I could have found lots of reasons why I shouldn’t take up the offer to ride to Machu Picchu in Peru. The obvious one being the distance from home, but even as I composed my ‘how kind of you to offer me such a wonderful opportunity but unfortunately I will sadly have to decline’ email, a niggling doubt ate at the back of my mind. Yes, it was miles away, and I would be travelling alone but I had always wanted to visit Machu Picchu and the chance to visit the heart of The Inca Empire on horseback, could anyone have written me a better script? Just as the Spanish conquistadors must have felt all those years ago the lure of the Inca’s grew stronger, so, one rainy Monday night in England with the newspapers spilling over with news of worldwide economic disaster I opened my laptop and booked my ticket to a journey of a lifetime.
Six days later I flew Manchester-Amsterdam-Lima aboard a KLM jet and later that same night I arrived in Lima. A flower market dedicated to the cultivation of orchids was in full swing in the main square and I mingled with the locals as they vied to negotiate for sacks of rich soil, fertilisers and orchid plants. Maybe it was the effects of a 12 hour flight or maybe it was the heady aroma of orchids that made me feel quite giddy with excitement in this new and exotic city.
I was up early the next morning, not surprisingly due to the 6 hour time difference, and I was keen to explore the city a little more before my afternoon flight to Cusco (capital city of The Inca Empire). At this time of the morning the shops were still closed so I strolled down to the park which overlooks the Ocean and watched the early morning surfers attempting to dominate the unforgiving Pacific waves. A beautiful sculpture of lovers entwined is a popular venue for proposals in the city and the many plaques that surround it bear testimony to the happiness it has so obviously prompted. By lunchtime I found myself hurrying back to the hotel to pack up my belongings and to wave good bye to this colourful city. Later that day I was landing in Cusco and my long journey from England was looking more and more worth while! I was greeted by my hosts with the warmth and generosity of character that had become for me, to typify this wonderful country. As my bags were stowed securely in the minibus we exchanged greetings and headed off towards our evening destination.
The day starts early in Peru but this caused me no problem as my body was still firmly resisting the change to its internal clock. Today we were journeying to the ranch were the horses live close to the small town of Moyapata. After visiting the cosmopolitan city of Lima and then the cultural capital of Cusco, Moyapata represented for me what I had imagined the ‘real’ Peru to be. Simple houses, narrow streets and a crowded village square filled with inquisitive locals queuing to buy their breakfast from entrepreneurial villagers who arrived with large canteens full of hot food that they served at the roadside. Another forward thinking local had converted a room in his house into an internet café and as I sent my first emails home five young boys crowded around the computer next to mine playing enthusiastically on ‘Grand Theft Auto’…..is there no escape from internet games!
The stables were located along a bumpy track just outside of the town and here I met Ricardo the stable manager and his trusty assistant Arturo. They worked quickly and skilfully tacking up six horses in the time that it takes me to tack up one in England. The horses were mainly quarter horses all in good shape with glistening coats and a twinkle in their eye. We were skilfully allocated our steed for the next five days and I took some time to acquaint myself with Fulmini who was actually the only thoroughbred and whose mother had been successful on the race track in Lima before changing occupation to brood mare. Bearing this in mind and furnished with the further information that his name comes from the word fulminar which is roughly translated as ‘explosion from a gun’ I had the feeling that keeping up with the others was not going to be a problem for me!
The owner of the horses and of the lodges where we would be staying during our trip, was accompanying us throughout the ride and with his signal to proceed we set out on what was to be the most memorable journey I have ever made. Enrique, the owner, had had a vision for this expedition, as a keen skier he had often looked at the mountain lodges around the world and thought…..and why not in Peru? Today we rode north west towards the first mountain lodge and for the first time I began to look on the mountainous terrain in the same way as the Inca people must have gazed upon it 500 years ago. The tracks that we rode along were stony and rough but the horses made little of the rocks and boulders placing their hooves with exacting precision in just the right spot.
As we cantered along the mountain roadways, Enrique pointed out the old Inca irrigation channels which could clearly be seen cut into the mountain side on the opposite side of the valley. As the altitude increased my energy levels decreased, but the altitude had no such effect on Fulmini and as I became less and less effective in the saddle he gently took control, I could almost feel him raising an eyebrow and saying ‘another tourist!’ Just as I began to feel the first real effects of altitude sickness seeping into my body, thankfully the lodge came into view. Enrique’s vision was a reality, we had arrived at the Peruvian equivalent of an upmarket Colorado skiing lodge. Only the local staff, who were gathered outside to meet us, gave away our true destination. Like Fulmini, they too understood the needs of ‘rooky tourists’ and they greeted us with mugs of steaming ‘Mate de Coca’ a special tea prepared by the locals from coca leaves that is renowned for warding off the effects of high altitude. Ricardo and Arturo immediately slipped back into their well rehearsed professionalism and the reins of the horses were whisked away from the riders as we were ushered into our Inca Palace. The Lodge had been constructed with all the bespoke elegance that this period of history evokes, golden Inca masks adorned the walls and it was easy to let yourself become completely engulfed in this luxurious setting.
The following morning we rode out in the surrounding area of Soraypampa. Our aim was to visit the Humantay Lake which is fed by a glacier far above on the slopes of Humantay mountain. My horse appeared as fresh and as keen to set out as the day before and as we scrabbled up river beds climbing ever higher up the mountain I wondered what my horse at home in England would make of this adventure. The local’s scratch a meager living from these unforgiving slopes, the animals they own graze on the sparse vegetation, scrabbling up high on impossible slopes to reach every last piece of edible greenery. Their life is hard in the winter months but I couldn’t help but think that the freedom of their life here in the mountains was preferable to the regimented life of our farm animals back home. As we rode ever higher mules, donkeys, ponies and cows viewed us with languid eyes before continuing on their daily task of foraging.
The Inca’s considered glacial lakes to be the ‘eyes’ of the mountain and it was easy to understand why as I stood gazing upon the impossibly turquoise lake which appeared to be blinking at me from its mountain hideaway. To show respect to the mountain Gods the Inca’s would build apachetas (stone piles) and today walkers carry on with this tradition asking for safe passage as they trek high up in The Andes.
This evening we stayed in the same lodge to give us chance to acclimatize to the altitude, I was still drinking mate de coca tea as if it was going out of fashion and I hoped that there was no shortage of coca leaves in this region.
The following day we headed off for the second lodge in our quest to reach the enchanted city of Machu Picchu. High in the mountains the air was cold, the clouds wrapped themselves like white wool blankets across the mountain tops and today we were warned the temperatures would drop. We were riding across a mountain pass between two of the most sacred Inca Mountains, we could expect temperatures of minus five degrees including the wind chill factor. Our benevolent host, having taken pity on his poorly clad guests had given me a wonderful hand woven poncho the night before. The locals pride themselves on the quality of their textiles, all the colours are made from local plant extracts and I felt myself gradually slipping into the rhythm of mountain life as I pulled the poncho over my head.
The horses gradually climbed up along the narrow mountain tracks stepping effortlessly over fallen rocks and negotiating gaps in between boulders that would leave the average British goat quaking in its shoes. I learnt to trust my valiant thoroughbred, he knew more about these mountain pathways than me, so I accepted that my job was to sit as quietly and lightly as I could in his armchair saddle. As the rain began to fall, we all pulled on our waterproof capes and as I turned to take a photograph of the group it struck me that we could easily be taken for a set from The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo travels high into the mountains of Mordor to rid himself of the treacherous ring.
As we reached the highest point of the pass we paused to make an offering to the mountain god and as we cast our gift of coca leaves into the wind we each made our own personal wish. The guide explained that the stronger your belief then the more likely it was that your wish would be heard. I concentrated as hard as I could wishing that the peace of the mountains may be with me and with my loved ones forever. The horses seemed oblivious to the cold and as we headed down towards the second lodge they strode onwards with unfaltering steps. The lodge had sent the chef into the mountains to meet us, he had set up camp about 2 km from the lodge and a hot meal was awaiting us inside a cosy tent. As we ate a traditional Peruvian beef stew I giggled a bit as the rain beat down on the canvas it was a bit like a traditional British summer camping weekend in Wales.
The second lodge was my favourite, its theme being the religion and spiritualism of this region and as every day passed in my new mountain home I felt closer and closer to the tremendous force of nature that this environment exudes from every rock and plant.
The following day we were heading down the mountain again and as if by magic the harsh rocky scenery of the mountain pass changed into the cloud forest jungle. The temperatures soared, I was shedding layers of clothing with every step, orchids appeared on both sides of the track. I felt as if I had just changed continents. The owner of the lodges and horses, Enrique, is passionate about this area, through a scheme he has developed which is called Yanapana he plans to eradicate poverty in this area in the next 10 years. He employs only local people in the lodges, including the managers who are trained at his first lodge on the coast for up to three months. He encourages the local farmers to grow fresh produce for the lodges’ kitchens and he has a rota of employment for the local mule drivers. Twice a year a group of doctors and dentists from Lima and Cusco travel out to the remotest mountain villages to hold clinics with the families, some of which will never have seen a medic before.
Today we were visiting another of his projects, a small local school high in the mountains above the lodge where we would be staying that night. As the horses valiantly struggled to scramble up narrow rocky pathways, Enrique explained that many of the children walked this route everyday from the local villages, taking 2 hours each day to reach school and then a further two hours to return home in the afternoon. I thought about the X Box generation back home in Britain who can barely walk 5 minutes to the bus stop and wondered about how we could reach a ‘happy medium’. Eventually, just as I thought we would never reach the school I heard children’s voices drifting through the jungle high above my head. Around the next bend two smiling teachers appeared with a small group of pupils whom they were accompanying down to the river, we stopped to exchange news.
As we continued towards the school more excited children ran to greet us, they were so proud of their school that they wanted to accompany us and one or two of them hitched a ride on the back of our saddles. The school itself was a simple building but as I peered in the windows I could see the walls adorned with pupil’s work and knew that Enrique’s’ work had not been in vain.
That evening we stayed in a wonderful lodge perched high above the confluence of three rivers. The view was truly breath taking I almost had to pinch myself to believe that I could be surrounded by such dramatic beauty. That evening we dined on Pachamancha, a traditional dish cooked under the ground on hot stones.
The following day, I knew that my heart would be heavy, as this was our last day of riding. Our trail would end as the start on The Inca Trail upon which horses are banned. I was determined to make the most of my last few hours with Fulmini, I had developed such a strong bond with this valiant little thoroughbred and I sincerely hoped that he felt the same about me. As I climbed onto his back I could feel the warmth of his body through the saddle, it felt like home. We continued heading down the mountain following the river valley, as some points we dismounted and led our horses as the track narrowed. Eventually we reaches the small town of La Playa, as usual the whole village came out to greet us and I felt like a celebrity as I proudly rode along the narrow streets. As we left the town the road sloped up gently and the horses sprang forward into canter glad to have left the mountainous terrain and keen to stretch their legs! We raced along the broad pathways, our spirits soaring and out hearts racing in time to our horses’ hooves. As the path swooped to the right it was time to slow, we had reached the Inca Trail and now we finally had to bid farewell to our noble companions.
The following day we exchanged four legs for two as we hiked 900 metres uphill through the cloud forest to steal our first view across the valley of Machupicchu. The splendour of this scenery is something that will stay with me my whole life, words just cannot describe the unbelievable majesty of these mountains. After lunch we began our descent, we dropped over 1000 metres down to the river and then headed along the river bank towards a small train station where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machupicchu.
The next day was my birthday and it is certainly one that I will remember forever. What better gift than a visit to one of the world’s most splendid architectural and cultural sites. As I walked amongst the Incan Temples the tremendous energy of this remarkable site seeped into my bones and I felt my spirits soar as the condors soared in the skies above me.
As I flew home towards England the following evening I tried to put some order to my memories of the past 10 days. What would I hold closest to my heart? The breath taking mountain scenery, the beautiful orchid flowers of the cloud forest, the cascading water of the tremendous rivers or the spiritual majesty of Machupicchu……no, I’m afraid I have to stay true to my heart, for me it was the flaming chestnut coat and the gentle patient eyes of my handsome sure footed Fulmini who had nobly carried me on this journey of a lifetime. To do this ride yourself clik here.