Flowers of the Incas

You may ask: what is the motivation of trekking on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu? Probably everyone has their own reasons: adventure, the curiosity to see some archaeological wonders, botanical quest, celebration, or just a mixture of everything. It is considered the most famous trek in S. America, with the final destination at the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu.

But let’s make a big jump and land in Cusco via Lima. One needs to spend a few days here for altitude acclimation. Needless to say you have to book your trip in advance, and this can be done very well on-line nowadays.  There is plenty to do in Cusco, after all you are in the ancient Inca Royal City: bask in the sun in Plaza de Armas, visit the museums, the shops, take pictures or just wander around and see what plant species are growing in the area J. A few archaeological sites can be visited nearby, most notable and accessible on foot being Sacsayhuaman, but I disgress.

Your guide and team of porters will pick you up at dawn, and for a few hours drive to the starting point of the trail. While in the car, the realization that you’ll be actually retracing ancient Inca trails starts to settle in. Usually the Inca trail makes everyone think of Macchu Picchu. Actually, it is just one among the many trails of a large network that used to stretched from Ecuador to Chile and Argentina, connecting distant corners of the Inca Empire. The trails were used for transportation, religious and military purposes. Special messengers called ‘chasqui’ were delivering messages and light items, running on these trails (supposedly hundreds of km per day) from one place to another. One last stop in Ollantaytambo, where the statue of the Inca General Ollanta, wishes you good luck.

On the classic 4 days trek, you’ll hike a section of 43 km, from the start point – simply named km. 82, and reach Machu Picchu in the forth day. The start is located along the Urubamba River and belongs to a zone called by the locals ‘Quechua’ (Quechua was the language of the Incas). The elevation here is around 2600 m.

The trail has four main areas as regards to vegetation and altitude and is one fascinating journey from an arid landscape, through mountain scenery, lush cloud forest and subtropical jungle. The beginning is quite dry and dusty in July-August, passing small farmhouses and the scenery is a combination of introduced species, like Eucalyptus with native species of Puya, cactus and agave. At same point the trail enters the Cusichaca Valley and if you look upwards on the steep cliffs there are glittering Bromeliads, mostly Puya and Tillandsia (various species). If lucky, maybe you’ll spot a few orchids like Epidendrum and the so called Giant hummingbird. We weren’t so lucky about the giant hummingbird but got a glimpse of the very colourful Sparkling Violetear!

First day ends at the Wayllabamba camping grounds, at 3000 m elevation. Of course, you’re too excited to sleep, although you should prepare for the second day…Sleep or no sleep, you have to get going. The landscape changed to what’s called ‘submontane, subtropical humid forest’. While in awe for the breathtaking scenery, you’ll also have your breath taken away by the steep climbing. It is the time to reach the highest point of the trail: Warmiwañusca Pass at 4265 m.

But before that I will point in part II of the story, at the Polylepis forest the highest forest in the world!  Back to my twitching, and I hope to see you here next week…