High and mighty in Peru: Try an alternative to the overcrowded Inca Trail

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The Independent Travel

As I edged across the log bridge, the Peruvian jungle stood silently waiting across the river. Rotten timbers shifted beneath me and crumbs of the turf topping fell into the torrent below. Reaching the other side, I worked my way up river along a stony shore. The cliff above me became green and slimy and a sulphurous smell began to fill the air. A few metres further on I found the hot springs of Banos de Collpampa pouring out of the limestone into a large rocky pool. As night fell I pulled off my clothes and climbed gratefully into the hot water. All the sweat and aches of the last few days dissolved away as I floated on my back and gazed up at the sky.

Summer lightning flickered beyond the hills and, as darkness flowed out of the jungle, the fireflies started flashing. Bats darted across the sky, snapping them up. And as I concentrated to remember this moment, so too I felt a distance from reality, as if looking through a pane of glass. That moment summed up Peru for me; so magical that it doesn't quite feel real.

People used to get rather cross when they booked a package holiday and arrived to find their hotel was a building site. I was visiting four lodges with a friend and not one of them was built. We were in South America researching a new route being developed across the Andes to Machu Picchu, the iconic Inca site. The classic Inca Trail is becoming overcrowded and we were looking for an interesting alternative. The trail we were trying pre-dates the Inca era. It is an ancient trade route that crosses a pass between two snow-covered Andean peaks.

The starting point for just about every expedition in these parts is Cusco, around 3,400 metres above sea level. This Spanish colonial city is built on the stone foundations of the old Inca capital, and many of the intricately fitted dry-stone Inca walls have survived. They generally come up to about waist height, above which Spanish mortared masonry takes over. Cusco is a good place to acclimatise to the altitude, not least because it has lots of good restaurants, an Irish pub or two and a strong feeling of history that has resisted the earthquakes.

We hopped on to a minibus going to the high plateau beyond the city and took a walk through the Inca site of Moray, a series of extraordinary internally terraced craters. It's thought they were used as high-altitude plant nurseries.

Then the expedition proper began, and we set off to climb over the Andes. We stopped in the mountain village of Mollepata for a vegetable lunch before driving up a mountain track to the valley of Soraypampa. The first lodge, Salcantay, is in a huge alpine pasture grazed by mules and horses. Although the roof wasn't on when we saw it, there will be real luxury here soon. There's an outdoor hot-tub with a spectacular view of Mount Salcantay, at 6,240 metres the second-highest mountain in Peru, at the end of the valley. Trekkers can expect hot showers, fires and deep eiderdown beds. But, as someone who has spent time under canvas on many climbing expeditions, I didn't mind the tents next to the building site. It would have been wiser to spend the next day acclimatising, but we were here on a mission, so we set off on the four-day trek to Machu Picchu.

We hiked up the Rio Blanco valley, aiming between Salcantay and Humantay Peak, a shapely mountain to the left of Salcantay. The highest point on the trek is a pass reached by a steep zigzag path: 4,450 metres, or nearly three miles high.

All the hotels in Cusco have coca leaves on reception desks because the locals chew them to alleviate the effects of the high altitude. Although they are the source of cocaine, this appears to be perfectly legal. I collected some as an experiment, and was chewing a large wad as we breasted the pass. The result was a numb mouth but no headache of the kind that can accompany high altitude. It was here that I spotted an Andean condor, six of whom live in this valley.

Passes always seem to involve the worst weather from each side of the mountain range, and this one was no exception: we could hardly see the south face of Salcantay towering above us through the whirling snow. We set off downhill, passing granite boulders covered with red lichen standing out bright against the snow, to the site of Huayrac Lodge, the name of which translates as "the place where the wind lives".

Next morning I realised I was besotted. With a mountain. I woke up to spectacular views of Humantay, the beautiful pointed peak at around 5,790m, which we had passed the day before.

This is the puna (a type of grassland) zone. It is grazed by the llama and its relative the vicuña, whose wool can be shorn only every three years. Farmers can't have too much to do up here.

Next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then hiked downhill along the Salcantay River. The lower you get, the more the barren mountainside begins to bloom, and soon the trees begin. This cloud forest is known as ceja de selva – the "eyebrow of the jungle" – and we passed pampas grass and creepers.

The descent ended for the day at Colpa Lodge, which has a spectacular position on a spur of high land where three rivers meet. The Incas used to build their towns in such locations because of sightlines which provided an early warning of intruders. Guests at the lodge can expect wonderful views – and here you can also bathe in the hot springs.

The next day, we were in the low jungle. From the river it was a short climb to Lucma Lodge, the last building site, set in an avocado orchard. Here we drank the best cup of coffee I've ever had, the beans picked from bushes behind the orchard and roasted on a fire. We explored the lacklustre village, but I became a bit depressed at how humans can despoil a beautiful valley.

On our last day we headed uphill for two hours on a stiff climb up to the Pallayata Pass (2,700 metres). Shortly beyond the pass, we caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from the southwest, an angle from which it is rarely seen. To reach Machu Picchu from here requires some mechanical help. The final descent to the river that runs beneath the Inca site passes through forest of bamboo. The main means of public transport is a railway that was somehow constructed beside the roaring river – and which, a short way downriver, is still damaged after flooding.

We climbed on to a battered train for the half-hour ride to Aguas Calientes, a straggly settlement that exists to serve the needs of tourists. Then we drove up the zigzag road to Machu Picchu – one of those rare places that exceeds expectations. The temples, baths and terraces grow out of the geography in a natural way. The stonework is so snug that you couldn't insert a knife in the joints, yet it's higgledy-piggledy. It is as if the stones were balls of dough piled up and then squeezed together.

There were signs of the savagery of these people in the buildings of the prison complex. With no written records, there is no exact idea of how they lived but I had the impression of a cruel yet beauty-loving, sophisticated people.

The number of tourists at the site was overwhelming. At one point, standing at the edge of a terrace, I looked round to see a line of 20 American tourists holding hands, eyes shut, edging towards me, chanting. This kind of new-age behaviour was happening everywhere. But still, Peru manages to retain its character as a magical land.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Peru. BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies via Madrid (with onward connections on Iberia) or via Miami (with onward connections on American Airlines). Air Comet (00 34 900 99 54 99; www.airpluscomet.com) also flies from Gatwick via Madrid.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

The writer travelled with Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400; www.himalayankingdoms. co.uk), which offers a 17-day Luxury Mountain Lodges trip to Machu Picchu trip from £2,595, including return flights from London to Lima, transfers, bed and breakfast accommodation, most meals, guides and entry fees. The next available departure dates for this year are 7 and 28 September.

STAYING THERE

All the lodges visited by the writer are now complete. Mountain Lodges of Peru: 00 51 1 421 6952; www.mountainlodgesofperu.com

MORE INFORMATION

Peru Tourism: 00 51 1 574 8000; www.peru.info

Latin American Travel Association: 020-8715 2913; www.lata.org

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