Practical guidebooks for the more adventurous traveller.
- The Herald
Sample route guide
In the route descriptions that follow, directions are given as a compass point and an indication of whether to go right or left. An example might read: ‘turn north (R)’ which means north is to your right, or ‘turn left (W)’ which means left is a westerly direction.
On all the trails except three you can walk in the opposite direction to the one given here. The exceptions are that you're not allowed to start at Machu Picchu and walk to Huayllabamba or to Chachabamba (Km104), and it wouldn't be sensible to do the Chilca Circuit in reverse because you'd have to pay the Inca Trail fee without actually walking it. The Choquequirao trek is done as a there-and-back hike along the same route by most people although it's possible to link it with other treks (see p276).
(See pp22-3 for Route Planning map)
Scale and walking times
These maps are drawn to an approximate scale of 1:50,000 (20mm to one kilometre). Remember that much of the walking is uphill and down, and the mere length of a trail is no indication of how long it's going to take you. Walking time is more important. In the margin of the maps, you'll see the time it takes to get from one ‘black triangle’ to the next ‘black triangle’. Timings usually run in both directions and are approximate: some people are going to walk much faster, and some slower than I did. If you've got a mule or porter to carry your kit, you'll take only about a half to three quarters of the time given.
Note that the time given refers only to time spent actually walking, so you will need to add more time to allow for rest stops. This will obviously vary from person to person but as a rough guide add 20-30% to allow for stops.
Up or down?
The trail is shown as a dotted line. Many of the trails are up or down. One arrow indicates a steep slope; two arrows indicate a very steep slope. The arrow points towards the higher part of the trail. If, for example, you were walking from A (at 900m) to B (at 1100m) and the trail between the two were short and very steep, it would be shown like this: A - - - >> - - - B.
The altitudes in this book were taken from GPS and altimeter readings and have an average margin of error of +/- 150m.
Quechua words can be spelt in a number of ways. In this section of the guide, places are spelt in the Hispanic way, because it's more familiar and because that's the spelling used on most maps.
Some places have more than one name: for example, Ancascocha is Silque on some maps, Patallacta is sometimes called Llactapata, and Paucarcancha often goes under the name of Inca Raccay (‘raccay’ means ‘ruin’ in Quechua, so ‘Inca Raccay’ indicates any Inca ruins). Where there's a potential cause for confusion I've given all the names.
Food and water
Many of the smaller streams shown on the maps are seasonal and may be dry when you walk, so you should carry more water than you think you need. Note that there's nowhere to buy food on these trails: you (or your porters) need to carry everything you're going to eat.
Getting to the trailheads
The trains from Cusco to Machu Picchu leave regularly each day from San Pedro station (see p155), though the cheapest tourist service is now more than US$40 one way. The train stops en route at Chilca and Kms 82, 88 and 104. See pp301-2 for details of times and prices.
Tourist buses are a cheaper option for those travelling to Chilca or Km82. Tickets from the travel agents on Plaza de Armas cost between s/12 and s/17; buses leave at 6-6.30am, and they'll even pick you up from your hotel. The disadvantage of taking these is that they don't arrive at the start of the trail until about midday; furthermore, if you're starting at Km82, because you're travelling with a bus full of other travellers the likelihood is you'll be walking with them too. For this reason, if you have the time I strongly recommend spending a night in Ollantaytambo, and catching a local bus or truck to Chilca or Km82 from there. The advantages are threefold: it's far cheaper (s/4.5 from Cusco to Ollantaytambo by local bus, and another s/1.5 to Chilca or Km82); you arrive at the start of your trek much earlier (the first truck or bus leaves Ollantaytambo's main square some time after 6am, taking about 30 minutes to reach Chilca and an hour to Km82); and thus you will start way before anybody else. Ollantaytambo has much to recommend it too (see p164).
Buses to Mollepata leave from Cusco's Calle Arcopata at 5am. There is sometimes a later one, though not everyday. Buses to Abancay from the same place can drop you at the bottom of a track that leads up to Mollepata. See p218 for details of why these aren't such a good idea. Both buses charge s/5-8. The situation changes often, so ask at your hotel for the latest information (don't trust what they tell you at the tourist information office because they often get it wrong).
For details of how to get to the start of the Vilcabamba Trail at Huancacalle, see p240; for information on Cachora, the trailhead of the Choquequirao trek see p266.
SAMPLE ROUTE GUIDE
PACAMAYO CAMP TO THE THIRD PASS [map 3, above]
Pacamayo camp to the second pass
From the Pacamayo camp the path climbs very steeply up a series of steps; you'll be glad to pause every now and then at viewpoints over the valley below. After about an hour, you reach the Inca ruins of Runcu Raccay (see p192), a circular structure with a rectangular outbuilding. This was probably a tambo, where chasquis rested, but some think it was a guard post or even, because of the circular walls, a ritual building, although the fairly basic build quality suggests otherwise. Camping is not permitted around the ruins.
The second pass (3950m/12,955ft), sometimes called Abra de Runcu Raccay, is another hour up, beyond a series of false summits. Just before the real pass, the path winds between two lakes where Andean gulls sometimes gather. Down by the lakes, there's a sign saying ‘Deer Area’, but you'll be very lucky to see any these days. To protect this fragile ecosystem, camping is no longer allowed by the lakes or at the pass.
The second pass to Sayac Marca
From the second pass the trail heads generally westwards. It passes through a short tunnel, the first of two on the route, and begins to switchback steeply as it descends to a small viewpoint, after which it continues down more gently. To your right (N), you'll see some large algae-coated lakes and in front (W), clouds permitting, you'll see Sayac Marca perched on a rocky promontory above the cloud forest. The trail descends quite steeply again, and just before it makes a hairpin bend right, there's a staircase going up on the left (SW). About 50 metres (150ft) up this staircase lies Sayac Marca (see above and p193). Camping is prohibited here.
Sayac Marca to the third pass
In the shadow of Sayac Marca, tucked away in a little valley is the small Inca dwelling of Concha Marca, which was only uncovered in the early 1980s. There's a stream nearby, and it's a good place to fill up with water as there are no more streams until the third pass, but in the interests of health make sure you purify your water carefully because there used to be a small campsite here, and the stream could still be contaminated.
The section of trail from here to the third pass is very, very beautiful. The paving is for the most part original Inca, and the path crosses high stone embankments as it skirts deep precipices. you're enclosed in a cathedral of forest. If you find yourself walking this part of the trail in the mist, you'd be sensible to camp (itineraries permitting) and wait for the weather to clear: it's such a wonderful view, missing it would be a crime. There's a good campsite about 20 minutes’ walk from Sayac Marca, called Chaquicocha, where there's a toilet block and plenty of space on the grassy knolls either side of the path. The higher ground is usually less boggy.
Just after Chaquicocha the path heads steeply uphill and passes two viewpoints. Near the second viewpoint a side trail leads off the main path to the right (N). This path returns to the main route about a kilometre (half a mile) further on. However, since it bypasses the main Inca tunnel it is very rarely used and has consequently become very overgrown. It leads to a remote and pleasant platform before descending again to the main trail.
The main trail skirts a spur, turning from the north-west to the north-east. It descends on finely engineered Inca paving and goes through an impressive 16m-long Inca Tunnel that exploits a fault in an otherwise sheer cliff face, before climbing again to the third pass (3650m/11,970ft). A little before the third pass you'll reach a spot from where you can see down to two different river valleys, the Urubamba and the Aobamba. it's a spectacular view. Just after this is a large campsite, right on the top of the pass. From here you can see Palcay (c.5600m/18,370ft) and Salcantay (6270m/20,565ft) to the south; Pumasillo (6000m/19,680ft) some 35km to the west; and Veronica (5750m/18,860ft) 15km to the north-west.