HORSETREK IN PERU
by Anna Bruce
Billed as soft adventure, Mountain Lodges of Peru’s nine-day “Lodge to Lodge” itinerary takes horse riders and hikers on a journey through ever-changing vistas of rugged mountains, lakes and glaciers, and wild rivers by day, while returning to world-class luxury resort accommodations each night. Our group found it a truly a magical mix of the best of wilderness adventure and civilized life.
We chose the equestrian vacation, featuring horses that have been trained to be outstanding riding companions. The historic but relatively untouched route along the old Inca trail through the Sacred Valley and over the Salkantay Pass avoids the usual tourist traps. On this route the expansiveness of nature creates a silent backdrop against which the rumbles of Peru’s history can still be distantly felt.
Days One and Two
Our first two days were spent sightseeing by bus — a clever ploy by the tour operator to help all members of the group to acclimatize to the high elevation while soaking up the endlessly fascinating history and culture of the area.
Arriving in the quaint cobbled streets of Cusco, the ancient Incan capital, we were immediately immersed in a carnival atmosphere, with cute kids ever hopeful that you’ll part with your Peruvian currency for a colorful handcrafted doll or other such item. But it was really the energy and charm of this historic city that was the chief attraction. A safe city, it’s a pleasure to wander through the main square among a mix of locals and tourists from all corners of the world.
Many pre-Incan and Incan archaeological sites are situated close by, while the influence of the Spanish, who took control of the country in the 1530s, is also inescapable, whether it’s the large Catholic cathedrals or the language spoken today. These two days created a delightful transition to the main adventure — the five-day horse-riding trip.
On the third day of the trip, everyone was high with anticipation for the coming adventure as we met the steeds who would be our partners on the five-day ride along the Sacred Valley. The quarter horses, originally from Uruguay and now part of the company’s breeding program, seemed skittish on first impression, but would prove to be very fit and confident riding companions.
The size of our group swelled to nearly 20 with mounted guides and a doctor as well as four assistants on foot. Our guides were very accommodating of all levels of riding experience — which in our group ranged from a four-star event rider to a lady who started weekly lessons at her local riding school four months earlier to prepare for the adventure. The horses and the support team would inspire great confidence in helping us negotiate a few rough spots on the trail.
Our first ride involved walking, trotting, cantering and galloping along rocky roads to reach the Soraypampa Lodge. A night of fine food, a dip in the Jacuzzi, star-gazing, and fabulously warm and comfortable accommodations amid good conversation at the Lodge all set the tone for each of the lodges on our itinerary. Each lodge is architecturally distinctive, is set in a superb location, employs well-trained locals, and is designed to exist synergistically with the environment.
Our second ride allowed for changes in steed where desired, but my new friend Wapa, a chestnut mare of 15hh or so, suited me fine, being less speedy than some. Like most horses on the trip, she had the confidence to pick her own way along rocky paths, and with the reassurance of a Western bridle (and the comfort of a synthetic endurance saddle), I came to trust her judgment.
As we approached 13,000 feet in elevation, altitude sickness gripped a couple of riders — but this second ride is optional, and they were permitted full recovery under the supervision of the doctor. The rest of us rode our steeds into the high mountains for some unforgettable sightseeing. We dismounted for a 30-minute hike to a stunning glacial lake, feeling snowflakes falling and hearing the distant rumble of an avalanche on the mountain peak behind us.
Still within our comfort zones as riders, the following day a five-hour ride across the Salkantay Pass, between the Salkantay and Humantay peaks at 15,310 feet, was to be a defining moment.
On leaving the Soraypampa Lodge, we left behind the ability to be reached by road; a team of twenty mules was now employed to carry our baggage and horse feed along with medical supplies. We crossed rivers and followed a narrow, winding path up the mountainside. Those at the head of the group appeared the size of butterflies above me, causing me to think for a moment that we might lose each other. The staggeringly beautiful scenery and the willing support of my horse Wapa gave me reassurance, however. And we soon encountered a tented camp, where we were offered a hot lunch while our horses grazed by a brook — a welcome respite before reaching our destination for the night, Collpapampa Lodge.
The following day we started a descent into the Cloud Forest, and so our fourth ride offered big changes in temperature, vegetation, and birdlife — and our first test of bravery. Fortunately, we were familiar now with our horses and trusting in our guides. Had we not had this superb support system, we all admitted that we would have bailed out had we encountered such a path at the beginning of our journey.
Actually the ride was largely a relaxing one. However, at one or two points the path was but a frayed thread on the edge of the mountain, with a 200-foot near-vertical drop to the raging river below and, at one point, low overhanging rocks forcing the rider to have to lean out a bit over this chasm. Fortunately, Wapa and the other horses ran the gauntlet well; there was, literally, no room for hesitation—from horse or rider.
Our final ride was no anticlimax either. We rode over winding narrow riverbank trails, crossed mere mud-and-stick bridges over thundering riverbeds, and finally reached a dirt road for a pipe-opening gallop that would have blasted our cares away but for the ever-present cliff edge.
Dismounting at the gates to Lucmabamba Lodge, I sensed achievement at reaching our final lodge, proud of my steed, Wapa, respectful of the mental and physical toughness of the horse, and wondering just what “hard” adventure must entail.
Arriving at the sublime, sacred ruins of Machu Picchu the following day, the history lessons we learned around Cusco and on our journey came to life and with it a deep, almost visceral understanding of the Inca culture. Survival in this intensely beautiful but remote and forbidding landscape was certainly no mean feat. Indeed, it is (or was) so remote it was apparently never found — and therefore not plundered — by the invading Conquistadors (although it was abandoned by 1572), and was only brought to international attention in 1911. To this day, many theories abound as to the true purpose of this site. What we do know is that it is the site of extraordinary sacred relics, including the Temple of the Sun. Experiencing it today, it is a site of immense power, and yet it seems incredible that a civilization so different from any on Earth today thrived here just 450 years ago.
On our final day we returned by train and bus to Cusco for a restful sleep, ready to return home, concluding that this was an exhilarating journey — not for the faint-hearted, but a trip to be savored for a lifetime.
Riding the old Inca trail provided our party with a unique impression of the land, history, and culture of Peru, and it was an honor to do so with Mountain
Lodges of Peru, a company of such great social and environmental credentials.
FOR MORE INFORMATION contact Mountain Lodges of Peru at + 51 1 421 6952 or in the U.S. at (510) 525-8846, or via e-mail at email@example.com. Visit their website at www.mountainlodgesofperu.com.
Equestrian Trekking in Peru — Tips
• A strong sunblock, excellent shoes, waterproof gear, headgear, layered clothing (including warm jackets for evenings), and bug spray are mandatory. Do not underestimate the possibility of sunburn and skin damage at these high altitudes if your skin is unprotected.
• High altitudes require acclimatization and may not be advisable for everyone; check with your physician. Also, remember that temperatures are dramatically colder at these elevations.
• If you are taking the equestrian package (or any horse-riding adventure) and are a novice, take lessons from a good riding school and get comfortable with serious horse riding well before departing.