Why do most tourists visiting Peru flock to Machu Picchu? In short, as well as the spectacular setting amongst the cloud forest mountains, Machu Picchu offers one of the best insights into the Inca way of life and their archaeology. Sixty percent or Machu Picchu’s foundations and supporting architecture laid underground when it was re-discovered by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. But with growing tourism numbers and airport expansion in Peru, what are the alternatives?
Sacred Valley & Lares Trek
Synonymous with Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail but there are many other less-trodden trails and regions to discover Peru’s rich history. There are 350,000 km of pre-hispanic trails crossing the Andes stretching from Colombia towards Chile. Trails were an essential form of communication throughout the Inca Empire and today the network is recognised and protected for its contribution to our global heritage. As an alternative the Inca Trail, choosing to hike the Lares Trek across the Sacred Valley, it’s not unusual to be joined by locals on the mountainside and not see another tourist for days!
Cusco (derived from the Quechan word qosqo, meaning naval or centre of the universe) is the arrival hub for most tourists. Cusco was the most important part of the Inca Empire, which lasted just 100 years until the arrival of the Spanish. Today, the influence of the Spanish Conquistadors, attracted by mining, can be seen along the magnificent Salkantay Trek where less traditional clothing and the use of horses can be found. In comparison, visiting the mountain communities of the Sacred Valley along the Lares Trek you can experience traditional practices that are a common part of Andean life, using techniques dating back to pre-Inca times. Flowers, stones, roots, and even parasitic cactus worms continue to be used to create colour dyes and natural soaps for washing alpaca wool. Textile designs are specific to each mountain valley community, learnt and passed on through generations to symbolise their local flora, fauna, and landscapes. Those fortunate enough will be able to join a ceremony to bless Mother Earth, locally known as Pachamama, to give health to the land, crops and animals. It is thought that the Sacred Valley represents the Milky Way and aligned with sun and star patterns to correspond with the summer and winter solstice, necessary for knowing planting and harvest seasons.
Chachapoyas & Kuelap
Travelling deeper into Peru, you will discover a story that reaches far beyond the Incas. In fact, Peru had 90 other ancient civilisations before the Incas, including the Chachpoyas and Chavin, dating back to 3000 BC. The Kingdom of the Clouds, in Amazonas, was home to the Chachapoyas who were physically paler, taller, and even blond-haired. The spectacular mountains of Amazonas are dotted with their tombs and sarcophagi, filled with their mummified ancestors, and continue to be discovered even today. Simply unmissable for any Indiana Jones spirited explorer!
The Chachapoyas civilisation, which formed an alliance with both the Spanish and the Incas, had a population of 300,000 at its peak, constructing one of South America’s most sacred pilgrimage sites, the stone citadel of Kuelap. The fusion between Inca and older Peruvian civilisations can be seen throughout Peru in symbolism used for clothing, art, music, and architecture.
Kuelep is the largest stone structure in the South America, a pre-Inca sacred walled fortress and cemetery, used for 1000 years. It was a site reserved for the most important people of the Chachapoyas society, with a population of 3500 at its peak in the late 15th century. Pilgrims provided offerings at Kuelap, including the bones of ancestors.
A quest through a forested canyon reminiscent of a lost world, along a five-hour return hike, you will discover Gocta Waterfall. Named after the call of a local endangered monkey, it falls from a mighty 2000 metres making it the world’s fifth largest waterfall! Only accessible from 2007 on foot, for centuries local communities feared to approach the sacred waterfall in belief of an evil mermaid and other creatures of legends. On your hike, you may spot some of the 150 bird species in the local jungle, including the national bird, the Cock of the Rock. A refreshing dip in the waterfall’s plunge pool is good medicine for any intrepid soul.
Amongst the wealth of historical culture and the thousands of archaeological sites yet to be unearthed, the Amazonas region offers great opportunities for world-class white water rafting and hiking. It is certainly an area we shall be returning to and keeping an eye on!
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