“What is this place?”
“This is the necropolis of the Inca.”
The young woman at Hotel Puerto Inka’s lonely reception desk motions towards small circular stone structures dotting the hillside above us.
“You can walk around if you like,” she says. “Just don’t disturb the stones.”
The sea carves out a small cove here at Puerto Inca, along Peru’s southern coast. The bulk of the necropolis clings to a thin strip of sand between jagged pillars of volcanic rock and the battering tide. The only permanent occupants here are death and the ocean, two forces beyond human scale, each held in the other’s gaze. Even the hotel is merely a visitor.
Skeletons lie scattered within the crumbling stone walls of their cylindrical mausoleum homes. An informal path meanders through neighborhoods of these structures and through fields of stone-lined holes, in whose depths yet more skeletons repose. Beyond a few bright flags planted in the earth to hint at ongoing excavations, the place exudes a sensation of something passing beyond history.
There is something strange about this place, an intangible that eludes words. While pondering what sets these ruins apart from others, I glimpse a pile of bones and know the answer. The dead here break the fourth wall that usually separates the traveler from a ruin’s former occupants.
In more traveled ruins, the dead are either absent or separated from the living by a physical barrier, such as a glass display case. Here, the dead lie at arms’ reach, separated only by the shifting wind.
The only thing keeping the dead here still distant is a notable lack of skulls. These, archaeologists remove for their own studies. I am reminded of my sister’s boyfriend, excavating a job site in the Texas hill country. Upon unearthing a massive skeleton fossilized into the hard subsurface rock, he called a nearby university to see if anyone was interested in examining it.
“Did you find a skull?” an archaeologist asked.
“Call back if you find a skull.”
Although primarily a place of burial, Puerto Inca also once served as an important port for seafood. Informational plaques describe some leftover foundations as having once been storehouses and processing facilities for shellfish destined for inland points. The plaques do not explain whether the shellfish industry existed contemporaneously with the necropolis.
Vultures nest on a rocky spire overlooking the entrance to this small cove. Once upon a time, I watched with some revulsion as their brethren feasted on roadkill in Texas. Only now do I notice their grace and poise. They unfurl their wings as though offering an embrace and soar above the necropolis, paying final testament to our forgotten dead.
Few other travelers provide company as we explore the ruins. The sea breeze and the peculiar quiet of the place muffle the sounds of our greetings. Even the wind coming off the ocean grows quiet that night, allowing us the luxury of making a hot seaside dinner. We sleep soundly, comforted by the ocean breezes and the blanketing calm of the dead.
The day prior, a young man lounging behind the Hotel Puerto Inka’s reception desk had pointed out a distant promontory, colored white with guano.
“If you go there early in the morning, you’ll see hundreds of penguins coming out from their roosts.”
Our alarm awakes us while the sunrise remains only a reddish hint over the hills to the east of Puerto Inca. Armed with a pot of coffee and a camera, we ascend from the beach into the broken chaos of the volcanic coast. We had declined guide services, preferring to explore at our own pace and without the forced friendship that a guide too often entailed.
In hindsight’s crisp clarity, we wonder if perhaps we erred. The trail that began at the beach’s border immediately branches into a labyrinth of alternate paths upon entering the surrounding broken volcanic terrain and we become lost within them. The footprints of visitors past lead haphazardly in our desired direction, but by the time we arrive at the guano-decorated outcrop, either the penguins have gone, or we have misunderstood which rock the boy from the hotel had meant to point us towards.
Despite failing to achieve our goal, the hike has not been made in vain. We spend the morning playing the part of explorer-archaeologists, walking through Inca funerary handiwork tucked into the hidden crannies of wind-sculpted pillars. As tours go, this is easily the most personal and intimate of any we have experienced. Vultures and seagulls wheel above us and the ascending sun turns the Pacific horizon into a golden blaze that outshines the avaricious dreams of a conquistador.
Upon our return, we pack up our camp and drive into the quickly rising hills of the vast South American coastal desert. The dead do not come out to see us off, but in the whispering breeze, I think I can hear them sigh.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Asolo Hiking Boots: The best hiking boots on the market, in terms of comfort, traction, and durability, in my honest opinion. You can cover all manner of terrain in comfort wearing these, not the least of which will be the sharp, volcanic rocks of Puerto Inca.
Stanley Classic Vacuum Camp Mug: If you’re like me, the world is a dull place without a warm cup of coffee. This baby not only keeps the good stuff hot but forms a tight enough seal to prevent the loss of even a drop should you lose your grip…which I have, repeatedly.
Charmin To Go Flushable Wipes: If you live in Europe or North America, you may have grown accustomed to the convenience of toilet paper being a normal part of any public toilet. This is not the case for much of the rest of the world and Charmin’s handy travel rolls will help you to not get caught with your pants down while traveling — especially in Puerto Inca.