Nature on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
In the tropical Andes, altitude is biological destiny, and small changes in the former produce radical transformations in the latter. The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu starts in arid cactus-and-agave valley-floor habitat on the approaches to Km. 88, at 2,600m; it ascends the farmed and lusher “Cusichaca” side valley, then climbs steeply through the enchanted polylepis woodlands of the humid “Llullucha” streambed, encountering a brief belt of Andean dwarf forest before flattening out onto the treeless “Puna” grasslands of “Llulluchapampa” , at around 3,600m.Then, more climbing, through ever sparser vegetation, to the first pass at 4,200m. On down to the “Pacamayo” valley, where there is a denser “polylepis” woodland, then, after more “Puna” grassland and the second pass, the hiker reaches the rolling stretches of the trail that border the fringes of the high altitude cloud forest, at 3,400m. a zone of nocturnal fogs, made temperate by increasing proximity to warm air rising from the Amazon lowlands. After “Phuyupatamarca”, the seemingly endless descent to “Wiñay Wayna” and then Machu Picchu takes you through ever-changing layers of cloud forest, finally reaching zones rich in tree ferns, in the last stretch before “lntipunku”.
Scientists have recorded 374 bird species in the Sanctuary (nearly 5% of all known species), most of which may be seen along the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. “Patallaqta”, the “Llullucha” valley, and the stretch between “Sayacmarca” and “Phuyupatamarca” are particularly rich in bird life (though you have to look for them in the woods, and use binoculars they do not usually fly in your face). The high altitude grasslands are excellent for viewing Andean raptors, like the Black-chested buzzard eagle, the mountain caracara and the “aplomado” falcon. Condors are rare, but sometimes seen.
Ground animals are rare, too, though white-tailed deer are not uncommon. The barrel-chested Andean deer (taruca), is much rarer. Vizcacha , the rabbit-sized Andean rodent, may sometimes be seen leaping around areas of jumbled rock fall-near the waterfalls in the upper “Pacamayo”, for example-while the jewel in the crown of wildlife sightings along the trail is the Andean bear-a highly endangered cloud-forest species, whose continued survival l in the Sanctuary is in doubt.
Plant aficionados will find bewildering variety-some 250 species of orchid have been identified in the Sanctuary, along with countless bromeliads, begonias, mosses, ferns, and others, too numerous to list. Orchid specialist Benjamín Callantes found 59 species of orchid, including ten new to the Sanctuary and three new to science, while simply walking along the banks of the Urubamba River from Km. 88 to Km. 104.