Machu Picchu through the back door
The most popular attraction Peru offers is a visit to Machu Picchu, the ancient citadel of the Incas hidden by verdant hills.
Many tourists choose to walk the Inca trail, following in the footsteps of the Incas to reach the citadel. This very popular trek means large groups share the experience together, swapping stories in large campsites in the evening, maybe buying a beer or Inca Cola from local vendors, happy to oblige tourists in what was once a remote area. But what if you prefer a more rural and remote journey to the prize of Machu Picchu?
I chose to walk the Salcantay trek, a longer and more challenging route. I wanted to be away from the crowds of tourists but also had a desire to act responsibly and not add my erosion to the ancient steps. However, none of my impressions actually prepared me for the journey I undertook. I was stunned by the diversity of the landscapes and astounded by Peruvian nature as it enshrouded us: the Salcantay offers such vast differences in vistas that sometimes I wondered whether I was still in Peru.
We started by trekking from Sayllpata where we passed through surreal landscapes, towered over by huge rock formations, brightly coloured with lichen which appeared to have dropped from space. Mist swirled languidly above us until a break in the clouds revealed the majestic peaks of Salcantay. The icy glaciers with jagged peaks framed our view as we climbed to the highest part of our journey at 4,600m. I began to feel breathless from the ascent and lack of oxygen, or perhaps just the dizzying views around me.
At the summit of Salcantaypampa we were lucky to have several inches of snow underfoot. Feeling like intrepid explorers with snow swirling through the ice cold mist around us we observed the apachetas, piles of stones traditionally brought by Incas on long journeys. Our guide Jose knelt to make a small ceremony to Mother Earth with a trilogy of coca leaves to represent the three Andean worlds. We didn’t realize he was also praying for our safe passage, having never seen so much snow at the summit before.
We found it extraordinary how the terrain changed so quickly, and as we rapidly left the sparse rocky landscape behind us we saw how dense foliage came to replace the scrub. We started our slow climb into the cloud forest through narrow jungle tracks framed by spider bamboo, its spindly fronds dangling above us. All around was greenery, making it easy to spot the colourful exotic plants. We examined the ‘dancing lady’ orchid and bushes tinted with tiny wild raspberries. Jose pointed out fresh mint at the path’s edge, a herb much used by the Incas.
All around the humid ecosystem was teeming with life, movement and colour, including flashes of hummingbirds flicking between tropical flowers. Behind us, like another world, the distant snow-capped peaks of Salcantay watched our progress into the heart of the forest. We passed local Andean communities, and were gladdened to be greeted by sincere faces and a friendly “buenas” (good day). In the villages we observed the local way of life, unchanged since ancient times.
It seemed almost too soon when, on the third day, we reached Playa, the gateway back to civilisation where a road marked our access to Machu Picchu. We took the jungle path alongside rail tracks, and saw our first glimpses of the ancient citadel high up on a tree-clad mountain: a terrace here, a small building there, tiny hints to the enormity of majestic Machu Picchu.
Rising at 4am to be sure to catch sunrise, we joined the dark shadows of other visitors making a similar pilgrimage. Winding through high mountain peaks we reached the ancient guardhouse at the top of the site and watched the magic of the citadel appear before us. Large swathes of mist broke to reveal huge Waynu Pichhu, the city’s mountain backdrop, and below, the Inca city: temples, royal enclosures, agricultural terraces, plazas and towers. Exploring our way through, careful not to disturb the large, shaggy llamas feeding on the terraces, we learnt about the construction, and the precise way huge stones fixed together in perfect alignment created windows and terraces in line with wind and sun.
Observing the scene from high on a verdant terrace, we mused over our challenging and remote journey through the Salcantay, and as we watched the hordes arriving along the Inca Trail, felt lucky to have trekked a part of Peru less trodden by foreign feet.