Saturday, 8 November 2014

Machu Picchu off the Beaten Path

Finding tours that are 'off the beaten track' from June to August in Cusco and Machu Picchu is not easy. The Salkantay and Inca Jungle treks are run by every travel agency in town, with varying prices offering very little difference in quality. For the unorganised and spontaneous traveler, the Inca Trail is not an option in peak season as it is usually booked out since January. The Inca quarry trek is offered by few agencies in Cusco and is an outstanding alternative for those looking for 'off the beaten track' in a part of the world where such a thing is hard to come by. 

"You might see two, maybe, three other tour groups in the first three days," said Alfredo our guide, as we cram into the tiny back room of the tour agency for briefing. 

The crowds of Machu Piccu - a stark contrast to the uncrowded hike to get there

This promise, along with Alfredo's descriptions of stunning Andean landscapes and a trek which visited less explored Inca sites in an intimate group, had us sold. Given how many tourists we had already encountered in Cusco, we were skeptical of Alfredo's claims. Yet we were willing to give it a shot. 

At 5am we were dropped off in the base of the Sacred Valley. For the next day and a half we marched directly uphill, walking along a mixture of dirt paths and paved Inca trails. Our route followed a stream which brought us to a serene, skinny waterfall bursting through a 10 meter wide cliff face crack. It was as though the rock wall had a small leak and the pressurized water gradually forced the hole to grow bigger. As we moved higher, the green and yellow landscape made itself clearer as the sacred peak of Salkantay towered over the rest of the mountains. The glacier capped peak appeared like a father over the Andes, peering proudly and protectively over his kin. 

A secret leak in the cliff

"The Salkantay  mountain is one of the most worshipped and fearful mountains in this area," said Alfredo. "In Quechua it means 'savage mountain'."

The peak was ideally viewed from our first Inca ruins: a small village at Perolniyoc. At the site there was only us, the archeologists and disappointingly one other group. 

"That's the first one," said Alfredo, still confident that we wouldn't see many more groups. 

The Sacred Peak of La Veronica

I used my broken Spanish to communicate with one of the archeologists. 

"We live here for three months at a time," he said. "All we do is eat, sleep, dig."

By the second day we reached the peak of our climb at 4,300 meters where we were swarmed by cloud. As we traversed across the mountain these clouds were sucked into deep valleys and tumbled across the sky, putting us in and out of mist all day. In periods of rain Alfredo felt the need to remind us of his pre-hike warning. 

"Four seasons in one day," he repeated. Perhaps not enough advice about clothing was given to us before the trek: we all froze and got soaked. 

We trudged for hours, eventually coming to a steep bluff which towered over the ancient Inca town of Ollantaytambo. 

Ollantaytambo from above

"Slide, don't step," said Alfredo when slipping down the bluff's pebbly downward path, which was better treated as loose snow and ice than stable rocks. The route was so steep that the track had to traverse across the mountain, weaving left and right, perilously close to several vertical drops. Most of the distance we had covered in the two days prior we were now sliding down in two hours. 

At the base of the bluff our aching knees were rewarded by one kilometer of flat terrain, leading to an Incan sun gate. This holy site, on a clear day, directly faces the snowy peak of La Veronica, worshiped by the Inca. Engulfed by cloud at the time of visiting we missed this view but instead were among the heavens to see such an important religious site. Here, we were the only people. On our path down the hill we saw another group of six. 

The Inca Sun gate in a heavenly cloud

"That's two groups," said Alfredo confidently. 

We camped that night next to a third group. The next day we wandered past four Germans who were climbing from Ollantaytambo to see the Inca quarry, the final Inca site of the trek. Four groups of people in three days was more than promised, but not disappointing. 

The quarry was largely a pile of rocks with many perfectly carved to be used in buildings in Ollantaytambo. In the quarry we encountered a number of Inca tombs in which skeletons of the quarry workers were well preserved. 

The remains of Inca Quarry workers

"Don't go too far into the tomb," Alfredo warned. "We should respect the Inca dead as they would respect our dead."

The rest of the tour was not unlike other alternatives treks to Machu Picchu. We caught the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes where we spent the night and woke up at 5am to get on the first buses to Machu Picchu. Even at sunrise there were hundreds more people than we had seen in the previous three days. Machu Picchu, in comparison, became so crowded by 10am that it was almost claustrophobic. We couldn't move at the viewpoint. We had finally come back into contact with the tourist population of this part of the world. 

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