Peru has been a country I’ve been interested in visiting for a long time. The images of Inca temples, women dressed in brightly coloured woven textiles, baby llamas and forest covered mountains didn’t prepare me for the diversity of the modern country I arrived in. One goal of the trip was to visit Machu Picchu and reach it by a route that would let me experience Peru away from an urban centre. The variety of landscapes traversed on the Salkantay Trek really appealed to me, but I hadn’t anticipated coming across some heritage gems along the way.
Day 1 started in the city of Cusco with a 4 am pick up followed by a four hour drive to a breakfast stop. We then went to the start of the trek at Challacancha, 3350 meters / 10990 feet above sea level. We were one of many small groups each with one guide who got us organised and led us up a narrow track into the countryside. Only a few short minutes into the hike we were walking alongside a narrow, masonry sided aqueduct that I assumed to be modern as the water was flowing through it very well and some repairs could be seen. The aqueducts were actually built during the Inca period and continue to supply water to farmers today. Water management in the arid Andes was a key mechanism for the expansion of Inca rule and was also closely tied to spirituality in the mountains.
Continuing onwards and upwards we reached our camp at Soraypampa, 3920 meters / 12861 feet above sea level, where we had a short rest and lunch. In the afternoon we proceeded further upwards to the beautiful Humantay Lake at 4200 meters / 13779 feet above sea level, framed by the mountain glaciers of Apu Humantay. All around the lake Peruvian and international travellers have left tokens and offerings to the mountain gods. We did the same before heading back down to camp. Through our glass roof we could see the moon rise over the snow-capped mountains and I knew we were off to a good start.
Day 2 started with a quick breakfast at 5am (early starts were becoming a trend….) followed by a trek up through the mists. On the way we passed a group of feral llamas that were considerably more wild than those we had seen posing for tourist photos in Cusco. By mid-morning we were in the centre of the Andes mountain range climbing through the Salkantay Pass, 4650 meters / 15255 feet above sea level, surrounded by the towering peaks of the Salkantay, Humantay, Tucarhuay and Pumasillo mountains. Our guide sat us down for a moment and explained that Salkantay Mountain is the second highest mountain in the region and one of the Inca gods. I had mixed feelings coming through the other side of the pass and moving into the Amazon cloud forest – the mountains had left a strong impression on me.
Day 3 was another early start, but we had already begun our descent and so it was at least considerably warmer at 2750 meters / 9022 feet above sea level. Over the day we walked on narrow paths perched on the sides of steep hillsides, often with a turbulent river far below us. After the open alpine landscape of the previous days the lush forest seemed busy and full of colour! Along the way we stopped at a farm to try some fresh passion fruit and avocados. It was a delight to come around a bend in the path and see an orchard of passion fruit through the forest. Another stop was at an organic coffee plantation where we learned about historic roasting methods and sampled some of the local brew. Today coffee is the main farming industry in this part of the cloud forest, coffee having become popular after the Spanish invaded Cusco in the 16th century.
Day 4 was a warm, humid start, which really made it feel like we had travelled far from the cool, dry air of Cusco. For me, although the elevation was much lower at 2450 meters / 8038 feet above sea level, the heat of the day made the trekking much more challenging. As we walked the sun climbed further and the tropical forest began steaming (and I probably was as well). The earth seemed bursting with vegetation and everywhere we could see flowers and hear water moving in drops, streams and waterfalls. At one point a flock of green parrots flew in complex formations through the valley beside use, filling the air with noise. This portion of the day was an ascent along a section of the Inca Trail with tantalising glimpses of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains hovering in the distance.
The highlight of this day was the Llactapata ruins which is positioned directly across a vast steep mountain valley from the site of Machu Picchu. A Royal Geographical Society supported team led by Hugh Thomson and Gary Ziegler investigated Llactapata in 2003 and uncovered a central plaza with doorways that are aligned with Machu Picchu as well as a two-storey temple which faces the rising sun. When mapped it was seen that Llactapata is composed of as many as five sectors and covers several square kilometers. The investigators propose that Llactapata was a constructed in relation to Machu Picchu and perhaps as a place to take astronomical readings. Our guide suggested Llactapata was a site for preparation prior to a sacred journey to Machu Picchu. In particular he noted a sunken channel that runs through a chamber through a doorway aligned with Machu Picchu and linked it to the sacred nature of water in the Andes. Regardless of its original purpose, the site is striking and was a wonderful quiet counterbalance to its more famous counterpart.
From Llactapata we had an afternoon of descent through the forest and then along the train tracks and Urubamba River towards the town of Aguas Calientes, 2000 meters / 6561 feet above sea level. Along the way we had some fantastic views of the Machu Picchu site far above us – a reminder of the climb we would be doing the next day. This was the last leg of our trek before meeting the goal of seeing Machu Picchu and it really had been a fantastic way to make the journey to such an iconic archaeological site.