Climbing from the traditional Peruvian pilgrimage web site of Chavín, we cross fields of quinoa flowering purple in a final burst of power earlier than they’re harvested. There are bunches of maize hanging from the farmhouse rafters in shades of gold and crimson, and the small village plaza has vegetation that will not be misplaced in an English nation backyard: hibiscus, hollyhocks and astrantia.
After which we’re above the village and the tree line and are available to the Royal Highway of the Incas, the Capac Ñan, which stretches for an astonishing 1,500 miles from Ecuador to Bolivia – down the size of the Andes, and their empire.
It snakes forward of us by way of the mountains, stone-lined and as much as 10 metres broad. It’s an attractive prospect for the following 5 days, once we will stroll one of many best-preserved sections, usually at altitudes of over 4,000 metres.
Though I’ve recognized in regards to the Capac Ñan for many years, this is among the first alternatives I’ve needed to stroll a part of it. An enterprising American, Nick Stanziano, travelled most of it a number of years in the past (it took him over 4 months), and his firm, SA Expeditions, just lately began providing the primary industrial treks, on the part he thought was the best.
For whereas the Inca Path to Machu Picchu is well-known and well-travelled, till now few guests to Peru have had the possibility to do a supported trek alongside this most spectacular and historic of roads.
And it’s clever to have some help to undertake it. When you embark on a bit like this, there’s little assist accessible ought to something go incorrect: you’re, as they are saying in mountaineering circles, dedicated. I’m endeavor it with my sons, Owen and Leo, aged 22 and 19, which is a threat in itself, as they’re, after all, far fitter than me.

Ruined pre-incan temple at Chavin de Huantar. {Photograph}: Jesse Kraft/Alamy
Our five-day stroll started at Chavín de Huantar. This historic pilgrimage web site predates Machu Picchu by some 2,000 years and is commonly hailed because the “origin civilisation” for the Peruvian Andes. It’s a fascinating complicated of labyrinthine tunnels. We’re proven spherical by the archaeologist John Rick, who has been excavating on the web site for 25 years and has an infectious enthusiasm for its theatrical qualities.
The monks at Chavín would lead supplicant the Aristocracy into the tunnels after drugging them closely with a cocktail of mescaline and ayahuasca, a potent mixture. They might then play musical devices alongside passages specifically designed to distort the sound, and likewise used crafty shafts to mirror gentle from the floor. The end result would have been a sound and lightweight present to awe and impress – what John tells us was “a finely tuned psychoactive machine for convincing individuals of the ability and validity of Chavín”.
At round 3,000 metres, Chavín additionally allowed us some much-needed altitude acclimatisation earlier than we started on the actually excessive stuff. And now we’re again above floor and embarking on the Royal Inca Highway, blinking barely after our encounter with the subterranean, as the unique supplicants will need to have finished, however with out the hangover.

The pack llamas ascending an Inca Highway staircase. {Photograph}: Hugh Thomson
We’re trekking with llamas, simply because the Incas would have finished. This might sound sentimental on condition that mules can carry much more weight (70kg in contrast with a llama’s 25kg) however there are glorious causes for this: the affect of llamas on the street is way lower than that of heavy-footed mules. We’re, in any case, strolling on a monument.
Additionally, on this space of the Central Highlands, llamas are nonetheless used extensively as beasts of burden, an growing rarity in Peru. With their brightly colored tassels and woven bridles, our workforce of 10 llamas makes a wonderful sight as they stream forward of us.

A few of the most spectacular ruins on the way in which to Huanuco Pampa
However the actual star of the present is the Inca street itself. The engineering challenges offered by crossing passes increased than the Matterhorn had been excessive. However the primary freeway down the Andes was designed to be greater than a useful street; this was a press release of Inca energy to all of the shopper tribes that they had conquered and whose lands it crossed. Which is why the street is commonly so broad and appears to own the panorama with its swirls and curls.
Each time we come over a cross into a brand new valley, it presents some new trick or spectacle. One second we’re travelling excessive over the brown-grassed puna, with white cobblestones marking the kerbs like a touchdown strip; then we’re winding alongside a river canyon, with the street beside it constructed up like a causeway to keep away from flooding.
Essentially the most spectacular second comes on the third day, once we’re ascending from the small settlement of Ayash to the very best of the passes, at 4,380 metres. After we’ve climbed on a path lined with crimson cantuta flowers and buzzing with sapphire-winged hummingbirds, the street widens right into a broad stone staircase that wouldn’t have regarded misplaced in a Busby Berkeley musical. This was a wonderful extravagance that solely the Incas may afford: they made shopper tribes present the labour for such initiatives as tribute, in what was successfully a cashless society.

Farmer Juan Araujo taking part in his trumpet. {Photograph}: Hugh Thomson
That evening we camp beside the small farm owned by middle-aged couple Juan and Maximiliana. They present us a few of their 120 guinea pigs – they normally eat one each third day, Maximiliana tells me, to maintain the numbers regular – together with their sheep and horses. As we sit out underneath the celebs, Juan will get out his trumpet to play a number of riffs from his marching band days. As a result of we’re so excessive, the sky is startlingly clear, with the Milky Approach stretching away by way of the southern constellations and Mars as crimson as I’ve ever seen it.
Juan tells me they’ve 9 youngsters, all of whom have left residence to work in cities, however that he himself sees no have to journey. “I’ve my pigs, my sheep, my horses and my guinea pigs right here. Why ought to we need to stay anyplace else?”
Maximiliana reveals me a number of the textiles they weave from sheep’s wool on a loom underneath the eaves: ponchos dyed brown with walnut juice, but in addition extra brightly dyed artificial weavings. Western purists usually need to purchase Andean textiles made with pure dyes, however Maximiliana tells me that may get uninteresting – the Peruvian equal of everybody carrying Laura Ashley. She likes one thing with extra oomph, in vivid orange or pink.

A precipitous stretch of the Capac Nan
The custom of weaving runs deep within the Andes: as that they had no type of writing, textiles had been usually one of the simplest ways of expressing themselves. When the Spaniards underneath Francisco Pizarro took this street to overcome the nation – complaining about how excessive it was and the way unsuitable for his or her heavy armoured horses – the conquistadors had been bitterly upset that a lot of the storehouses alongside the way in which contained not gold, as that they had hoped, however weavings, thought of much more invaluable by the Incas.
Subsequent day, we come to Sacracocha, a highland lake with a wealth of hen life: puna ibis, stalking with their black legs throughout the water earlier than flying straight and true forward of us; and mountain caracara, circling us overhead, like small condors.
There are some lengthy days, with seven or eight hours of strolling. In addition to the llamas, now we have one small horse for any doable medical evacuation (the mountains are unsuitable for helicopters), a pleasant steed known as Trueño (Thunder). I experience him often, to the horror of my sons (“Dad, that is presupposed to be a strolling problem.” “No, it’s not – it’s presupposed to be a vacation.”)

Hugh Thomson on trusty horse Trueño.
There’s nothing like driving a small sure-footed Andean horse into the mountains with a herd of llamas round you – until it’s having a chilly beer once you attain your remaining vacation spot, which in our case was Huánuco Pampa, the most important of all of the storehouse complexes alongside the Nice Inca Highway. It’s an unlimited settlement with a central plaza measuring 550 metres by 350 (significantly larger than Crimson Sq.). On the coronary heart of the complicated is a good ushnu, a ceremonial platform the Incas used to indicate their dominance of an space. That is the biggest surviving one in Peru. An estimated 4,000 Inca troopers may very well be housed within the barracks close by to regulate rebellions.
The area people had ready a pachamanca, a scrumptious meal of baked pork, potatoes and beans, to welcome us as the primary of what they hope can be many travellers following this new trekking route. It definitely deserves to develop into a well-trodden one.

Quechua locals alongside the route of the Inca Royal Highway. {Photograph}: Hugh Thomson
Becoming a member of the million guests who go to Machu Picchu every year continues to be an ideal expertise. And, after all, it’s doable to do each in a fortnight, as we did, flying on afterwards to spend a number of days at Cusco and Machu Picchu. However to expertise historic Peru at its wildest, this trek from Chavín, the unique centre of Andean civilisation, to one of many nice Inca websites at Huánuco Pampa, is tough to beat. What higher solution to plug into Inca civilisation than to observe their footsteps alongside their Royal Highway, testimony to their facility for constructing at heights different civilisations would by no means dream of reaching.
• The trek alongside the Nice Inca Highway was offered by SA Expeditions and begins at £2,500pp based mostly on a six-person group minimal (different group sizes on utility), together with preliminary lodging in Lima, meals, tents, sleeping luggage and llamas however excluding flights. British Airways flies continuous from Gatwick to Lima from £600 return
On the lookout for a vacation with a distinction? Browse Guardian Holidays to discover a vary of implausible journeys
This text incorporates affiliate hyperlinks, which suggests we might earn a small fee if a reader clicks by way of and makes a purchase order. All our journalism is impartial and is under no circumstances influenced by any advertiser or industrial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate hyperlink, you settle for that third-party cookies can be set. Extra info.