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Sidestepping the Inca Trail

As we stood transfixed by the threads of sleet rushing towards us, three elderly women on mules emerged from a thick swirl of fog and snow. Dark and wiry, swaddled in thick manes of hair and skirts that rose red and thick over petticoats, they were small bright witches in the eerie shadows under Mt. Salkantay. The mules’ slow footsteps echoed against the mountains.

They slowed as they passed us, and grinned mysteriously. “Dangerous,” the first said, of our intent to sleep next to the half-frozen alpine lake. The middle rider shook the yellow tassels on her hat, nodding towards the tent. “Maybe you will die here,” she yelled back toward us in Spanish, as her wobbly mule trudged down to the glacial moraine.

Die here? We were only on Day Two.

In 2001, a directive from the Peruvian government began requiring hikers on the Inca Trail to travel with a guide service. Their reasoning was sound: to prevent further damage to a delicate ecological and historical region.

But we were romantics, and disenchanted by the thought of traveling through Peru with what we feared would be fifteen other tourists, all from Ohio and all named Betty and Frank. Also, we’d heard rumors that the Inca Trail was flush with other travelers-and their trash, especially their toilet paper. Thus, we’d chosen a route that traveled up a valley to the west of the Inca Trail, one of the few options for independent hiking into Machu Picchu. A four to five day hike from Mollepata (near Cuzco), the trail takes travelers past the small hamlet of Soray, over the Salkantay pass, through riverside hot springs, into the tropical citrus forests of Santa Theresa-and eventually to the famous stone temples of Machu Picchu.

By Day Two, we were already on the most difficult section of the hike: the ascent to the 15,580 foot Salkantay Pass. Behind us snuggled the tiny fairy-tale settlement of Soray, Peru, where thatched-straw stone huts, teetering piles of rocks, and tiny gardens peppered the landscape. Before us, the startling white backbend-arc of the Salkantay peak. And below it, the pass. Caught in the bubble of early-afternoon darkness and billowing ice crystals, we could see neither.

We had seen no other tourists on the route so far-and would only see one other group of travelers, from England, during the entire six days.

Nonetheless, we were in no way alone. The Peruvian backcountry is peopled by thousands of farmers and their families. Those same three women-it couldn’t have been them, could it?-haunted us throughout our journey.

They rode past us in the opposite direction, their mules packed to overfilling, as we woke at midnight to continue our climb to the pass. The evaporation of an insulating cloud layer had taken the temperature down another ten degrees, and the cold, clean air outside the tent met us like thin layers of ice that broke over our heads. Swathed in wool blankets, they nodded at us, unfazed.

Surrounded by flocks of yellow and green parrots, they were herding sheep as we dropped off the pass into “la ceja de la selva,”-the eyebrow of the jungle. They ducked shyly in among the trees and epiphytes when they saw us coming.

They snuck down the path from their small town and watched us as we crawled into the mineral hot springs at the confluence of the Rio Salkantay and Rio Santa Teresa, where the yellow dust lodged between our toes and under our nails and stayed there for days.

They fed us small oranges and avocados from their plantations, when we met them on the footpath, and recited their timestables for us in Spanish, up to the sevens. They led us across the set of train tracks tied with wire, laid over the river canyon, on the way into Santa Teresa. “Very dangerous,” the first woman called to us from halfway across the canyon, giggling at our hesitation. “Cuidado,” said the middle witch, as her foot broke through the rotting wooden slat laid across the tracks.

And when they led us into the middle of Santa Teresa and introduced us to the mayor, we should have suspected some trickery. And when the mayor, all skinny arms and legs and a bowling cap, bequeathed us permission to sleep on the futbol field at the school, perhaps we should have asked him if the town would be holding a festival for the Feast of the Virgin of Carmen in our bedroom. But we were not fooled when a tribe of children bearing a tuba, a melliphone, and forty-seven trumpets marched down the hill, surrounded our tent, and proceeded to play until the wee hours of the morning. And when they peppered us with questions, we answered them in the best Spanish we knew. “Amiga Katie: In your country how do people feel about George Bush, your president? Amiga Joe: in my country everyone is Catholic. What religion are people in your country? Amiga Joe: what does a watch cost in your country? Amiga Katie, what music do the people listen to in your country? Amiga Joe, have you heard this song?” (Yes: Michael Jackson; “Beat It”).

And when, early the next morning, the witches assured us we had only a two-hour walk until Aguas Calientes, the town below the Machu Picchu ruins, we should have known it would be dark before we reached any sign of civilization. And as they waved good-bye, giggling, we should have known the only way across the gorge would be via a thrilling cable slide rigged from rusting train tracks and a length of frayed cable.

But the edge of the gorge was as far as they would follow. There was no sign of them among the restaurant tauts hawking pizza and spaghetti in Aguas Calientes, no glimpse of their purple and yellow hats among the fog-shrouded ruins of Machu Picchu. Still, at the famed ruins, high above the river canyon, I stood for a while at the top, searching. Looking not at the ruins, but backwards and into the deep rocky chasm we’d traveled through to get here. Below me, I could just make out the footpath we’d followed along the river, snaking back out of the canyon, and into the jungle. And as I watched, the flock of green and yellow parrots that had traveled with us all the last day rose from the tree in a flurry of wings and beaks and flew downriver, maybe called by the spells of three mountain witches.

If you go: This hike can be found in Hilary Bradt’s Peru and Bolivia: The Bradt Trekking Guide, 8th edition, under “Salkantay Hikes.” Maps can be obtained through the South American Explorers Club ( To begin the hike, take a bus or taxi from Cuzco to Mollepata (3-4 hours). From Machu Picchu, both trains and buses make the return journey to Cuzco. Many adventure-travel tour operators now offer this route; ask about alternatives to the Inca Trail.

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