Not the Inca Trail

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August 27th 2012
Published: August 27th 2012
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From the cloud forests of Chachapoyas to the soaring peaks of the Cordillera Blanca through the dry carob forests of Chiclayo, our journey through Peru has, so far, taken us to parts of the country far off the famed Gringo Trail. That is all about to change as we board a flight from Lima to Cusco, arguably South America's tourism capital. The lure of Cusco - erstwhile capital of the mighty Inca empire - draws visitors to Peru in their hundreds and hundreds of thousands. But while most visitors associate Cusco with two hypnotising words - those two words being, of course, Machu and Picchu- there is, it seems, a lot more to the Navel of the Earth (for that is what Cusco means in Quechua) than that fabled citadel.

Cusco is a mind-numbing twenty hours away from Lima by bus. For those of us with more than a mild case of bus fatigue, the one-hour flight is a much more attractive option, in more ways than one. Indeed, the short but bumpy hop takes us over spectacular Andean scenery of snowbound peaks and brilliant blue lagoons. Such is the attraction of Cusco - the focal point of a visit to Peru - that dozens of flights of day link it with the capital, a fact which keeps ticket prices within a few dollars of the fanciest bus. An hour in the plane for eighty dollars? Or twenty (potentially plus...) in a bus for seventy? Hmm...what a tough decision.

Cusco sits at 3,300 metres above sea level, surrounded on all sides by imposing hills - something which makes for a very exciting/terrifying (delete as appropriate) approach and landing at the airport, which is located almost bang in the middle of the city. Our four-day food fest in Lima has, annoyingly, been enough to almost completely wipe out our altitude acclimatization - and, as luck would have it, Cusco is a city of steps and steep cobbled streets. We just about make it to our hotel, huffing and puffing - having spent the past two weeks athletically climbing up mountains and lugging packs over high passes like nimble chamois goats, this is ever-so-slightly aggravating. Fortunately, within a few days things are back to normal - if you can call 3,300 metres normal.

We may as well start with Cusco's Big Draw - after all, visiting Cusco without seeing Machu Picchu is like visiting London but not seeing the Thames. Goodness knows how much has been written about Machu Picchu in travel blogs - I'm not planning to add to it...too much.

One of the most incredible things about Machu Picchu is that so many people pass through its stone gates - upwards of 400,000 per year. Four hundred thousand, you say - so what? Even Stonehenge gets twice as many. Indeed it may, but Machu Picchu is in one unbelievably inaccessible location - nearly as impressive as the site itself is the fact that Peru has managed to turn the citadel into one the world's most iconic destinations. Indeed, Machu Picchu is perched some five hundred metres on a rocky spur high above the Río Urubamba valley, tucked away in a saddle between two mountains and almost completely surrounded by precipitous, vertical cliffs plunging towards the river below. The scenery for miles around, in every direction, is forbidding - deep gorges, roaring rivers and forbidding peaks. It says something about the extreme remoteness of the place that Machu Picchu remained completely unknown to the Spanish conquistadores, who otherwise made a pretty thorough job of exploring the lands they conquered - and this despite being only 80 kilometres from Cusco, which the Spanish most certainly did know about. It was only "rediscovered" - a word I find rather patronising since the locals knew perfectly well of its existence all along - in 1911 by an American historian named Hiram Bingham.

While Machu Picchu's exact purpose remains unknown - almost certainly for ever - most archaeologists theorise that it was built in the mid 15th century as some sort of private residence, perhaps a Balmoral of sorts, for the Inca emperor. It was linked to the outside world by a number of stone roads for which the Inca empire is now so well known. Complete with residential districts, agricultural terracing, religious structures and defensive constructions - watchtowers, gateways and bridges - Machu Picchu certainly seems to fit the bill as a luxury retreat for an emperor. How the Incas managed to build such a massive site in such an aggressively forbidding location - without wheels and without draught animals, llamas being pretty useless - is quite mind-boggling.

To this very day Machu Picchu cannot be accessed from outside by road. In the 1930s a narrow-gauge, single-track railway was constructed between Cusco and Aguas Calientes, the small - and, might I add, exquisitely ugly and generally unpleasant - settlement shoe-horned into the narrow and steep Urubamba valley right at the foot of Machu Picchu. Today most visitors to the citadel arrive by train from Ollantaytambo, a small town located about 2 hours' drive northwest of Cusco, the Ollantaytambo-Cusco section of the track being used by only a small number of luxury trains. From Aguas Calientes a road snakes its way up the impossibly steep mountainside to the very foot of the site. All in all, getting to Machu Picchu is a right faff - which is, of course, the whole point.

Far more interesting is to get to the citadel under your own steam rather than that of a train. The best known walking route to Machu Picchu is the fabled Inca Trail, a four-day walk up the Urubamba valley along portions of the famous Inca road network and past countless Inca ruins. The popularity of this trail has grown wildly in recent decades, and at the height of high season - June to August - some 500 people set off on the trail every day. This is far fewer than the thousands who tackled it some years ago, until the government stepped in to control things (purportedly to limit erosion of the trail). To us, the Inca Trail presents a few problems: the sheer number of people on the trail is in itself something of a disincentive to us, despite the temptation of seeing so many spectacular Inca sites along the way. And even if we didn't mind hiking the trail cheek-by-jowl by hundreds of others, such is the popularity of the Inca Trail that places need to be booked many, many months in advance - not really workable when you're on a no-fixed-itinerary yearlong trip. Fortunately for us there are several alternatives, supposedly equally impressive (albeit in different ways) and far quieter.

We opt for the Salkantay Trail, an increasingly popular alternative to the Inca Trail but still no rush-hour M25. This trail approaches Machu Picchu along a clockwise loop from the southwest, skirting the massive snowbound massif of Salkantay - "Wild Mountain" in Quechua - along the way. Getting to Machu Picchu this way involves four days and over 70km of walking, reaching a high of over 4,600 metres at the Abra Salkantay. Happily, we meet up with our Huaraz walking partner Dorleta, who has been enjoying the delights of Arequipa while we've been stuffing our cakeholes in Lima. Together with a hilarious and lovely trio of ladies from Taiwan, we head off on our adventure. The trek is indeed quite spectacular, rewarding us with the most wonderful range of scenery - one particularly long and arduous day sees us ascend to the Abra Salkantay - almost within touching of the mountain's glacier-clad sides - before dropping vertiginously and ending up, almost without realising it, surrounded by thick jungle. With mules to carry packs, excellent cooks and well-appointed campsites (this is a pretty far cry from the wild camping we did in the Cordillera Blanca...), the Salkantay Trail is challenging but, all in all, pretty luxurious. Three solid days' walking (42 kilometres in the first two days alone) get us to the hydroelectric power station being built on the Urubamba river right at the foot of Machu Picchu - I'm no expert, but I'm not entirely sure that it is a particularly wise plan to dynamite tunnels through mountains in an area famous for its landslides and within a stone's throw of one of the world's most precious archaeological sites...but hey, that's only my opinion - and at the end of the railway line. The fourth day involves an attractive walk along the valley floor, broad and flat at this point, alongside the railway tracks. Within a couple of hours, beautifully geometrical stone terraces appear high on the mountainsides overhead. Such is their steepness, however, that the bulk of the citadel remains tantalisingly out of sight, the odd watchtower giving the game away. The walk ends in Aguas Calientes, a spectacularly ugly, ramshackle concrete monstrosity (although, to be fair, the town is periodically washed away by massive floods) where many visitors to Machu Picchu spend the night (not by choice) before heading up to the citadel at dawn the next day.

There are many things about a visit to Machu Picchu which grate: admission fees and train tickets almost as steep as the cliffs surrounding the site, being charged to use the toilets after you've paid thirty quid to be let through the door, the feeling of being a cash-llama for the hoteliers and shameless "restaurateurs" of Aguas Calientes, and that unshakeable feeling that you are part of a great big cash generating machine.

And then you round that last corner. And then the clouds part in front of Wayna Picchu. And then you stand there, your breath caught in your throat and the hairs on the back of your neck prickling, with that picture you've seen hundreds of times in National Geographic, right there in front of you, for real. And then the Japanese tourists shrilly screaming "sugooooooooooooooi!!!!!!" at the tops of their voices vanish into the distance, because they don't matter. The freezing cold, which you neglected to anticipate by bringing warm clothes, doesn't matter. The blistered feet and aching legs from 80 kilometres of walking don't matter. The crabbiness from having spent three night tossing and turning in a tent doesn't matter. Because there is really is something about this place.

Additional photos below
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27th August 2012

Evocative Prose
I've read many descriptions of MP, but you painted one of the richest, most evocative ones; very funny, too. How great that you got to trek up there; after all, there are about 40,000 kilometers of Inca roadways--why take the one most traveled? Great photos, too--thanks!
27th April 2013

Salkantay company?
Hi mate, What company did you go with for the Salkantay trek?
8th August 2013

Salkantay Trek
This blog brought back many wonderful memories. It was an amazing experience for our group. We were all over 55 and coped reasonably well. The altitude was the hardest thing to cope with, even though we had spent many days in Cusco. One of the highlights of my life.

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