In the Footsteps of the Incas

Inca Trail hiking with a mescaline-based difference

Martin O'Toole
10 min readDec 10, 2019


On top of the world.

There are many things to see in and around Cusco, and many ways to see them. Andean guides are ten to the penny — some good, some decidedly average. Many focus on the history of the Spanish Conquistadors, whilst others provide textbook supposition surrounding the mysterious Inca ruins scattered around the hillsides like the half-finished Lego structures of a child with a short attention span. I’m a lapsed Catholic and former altar boy. I’ve had no affiliation with the religion since my teens. Nor have I had any love for its rather brutal history.

Funnily enough, arriving in Cusco in November 2019, I was reminded that the Battle of Cusco (fought between the Conquistadors and the Incas) was in fact in November 1533 — a 486 year anniversary of sorts. And so Francisco Pizarro and his band of special helmet-wearing chums marched into Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire, whereby these Spanish invaders plundered the city of a great deal of gold and silver. This action alone ensured my disinterest in the Spanish aspect of Cusco’s history. It seemed to me that the ransacking of such a marvellous and magical place, surrounded by Incan wonders (all in the name of God) was a wee bit misguided. Especially as they shoved said merciless white-haired deity down the throats of what was undoubtedly a technically and spiritually advanced civilisation.

The Inca temple of Inkilltambo

So I’m far more fascinated by the Inca civilisation; their connection with Pachamama (the earth mother goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes); their mysterious stone work and construction techniques, and the equally mysterious design and use of their huacas (Quechuan for a revered place, temple, or monument once used for rituals).

I’m happy with a backpack and a pair of hiking boots, trekking through the green hills of this wondrous spherical theatre of ours. So I decided to give Machu Picchu and its touristic hordes a miss, and instead, experience a rather less conventional hiking tour, courtesy of an amazing man named Stephano, the proprietor of Andean Encounters.

The mountain lion

Stephano is a huge-hearted man, I’d guess in his early thirties. His face exudes joy and love; his eyes inextricably shine as he speaks. His beard follows the contours of his face and he has a big mop of dreadlocks lackadaisically tied to the top of his head. Light in complexion, he originally hails from Lima (Peru’s capital, over 1,100km from Cusco). He’s a broad-chested man with arms the size of my thighs and a rather cheeky and youthful face.

There’s a sense of playfulness and a welcoming intensity in his eyes, which appear to shine even more brightly as he wades through the Peruvian countryside. It’s safe to say that as soon as I met Stephano Manrique, I was instantly at ease with him and him with me. Almost as if we’d met before in another time and another space.

Chincana Grande

Our day began after a short drive up to the area surrounding the Saqsaywaman ruins north of Cusco. As Stephano’s guardian angel and best buddy, Uku (a huge creamy-coloured male dog, designed for the mountains) circled our perimeter, Stephano set out a mesa, right by a small huaca. The mesa is an altar used by shamans for healing and connection with the natural world. This was a fox fur, but they come in many shapes and sizes, as embroidered mats.

A Chincana is a tunnel entrance and in Quechuan, the word ‘Chincana’ means “a place to get lost”. In fact, the Quechua word for Cusco was ‘Qosqo’, which translates as “the navel of the world”. It is believed that the many huacas are all connected by miles and miles of underground tunnels, which stretch to all the points of the Inca Empire. Stephano told me a tale of an American man who got lost in the tunnels for a month, and when he finally found his way out, had a nugget of gold and claimed to have found the Lost City of the Incas.

Our guardian Angel, Uku

We drank Wachuma and gave coca leaf offerings to the huaca and to Pachamama. Stephano talked about the carvings in the rock and how locals speak of the huaca’s energy coming from the centre of the earth. Most of the stone structures have what look like carved thrones, leading one to conclude these seats were designed for people to connect with the energy of the earth. We closed the mesa by sharing Rapé, followed by a meditation, before packing up and moving further north of Sasayhuaman.

Manantes de Chakan

Having taken the car as far as the off-road track would allow, we abandoned it and began a steep hike off-trail. Up until now, my lungs had really struggled with the 3,399m altitude, which had a constant and vice-like grip on my lungs like a thirsty sailor clutching a beer after six months at sea. So this kind of hiking was hardcore for me, whilst my mountain lion friend strode across the land effortlessly — so content with the terrain, he could likely hike it with his eyes closed.

Mountain brothers walking a well-trodden path

Eventually, we arrived at Manantes de Chakran — a small huaca at the top of a steep ledge, overlooking a stunning valley with a stream meandering through its base. The site was known by the Spanish (and the church) as “the balcony of the devil”. The real and less frightening name is “the springs of Chakan”. We stopped briefly here at the step cross white rock carving. We took a moment to embrace the rock and connect our third eyes and hearts to this ancient space, thought to be built some12,000 years before the ‘great flood’. From there, we circled an amazing rock formation decorated with natural geological stripes, then down the hillside and onto a small gravel island in the stream below, just a few yards from a large underground cave entrance. The San Pedro medicine began to affect us both as we took Rapé and meditated on the small island. Our guardian angel Uku watched over us as he gleefully explored the space for the first time.

The endless beautiful scars in the valleys surrounding Cusco

The sound of running water combined with the Wachuma made for a most grounding and tranquil meditation. Bemusingly, this peace was broken by three policemen on a trek. We were then joined by a marauding group of selfie-stick waving tourists, who oddly gravitated towards our zen-den in the centre of the stream. I chuckled as — despite the fact we were two blokes with a fox fur altar, a large drum, and a Peruvian flute — both meditating in silence — this unconscious lot bimbled right into our space and proceeded to chatter and shout at one another whilst virtually sitting on my lap and taking selfies. Meditation over then…

Temple of Kisyuchayoq

Well known as “the temple of the monkeys”, this place is one of Stephano’s favourite sites due to the ancient carving of the heart of Mother Earth (Pachamama) at its centre.

Throughout the day, we shared stories of history, and different teachings surrounding spirituality and the concepts of expanding consciousness (“transcendence” as Stephano would say) and of spiritual growth. We sat beside the heart of the cave, discussing the concept of impermanence and suffering from different perspectives. We opened our hearts and minds to one another as we listened and fully understood each other’s beliefs — which as it transpired were entirely aligned.

The black anaconda guides inwards, whilst the white leads you out

From this huaca, we walked on an Inca trail, which had we followed, would eventually lead us to the Peruvian jungle — after a short seven-day hike. Next we arrived at the Temple of the Moon or (“Amaru Machay”: the serpent cave). Despite the signs and fencing prohibiting entrance, we crossed the line and accessed the forbidden area, entering the dark and foreboding mouth of the temple, following a large black anaconda wall carving into the dark space, which locals say is the womb of Pachamama, and where the people return to their cosmic origins.

Standing in the forbidden Temple of the Moon

The black serpent carving points inwards, whilst a large and parallel white serpent marks an exit from the temple. The alignment of the moon takes over on the 21st of June, at which point the inside of temple is illuminated by moonlight. In the past, many Inca women would enter the site to generate fertility in cases where they were previously unable to give birth. I stood on the altar of this forbidden site — directly under the high ceiling hole, designed to channel the moonlight. I breathed in the sound of silence and then vocally played with the eery resonance created by the cave’s design, vibrating at certain frequencies to feel the subtle differences. Pretty cool stuff.


Our final destination would be the 12,00 year-old temple of Inkilltambo, where the angels rest. This amazing place had two small resonance chambers opposite one another, which were seemingly designed for two people to sit, meditate, and vibrate, thus allowing the vibrations to resonate through one’s body in the most curious of ways. It was here that I had the most profound DmT experience, using the ancient Andean plant mixture of Changa. Two sharp rays of sunlight cut through the centre of the dark cave — hitting the side wall of Stephano’s chamber, as he handed the pipe to me. As I breathed the smoke in deeply and closed my eyes, my vision was suddenly fully lit with bright light and rainbow colours.

Sacred geometry “Flower of Life” image by Rafael Javier from Pixabay.

My entire visionary space was filled with a number of sacred geometric shapes — a high definition wallpaper of the ‘flower of life’ symbol. Crystal clear and technicolour. For the next 15 minutes, I had the most profound experience, the details of which I’ll tell you over a coconut some time. Suffice to say that as I emerged from the cave, I felt renewed and in awe of what I’d just seen. I felt compelled to climb into the top of the structure and explore its mysterious steps and carvings. As I circumnavigated the roof, I found two human-sized ‘seats’ carved into the top of the adjacent structures. It felt perfectly natural to sit cross-legged in one of them and to meditate.

The Wachuma coursing through me, combined with the remnants of the Changa created a most wonderful meditation, and I subsequently invited Stephano to join me in the adjacent seat. He did so, and was quickly joined by his faithful friend, Uku, who took position on top of the structure — directly above his hermano. All three of us sat in silence for a few minutes, meditating and simply imbibing the awe-inspiring view of the eucalyptus-filled valley side, as the sun began its daily descent behind the epic hills.

Master at work

It was late afternoon as we began the long hike back to the car. We followed a winding Inca trail which hugged the gradients and curves of the mountain, and past another ancient temple site, built in a spiral of terraces all the way up the side of the valley. Thoughts crept into my mind of the impending end of my great trip to South America. I saw flashes of my motorbike ride through the Sacred Valley and heard the music and laughter of my wonderful new friends from the retreat. The many faces of the Noke Kuin tribe, and the visions and lessons from my plant medicine journeys. And this day of course. This wonderful and unforgettable day with Stephano and Uku. These two powerful spirits from the hills who shared their love, values, and knowledge with me as we walked in the footsteps of the Inca. Then at the moment I was touched with a little melancholy, my senses were suddenly consumed by the psithurism of the mountain breeze rushing through the thick eucalyptus forest, gratified by the cool whisper and the opportunity to dance. A timely reminder of the ever-changing winds of impermanence — which I’m learning to surf and enjoy. Every ending makes way for a new beginning after all.

New horizons

The things I have seen, the unequivocally beautiful souls I have met, and the continued work to my personal development. The abundant love and gratitude I have felt; all of these things made for an absolutely epic trip. So whilst I might well be sad to leave Peru, she will always be in my heart and I feel sure I will return here one day.

Homeward bound

Bali is calling. My home for now. Back to some welcome tropical heat, and to flip-flop life. Time to get busy with monetising my new career choice. After all, writing is only sustainable if people are happy to pay to read your words. So it’s on with a TV show idea, a movie script, and the bones of a book.

2020 promises to be another life-changing year filled with new tricks and experiences. Another year of welcome change, which I’ll surf with an open heart. Because it’s enthralling, and because I’ve never felt so alive.



Martin O'Toole

How To Die Happy author, podcaster, and mental health advocate writing about healing and the Anatomy of Happy.