Francesca Ginnett shares a day by day account of trekking the Ancascocha trail, one of the little known alternative treks to Machu Picchu. Francesca, an Apus Peru Travel Consultant during 2011 and 2012, hiked the 5 Day Ancascocha trek in February. She wrote this excellent account of her experience. Thanks Francesca!
Day 1: Starting out on the Ancascocha Trail
We set off very early this morning, around 5am. Although I talked a little to my fellow passengers in the car my eyes kept closing and I eventually drifted off back to sleep. When I awoke the landscape had changed dramatically. From the stone city of Cusco, we emerged into to a verdant, almost jungle-like landscape. The mist was rolling in from all directions muffling the noise around us and hiding the road behind us. We arrived at the trailhead and all piled out of the car. Even though the rain was coming down, everyone was in high spirits. We donned our ponchos and laughed about the sight we made: six rainbow coloured rain ponchos against the grey-green backdrop. We certainly stood out!
Our first two hours of walking were breathtaking. The sun went in and out making the landscape gleam, and the mist curled around Salkantay mountain revealing its white peaks and jagged edges.
Salkantay is another great Inca Trail alternative! Read more about the 5 day Salkantay trek.
Then came the hard part. We started to ascend the mountain side and very soon all felt the effects of the altitude. I tried all the tricks I knew to take my mind off it – chewing sweets, playing games, thinking about my favourite things – but I can’t deny that it was tough to keep going. The mountain played the game of making you think you had reached the top only to reveal another ridge! The rain beat down hard as we finally crossed the stream leading to our campsite. Our tents were nestled in the thick snow and we all ran towards them. The dining tent was so warm and filled with the smell of cooking food – heaven! After a much-needed hot meal and endless cups of cocoa we all climbed into our sleeping bags. We fell asleep to the sound of avalanches from the adjacent mountain – not exactly a comforting lullaby!
Day 2 Hiking the Ancascocha Trail
After consulting with our guide it was decided to change our route. It being February, we knew there would be rain, but the volume of snow on the trail was unexpected and would make it dangerous to carry on down our original path.
Trekking during rainy season in Peru carries certain risks, though it can also be very rewarding. Read more about Wet Season Trekking on our Best Time to Hike in Peru page.
At breakfast we all talked about yesterday. None of us could remember a time we had been so physically tested. Although at the time we weren’t exactly enjoying the experience, it didn’t compare to how proud we felt today. Looking down at the mountain we had climbed and knowing we had overcome it, truthfully I think it’s something I will remember forever. There was another stiff climb up to the pass (5,000 metres!) ahead of us before we could rest again. When we finally made it and looked down on the valley below, we felt like we were on top of the world. Naturally, we made a snowman with our guide.
The Ancascocha Trail provides ever-changing natural scenery
We then carefully descended the slippery cliff side, following the adjacent glacier into the rocky valley below. We passed from the moon-like valley onto a river bed and then into a wetlands area filled with small streams, abundant plant-life and imposing mountains on either side. It struck me that so far on our trek we had seen valleys, mountains, streams, rivers, snowfields, wetlands and arid landscapes in only two days. Our guide stopped to explain the vegetation around us and to tell stories of life in the valley, including being aware of the wild cows. As I am from England where cows are about as dangerous as dandelions I found this very funny.
We stopped for lunch on the plains and then headed off again. I began to feel extremely grateful to the cook. The weather was chilly and wet and the generous hot meals were a real morale-boosting point to the day, as well as a welcome break to rest and chat about our trek with the other passengers. We arrived at our stunning campsite around 5pm and the atmosphere was very different than yesterday. We all felt elated after our trek and the sights we had seen. The sun was out and although we felt tired, we weren’t totally exhausted. We had energy to play games, take photos and take a quick (but much needed!) wash in the stream running alongside our tents.
Day 3 – More than half way!
We woke up to an ominous start to the day. The rain which had been falling steadily all night showed no signs of stopping. We piled on the waterproofs (including the much abused ponchos) and headed off. There was a dramatic moment early on when we were crossing the river. All the passengers crossed safely enough but one of the mules stumbled and fell into the river. Our cook instantly jumped in after the mule and swam to catch him but it was twenty minutes or so before they were both pulled out safely by the villagers who had run to help out. The poor mule was relieved of his bags and Herbert our chef was dried off and given new clothes to put on.
As we walked the sun came out. We were once again able to admire the beautiful mountains, which wrapped around the valley like a great hand, and to dry off our sodden clothes. When we stopped for lunch we found a nearby shop and bought Herbert and the porters a few beers congratulate them for their bravery. The mule got a treat too in the form of sugar lumps.
Another day, another detour: We join the Inca Trail!
Today we were able to enter the ruins of an old Inca home and observe how perfectly the building was situated in its environment. Even the stone used to build it matched the surrounding mountains! There were amazing views from each side of the house. As we walked further our guide told us that, due to the poor weather conditions on this part of the Ancascocha trail, we would have to take another detour. Our route would now take us through the Inca Trail. Although the Inca Trail is technically closed trekkers in February, they were able to make an exception for us for safety reasons. We all felt unbelievably lucky to be able to walk this legendary trail. I am leaving Peru in just under two weeks so I never thought I would get to follow in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham trekking to Machu Picchu!
As we start on the trail I can see why it is closed off in February: the rain has made the path extremely muddy and the river dangerously high. Although we are in no danger, the conditions are certainly not conducive to hundreds of trekkers. This part of the trek is markedly different from the Ancascocha trail. There is a set path, people living nearby and jungle-like surroundings including startlingly large plants and cactuses. As we reach our final campsite we are already hashing out our favourite parts of the trek and laughing about the low points over a few beers. Our porters join us and the evening passes with good friends, good food and the promise of new things to discover tomorrow.
Day 4 – Inching closer to Machu Picchu
We hike further along the Inca Trail today and start to see more signs of civilization: amazing ruins and structures built into the cliffs; hordes of parakeets and tiny hummingbirds flitting around flower patches. The train tracks leading to Machu Picchu curve around the mountain on the other side of the river, and we wave to the brave backpackers making the long journey to Aguas Calientes along them. Our guide shows us cochineal beetles hiding amongst the cactuses and we all paint our faces with their red dye. This includes chasing one trekker down the road and working as a team to hold him down and paint whiskers on his face.
The sun is out again today, and the mood is playful. There is no need to conserve energy now or worry about dirtying our clothes or bodies. We trip happily along the path, investigating every strange plant and paw print and peppering our guide with endless questions. As we reach Km 82 – the end of our Ancasocha trek and the beginning of the Inca Trail – we feel triumphant. Triumphant to have completed our trek. Triumphant to have experienced the highs and the lows. And triumphant to have done it together.
Saying our Goodbyes
That day there were a few rockfalls along the train tracks and the Inca Trail so we scurry along the final 100 metres of the trail and over the bridge to the village built around Km 82. This truly is the end of our trek as we are surrounded by people and buildings. We wave goodbye to our porters (and the unlucky mule) and settle down for a final meal together. It feels very strange to spend 24 hours with 5 people for 4 days and then to face the prospect that you may never see them again (apart from through Facebook!). Our bodies were realizing that they could rest so I am afraid both myself and the other female passenger fell asleep at the table. Luckily we awoke as the food was being served!
Finally we drove to the train station where 3 of our crew would go with our guide to visit Machu Picchu. I had already visited the site so I decided not to accompany them. We said a swift goodbye, promised to email photos, and waved them off. So now we are on our way back to Cusco. I feel both happy at the expectation of a hot shower and a warm bed but also sad to have completed this experience. I won’t wake up tomorrow, exit my tent to see the green mountains and know that today I will see something amazing. But that’s what every day on the Ancascocha trail is like.
This post was originally published on 16 March 2012, and updated on 22 December 2019.