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Behind the scenes on the Great Inca Trail to Pariacaca

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Bringing tourists to the forgotten sections of the Great Inca Trail requires a lot of effort and planning. Go behind the scenes as our founder and the rest of the team prepare to open a new Inca Trail in the Andes of Peru.

Pilgrimage is innate to the human spirit, a transformation in both the physical and spiritual senses. In the Andean world of pre-Columbian South America, pilgrimage was fundamental in how cultures from the coast integrated and created alliances with the empires of the mountains. The last of these great pilgrimages of the Andean world happened between the great Inca citadel of Xauxa (during its imperial expansion in the late 1400s) and the temple of Pachacamac on the coast of Southern Peru. To link these two important temples and societies that spanned different ages and belief systems, the Inca built a monumental road that matched the massive economic and spiritual exchange between these two worlds.

Wildflowers along the Inca Road in Nor Yauyos Reserve
Antonia, one of last llameros of Tanta

Fast forward five centuries

It had been two and a half years since our expedition first team met Antonia (pictured above), one of the last remnants of this great exchange. Antonia makes a living as her ancestors did, moving products with her majestic llamas between the mountainous and coastal realms. Our first visit was at the beginning of our exploration of the Inca Road system known as the Qhapaq Ñan.

Our second visit would be all about building the operational know-how that is required to develop low impact and high-value community trekking along this important Inca trail and pilgrimage route. Between the great Apu (mountain deity) of Pariacaca (read more about it here) and Antonia’s community of Tanta we are working hard to ascribe economic value to the cultural heritage of the Inca road and the ancient and disappearing practice of using llamas as animals for exchange of goods (known locally as trueque). In this more modern scenario, we will be creating an exchange between travelers and locals.

Antonia's llamas
The team of twenty four llamas arriving to our lunch spot at Mesa Redonda

This most stunning section of Inca road that linked Xauxa and Pachacamac begins in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas national reserve, a day’s drive from Peru’s capital city of Lima. After reaching the trailhead at 15,600 feet, we drop 1,000 feet on a great Inca stairway (some say the greatest of all), before continuing along a road of paved Inca stones through a granite world of lakes that flow to and from waterfalls. Antonia’s llamas prance along the thoroughfare that they call home, descendants themselves of the llamas that fueled the Inca world 500 years before. Exhausted but exhilarated, we eventually make camp overlooking Lake Mullucocha under the shadows of nearly 20,000-foot peaks.

We begin our second day by traversing the shore of Lake Mullucocha before reaching the pampa of Rumishuntu and following the path to the old Inca tambo amongst herds of llamas and alpaca. Our early afternoon arrival gives some of us the time to do a spot of artisanal trout fishing and others the opportunity to simply bask in the Andean sun over tea time. From here we will continue by vehicle, roughly following the now disappeared Inca road to the village of San Juan de Tantaranche, where we will drop into the fertile Mala valley before reaching the coast at Lima after a full day’s drive.

Our quechua diplomat, camp support and shaman, Valentine
Silver and Nick walking down the great Inca Staircase at Pariacaca

Teaming up across geography and cultures

For the moment, however, our team is relishing in our reunion along the ancient road that unites us all. Flavio and Valentín, the backbone of our camp support along the greater Qhapaq Ñan, along with Silver, our guide and Inca road specialist, have come from Cusco to partner with Antonia and the llamas to provide an experience that matches the professional standards found along more trodden routes at the center of Peru’s trekking industry in and around Cusco. To develop high touch trekking that also brings value to the local community, we must blend the experience and expertise of our Cusco team with the deep knowledge of the region that Antonia and her llamas bring.

SA Expeditions is all about partnerships, a global organization that measures its success by the depth and quality of our network. Therefore, we’ve partnered with Apumayo Expeditions – a leading outfitter in Peruvian trekking for 25 years – joining forces to bring industry-leading equipment and logistics to a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders. Apumayo also serve as regional ambassadors for our project, allowing for our competitors and the industry at large to consider joining us in placing economic value on this important Inca trail through the development of sustainable tourism.

The Inca Trail as it curves down towards Lake Mulluacocha
Team relaxing after a picnic on the trail

As part of the meticulous pre-planning required to bring travelers in comfort and safety to this magical place, our Destination Expert and Inca road maestra Jenny Byrne has come along to understand the small nuances that she will eventually convey to her clients to ensure expectations are matched. All the human elements that go into developing long-term, sustainable tourism along this vulnerable and important section of Inca Road are here with us on the ground, living and planning the experience together.

Reconnecting the Qhapaq Ñan will require local and national governments, private industry and international institutions to reconceptualize what the road can become. And it will also require people like Antonia, Valentín, Flavio, Jenny, Silver, your author, and countless others who believe that the Inca Road can bring a brighter future to the Andes.

Flavio Paucar, the team cook
The SA Expeditions team, from left; Silver, Astrid, Jenny and Nick


About the Author: Nick co-founded SA Expeditions and currently serves as its Chief Explorer. Nick is a dreamer and a thinker; someone who will always wonder at what lies beyond. Originally from California and resident in Peru for a decade, he straddles two worlds. He has a BA in South America Studies from the University of California and a trans-global MBA from St. Mary’s College of California. Nick believes wholeheartedly that tourism has the potential to bring dignified income to the forgotten peoples of South America and the world.


Credit to Jenny Byrne (second from right) for the images used in this blog.

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