This year hoards of travellers will make the trek to the top of Machu Pichu, the Inca civilisation’s iconic city. Built between 1432 and 1478 by the emperor Pachacuti, and sitting over 2400m above sea level, Machu Picchu is synonymous with a trip to South America. If you were to browse the Instagram of a friend who has visited Peru, you will probably see the famed terraces peeking through the clouds, the whole scene seemingly exuding serenity. As you look up from the bright glare of your screen and allow your gaze to wander around the office, lit by the harsh 9 a.m. glow of a Monday, you may dare to dream of visiting yourself some day. This is a tacit suggestion to consider somewhere else on the South American continent.
Machu Picchu and the accompanying trek you undertake beforehand really do showcase the best of Peru. In the space of five days, you will traverse a variety of ecosystems, from mountain sierra to rainforest. Peru’s ecosystem is one of the most diverse on earth, and the enormous variation is compact enough that you can traverse these different zones on foot. You will gaze upon glacial lakes and trek through sweltering rainforest. And I won’t lie to you; the view at the top is magnificent. You will awake at 3a.m, well before dawn and begin the hike to the top of the ‘old peak’. Slowly, the sun will disperse the mist, revealing the majesty and grandeur of the terraces. At last, the lonely Inca fortress would be revealed to you. All you need do is breathe and take in the silent majesty. So why you ask, am I recommending that you visit somewhere else?
The answer to this question lies at the end of your journey, in the ruins of Machu Picchu itself. Here the calm and silent majesty is shattered by the click of a digital camera. You are roughly jostled by an eager tourist with a disproportionately large sports bag. Another passes by with one of those strange man purses. It doesn’t inconvenience you but it does look rather stupid. An errant selfie stick narrowly misses your right eye. Jesus, would your travel insurance have covered that? Momentarily, the throng of people clears and you spy your chance, you move in front of the peak and drink the view in..
Only to have your toes trod on by a well meaning parent, trying in vain to arrange their family for a photo that will assume pride of place on their mantelpiece. They just want to create some memories, but you can’t help resenting them all the same.
“Shift a little to the right, Jeffrey”.
Maybe Jeffrey doesn’t want to; maybe he just wants to enjoy the view in peace.
Over 1.2 million people every year will visit Machu Picchu. While its beauty is utterly deserving of this popularity, it makes the idealised idea of a lone pilgrimage virtually impossible. Furthermore, due to the extremely high amount of tourist traffic, the site itself is in jeopardy. Landslides are more common, and the decay of the ruins proliferates thanks to the incessant footfalls of those eager to explore the site. In 2006, the Peruvian government had to take steps to ban helicopters landing on the site. There are even rumours that Machu Picchu will soon be designated a no go zone for tourists. If you are reading this and grabbing your passport in alarm, fear not. The Inca’s were not the only civilisation in America to build a city hidden in the clouds. Not by a long shot.
If you value a more secluded trek, which culminates in another set of gorgeous ruins, then I suggest directing your attention North, towards Colombia. Nestled in the North, is the sleepy port town of Santa Marta. The town itself has lovely beach views and cheap diving, but its main draw is its proximity to a variety of treks and excursions into Colombia’s much vaunted areas of natural beauty. One of these is La Ciudad Perdida, or ‘The lost city. This site can only be accessed by undertaking a six day round trek through surroundings of exquisite beauty. Like Machu Picchu, much of this will be through rainforest. This, however, is where many of the similarities between the two experiences end.
Members of indigenous tribes, such as the Aruahco re-discovered The Lost City before archaeologists and tourist companies did. They kept it quiet until 1972, when it was stumbled upon by treasure hunters. In 1976, it was reconstructed and measures were taken to preserve a site the indigenous community still retain a connection to. Consequently, an emphasis is placed upon sustainable tourism and the preservation of a site still considered sacred. As you move through vibrant rainforest, in between the unobtrusive way-stations where you will spend the night, you will see no one except the three small groups permitted each day and members of the indigenous tribes, clad entirely in white. With the numbers of tourists reduced, you start to become more immersed in your surroundings. Along the route are numerous pools which you can throw yourself into, to relieve yourself of the oppressive heat of the rainforest.
As you stagger up the gruelling twelve hundred steps that tantalisingly mark the end of your journey, the end result of your sweaty toil unquestionably justifies your efforts. One hundred and sixty nine beautifully preserved terraces stand amidst the verdant jungle. These ruins were formally the home of the Tairona civilisation and were built over in around AD 800. Your only company, aside from your tour group is a small military base, tucked away where a few soldiers lounge. A trek La Ciudad Perdida will grant you the opportunity to observe the natural beauty of an archaeological site nestled in the jungle, without the frenetic buzz of numerous other tour groups. The scenery along the way is more untouched, giving you the sense that you are merely passing through nature rather than altering and shaping it by your presence, something which is invaluable if you priorities a more sustainable form of tourism. Costing a mere $250, in a country which is enjoying an unprecedented period of tranquillity, ditch Machu Picchu if you want a more secluded, authentic experience.