It’s been a long held ambition of mine to trek follow in the footsteps of the ancient Incas on an adventure of Peru, and visit the mountain ruins of Machu Picchu. However, when I went online to research my options it was revealed that the famous Inca Trail has become so busy with tourists that UNESCO requested the Peruvian government to require permits – 500 released per day – to prevent its overuse and degradation. I got the impression that this path had perhaps been a bit too well trodden already.
Few know that there is actually more than one way of trekking to the lost city of the Incas – the standard Inca Trail, and a different route called the ruby valley trek. The trek involves two nights camping and a third hotel night in a small town called Aguas Calientes located at the base of Machu Picchu, which we would visit on the last morning. The Inca Trail, by contrast, spanned three nights on the trail and arrived directly at Machu Picchu early on the fourth day.
For me, the ruby Trek was an easy sell: I was lured in by descriptions of a cultural hike that traversed highland Incan settlements. We would hike passes over 4500 meters in altitude and meet a minimum of other ‘western traffic’. And the extra day I would save in my holiday would be an excellent recovery day, if I needed it. What could be better?
There was an air of excitement and nervousness as our minivan filled with 16 fellow trekkers and set out from Cuzco towards a mountainous backdrop. Small, concrete-bound, bustling Peruvian towns gave way to pastoral scenes of verdant fields. The mountains that once loomed in the distance now loomed over our heads, and soon after our bus began to negotiate steep S-shaped turns as we climbed ever higher. The landscape became remote and barren; the ground covered with large boulders strewn so randomly it appeared it had hailed stones the night before.
Finally we arrived at our departure point, a small, nondescript town of ruby, tucked behind large, rocky outcrops. Our guide, a jovial Peruvian man with a surprisingly young face, quick laugh and neatly pressed shirt named Julio Cesar, ushered us out of the bus and we tentatively followed.
“Though we will meet many people over the next three days, this is the last place you’ll see anything that resembles a town,” Julio said. Here we were introduced to four stocky locals who smiled awkwardly at us. “A word of advice,” Julio said, motioning towards the men. “You can curse at me all you like, no problem. But, please, for your own sake, try to be nice to these guys.” As our porters, this group was responsible for cooking all our meals, setting up and taking down camp and, with the help of llamas, carry our packs. All we had left to do was hike, although we would soon discover that this was not going to be just a gentle walk in the park.
We set out, walking single file along a thin trail. It was arduous at first and there was little chatter. We had already surpassed the altitude of Cuzco by 500 meters and, though the terrain wasn’t steep, I could hear myself taking heavy breaths. I noticed we were headed toward a cluster of homes and wondered if Julio was wrong when he said we wouldn’t see any towns along the trail. When we arrived in Huacahausi, our first stop, I discovered the answer: it all depends on your definition of a town.
Huacahuasi was characteristic of many of the communities we would pass through over the next couple of days. These were remote outposts consisting of simple, wooden structures scattered haphazardly on lonely plains. The locals became a familiar sight: sheepish but playful children with bright red, frost bitten cheeks wearing rainbow coloured hand-woven fabrics to keep them warm. A curious mom often observed quietly in the background. Things here were exceedingly simple: no electricity, running water or modern comforts. This was life in the Andes as it has been since time immemorial.
As our group gathered, Julio distributed bags of bread to each of us, which he encouraged us to hand to the kids. “Keep in mind for those giving out candies that toothbrushes have yet to hit the Andes,” he said and tapped a boy with blackening teeth on the head Helambu Trek.
We continued on an ascending rocky path. The day was getting late and the moon hung delicately over the distant mountains. The group settled into three distinct ability levels and I strove to stay in the first, with the second group only slightly further behind. The third, mostly older contingent slowly trailed.
This spread meant that by the time everyone arrived into camp, the sun had completely retired, the sky was studded with a million stars and the temperature had dipped to sub zero. We huddled in the food tent, and blew into our hands, listening to wind whistle outside. Though the meal was excellent- a multi-course feast of soups, potatoes and meats we ate in exhausted near silence before each of us unceremoniously snuck off to our tents. All were aware that day two is by far the most difficult on the trek.
I would say I awoke, but that would imply sleep, which never fully came. It’s a common symptom of altitude and, given that we were at 4200 above sea level, I had a disrupted and shallow sleep. But when I poked my head out of the tent I still felt exhilarated. The sky was a crisp blue and our camp was perched on a small, flat plane, enclosed by rocky walls. Beyond the camp stretched a valley, which meandered up to a sharp climb. This, I assumed, was the first pass.
As the porters fitted the llamas with our packs the group chatted, speculating about the difficulty level to come. “Hiking is like a construction site,” Hidergaard Burke, a bubbly woman with a kindly, grandmother demeanor said. “Your mind directs the operation and your legs do the grunt work”. As we began to walk and I noticed the strong effect altitude exerted on my muscles, which ached with an acerbic burn. Grunt work indeed. My lungs clamored for breath against the frigid mountain air. I felt nauseous. I slowed. The trick, I learned, was to make methodical, plodding steps.
As we ascended, the path became less logical, often branching off into sub-trails which converged further up. Finally I noted that the trail dropped in the distance. The pass was just beyond. I scurried up one final climb of loose shale and looked over the horizon. I had arrived. On the other side, a steep drop and a lake shimmered in its bowels. Even through the fatigue and altitude- now 4650m – the view was spectacular, and the feeling of achievement and satisfaction was fantastic.
The rest of the group met on the pass and we all marveled at the site and took a few deep breaths together before continuing on. There was a general sense of relief – it was all downhill from here. We spent the remainder of the day on a fairly easy, undulating downgrade.
With the tough trekking done, the second night’s camp had a much more lively spirit. There was enough oxygen in the air to make a campfire and, after another multi-course dinner, even the older group managed to stay up and chat past 9 o’clock.
By day three, we were immersed in the ruby Valley, walls that jutted out on either side of the trail.
There is a single image that stuck with me from the last morning of our trek. As I rounded a pass, a little girl and boy were seated patiently on a hillside. The surroundings were bare and an unforgiving grassy cliff flanked one side of the trail. There was not a single human dwelling in sight.
Familiar things ran through my head: Shouldn’t these kids be in school? Where’s their mother? Isn’t anyone responsible around to wipe the snot from that boy’s nose? And look at their clothes- they’re in complete tatters! But as I approached and saw their vibrantly colored clothes and heard them quietly speaking Quechua, it occurred to me that life 4500 meters in the remote Andes has its own logic and I was witness to one of the few places in the world where western thinking doesn’t totally apply. I handed them my final circle of bread which they graciously accepted, and continued my descent through the valley.
Soon the temperature warmed, green fields appeared and real populations emerged. Then a road, then a car, and finally we ended our trek in the ancient Incan settlement of Ollantaytambo.
What came after trek should be the highlight of an adventure to Peru: we caught the train to the small town of Aguas Calientes and the following morning a bus to Machu Picchu. And though the ruins truly are a marvel, I couldn’t help consider that for most travelers, including the ones that arrived via the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu is the archeological remnant of an extinct culture of the Andes. Through the ruby Trek, however, I came to realize that just beyond these inert rocks and ruins is something even more fascinating: a flourishing Incan culture that remains almost totally unaltered by modernity and virtually untouched by outsiders.
A keen traveller himself, Ben McIntosh works as communications coordinator for adventure-travel specialists Tucan Travel. Tucan Travel is a specialist adventure tour operator with hundreds of high-quality, affordable and exciting adventures to worldwide destinations. Choose from over 470 group tours, Independent Travel packages and Expedition Cruises to Europe, the Middle East & North Africa, Asia & Russia, East & Southern Africa, Latin America and Antarctica.