Fewer crowds. More ancient sites. Better experience? A new trekking route in Peru’s Inca heartland uses a range of local trails to reach Machu Picchu without the crowds
A precise-cut block – neat corners, straight edges – sat in the middle of the shallow stream. It had, I imagined, spent centuries slow-tumbling from the ruins further up the canyon, inching past sheer, tight cliffs and hand-hewn terraces, past the lupins and wild potato plants. And it had come to rest, for now, on the water-bed: the perfect stepping stone.
I hopped on it, then across, this historic bit of rubble helping me follow the original Inca trail through Leon Punku (Lion’s Mouth) ravine. Once, the entourage of Inca ruler Viracocha would have processed this way, en route to his estate at Huchuy Qosqo (‘Little Cusco’). The trail was hard to discern, thanks to the spring wildflowers and the passage of time. But it led the same way: after our morning’s hike up and over a wild pass, and slip-slashing through the overgrown canyon itself, Huchuy Qosqo appeared below, suspended above the Sacred Valley.
Inaccessible by road, this complex of stone and adobe houses and terraces occupies a plateau at 3,650m, with clear views all ways. Its pre-Inca name meant ‘place where you can see thunder and lightning’, just the spot for reading incoming weather. Fortunately the skies were benign as we ate avocado sandwiches in the huge plaza. “It’s an indication of the scale of the ceremonies that took place here,” guide Guido said. A giant hummingbird sucked the crimson trumpets of a cantua tree; a few llamas grazed. But otherwise we were the only visitors.
The Inca built around 30,000km of trails during their brief domination of South America. Today, 99% of the focus is on the 42km that lead to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail. But I was in Peru to try a new itinerary – the ‘Black Diamond’ – spending ten days hiking with a small group towards the fabled ‘lost city’ by piecing together sections of Inca road far less travelled by tourists, but still used by local people. Having spent day one walking from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas to Piuray Lake, and day two following this regal route to Huchuy Qosqo, both my lungs and legs were nicely limbered. I was keen to see what more lay ahead.
Two days later, that meant setting off from Huarán, where an old, wide Inca trail climbed into the Lares Valley. Parakeets flew about the invasive eucalypts, which gave way to alpaca pasture, river braids and native polylepis trees, looking fabulous in their beardy and twisted old age. In the forests in particular there was more than a suggestion of magic, and talk turned to the mischievous muki and duende spirits of Peruvian folklore. “I’ve never seen one,” said assistant guide Alejandro, “but they took things from me, maybe.” If the forest was bewitched, the community of Cancha Cancha – at around 4,000m, in the wilderness above the tree line – was something else. We turned a corner and felt the bite of the wind, swept straight off the glaciers. Ominous clouds were advancing towards us, inevitable as a tsunami.
So we sheltered at Dorothea’s house. At first she was shy, self-conscious of the green-black herbs smeared under her eyes (good for headaches, she said). But then she ushered us into her yard, where we sat with the chickens; a grisly llama fetus hung from the eaves, drying for use in a summer ritual. Fortuitously, Dorothea was the village ‘bar’, so we shared a big, cheap beer while we waited for the weather to pass; Guido poured a ceremonial splash on the ground. “For Pachamama.”
As we chatted to Dorothea her fingers constantly worked her spindle. Wool is as vital as veins to women here. They work it into chullo hats, shawls, wristbands, bags; each community has its styles and motifs. It was a connective strand to our trip too: even at breath-stealing altitudes and middle-of-nowhere passes, ladies in capes rivalling Joseph’s dreamcoat would appear, spread their blankets and lay out their woollen wares.
It’s a tough life, though. While Dorothea weaves, her husband farms potatoes, her son hikes eight kilometres to school and back each day, her daughter herds the sheep. Indeed, as we climbed a little further to our comfy camp, remote within a bowl of mountains, we passed incredibly young girls leading alpaca the other way. That night was bitter-cold but extraordinary. We watched the moon rise behind the mountains and the stars flick on, then we laid in our tents as Pachamama’s exhalations shook the world outside. We woke to snow, hot coffee and mists slowly drawing to reveal emerald lakes, high slopes and glistering glaciers.
We mixed a few nights camping with stays in lodges, and every day’s hike was different, from crossing eerie, Martian passes to bushwhacking seldom-used trails with a village shaman (who, incidentally, reckoned he knew the cure for COVID-19). The cherry-on-top was supposed to be the KM104 day-hike, a short version of the classic Inca Trail that arrives at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate. But landslides had closed the route, so our last proper hike was to Ollantaytambo, the only Inca stronghold to resist repeated attacks by the Spanish.
We started from Huacahuasi lodge, a striking guesthouse part-owned by the local community. We walked through Huacahuasi village, past neat homes and the rustic church. Ascending gently, we passed drystone enclosures scattered on vivid-green slopes, which reminded me of Yorkshire; higher up, the terrain widened and widened, giving the sensation of walking the African savannah amid a great migration of llama and alpaca. Sahuasiray – the monstrous peak we’d been dancing around the whole trek – put in brief appearances through high clouds and, at every new rise, a woman waited to sell us bags and bracelets. We crossed a pass at around 4,600m but our lungs were unflustered by now, and we near-bounced down the other side, all the way to the village of Patacancha.
After a short drive, we arrived at the plateau-top ruins of Pumamarca, a site once used to guard the entrance to the Sacred Valley. No one stopped us proceeding, so from here we hiked down to Ollantaytambo, a lovely walk via purple corn and tangled forest, alongside irrigation channels and between mighty terraces, some still farmed, others abandoned to cacti and wildflowers. It was a shame not to walk right to Machu Picchu, but it was a pleasure to be alone on this old Inca trail, amid the drama of the Andes. Well, almost alone: “Look there,” pointed Guido. In the cliff face ahead, if you squinted, the massive profile of Virachocha surveying the scene. Overseer of all Inca trails.
The trip: The author travelled with Last Frontiers on its Black Diamond Trek with Mountain Lodges of Peru. This 14-night trip includes flights, a nine-night trekking programme (staying in a mix of lodges, characterful hotels and well-catered camps), four nights in Cusco, one night in Lima and most meals.
Accommodation: El Mercado With rooms arranged around a quiet courtyard, this stylish hotel is only a short walk from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) operates a handful of lodges in the Cusco region, including at Lamay and Huacahuasi, providing a comfortable alternative to camping. These can only be used as part of an MLP programme.
When to go: Jan-Feb Rainy season. Trekking not advised. The Inca Trail’s closed in Feb. March Still damp but clearing. Some weather disruption possible but landscapes lush and trails quiet. April-Oct Dry season; clearest skies, coolest temperatures and the trails’ busiest time. Note, Inca trail permits go on sale in October for the following year; permits for May usually sell out within a week, June and July fill quickly after that. Nov-Dec Warmer but wetter; trails quieter.
Getting there & around: Iberia flies from London Heathrow to Lima, via Madrid. Onward flights to Cusco take 75 mins. Central Cusco is compact and walkable, if hilly. Local taxis are cheap. PeruRail operates several classes of train from Poroy (near Cusco) to Aguas Calientes; this journey takes four hours. Most tourists only use the train between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes (around two hours) – it is quicker to travel Ollantaytambo-Cusco by road.
Main image: the Black Diamond (Sarah Baxter)
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