Given the popularity of the official Inca Trial we decided to take an alternative route up to Machu Picchu in an attempt to avoid the hordes of tourist and get a cheaper deal.
We ended up choosing a company called Adventure Peru based on the sales pitch of the English-speaking agent, which in hindsight should have been a clear signal to keep on looking. Whilst the organisation of the 4 days wasn’t bad I wouldn’t choose them again the second time round.
Our group consisted of seven male Argentinian pre-med students that could hardly speak a single word of English and a Chinese student originally from Hong Kong but studying in the US called Leo. Thankfully we had still been travelling as a threesome with our Australian friend Helen so could at least be our own little group within the group.
The thought of spending the next 4 days and three nights with this group was at first a “bit of a downer” but by the end of the trek we grew quite fond of the Argentinians who were like a merry band of brothers that really looked out for the group. I wish I could say the same for our dear friend Leo who was just a complete drag on everyone.
To be fair to him, he did come down with a fairly bad case of altitude sickness that saw him at times vomiting uncontrollably and not eating a thing for 3 days. After 3 days of complete silence from him and his constant moping around, the group had just about lost all patience, preferring that he just accepted defeat and bowed out of the trek.
At times I had to stop Andre from punching him at the dinner table when he would order the food only to move it around the plate whilst coughing over everyone and their food! Considering Andre is turning more into the Machinist with every passing week, wasted food is just a little bit of a slap in the face for him.
That’s Leo at the dinner table which is what he looked like for the most part of the trip. The most frustrating part of it all was that we found out on the last evening that he had a British passport and could speak fluent English! Clearly he was simply choosing to ignore our offers of help.
The tour was a combination of trekking and adventure sports including a 3 hour bike ride from the highest peak at San Luis (4350m) to our first stop for the night at Santa Maria (1250m).
Given that we had just done the most dangerous road in the world (La Paz) this wasn’t as impressive as you would have thought. However it did at times feel just as dangerous; parts of the road simply ceased to exist due to the many landslides that occur at this time of year.
If driving down along the cliff edge with the fear of a huge piece of the mountain killing you with one clean swoop wasn’t enough to cause an aneurism, coming up to the scene below was!
The thought of strapping myself into a car, driven by a crazy Peruvian and sailing our way through this fast flowing river didn’t sit very well with me. My state of mind was plunged further into disbelief after witnessing the cutest Labrador getting swept away by the force of the water into the abyss of the rapids below!
Whilst still being in a mild state of shock over what I had just witnessed there was some glimmer of hope as the little fella managed to save himself by seeking refuge on a rock.
The afternoon of day one was spent white water rafting down the Urubamba river which in parts has class 3/4 rapids. Andre was initially not going to do this part because of his back, however he strangely changed his mind at the last-minute. Can you see why from the pic below?
The first thing our guide said to us when getting into the boat was that it was a team effort which would had been fine if the team could speak the same language. After doing a dry run of some of the simple commands, I honestly thought we were doomed. Thankfully the international language of fear quickly brought us into sync.
The town of Santa Maria was our starting point for the two-day hike up to Machu Picchu. Our first stop was a lot sooner than we expected since it was only 5 mins up river at the original town of Santa Maria. Tragically in 1997 the town was devastated by huge landslides and the breaking of the river banks after 3 days and nights of heavy rain. The incident claimed 127 lives and displaced the entire town for years with many families being forced to live in tents for over a year.
I was surprised to learn that it took the government so long to come to the aid of its indigenous people, particularly since the town is so small and so not a huge financial burden on the state. The local guide then informed me that it was the same time that Chile had a huge earthquake; White government officials in Lima decided to deploy their resources there instead of helping their own. Alarmingly, it took over 10 days to begin evacuating people; which I thought was an interesting insight into the social divisions between the white criollos and local indigenous still present in modern-day Peru.
The remainder of the tour was spent hiking through the jungle along parts of an actual Inca trail. Although the first day trekking was the toughest with an 8 hour trek that at times felt more like rock climbing, it was the highlight of the tour, producing some of the most breathtaking scenery.
The picture above shows us walking an actual Inca trail which is only a small section of over 40,000km of trails that cover the former Inca empire. This network of trials that all seem to lead to the site of Machu Picchu was used as a form of communication across the empire.
The Inca had an army of trained soldiers called chasquis, who were basically trained runners. They were stationed across the trails and would run for 2km intervals similar to that of a relay race to deliver a message. It would take them just seven days to do the 1600km trip from Quito to Cuzco. Considering it’s taken us 4 days to do a mere 43km this is pretty impressive.
Although they didn’t have an actual written language, they had developed a form of a binary system using different coloured nuts on pieces of string . These coded messages on what’s known as a Khapu remain a mystery to this day.
The jungle around this area (called Pisspatue) was particularly beautiful since it was full of the most amazing flora with every type of exotic fruit imaginable, simply growing naturally along the side of the path. We quite literally ate our way through the trek; I could recognise mangos, oranges, papaya, avocado, bananas and pineapples but there was a whole host of fruit that I didn’t.
Thankfully our guide took sometime explaining a lot of the produce in this area which haven’t really changed since the times of the Inca.
Coffee – when the beans turn red they are harvested by hand before being skinned, cleaned and dried for 3 days before being roasted. Ironically a good coffee is hard to find in Peru and in the most of South America for that matter.
Corn – The Inca had developed over 300 types of corn which were nearly completed eradicated by the Spanish. Thankfully there has been somewhat of a revival with many being grown again by local farmers.
Cacao – which is the main ingredient for chocolate
Potatoes – Another staple in the Peruvian diet with hundreds of different varieties used for just about everything, even drinks.
The most interesting plant was the Acheote plant which has been used for centuries as a form of colouring. The red seeds are also used as a natural insect repellant and would be used to paint children’s faces in Inca times, supposedly to warn off evil spirits. Today the fruit is used in the production of lipsticks.
Given that I am probably boring most of you by this point, I will just mention one final plant that produces the Inca peanut. Inside this star-shaped fruit is a small nut which bizarrely tastes like fish! It actually has similar nutritional properties to fish with good omega oils. Farmers here are attempting to export this to the international market so look out for it in your local Holland & Barrett soon!
Being in the jungle I would have expected to see more animals than we did. We only really saw two which were obviously domesticated for the gringos on the trail.
This little fluffy thing is the second largest rat in the world called a Piccuro. It may not look like much now since this was just a baby but these can grow to the size of a dog!
Along the whole trek Andre seemed to be a magnet for the cutest little puppies which seemed to follow him where ever he went….after this trip I think we are edging closer to the next stage in life and settling down with a family…us and two dogs 🙂
The one type of dog we definitely won’t be getting is the pre Inca bread native to the Andes called Perron biringo or naked dog. Interestingly they are used by people who suffer from rheumatism and act like a live hot water bottle given that their body temperature is so much higher than normal dogs!
The final night was spent in a really touristy town called Aguas Calientes which is at the base of Machu Pichu. The walk up to the town felt like something out of the film stand by me since it requires you to walk up the train tracks through the valleys. With the twelves plugged into my iPod I marched through this 2 hour walk with ease.
The next morning was a very early start (4am!) to make the final climb up to the actual site of Machu Picchu.
Thankfully arriving at the entrance for 6.30 means that you can miss the bus loads of American tourist that seem to arrive on the site from 9.30 onwards. Unfortunately after taking 4 days to get there I had the squirts making for a pretty uncomfortable experience that morning 😦
We did a two-hour tour seeing the various temples and agricultural sectors of the site which to this day has a number of theories floating around regarding its purpose. Some believe the site was founded in the waning years of the last Incas in an attempt to preserve Inca culture or rekindle their predominance, while others think it may have already become inhabited, forgotten city at the time of the conquest.
The site’s director believes it was a city, a political, religious and administrative centre. Its location, and the fact that at least eight access routes have been discovered, suggests that it was a trade nexus between Amazonia and the highlands.
The site itself was only discovered about 100 years ago in 1911 by an American professor from Yale University called Hiram Bingham who was actually in search of another site called the lost city of Vilcabamba. Given its remote location and the secrecy of it from the invading Spaniards, it was pretty much unknown about. Although local farmers in this remote part had been aware of its existence, the extent of the lost city were only truly realised once they began excavating the site with the help of National Geographic.
Interestingly the government and Yale have been in a messy and length y legal battle over the return of over 300 artifacts that to this day are still sitting in the labs of Yale.
Whilst I won’t go as far as saying that this trek was a spiritual experience (like some other assholes I have met) it was to date the best one I have done and a must for anyone coming to Peru.