to other Incan sites, from Bolivia to Ecuador, taking his own measure of the Inca. Since the Incas left no written history, he relies on the suppositions of contemporary archaeologists and the most likely dubious accounts of the conquistadors—though he’s not afraid to put emphasis where he feels it has been neglected, as on the sculptural and aesthetic qualities of Incan stonework, or the importance of mountains to the Incans, or the multifarious purposes of their towns. He travels to the wildest outposts, mostly through dense jungle: for all the ridgeline grandeur of Machu Picchu, the White Rock, and Choquequirao, this is primarily machete country, where one’s next step is revealed only after the sweep of the blade. There’s evidence, though, of remarkable and intricate Incan pathways, which, with their “extraordinary, almost symbiotic feel for the mountains themselves,” make the going easier at times. Thomson’s return, in 1999, is chiefly to visit Inca Wasi and the great melancholy wreck of Espiritu Pampa. The travelogue is aided immeasurably by profiles of explorers, archaeologists, and Incan emperors, in particular Manco Inca, who reigned between Atahualpa (seized and murdered by Pizzaro) and Tupac Amaru, the last emperor, and was “a more admirable character than either of them.”
A delightfully personal, skeptical, and ebullient journey, with just the right degree of humor necessary for hard travel to distant places. (45 b&w photographs)