Off the Beaten Track in Peru: Adventure meets Culture with Trek Hoppers

Kristi from Terra Incognita went on a six-day trip with new operator Trek Hoppers in December 2018. Here’s what she discovered off the beaten track in Peru.

I closed my mouth only to have it fall open again. Machu Picchu was suddenly visible from across a valley, and it was neither cliché or tourist-laden as I’d expected. It looked like a granite crown growing out of the mountain itself, wrought by forces that didn’t seem human, its rough points emblazoned gold-yellow in the afternoon sun.

Matt Waugh, our guide, had spent the last three hours of our hike downplaying the view from the mountain lodge where we would spend the night (“just in case it was cloudy”) so I was properly flabbergasted.

Machu Picchu (centre-right) from Llaqtapata. Credit: Kristi Foster/Terra Incognita

We’d crested a ridge between Lucmabamba and Llaqtapata, northeast of Cusco, Peru, and were welcoming a shift in atmosphere from hot, exposed mountain shrub to lush, orchid-laden cloud forest. We just emerged into a small clearing of archeological ruins and could suddenly see straight across a dramatic, deep valley to even higher mountains on the far side.

And there, riding a saddle between peaks – almost invisible to the naked eye – was the ceremonial Inca citadel, Machu Picchu, basking regally in the late-afternoon sunshine, as if no civilisation past or present could touch it.

The (almost tourist-free!) classic photo. Credit: Kristi Foster/Terra Incognita

I’d spent the past two years in Peru avoiding Machu Picchu, having written it off as an over-crowded, over-priced tourism magnet, only to find myself absolutely captivated by it from 20 kilometres away. How had a civilisation built something up there, 400 metres off the valley floor, fortressed amidst 25 mountains?

But Machu Picchu didn’t even make the top moment of our trip.

Trek Hopping

We were on day four of a six-day trek with Trek Hoppers, a new company doing something very unique in Peru’s Sacred Valley: replacing packaged tours with off-the-beaten-track treks, local homestays and cultural exchange.

Exploring Peru with Trek Hoppers

Kristi from Terra Incognita chats with Matt of Trek Hoppers Peru during a six-day off-the-beaten-track trek near Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Posted by Terra Incognita on Monday, 4 February 2019

We’d started our journey by local bus, before winding our way through the Sacred Valley on foot via a series of hidden routes, arriving each night to be greeted by a different homestay family. In addition to benefitting local communities and offering cultural exchange, this gives trekkers the flexibility to join different sections of a trip.

Alpacas grazing by a lagoon near Amaru. Credit: Kristi Foster/Terra Incognita.

We spend our first night in the small community of Amaru, where hosts Elojidio and Rufina showed us how locals farm at 3,700 metres and higher. Chemical-free crops including wheat, barley, peas, quinoa, maiz (for flour, soups, snacks and the popular drink chicha morada) and tarwi, a nutritious bean that can take weeks to process, tolerate different conditions all the way from Ijirio’s house to the top of the mountain at 4,600 metres – where only potatoes can cling to life.

We learnt that Amaru, home to fewer than 200 hundred families, cultivates 430 varieties of potato. Together with surrounding communities they cultivate a staggering 1,300 varieties, including chuño and moraya, both freeze-dried so they can be stored for 8-10 years.

Crops cultivated in the community of Amaru. Credit: Kristi Foster/Terra Incognita.

Still puzzling over what happened to all these potato varieties in more ‘affluent’ parts of the world, we hiked for six hours that day, exploring a series of high-altitude lagoons, then climbing from the Sacred Valley up to the ruins of Chinchero, arriving just in the light of sunset.

Rethinking quality

On our second night we stayed with Pascual, a ceramic painter, and Fortunada, a weaver trained by her grandmother. Fortunada purchases and washes wool using a soap-like root, then uses different plants – including maize, dried flowers and lichen – as dyes. Most impressively, when ground and combined with water, limón and salt, the cochineal insect – a parasite that lives on cacti – can produce 24 different tones of red. In total, it takes Fortunada 25-30 days to make a single hat or centrepiece, which she sells for about 180 soles (£40 or US$60).

A centrepiece takes shape. Fortunada says that each piece she makes is unique, based on patterns she creates in her head. Credit: Finn Battersby.

Speaking with Fortunada and Pascual reminded me that quality encompasses everything from sourcing and processing to time and knowledge – things we see little of in today’s over-simplified, mass-produced (and sometimes even ethically-questionable) supermarket shelves.

Community tourism

At 2,100 metres, our last ‘farmstay’ in Lucmabamba was in the semi-jungle, so in place of Andean grains and wools, hosts Victoria and Sonia prepared fresh pineapple, papaya and avocado, and taught us about local coffee production.

Victoria, one of about 20 members of the Asociación Turismo Comunitario Flor de Café, which helps give local women financial independence, let us try our hand at processing coffee (it’s harder than it looks – I burnt my beans!) According to her, tourism has helped encourage locals to plant and showcase native tree species for shade, including species that provide fruit for Peru’s national bird, the Andean cock of the rock.

One of three varieties of café beans produced in Lucmabamba. Credit: Kristi Foster/Terra Incognita

Tourism is more financially beneficial than coffee production in Lucmabamba, and with just 20-30 visitors per month, Victoria says that all women in the association could benefit.

Small steps towards sustainability

Matt Waugh has been leading groups in Peru since 2006 and built up an immense knowledge of local routes and customs before launching Trek Hoppers, which focuses on exploration, not tours.

Having lived in Peru for the past two years myself, I was still learning new things throughout the trip. We were having long conversations with local people every day (rather than rehearsed explanations with any two-way exchange) and could ask unlimited questions about local life – from farming and weaving to women’s rights and politics.

Unlike most tour operators in Peru, who still provide bottled water – or guilt tourists into purchasing it to support poor local sellers – Matt insists on paying families for boiled water that his guests can carry with them in reusable containers. He hopes to make both tourists and locals more aware of simple changes they can make to shift away from an unsustainable status quo.

The Señor de Huanca pilgrimage. Credit: Finn Battersby.

Because Matt’s treks are customisable, if you let him know what you want, you can feasibly design a trek that involves little to no road transport or plastic packaging.

Better yet, for families who rely on highly variable crop production or sales in local markets, tourism can be a meaningful means of income – if tour operators like Trek Hoppers engage with them in respectful ways and encourage their guests to do the same.

With hosts Elojidio and Rufina and their family. Credit: Terra Incognita.

Is Peru on your travel list? Check out Trek Hoppers for a unique glimpse of Peru behind all its tourism.

Main image credit: Finn Battersby