With the Andes mountains zipping together this continent, the Amazon River lurking through its dense jungles, and Patagonian glaciers chilling the terrain, South America offers a mystic feel to adventure travelers. This series of trips within the heart of Peru, Chile and Argentina calls for experienced trekkers, who are willing to face exposure, high elevations and many breathtaking moments. Read on to discover if your next vacation will be a South American adventure trip.
PART ONE: PERU
Trekking to The Ancient Inca City of Machu Picchu
The gem of this five-day trek is the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, but that notion slips the mind due to all of the enchanting distractions along the way. Hiking the rocky Salkantay trail, outdoorsy types are occupied as they traverse waterfalls by means of make-shift sod bridges, spot orchids and miniature strawberry plants framing the walkway, and suck on coca leaves to ease the effects of elevation.
Above: Bridges made from the earth stretch across waterfalls and line the Salkantay trail.
Lead by an Inca research expert and local Peruvian outdoor enthusiast, this tour to Machu Picchu is not as crowded as the popular Inca Trail and winds travelers up to a breathtaking height of 15,000 feet, where snow and hail often flex their muscles, competing with even the strongest trekkers who may decide to hide out in a cave instead of battle icy pellets.
Above: The first day’s trail, the Apurimac River Valley, with snowy Salkantay in the background.
Also challenging the fitness egos of hikers are the local porters who breeze past tourists as they run behind work horses in plastic flip flops, cold mud squishing between their toes. These men are some of the strongest villagers and thrive off of the tourists’ gawks when watching these men dominate cold, highly elevated trails wearing only short-sleeved shirts. Loaded down and often stubborn, the long line of work horses need to hear “Mule!” screamed in their direction by the porters to halt the shrub munching and continue the urgent trot up the mountain. Horses and porters are an extra fee to trekkers but are considered a necessary luxury to many since they lug heavy backpacks, food and tents to each campsite along the way.
Above: Local Peruvian farmers work as porters during high season.
On arriving to the campsites, trekkers find weatherproof tents already assembled and a warming hut (if necessary) complete with a full dinner table set with a feast. Buckets of water are set out for dirty hikers to wash up before the meal and a tent with a portable toilet proves camping does not have to be too rough! All of this organization is accomplished by the coordinator and the cooks of the party, who are often the last to leave a site and the first to arrive to prepare gourmet meals and a cozy resting spot to cure campers’ hunger pangs and sore feet.
Above: Horses leave the campsite at Collpapampa.
After filling up on three- or four-course meals, hikers continue through areas filled with small lakes and moraines and arrive at gifts of nature such as the hot springs near Collpapampa, where a long soak rejuvenates the body. The trail then winds down to a high jungle region called Caja de Selva where butterflies and tropical birds flutter above.
Above: A trail guide shows off a rare butterfly and a poisonous caterpillar crawls along the path.
Anticipation starts to build for Machu Picchu as the group turns the bend and views its last sight before the final ascent to the famous Incan ruins. A hydro-electric operation spews water through a tunnel and out into the river below, providing energy for an entire region of Southern Peru.
The final morning breaks and adventurers are already awake, have eaten, and bus to the top of Machu Picchu. When exiting the bus, it is popular to scamper across the entire ancient village, weaving in and out around those who are not “in-the-know.” The secret is that only 400 tickets are given each day to climb Wayna Picchu, the steep mountain with carved stairs and terraces which overlooks the ruins of Machu Picchu below.
Above: Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in the clouds of early morning
Part of the mystery of Machu Picchu is the reason for the Inca departure. Many scholars report that since the Incas were superstitious, they believed the place became evil when a disease killed many of the villagers. Carbon dating of mummies later proved that many people died of the same disease within a year’s time. Another idea, proven by a large black mark on a stone wall, is that one of the holiest rooms was struck by lightning, urging the people to believe the gods were angry and wanted them out of this place. Because Machu Picchu is completely hidden from below, the Spanish never found it to loot the gold and treasures, as they did many other Incan civilizations. This rules out the fact that the Spanish could have driven the Incas out of Machu Picchu.
When the Incas left this masterpiece of a village, which they had built around 500 AD, the area became overgrown with jungle. In 1911, an American Professor named Hiram Bingham got word that there was a lost civilization at the top of “Old Mountain.” Upon arrival, a farming family led him on a tour of the ruins and Bingham then arranged for an excavation of the area, involving National Geographic and Yale University. It is often stated that Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu, even though the locals always knew it existed.
Above: Wayna Picchu Mountain in the background.
After trekkers are educated about the history of this mystical place and given a tour of sundials, holy rooms and terraces, they hike up three-inch stone stairs and through tiny caves to the top of Wayna Picchu where they view Macchu Picchu as the Incas did: a true masterpiece and a grand finale to the Salkantay hike.
Above: View of Machu Picchu, Incan ruins, from the top of Wayna Picchu Mountain.
Stay tuned for the next South American adventure: Patagonia, Chile – packed with islands, glaciers, mountains and icebergs.