Everyone’s heard of the Inca Trail, but there’s a fresher adventure to be had – trekking unexplored parts of Peru’s ancient highway. Words by Nick Dall.
I kneel on the tarmac, in the shadow of the town’s 16th-century bell tower, as the shaman – wearing an animal pelt on his head and brandishing an enormous conch shell – marks my cheeks with stripes of ash. I put my cupped hands containing the coca to my lips, in a sort of Andean communion, and swirl the leaves around in my mouth. I was feeling a little queasy before the welcoming ceremony even began (Huamachuco is 3200 metres above sea level) but now – as my saliva turns bitter and my ears ring with the shaman’s chanting – I suddenly find myself having to stand up.
As I watch the contradanza (a regional dance) put on by kids from the local primary school, the blood gradually returns to my head and by the time the arrieros (porters) have retied the llamas’ loads I feel ready for anything the Andes can throw at me. We traipse out of the plaza and follow the Qhapaq Ñan south. Four hours later we’ll be making camp on the shores of Lago Cushuro – a magnificent snowmelt lake set against a backdrop of gnarled black cliffs – and fly-fishing for trout from a leaky turquoise rowing boat.
The Inca are famous for making human sacrifices and building Machu Picchu, but arguably their greatest achievement was the incredible road network which held their vast empire together. At its peak, the Qhapaq Ñan (also known as the Great Inca Road, not to be confused with the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which is only a 43-kilometre section of the network) stretched from Argentina to Colombia and incorporated a staggering 40000 kilometres of roads and trails.
My friend Nick Stanziano from California, who owns a tour company specialising in Peru, is passionate about preserving the road and supporting the communities that live along it. He believes the best way to do this is to raise awareness by leading treks along select sections of the route. Between April and August 2017, he and his 65-year-old Australian sidekick, John Leivers, supported by a rotating team of humans, mules, horses and llamas, hiked 3000 kilometres of the road from Ingapirca in Ecuador to Cusco in Peru. When Nick invited me to join them for a week to help scout out possible trekking routes, I knew I had to clear my diary.
After the first day of hiking, having slowly acclimatised to the thin air, Nick and I are bobbing around in the leaky boat on Lago Cushuro, trying to catch trout. We don’t catch anything (although I’m sure I feel a bump) and after taking turns to row and bail, we work up quite an appetite. We change into dry clothes and add a few layers (days are warm; nights are freezing) and head to the dining tent. Over a rough-and-ready interpretation of lomo saltado (the Asian inspired beef stir-fry that’s putting Peruvian cuisine on the world map), I get to know the others – I spent most of the day hiking at the back, so there wasn’t much time for chit-chat.
While Kevin Floerke (the resident archaeologist, drone pilot and photographer) and Nick banter about the ongoing NBA finals, John eats in silence: when you’ve spent much of the last 30 years solo trekking in the Andes, a hot meal prepared by someone else is worth shutting up for. After dinner, as we drink camomile tea and pore over the map, we talk about the day ahead. The Escalerilla (Spanish for ladder or gangway) is meant to be one of the best-preserved sections of the Qhapaq Ñan in all of Peru.
‘Inca roads go high and straight,’ says Kevin. ‘And we’ve got some serious mountains between us and the next camp.’
‘I hiked this section three years ago and it wasn’t easy,’ says John, nodding. ‘But the weather was foul and I was carrying 30 kilos.’
It’s only 19:30 but I excuse myself and retreat to the relative warmth of my tent. By the sound of things I’m going to need all the rest I can get.
After breakfast, we pose for photos next to a battered sign which proclaims, somewhat scarily, that the Escalerilla section includes more than 2000 stone steps and crosses three passes of at least 4200 masl (metres above sea level). I stick at the back with John, who’s all about ‘slow and steady wins the race’, and try to draw succour from the incredible views of the lake and the town of Huamachuco way down below. Granted, my head is spinning and my legs are a bit sore, but I’m feeling pretty good about life when we crest the first pass.
And then I see what lies ahead. A narrow path follows the contours of a vast, sinuous valley before disappearing into the scrabbly confusion of scree and sheer rock faces at the valley’s head. If I can’t even see where the path goes, I wonder to myself, how the hell am I going to hike on it?
My concerns are entirely justified. After a detour (uphill, nogal) to see some recently discovered rock art we start trying to make sense of the ‘gangway’. As I plod up the near-vertical staircase I focus on the yellow soles of John’s gumboots. How can he hike in those? Doesn’t he get blisters? It’s not even remotely muddy. And there’s a massive crack right through the left heel.
I look up to see a male llama – laden with two bright blue wooden kists – running straight towards me, followed closely by a desperate arriero. The llama loses its footing and rolls – thud by deafening thud – down the slope. Miraculously he is unscathed, but when the arrieros try to readjust his load he spits at them and sits steadfastly on his haunches.
I can empathise with this llama but somehow I make it to the top of the pass, and the one after that. While the others feast on a lunch of cheese, chickpeas and tuna I struggle to keep down an apple. My body may have (just) survived the hike but my appetite has not.
After that baptism of fire I find another gear and start to enjoy the hike. The third day features swathes of boulevard-wide Qhapaq Ñan and glimpses of vicuñas – a more delicate wild relative of the llama. Sometime after lunch, it starts to rain and we make camp early on a nice grassy spot next to a raging river. As we hike out of the canyon the next morning – a Sunday – we start to see signs of civilisation: a well-dressed guy on horseback off to pay his respects to a dead uncle; a few homesteads surrounded by fields of purple quinoa; a soccer field hemmed in by an ugly concrete wall and a primary school with a wonderful rose garden.
Because the Qhapaq Ñan is an ancient trade route it passes through towns, big and small. In a little place called Tulpo we chew the fat with dudes in impressive cowboy hats and, a couple of hours later, in the bigger town of Mollebamba, we drink fresh orange juice in a dingy cafe with cow-dung walls.
After one last uphill, I glimpse Mollepata and its handsome white church perched precariously on the edge of a gawping canyon. We zigzag down towards the town on an earthen track that’s been in use for at least 600 years, passing mud-brick houses emblazoned with garish political graffiti.
It must have something to do with how I got here, but – as I sit on a wooden bench in the plaza drinking warm, over-carbonated beer with the guys while the local kids play soccer in the square – Mollepata feels like the centre of the universe.
Plan your trip to Peru
I flew from Cape Town to Lima (via São Paulo) on LatAm Airlines. From R16000 return. latam.com
Need to know
South Africans don’t need a visa for Peru but an up-to-date yellow-fever vaccination certificate is required. It’s probably a good idea to bring some dollars, but you can withdraw both dollars and soles from any ATM in Peru. Once you’re in Peru, most things cost the same as – or slightly less than – they do in South Africa.
When to go
Try to hike between April and November when the Andes are cold but (mostly) dry. Hiking at altitude is no joke so bring some Diamox for altitude sickness (I didn’t use mine but it was nice to know I had it) and don’t be afraid to chew coca leaves. It’s a good idea to factor in some acclimatisation before you hike: if you plan on visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu (about 3 000m above sea level) it makes sense to do this first
and then trek later. SA Expeditions offers several packages. saexpeditions.com
The Qhapaq Ñan Trek
After scouting large sections of the road, SA Expeditions now offers a high-end, eight-day Qhapaq Ñan experience on what is deemed to be the best section of the route. The trek is about 150km south of where I hiked and, like my week-long experience, is characterised by a beautifully preserved trail, spectacular scenery and campsites next to ruined tambos (Inca refuges). The trip includes a night in a four-star Lima hotel upon arrival, flights to and from the gorgeous Andean town of Huaraz (eight hours, optional flight supplement) and two nights – one before and one after the trek – in the best hotel in Huaraz.
Once you’ve been dropped off at the trailhead at Castillo (four hours from Huaraz) you’ll start hiking immediately and spend the first night at the Tambo de Soledad, where there’s a small archaeological project run by Peru’s Ministry of Culture. On the second day you’ll hike to the tambo at Quenajirca welcomed by the wonderful Auraujo family, who still practise ancient weaving techniques. The third day features undulating scenery and a fantastic stop at Tambo Grande campsite. Day four involves crossing an impressive Inca causeway en route to the campsite at Isko, while the fifth and final day culminates at the vast (and little-visited) ruins of the important Inca administrative centre at Huánuco Pampa.
The trip costs from R47600 per person and includes good nourishing food, all internal transport and transfers, accommodation (three nights in good hotels, four nights in tents), llamas and arrieros. SA Expeditions supplies good quality tents, sleeping bags and mattresses. saexpeditions.com
This story first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
The December issues features the Tok Tokkie Trail in Namibia (perfect if you dream of sleeping under the stars), 50 things to boost your summer holiday and our ultimate gear guide with the best travel gear, and much more!