Practical guidebooks for the more adventurous traveller.
- The Herald
The mystery of the deep valleys which lie in the quadrant north to north-east of Mount Salcantay have long demanded attention. Separated from Ollantaytambo and Amaybamba by the Grand Canyon of the Urubamba, protected from Cuzco by the gigantic barrier of Salcantay, isolated from Vitcos by deep valleys and inhospitable, high windswept bleak regions called punas, they seem to have been unknown to the Spanish Conquerors and unsuspected by the historians… it appears to have been a terra incognita.
Hiram Bingham, Lost City of the Incas
In July 1911 the American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled across the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, the archetypal Lost City. None of the world’s other great ruins can compare with Machu Picchu’s location on a knife-like ridge, amid thick forest, high above a tumultuous river and frequently cloaked in swirling cloud, with the horn of Huayna Picchu punching through the mist, and snow-capped mountains glittering on the horizon. The discovery was the embodiment of many people’s fantasies and proved to be the inspiration for innumerable adventure tales.
Bingham was directed to the region and along with his Peruvian guides explored the hillside reputed to conceal the ruins. All at once they ‘were confronted with an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone-faced terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and ten feet high’. Pushing on, ‘without any warning’, Bingham happened upon a cave carved into a stunningly sculpted structure whose ‘flowing lines…symmetrical arrangement of ashlars, and gradual gradation of the courses combined to produce a wonderful effect…It seemed like an unbelievable dream. Dimly, I began to realize that this wall and its adjoining semicircular Temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stone work in the world. It fairly took my breath away…’
Prior to the revelation of Machu Picchu, Bingham had explored and uncovered the ruins at Choquequirao. Following up these amazing discoveries, he went on to discover two other Inca sites of great importance, Vitcos and Vilcabamba. Countless other expeditions have explored and searched the region and numerous discoveries have been made, though none as significant as those unearthed by Bingham at the start of the twentieth century.
Discoveries of Inca roads linking these sites have led to the creation of trekking routes for modern-day pilgrims and adventurers to follow. The Inca Trail is just one such route, which penetrates the forest and crosses high passes to reach its goal, the ruins at Machu Picchu. Heavily promoted and justifiably popular, the celebrated trek is almost a victim of its own success. In the wake of stringent regulations imposed to preserve the route, alternative options to reach Machu Picchu have been developed and treks to the other Inca sites have grown up as genuine alternatives to the crowded classic trek: the Santa Teresa route avoids the regulations associated with the Inca Trail but still gets you to Machu Picchu following a superb trek through varied landscapes; the Choquequirao trek takes you to these remote ruins perched above the Apurímac valley in a location arguably even more dramatic than that of the better-known site at Machu Picchu; the Vilcabamba trek explores puna, pampa, pasture, cloud forest and rainforest to lead you to the last refuge of the Incas, the untroubled, unrestored ruins of which are camouflaged and concealed by the forest. Epic trails joining the various sites have also been uncovered and now offer the ultimate experience for those with a passion for wilderness and a fascination with the world of the Incas.
So, despite the pressures of mass tourism and the popularity of the better known sites, it is still possible to explore the Cusco region free from crowds. Just take up the challenge and follow in the footsteps of the pioneers!