EPIC SOUTH AMERICA EXPEDITION - MAY 2019
Earlier this year a group of adventurers set off on an epic journey to experience the mighty Amazon and trek the Salkantay, the road less travelled to ancient Machu Picchu in the breathtaking mountains of Peru.
Over 4 nights we sail up the Rio Ucayali tributary of the upper Amazon River in the Pacaya Samiria Natural Reserve onboard beautiful luxury cruise ship ‘Aria’.
The Amazon has two seasons determined by the height of the flood that inundates the forest. Low water season is from June to November and high season December to May. Our journey was on the edge of high water as the river starts to recede. Life in the Amazon revolves intimately around the water height. Plants and animals are adapted to live underwater and the communities build their houses on stilts. The only mode of transport is by boat.
The unique ecosystem has a fascinating array of wildlife. Each day we travel along the river and its tributaries in skiffs or kayaks (and local’s dug-out canoes) to experience this amazingly tranquil world up close and personal.
We watch a sloth muster enough energy to (almost!) swing between the trees. Overhead colourful macaws and parakeets fly while monkeys leap through the branches at an incredible speed.
We pull on waders and walk through dense forest with our knowledgeable hosts. The myriad plant and animal species are harvested and utilised by local communities as gifts from the forest for food, medicine and survival.
The ship docks beside a village soccer field and the staff join in a local game. We visit a school and the children sing us welcome songs. This is a wonderful community experience and real insight into local life.
The ideal weather provides great photo opportunities for the impossibly perfect reflections created on the surface of the black river mirroring the jungle. To make it more memorable, pink dolphins appear, breaking the water briefly with their short dorsal fins. So beautiful but difficult to capture!
Our 4 day Amazon cruise is the ideal adventure. Onboard, local produce is woven into every meal and cooking and Peruvian cocktail (pisco sour) classes are available. For those who need to work out or wind down (or both) there is a gym and masseuse.
As the ship docks in Iquitos we prepare for the next part of our journey.
Trekking the Salkantay
From Iquitos we fly into Cusco to begin our hike through the Salkantay Valley, an alternative route to Machu Picchu along the popular Inca Trail.
Cusco is situated at 3850 metres and coming direct from sea level we feel an increase in heart rate as the altitude increases. To help us acclimatise and before we start our trek we stay in a beautiful hotel in Urambaba at a lower altitude. The next day is spent Cusco sightseeing. We then stay at a higher altitude in Hotel Belmond. Brimming with character and set in an old monastery, oxygen is pumped through the rooms to aid acclimatisation.
A vibrant city, Cusco has sweeping views, steep cobblestone streets, beautiful cathedrals and Inca ruins. There are colourful locals, funky bars and fancy restaurants, shops selling beautiful silver, high quality alpaca fabrics and traditional weavings.
Day 1 Cusco to Sorayampa.
A winding drive with sweeping views of the snow capped mountains starts our first trekking day. In the town of Mollepata, we lunch at a small hotel and farm where they play pop music to the guinea pigs to improve growth!
A short drive to Marcoccasa to begin the short 2 hour trek along an Inca trail that follows an aqueduct to our first lodge at Sorayampa (3,869 metres).
Day 2 Soraypampa – Humantay Lake.
Another acclimatisation day in our lead up to the Salkantay Pass, we hike from the lodge up the valley to the stunning glacial Lake Humantay (4,221 m). Along the way we are joined by a local Inca and pied piper, Hunnam who plays a tune on his wooden pipe to encourage us in our final ascent.
The lake is translucent, almost an unnatural, irridescent blue-green with crystal clear water and surrounded by snow peaked mountains and wildflowers. A place of epic beauty.
Hunnam invites us to join him in a local Inca ceremony to Pancha Mama (Mother Earth). Each of us are provided with coco leaves and wear colourful, heavily beaded beanies and are blessed.
After a steep descent and long day hiking we return to the lodge. Here we relax in the hot tub overlooking the mountains, including Humantay Peak. Bliss!
Day 3. Soraypampa – Wayraccmachay
The big day! Today we tackle the Salkantay Pass at 4,630 metres.
It’s an early start hiking up the Rio Blanco Valley, circling Humantay Peak. We meet a few locals along the way and join other hikers and horse caravans traversing the pass. There is no road across the Pass, travel is on foot or by horse. A mighty condor joins us from above as we trek the rugged landscape.
After a 7 km and 4 hour hike to the top of the Pass we spend time taking in both the views and a few deep breaths at the top. Near the Pass is another beautiful glacial lake, this one a pastel blue colour.
The 5 km hike down takes us to our lunch spot. Here we put our feet up and indulge in a beautiful lunch cooked by the lodge chefs from a tent half-way up the mountain. It’s hard to put our packs back on and keep going with a full belly – but worth it when we reach our next abode, Wayra Lodge (3,906m) and the hot tub!
Day 4. Wayraccmachay – Colpapampa
With the Pass conquered we enjoy a leisurely day trekking downhill to the Salkantay River, and arrive at our next destination Colpa Lodge. The landscape is quite different either side of the river and, we are informed, home to the rarely spotted, spectacled bear aka Paddington Bear from ‘deepest darkest Peru’!
At the lodge a feast – Pachamanca – is being prepared for us with meat and vegetables roasting in a pit in the earth. Peru has around 3000 types of potatoes and giant cobs of purple, white and gold corn. The lodge is decorated with crazy masks which the guides explain are worn at Peruvian festivals.
Day 5. Collpapampa – Lucmabamba
We split into two groups depending upon our activity of choice. One group goes on a beautiful walk along the Santa Teresa river valley through a more populated rural area with coffee plantations, granadilla (passionfruit) and avocado farms.
The other group embarks on mad downhill mountain bike ride, descending 2400 vertical metres wearing body armour! A fantastic exhilarating challenge with amazing views if you are brave enough to take your eyes off the trail!
We meet for lunch and continue by private vehicle to the beginning of the Inca Trail. After a short 30 minute walk through local villages and coffee shops we arrived at our Lodge for the evening (2,135 m).
Day 6. Lucmabamba – Aguas Calientes (1,900 m)
The day’s trek starts out uphill 2-3 hrs towards Llactapata Pass (2,736m). After a week long build up, we first glimpse the mystical Machu Picchu from the Llactapata Ruins.
Seeing Machu Picchu from this vantage point provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the way the surrounding Andean mountains crouch protectively around the ancient Incan citadel. We enjoy a leisurely lunch in a local farm house restaurant nearby.
We then hike down to the river and catch the train to Aguas Calientes. A bustling town that supports the many tourists visiting this ancient wonder of the world. We stay in the beautiful and very comfortable Inkaterra Hotel, a sprawling property with beautiful orchid gardens. And importantly, hot ponds to soak tired legs while being entertained by sunbirds.
Day 7 – 9. Macchu Picchu – Cusco
Over two days we explore the ancient Incan city of Macchu Picchu with its unique structures, temples, altars, doors and windows and above all, epic views of the Andes mountains.
Our guide explains the many theories and stories surrounding the citadel and ancient Incan civilisation. Each day we climb one of the surrounding mountains – the ‘young mountain’, Wayna Picchu ( 2,720 m) and the ‘old mountain’, Macchu Picchu ( 3,082 m). Both are great physical trekking challenges with the reward of spectacular iconic views from the top.
Late on Day 8 we arrive back in Cusco (2,300 m) after a comfortable train ride and private transfer back to the beautiful Hotel Belmond. Dinner and a warm bed await on our last night in Peru.
An epic journey to remember for a life time…
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