The ancient roads across the Lares Valley in Peru are just part of a vast Incan web stretching 30,000km, offering not just wild views and rarely seen ruins but thrilling close-ups of local life…
Ancasmarca is not your average service station. Downy cacti pimple a rocky ridge. A lonely caracara falcon soars high overhead, hungry eyes keenly scanning the scrub for prey. Hundreds of round chambers barnacle the slopes like the cells of a monstrous beehive. Silence reigns, bar the crunch of my boots, the whisper of mountain breezes tickling violet lupins and my rasping breath as I hoover scant oxygen.
No, Watford Gap Services this is not. But though it’s hardly a British motorway – traffic is sparse on the road snaking towards the 4,440m Lares Pass, and there’s nary a flat white to be had – it’s not an entirely spurious comparison. Six centuries ago, Ancasmarca was a major Incan caravanserai on one of the trading routes bringing gold, silver and coca leaves from the Amazon region to Cusco. This was a key section of the Qhapaq Ñan, the ancient road system stretching 30,000km through the Andes – the Incan M1.
What’s astonishing is that this mesmerising site, once bustling with merchants and soldiers en route to and from the Incan capital, is virtually forgotten today. Perhaps it’s a casualty – or a beneficiary – of the tight focus on Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Yet that blinkered picture ignores the fact there’s not merely one Inca trail in Peru but many, spidering out from Cusco across the four corners of Tawantinsuyu, the vast empire that in its heyday stretched from what’s now southern Colombia into Chile. Many such routes still offer chances to hike through landscapes and villages where pre-Columbian traditions are alive and well.
My visit to Ancasmarca was the highlight of an alternative Inca trail. Rather than joining a conga line trekking towards the Sun Gate, I’d embarked on a seven-day odyssey looping through the little visited Lares Valley north of Cusco. Accompanied by expert guide Leo, whose mestizo (mixed) ancestry – typical of the area – includes both indigenous and Spanish forebears, I set out to sample not just scenic views but cultural and culinary wonders little sampled by travellers.
Fusion: that’s the buzzword here. Not just in the country’s recent renowned culinary revolution; more fundamentally, it’s the nature of Peruvian history – layering and overlapping, synthesis and syncretism. The powerful but short-lived Incan Empire had absorbed traditions and technology prevalent in the Andes for hundreds of years before its people’s emergence in the 12th century, long before their defeat by the Spanish in the 1530s. And though the Conquistadors replaced Incan monuments and ceremonies with European architecture and Catholic religion, what emerged was a blend of indigenous and introduced cultures.
The start of our first day’s hike – Chinchero, north-west of Cusco – was a prime example. At first glance it’s merely a typical village of whitewashed, terracotta-roofed houses, but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll discover ancient ways, as I learned at a cooperative textile workshop providing well-practised but fascinating demos of traditional weaving and dyeing techniques. Here, perky Paulina showed how roots are grated to make “Incan shampoo”, and ground cochineal beetles plucked from prickly pears for “natural lipstick – guaranteed for 100 kisses”. But beyond the tourist-friendly patter, elements from different eras visibly overlap.
Take the shrine occupied by a little moustachioed figure, banknotes and snack-filled bags around his neck, a cigarette stub clamped in his grin. “That’s Ekeko,” explained Leo, “our lucky guy – so long as we light him a fresh cigarette each Friday.” Tellingly, this household deity of prosperity is depicted as Hispanic or mestizo – yet his origins stretch back perhaps before the Inca, to the Tiwanaku culture. Likewise, the Toritos de Pucará – ceramic bulls perched on the roofs of Chinchero’s houses for fertility and good fortune – echo ancient beliefs; the modern interpretation shows how animals introduced by the Spanish usurped native llamas.
But it’s at Chinchero’s church that the collision between Inca and Spanish culture is clearest. Externally, it’s another modest colonial structure. But inside I was dazzled by the huge gilt baroque altar, extravagant frescoes and elaborate ceiling decorations. Why such grandeur? Around the back, all is revealed: the Catholic chapel was built atop a base of finely cut stones, part of a vast complex reflecting Chinchero’s significance to the Inca as birthplace of Kuychi, the rainbow god – one of many examples of Spanish colonisers razing ‘pagan’ temples and palaces, replacing them with Christian houses of worship.
We began our first hike among the complex’s monumental agricultural terraces, descending a winding path down steps and past altars hewn from the rock. At the valley floor, the path passed a sign for the Camino Inca to Urquillos – my first stretch of the Inca trail. A gentle three-hour stroll took us down into the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, the flower-lined track providing an al fresco botany class as Leo identified the gorgeous irises, broom, salvia, bromeliads and other plants we encountered. And at day’s end, at my lodge in the sleepy town of Lamay, I soaked weary limbs in a bubbling outdoor hot-tub beneath the stars alongside grazing llamas tethered nearby – ancient and modern aligned in the most idyllic fashion.
If you’ve ever cursed the lack of mobile reception in remote spots, spare a thought for the peoples of the high Andes. Negotiating long trails between isolated villages set amid soaring peaks, communication has never been easy. The traditional solution? Shellfish, as I discovered on my second day’s Inca trailing.
The morning began in Pisac, another popular day-trip destination deservedly famed for its bustling artisan market and ridge-top Incan citadel. Here, Leo treated me to a breakfast of cheesy empanadas, pasties fresh baked at the historic Horno Colonial San Francisco, an open-air oven where pale cuy (guinea pigs) lay in rows, claws aloft, awaiting cremation.
But the real treats began in the hamlet of Viacha, high above both town and ruins. As we arrived, stones were being super-heated in a pit, preparation for our lunch. Not just any lunch, mind: pachamanca (literally, ‘earth pot’), a communal feast dating from pre-Inca times. We watched as the subterranean oven was prepared, and Leo recited ingredients as they piled in: mounds of lamb, chicken, pork, guinea pig, plantains, broad beans and more kinds of potato than you could imagine (at least 2,000 varieties grow in Peru), garnished with herbs and flowers for flavour and health. As Leo commented: “In Andean communities, far from doctors, food must be your medicine.” Pachamanca is all about the preparation. Covered with a damp blanket, rocks and soil, the goodies were beautifully roasted in under an hour; the crispy cuy – thoughtfully sliced into anonymous-looking fillets – was delectable.
Post-gorging, we tramped a downhill trail (pre-trod by the Inca, naturally), weaving between fields of wild potatoes and swaying seas of tarwi, tall indigo lupins grown for their beans. En route we paused at a natural shelf where Leo whooped across the valley.
“This is one of many ancient communication hotspots with great acoustics, where villagers would come to send messages to other communities by blowing a pututu – conch shell,” he explained. There you have it: conch – the Incan iPhone.
The ruins at Pisac are certainly worth tooting about. Our approach from above revealed sensuous sweeps of vast agricultural terraces above the Urubamba River. The adjacent ridgetop complex is a spectacular mini-Machu Picchu separated into agricultural, industrial, medical, military and ceremonial zones.
Most people access the ruins by road, so the walk down to the modern town was another exercise in glorious solitude. First I explored the ceremonial sector, with its still-flowing acequias (water channels) and intihuatana – ‘hitching post of the sun’, an astronomical instrument similar to a sundial. Then, as I followed steps snaking steeply down through the ruins, late-afternoon’s soft apricot sunlight outlined the terraces and fields in inky shadows. Scenery and silence conjured a potent spell, broken finally by the babble of market vendors and souvenir-hunters when I reached the outskirts of the town.
“Meet Justin… Justin Case!” joked Yarik, my guide for the following day’s hike, gesturing at our support horse, loaded with coca leaves and bread for the communities we’d pass. Earlier that morning, Leo and I had negotiated umpteen hairpin bends to reach astonishing Ancasmarca, then traversed the Lares pass to reach this isolated valley. Here, tourists are sparse but Inca trails plentiful; with Yarik I’d be following one over the ridge from Cuncani to the village of Huacahuasi and our second lodge.
Justin set out promptly; I was less sprightly. A brown juvenile caracara smirked at me from its nearby perch as I puffed past, gasping for breath in the thin air; no such problems for the alpacas and llamas gazing haughtily at the wheezing bipeds. These camelids were domesticated centuries ago for wool and, in the case of alpacas, meat. The craggy, emerald-green hillsides pocked with white flocks reminded me of the Brecon Beacons – but with camelids instead of ovids, and 3,800m higher.
Finally cresting the ridge at 4,200m, we were met with views of a limpid lake and an impromptu shopping opportunity – a local lady laid beers, water and a selection of woven and knitted goods before us as we caught our breath. This was a common theme: even on the most remote trails, enterprising (and athletic) locals would overtake us to tout colourful knitted hats, gloves and scarfs.
On we trekked, past gorgeous Andean ibis and the ubiquitous alpaca. The trail was, as Yarik dubbed it, “Inca downhill” – undulating, with plenty of ups to offset the steep descents. But after four hours we were greeted with views of simple houses scattered along a broad valley, a cascading waterfall rumbling gently in the distance. This is Huacahuasi, a remote village where electricity and a surfaced road arrived only recently, and where ancient mores persist.
As we strolled among sleepy dogs and grinning children waving us “Allin sukha” (good afternoon), it was clear that pretty much everyone wears traditional dress, partly from pride in local heritage, but also necessity. Couture doesn’t keep out the cold in these lofty parts, where alpaca-wool ponchos, hats and skirts are essential on chilly, misty mornings, and no one sneers at wearing socks with sandals.
After two nights at Huacahuasi, a testing hike to Patacancha took us over a 4,400m pass, across lapwing-trilled moors, past duck-dotted dewponds, lonely Ipsaycocha lake and ancient high-altitude veg patches (“They grow the most delicious potatoes you’ll ever taste,” claimed Leo). After the low-key Lares Valley and hours of solitary hiking, the busy town of Ollantaytambo (known locally as Ollanta) came as a shock to the system.
Not only is Ollanta the gateway to Machu Picchu – trains to Aguas Calientes chug west from here – but its own ample charms attract coach-loads of visitors. This isn’t a modern phenomenon, as the name indicates; tambo means ‘inn’, reflecting Ollanta’s role as a major stopping point on an Incan road. Today its cobbled alleys follow the pre-colonial street-grid; we stepped into a courtyard to visit a traditional cancha (house), with guinea pigs squeaking around the floor, big pots for brewing chicha (maize beer) and a home altar decorated with ancestral skulls and, naturally, a cheeky Ekeko.
More significantly, the town is sandwiched between Incan monuments. As elsewhere, Spanish conquest followed by long-term pilfering of cut stone thinned out the remains. But what survives is hugely impressive, not least the colossal pink granite slabs, some weighing over 200 tonnes, erected in the Temple of the Sun to face the summer solstice. From here, priests and rulers could gaze across the valley to the granaries at Pinkulluna and the cliff-etched profile of creator god Viracocha.
The train ride towards Machu Picchu is both unsurprisingly touristy and tremendous. Canned panpipe musak can’t detract from the spectacular views – of snow-clad peaks, Incan ruins and, finally, cloud forest abuzz with hummingbirds and orange-crested cock-of-the-rock. It reflects the mountain-top bastion itself: swarming with visitors yet undeniably jaw-dropping. It’s believed that the empire-building ninth Inca Yupanqui (king), modestly self-named Pachacutec (‘World Transformer’), commissioned Machu Picchu as his country retreat sometime after 1438. Hidden from prying eyes below, this ridge-top eyrie is bounded on three sides by a loop of the Urubamba River and guarded by sentinel peaks including Huayna Picchu, which has become a popular mini-hike from the citadel.
Instead, I tackled the less busy (but higher) Machu Picchu Mountain to the south-east. Ninety minutes and countless slippery steps later, I’d gained 650m and shed about three pints of sweat; Machu Picchu is surprisingly humid, hot and buggy. Turning at the peak to gaze down on the Incan ruins, my eyes met only a blank wall of cloud. Yet moments later the breeze tore a hole in the murk, tantalising with fragments of view. So it continued, mists knitting together then parting – like the indigenous traditions I’d absorbed over the previous week’s wanderings on ancient ways, piecing together scraps of surviving culture to reveal the glorious, kaleidoscopic patchwork.
The view from Vinicunca, the ridge popularly dubbed Rainbow Mountain or Montaña de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colours) in the Ausangate massif south-east of Cusco, is the Instagram hit of the moment. ‘Discovered’ just five years ago, locals say its psychedelic stripes were revealed when either snows melted or topsoil was washed away by heavy rains. Either way, its diverse hues are undeniably entrancing, even without the ambitious photoshopping used by the countless travel agencies in Cusco to plug their day trips. Bargain packages start at about US$20 (£15.50), including a pre-dawn departure for the three-hour drive into the mountains, the hike to the photo-op, and a mid-afternoon return.
But… it comes with a few caveats. First, racing up to 5,200m in one morning risks a pounding headache and churning stomach, or worse. Second, joining literally hundreds of panting backpackers tramping like a line of ants up the trail doesn’t make for the most intimate experience. And then there’s the rapid commercialisation of the hike, which is increasingly apparent, thanks in part to the large new parking area surrounded by growing numbers of cafés and souvenir shops.
That’s not to say it’s not a worthwhile place to visit – but better tackled more slowly. Though substantially more expensive, a two-day overnight trek, camping above the checkpoint, allows for more sensible acclimatisation and the chance to reach the ridge at dawn, well before the throngs and timed for photographic perfection.
The author travelled with Bespoke Latin America (01603 340680) on a nine-night tailor-made tour. A similar itinerary, features a six-night lodge-to-lodge Lares adventure, three nights at Hotel El Mercado and a private city tour in Cusco, plus return flights from Heathrow to Cusco. An additional private two-night trek to Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain) includes an English-speaking guide, camping equipment and meals.
There’s a huge range of hotels, hostels, simple hostales (lodging houses) and hospedajes (guest houses) in Peru. El Retablo is a colourful, friendly B&B in Cusco. Other properties around the Sacred Valley and the Lares Valley run by Mountain Lodges of Peru, and which feature in the itinerary above, are likewise stylish, comfortable and staffed largely by the local communities. Recommended.
Lively, touristy, tasty – Peru’s cultural capital is a bustling melange of Incan and Spanish colonial culture and architecture. Don’t miss Qorikancha, an Incan temple complex that was later converted to a Catholic convent; the Museo Inka, for a rundown on history; the artsy San Blas neighbourhood for crafts and coffee; and the Incan fortress of Sacsayhuamán that looms high above the city.
A mini-Machu Picchu citadel stands guard over a charming little town with a particularly popular crafts market – good for woven and carved goods. Visit the Horno Colonial San Francisco (a huge, historic open-air clay oven) for fresh bread, tasty empanadas (pasties) or roast cuy.
Climb to the granary ruins of Pinkulluna for views west across town to the Incan fortress and ceremonial centre on the opposite hillside, then catch the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo.
Visit a weaving cooperative for insights into traditional techniques, and admire the colonial church’s fine murals and vast Incan terraces.
5: Machu Picchu
Even tourist hordes numbering in the thousands can’t dim the grandeur of this vast mountaintop citadel, probably built for the empire-building Inca Pachacutec from 1438. Climb Machu Picchu Mountain for the best aerial views.
This hilltop complex of round cells was a key caravanserai (inn) on the Inca trading network; today it’s a windswept, remote, atmospheric but little-visited hilltop site.
7: Inca trails
Walk some of the 30,000km-long Qhapaq Ñan – the astonishing Incan road system that spidered out in all directions from Cusco through the four regions of Tawantinsuyu, better known as the Incan Empire. Today, many of the paths offer some tremendous hiking.
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