Peru with a view
Published 29/01/2012 | 06:00
Thomas Breathnach stepped off the beaten Inca Trail and found himself in the real Peru
Ever since explorer Hiram Bingham uncovered the lost city of Machu Picchu in 1911, Peru has been luring generations of intrepid adventurers who yearn to follow in the footsteps of the original Indiana Jones.
Now a century on, the Land of the Incas has become such a backpacker favourite, no globetrotter can truly call themselves a world traveller until they've eroded the steps of the famous trail.
Keen to earn my stripes, I dusted down my rucksack and North Face clobber, and embarked on a two-week expedition to discover Peru from the Andes to the Amazon.
My adventure kicked off in the vibrant city of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas, perched 3,400m high up in the Andes.
I perched myself on the gabled balconies of Plaza de Armas, to order a cup of the lncan cure-all: coca tea. Below in the square, the city oozed the ornate splendour of Spanish colonialism with a dusting of Wild West edge.
VW Beetles weaved in and out of narrow laneways while native Quechua women in scarlet pollera skirts and traditional shawls posed for snaps with tourists.
Cusco is known as the gateway to the Inca Trail, but as an alternative, I ventured off the beaten track to the Lares Trek -- a 33km-long Andean hike which unveils the wilds of the mountains and the traditional life of the native Quechua people.
It's a three-day camping expedition, and from the tiny village of Patacancha, I hit the hills along with my motley group of local guides, horsemen and fellow travellers.
The dizzying altitude posed an initial hitch to our giddy-up as we slowly rose above the tree-line of the Urubamba range, to discover glacial lakes, vast puna grasslands, and herds of llamas grazing on tufty lichen.
It was an Andean postcard, minus the soaring condor.
That night, we camped under the stars before waking at dawn and setting off up snow-capped sierras to reach the Pumahuanca pass, some 4,600m high.
Unlike the Inca Trail, which hosts up to 500 trekkers daily, our route was shared with no more than a handful of local shepherds and a young Quechua girl hawking her stock of Coca-Cola and rum. Lares was magnificently deserted.
The only dwelling place we encountered on the way was a thatched farm cottage, which provided welcome refuge from the punishing sleet.
A puma had just stolen a member of the family's livestock, but we still received a warm bienvenido inside the one-room home.
You don't trek one of the world's great mountain ranges without incident, however, and one evening, high up in the mountains, we were confronted by the sight of a young llama submerged in a freezing swamp.
It was a distressing sight, and initially ominous, but in the ultimate Andean team-building exercise, it was all hands on fleece.
Yanking and tugging, we eventually rescued the beast to a grateful chorus of spitting and snorting. "A llama averted!"
Back down the valley and our PeruRail journey to the town of Machu Picchu provided some unexpected decadence.
With its Vistadome carriage offering panoramic views, and manicured hostesses serving fancy nibbles in wicker baskets, this is luxury train travel on a par with Switzerland.
Below in the Urubamba river, white water gushed ferociously down a deep valley, bursting with cacti, aloes and dense cloud forest.
The closest access point to Machu Picchu is Agua Calientes, a throbbing tourist hub with narrow sloping streets thronged with restaurants, bazaars and buskers.
A quintet of pony-tailed Quechua musicians delighted the crowds with an infectious repertoire of electro-panpipe sounds. It's touristy in the extreme, but at least they're not playing 'La Bamba'.
Ay caramba, I spoke too soon.
The next day, a well-oiled operation of shuttle buses brought us up a two-mile winding track to Machu Picchu. The magnificent blitz of a blue and yellow macaw heralded our ascent into the jungle.
Arriving at the site, there was all the bustle expectant of a Wonder of the World, as French senior citizens jostled with Japanese tourists for a first glance of the falling sun.
After a week of downpours, though, there was no golden sunset, but wisps of jungle mist revealed and concealed the marvel of the site at unpredictable intervals.
We finally eked out a plot with undisturbed views and Machu Picchu appeared every bit as spectacular as the Cusco billboards suggested.
Guarded by peaks projecting out of the valley like spearheads, the ruins seemed like a tropical Skellig Michael, their wonder only magnified by their 350 years as a lost citadel.
After the maddening masses of Macchu Picchu, our final leg of the journey took us by plane to the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado in the remote depths of the Amazonas region.
Peru is home to the continent's second largest rainforest after Brazil, and as we soared over Amazonian tributaries snaking through an infinite 'Avatar' jungle, a spectacular sight unfolded beneath our eyes.
It was a further three hours down the muddied orange waters of the Tambopata River until we reached our lodge, Refugio Amazonas, tucked into the rainforest with perfect eco-harmony.
My wall-free room had the air of a five-star treehouse, and within hours of arrival, I spotted howler monkeys, scarlet macaws and a young anteater rooting outside my room.
At nightfall, it was back to the river bank to see one of the Amazon's apex reptiles -- the caiman. Sheepishly balanced on our motorised canoe, we floated down the Tambopata as a spectacular lightning storm illuminated the menace of the jungle.
Our guide, Eder, skimmed his flashlight slowly from bank to bank, flushing out the gaping red-eyed gators and allowing me to scout out my preferred escape route, in the event of the worst.
Walking back to our lodge through the dense jungle, a tarantula here, a green boa there, Eder gave us the rainforest pep talk: "If you do get lost in the jungle, climb four metres and wait."
For what, I wondered? Prowling jaguars? The Peruvian incarnation of 'Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman'? A Hansel and Gretel-esque Amazon nightmare flashed before me.
This unison with Pachamama (Mother Nature) grew even deeper when Eder switched his torch off and we learned that no starlight can penetrate through 50m of rainforest canopy.
Immediately smothered by a blindfold of darkness, we stood in silence for minutes. An orchestra of crickets, locusts and tree frogs shrilled all around us.
It seemed the deeper we delved into Peru the more exhilarating the country became, but, "turn that torch back on," I said to Eder. "I can't see the woods for the trees."