“Keep to the mountainside!” shouted Guido. I soon saw why. A landslide had taken away some of the dirt trail. To my right was a drop of hundreds of metres. I didn’t dare look down; praying we wouldn’t meet a mule-train coming in the opposite direction, I focused on the view through Guapa’s pricked ears instead. She didn’t hesitate but calmly walked on. Day four of the Salkantay Trek by horseback, and I had expected the going to be easy. It was the previous day that should have been the big one, crossing a notorious 4,600m pass. I was obviously going to have a few more heart-stopping moments before I got to relax with a pisco sour at the comfortable lodge that awaited.
All the pretty horses – The Salkantay Trek has become known as the alternative Inca Trail’ Higher and longer, it lacks the Inca ruins that the ‘Classic’ trail is known for, but it has jaw-dropping scenery, crosses 15 ecosystems and isn’t as busy, especially out of high season. One enterprising company, Mountain Lodges of Peru, has built four exclusive lodges along the route for its clients, and offers a monthly opportunity to tackle the trail by horseback. We were a mixed group of Brits, Brazilians and Americans. The two Brazilians “could ride before they could walk”; at the other extreme, one American lady had been riding less than a year, having learned the basics on YouTube.
We would be guided by Guido, and accompanied by horseman Ricardo, a couple of assistants and a doctor. We met the horses just outside the village of Mollepata, the starting point for the trail. They were a handsome bunch, quarter horses from Uruguay, but a couple of them were looking decidedly lively. “I want a gentle one,” I quickly stated. I was allocated a calm chestnut mare called Guapa – meaning ‘pretty one’. We stuffed the capacious saddlebags with rain ponchos, sun-block and our cameras. They were tied on, and we mounted onto comfy Uruguayan saddles and set off up a switchback dirt road, the horses keen to be off.
The Apurimac River was gushing on our right, and we spotted the occasional waterfall across the river valley. Lupins and other colourful flowers bordered the road, and a raucous flock of parrots chattered. For most of the ride we had brilliant sunshine, though one downpour provided a comedy moment as we attempted to clamber into our rain ponchos while on horseback. We carried on alongside an ancient Inca aqueduct that still carries water to the communities further down.
The rain eased as we approached Salkantay Lodge, set on a large grassy plateau known as Soraypampa. Dominating the scene were the hulking shapes of two mountains: Salkantay and Humantay. Sitting directly due south of Machu Picchu, Salkantay was the second most sacred mountain in the Inca world. Mountains offered the Incas a connection with their gods; they each had their own powerful spirit, and offerings and sacrifices were made to them.
Charming good luck – We were to spend two nights at Soraypampa to give us a chance to acclimatise. I woke to the sound of birdsong and to tassel-eared llamas sauntering past my window. After breakfast, we mounted the horses and went a short distance along the trail before turning off up a hillside, passing cultivated patches and fruit trees, including the banana passionfruit, which is traditionally used in ceviche. A narrow track led up a mountain, with steep drops to the side. We left the lush vegetation behind, passing giant cacti instead. The path then led out into a valley, where cattle, horses and mules grazed, pairs of Andean geese stood and a condor soared high overhead.
We tied the horses up, and hiked up the mountain to a beautiful glassy-green lake, where caracaras scavenged along the shoreline. In front of us was Humantay, largely obscured by cloud. “When the peak is clear like it is today, but you have clouds below, the locals say that the mountain has its poncho on,” revealed Guido. The scene felt so remote that it was startling when a small traditionally dressed man casually arrived. He was a shaman, here to perform a good luck ceremony for our journey.