"Keep to the mountainside!” shouted the guide. I soon saw why. A landslide had taken away some of the dirt trail. To my right was a drop of hundreds of metres. I didn’t dare look down; praying we wouldn’t meet a mule-train coming in the opposite direction, my horse didn't hesitate and calmly walked on.
Day four of the Salkantay Trek by horseback, and I had expected the going to be easy. It was the previous day that should have been the big one, crossing a notorious 4,600m pass. I was obviously going to have a few more heart-stopping moments before I got to relax with a pisco sour at the comfortable lodge that awaited.
We were to spend two nights at Soraypampa to give us a chance to acclimatise. I woke to the sound of birdsong and to tassel-eared llamas sauntering past my window. After breakfast, we mounted the horses and went a short distance along the trail before turning off up a hillside, passing cultivated patches and fruit trees, including the banana passionfruit, which is traditionally used in ceviche.
A narrow track led up a mountain, with steep drops to the side. We left the lush vegetation behind, passing giant cacti instead. The path then led out into a valley, where cattle, horses and mules grazed, pairs of Andean geese stood and a condor soared high overhead.
We tied the horses up, and hiked up the mountain to a beautiful glassy-green lake, where caracaras scavenged along the shoreline. In front of us was Humantay, largely obscured by cloud. “When the peak is clear like it is today, but you have clouds below, the locals say that the mountain has its poncho on,” revealed Guido.
We rode back down the way we came. “This is good practice for tomorrow,” said Guido. “Let the horse work out the best route down. Sit back. If it is really steep, you can always grab the back of the saddle with one hand.”
It was with a huge sense of anticipation that we rode out the next morning. We set off from Soraypampa on an unfinished ‘road’ and then made a short detour over a ridge with a dramatic drop to a deep valley on one side, and a smaller drop on the other. It was one of those glad-to-be-alive, spine-tingling occasions as we took in the grandeur of the scenery.
Next came a steep climb, zigzagging up several switchbacks known as the Seven Serpents. We let the horses pause for a breather whenever they wanted. Two helpers were accompanying us on foot, always staying a little bit ahead, ready to grab a horse or encourage us if needed.
At the top we entered a grassy plateau known as Salkantaypampa where we dismounted to give the horses a proper break. Boulders were strewn around, as if giants had been playing marbles, and viscachas, stumpy rabbit-like rodents, were sunbathing on a rock-covered slope that bordered the pampas.
Back in the saddle, it took another 30 minutes to reach the actual pass, at 4,600m. Windswept and bitterly cold, it was dotted with apachetas – cairns made by passing travellers, from Inca times onwards. Our route descended into a different world of thick cloud and muffled sounds. It wasn’t hard to imagine Inca warriors walking along here, or conquistadors riding the same route.
We exited the cloud and, amidst drizzle, arrived at a meadow grazed by cows and striated by mountain streams. Rather surreally, a cook tent and even a loo tent were already set up; a cook, who was to accompany us for the next three nights, was working on a hot three-course lunch.
A short but steep ride brought us down into another large pampa, where sat the brooding shape of Wayra Lodge. Small, with just six rooms, the original plan had been to build it from adobe bricks, but a storm put paid to that idea and stone was used instead – quite a miracle, given its isolated location, miles from any road.
Wayra means wind and, appropriately enough, the wind whistled around outside as dusk fell and candles flickered – it was the perfect setting for ghost stories. We huddled around the log-burning stove as Guido told us how this area is considered haunted by spirits. Spaniards were attacked on the trail, but they wouldn’t be killed outright – that was considered too good for them. Instead they were tied to a boulder, and their guts split open for the condors to come and devour.
The locals don’t venture out at night because of fear of the spirits. “If you see one, you must not speak to it!” said Guido. “If a face appears at the window, it may be a spirit – or it could be a trekker who has lost their way!”
Outside, the sky had cleared. Stars twinkled furiously, the Milky Way clearly visible. Guido pointed out the ‘eyes of the llama’ in the Milky Way, which was known as the Celestial River to the Incas who believed that each star related to an animal.
We woke early, but not as early as some. Guido had correctly predicted there was little point getting to Machu Picchu for sunrise as it would be cloudy. Sure enough, when we arrived it was completely shrouded, hiding its secrets from us. But the sun gradually broke through, the mists shimmying to give tantalising glimpses. Finally, the full splendour and scale of the citadel was exposed. We marvelled at the skill and ingenuity, the craftmanship and the mysteries.
While entranced by the site, I couldn’t help but remember Guido’s constant reminders throughout our journey that you shouldn’t consider Machu Picchu in isolation. It was part of a whole network of sites, both manmade and natural. In the Inca world everything was interconnected and in alignment. You had to read the landscape, just as the Inca had.
I kept looking out at the surrounding mountains. “Which way is Mount Salkantay?” I asked Guido. He pointed exactly due south, but the view was obscured by heavy cloud. It struck me that Guapa would probably be heading over the Salkantay pass right now on her way back home –following in the steps of countless Inca from long ago.
The author travelled with Fly Peru Now which offers tailormade itineraries and small-group tours to Peru, including international and domestic flights, transfers, excursions and B&B accommodation. Contact us here for more information!
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