Minty Clinch, The Daily Telegraph, August 26, 2013
Cesar and I hit the highest pass on our ride towards Machu Picchu in autumnal fog and driving rain. Not a good result, as the previous day’s lakeside shaman ceremony had promised photogenic sunshine. Instead, we glimpsed intimidating snowscapes rising steeply on either side through swirling cloud. As Cesar, a compact chestnut horse with an indomitable climbing spirit, waited impatiently at 15,300ft for the rest of our troupe to catch up, I spared a thought for Francisco Pizarro riding through the high Andes for his showdown with Emperor Atahualpa in 1532.
I’m not sure who was counting, but history claims that the line-up for the seminal Battle of Cajamarca on November 16 of that year was 80,000 Inca troops versus fewer than 200 Spaniards, 62 of them mounted. Yet Pizarro, illegitimate, illiterate, treacherous and brutal, won the day, capturing – and later garrotting – Atahualpa, claiming “New Castile” for Carlos and Isabella of Spain.
Was it the fearsome impact of the horses, unseen in South America before the arrival of the conquistadors, that made the difference between victory and defeat? Cesar nodded his head, though more to get the water out of his ears than in agreement, as he picked his way down slippery rocks.
When I first visited the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in the Seventies, travellers took the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and walked up the hill to the ruins. As a backpacker in the pre-dawn of the gap-year student, I slept alone and without charge in an open-sided hut with a thatched roof. Not waterproof, as I realised when the storm hit at 3am, but witnessing the Inca emperor’s great summer retreat blasted by thunder and forked lightning more than compensated for a soaked sleeping bag.
Life is no longer so simple or so cheap. Many visitors “do” Machu Picchu by train, either as a day trip or with a sleepover in Aguas Calientes, which is now a sizeable if gloomy tourist village. Massed shuttle buses shift the daily allocation of 2,500 up the hill to the ruins. Successive groups gather in my former billet, which is still exactly as I remember it, to listen to their guide’s introductory spiel.
If you believe tourism is about timing, Machu Picchu peaked 40 years ago, but the 21st-century adventure vibe has created rewarding approaches that compensate to varying degrees for the rampant commercialism of the site. The most popular is the Classic Inca Trail, a four or five-day hike during which you spend the night under canvas. Up to 500 people start daily on an undulating route with three killer passes and the prospect of sleeping out in temperatures below zero. The trail I took, known variously as Mollepata or Salkantay, is more seductive, for the lack of crowds, the astounding scenery and the luxurious lodges along the route. Plus you can do it on horseback. No contest, really.
After the customary dawn start in a minibus out of Cusco, nine clients gathered at the Coronilla Ranch near Mollepata, 50 miles to the north west, to choose their horses. At first sight, Cesar looked woefully unenthusiastic, but the guide, Guido, said he’d do the job, and he was right. All the horses had bridles made from artificial materials – much less likely to break than leather – and comfortable touring saddles with high pommels properly secured with breast plates.
That was reassuring to see, and all the more so when it became clear that Guido, relentlessly gung-ho if precarious in the saddle, had a Latino passion for galloping on rocky dirt roads, often downhill. The wealthy Brazilian family – handsome parents and impossibly glamorous daughters in their early teens – loved it. Four Americans from the horse-whispering school were less convinced. The aristocratic Briton gritted his teeth and did it without complaint. Let national stereotypes prevail.
After a picnic lunch and a 15-mile introduction to hammering the highway, we were rewarded with our first Mountain Lodge of Peru (MLP). Salkantay, built to last from big stone, timber and adobe at 12,500ft, dominates the Soraypampa high grasslands beneath the Humantay glacier. My first impression was of eerie grandeur: such a tantalising, no-expense-spared structure in such a bleak spot could only be a mirage. But it wasn’t.
Large doors opened and we were in, gratefully embracing hot flannels and steaming mugs of coca tea as we removed our boots. With 12 double rooms, the MLP flagship is twice the size of three sister properties down the Salkantay trail, necessary because guests, whether on foot or horseback, stay there for two nights to acclimatise before the climb. The following nights are spent in the smaller lodges on the other side of the pass.
Enrique Umbert, the canny Arequipa-born entrepreneur who bought up land from reluctant subsistence farmers a decade ago, replaced his initial scheme for basic mountain huts with lodging for “flashpackers”. In places where materials could come in only by mule or helicopter, construction logistics proved his sternest challenge, but he welcomed his first hikers in 2007. Recognising that richer, older people may not want to gasp their way up very steep hills, he later threw Peru’s only lodge-to-lodge ride into the mixture. By providing full-time work for 40 locals and part-time jobs for many more, he has improved the quality of life in villages that used to be underfunded and underfed.
Umbert’s MLP formula is based on the idea that travellers who are necessarily out of their comfort zones during the day will appreciate familiar pleasures in the evening. Each lodge offers an outdoor hot tub fired up from 5pm, a full-service dinner with local wines, and a hottie tucked under the down duvet when the generator clocks off at 11pm.
On our stopover day at Salkantay, we rode up a steep Z-bend trail to a glacial lake glittering turquoise under sun-filtered clouds. Twenty condors, wings spread to the full 10 feet, circled speculatively, then spiralled down with menace. By now we were accompanied by our designated doctor, Adolfo, a charming anaesthetist lured from his Cusco hospital to sort out any medical emergencies. As a rotund novice horseman, he was the obvious pick for birds out for blood. Happily, given that he was the expedition member we could least afford to lose, he withstood the aerial attack with aplomb. Back at the ranch, we felt we’d earned our instruction in preparing the perfect pisco sour and the essential sampling that guaranteed sleep uninterrupted by high-altitude dreams.
Z-bend training proved useful on the four-hour ascent to Salcantayccasa, the equivalent of a switchback railway with turns requiring precise negotiation. After we’d peaked and posed, we were delighted to come upon a large tent set up among the boulders. Inside were a long table, chairs and a hot three-course lunch. This is an organisation that leaves nothing to chance, a welcome approach, though with elements of a military campaign. Pizarro would have loved these guys.
In Peru, the cloud forest, the band of smaller trees between the bare altiplano and the giants of the Amazon, is known as ceja de selva, the eyebrow of the jungle. On a route that included exciting white-water river crossings and rustic bridges, farmers greeted us with good cheer. Initially, the simple stone villages were built among maize and vegetable plots, replaced at progressively lower altitudes by orchids, passion fruit and bananas, often with hummingbirds and flocks of parrots in raucous attendance.
In the evenings, we enjoyed the familiar MLP hospitality, first at Wayma, its hot tub built in the central courtyard for protection against a fiercely windswept location, then at Colpa, on an expansive plateau overlooking a triple river confluence. Our arrival at noon triggered a traditional pachamanca feast, flesh and veg layered into hot coals and buried while they baked. Guinea pig, an Andean staple, featured among the meats. I’ve always heard it tastes like chicken, but a direct comparison suggested it’s nowhere near as good.
After a final day of ferocious rock galloping and a night in the fourth MLP lodge among avocado groves and coffee plantations, we took the train to Aguas Calientes and rejoined the real world. No one would miss out on Machu Picchu, but standing alone in the mist on Salcantayccasa is something I’ll never forget.
Minty Clinch travelled as a guest of Red Savannah (01242 787800; redsavannah.com ). A 12-night trip to Peru costs from £4,350 per person sharing, with five nights’ b & b at La Casona (Cusco), six nights’ full board during the lodge-to-lodge Salkantay ride and one night in Aguas Calientes to see Machu Picchu. The price includes return economy flight from London to Cusco via Lima, guided tours in and around Cusco, entry to Machu Picchu and guiding, plus Vistadome train back to Cusco.
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