Beyond Machu Picchu

The lower reaches of the Río Urubamba beyond Machu Picchu are the gateway to regions that are very different from the highlands of Cuzco, yet intimately linked to it by history. The most important town is Quillabamba, from where you can set out to the mysterious last stronghold of the Incas, Vilcabamba, or to the Pongo de Mainique, frequently described as one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Ins and outs

As no trains run beyond Aguas Calientes, the only route to Quillabamba is by road from Cuzco via Ollantaytambo. Beyond here, there are buses to Ivochote, for boats down river, and to Huancacalle for the hike to Vilcabamba. After leaving Ollantaytambo, the road passes through Peña, a place of great beauty. Once out of
, the road climbs on endless zigzags, offering breathtaking views, to reach the
Abra Málaga Pass
, just below the beautiful glaciated peak of Verónica. The patches of
woodland here, with their endemic bird species, have become a prime site for birdwatching. At Chaullay, the road meets the old railway to Quillabamba, Machu Picchu and Cuzco and continues up the east bank of the river.

Quillabamba and around

La Ciudad de Eterno Verano
(The City of Eternal Summer), as it is known, was once a prosperous town from the sale of coffee. It has now become the overnighting spot for people going to Vilcabamba, Espíritu Pampa and the Pongo de Mainique. This delightful market town survives on the export of fruit, coffee, honey and other produce to Cuzco. The tourist season is from June to July, when Peruvian holidaymakers descend on the place. Although Quillabamba has plenty to offer, it's normally overlooked because of the incredibly bumpy, but beautiful ride to get there.

For the weary traveller one of the biggest attractions, about 1.5 km from Quillabamba, is
, a recreation area with an outdoor swimming pool, restaurant, volleyball and football field. As Sambaray is situated on the Río Alto Urubamba, you can also swim in the river, or, if you're feeling brave, tube down it. Ask locals for the best place to start, as the river can be quite rapid.
Siete Tinajas
(Seven Small Baths) is a beautiful waterfall some 45 minutes by combi from town. It is well worth the trip for the photos, although be careful when climbing to the top, as it can be very slippery.

Pongo de Mainique and beyond

Before the Río Urubamba enters the vast plain of the Amazon Basin it carves its way through one last wall of foothills and the result is spectacular. The Pongo de Mainique is a sheer rainforest canyon, hundreds of metres deep with the Urubamba surging through its centre and many small waterfalls tumbling in on either side. The Machiguenga people who live in the area believe this to be a portal to the afterlife. They are, however, very private people and do not take kindly to uninvited strangers; if you wish to visit them on their reserve take someone who has contact with them.

To get to the Pongo de Mainique, take a bus from Quillabamba's northern bus 'terminal' (a dusty outdoor affair with many food stalls and the occasional ticket booth) to
, via a new road into the jungle. The road can be in terrible condition in places. En route you'll pass
, a rapidly expanding jungle town. Ivochote is the end of the road, literally, but it develops a party atmosphere on Saturday, which is market day in the jungle. Due to the
Camisea Natural Gas Project
downriver, boat traffic is fairly intense.
(boats) head downstream early in the morning on most days during the dry season. In the wet season (roughly December to April) the river may be too dangerous to navigate, especially the rapids in the Pongo itself. Hiring a boat independently will cost you a lot more. To return upstream, prices are roughly one third higher, owing to the increased amount of gasoline required to motor against the current. Two to three hours downstream from the
de los Ugarte
, on the right-hand bank of the river, you pass the Machiguenga community of

Beyond the Pongo a day's boat travel will bring you to
, centre of the hugely controversial
Camisea Natural Gas Project
, and on to
itself. If you wish to stay here, you must ask the
of the community first. Another day downriver and you'll reach
, a largely indigenous village on the edge of the Alto Purus region. It has a few
and you can buy pretty much anything you need. Those with time and an adventurous spirit can continue downriver to
via Atalaya. To go all the way to Iquitos means, overall, a journey of 2500 km by boat, an incredible opportunity to see the Peruvian jungle.

Huancacalle and around

, the historic
Choquechaca Bridge
, built on Inca foundations, allows drivers to cross the river to Huancacalle, a two-street village (no restaurants, but a few
shops) between four and seven hours from Quillabamba. Huancacalle is the best base for exploring the nearby Inca ruins of Vitcos and is the starting point for the trek to Espíritu Pampa. At
, is the palace of the last four Inca rulers from 1536 to 1572, and
Yurac Rumi
, the sacred White Rock of the Incas (also referred to as
). The White Rock, once the most sacred site in South America, is large (8 m high and 20 m wide), with intricate and elaborate carvings. Lichens now cover its whiteness.

You can also hike up to
Vilcabamba La Nueva
from Huancacalle. It's a three-hour walk through beautiful countryside with Inca ruins dotted around. There is a missionary building run by Italians, with electricity and running water, where you may be able to spend the night.

Huancacalle to Espíritu Pampa

In 1536, three years after the fall of the Inca Empire to the Spanish
, Manco Inca led a rebellion against the conquerors. Retiring from Cuzco when Spanish reinforcements arrived, Manco and his followers fell back to the remote triangle of Vilcabamba, where they maintained the Inca traditions, religion and government outside the reach of the Spanish authorities. Centuries after the eventual Spanish crushing of Inca resistance, it was difficult to locate and identify Manco's capital of Vilcabamba.

The trek to Espíritu Pampa from Huancacalle takes three days, but would be a more comfortable undertaking in four. Espíritu Pampa itself is quite a large site, and further groups of buildings may still be awaiting discovery in the densely forested mountains surrounding the valley. Give yourself at least a day at the site to soak up the atmosphere before continuing a further six hours to Chanquiri, the starting point for transport to Kiteni and Quillabamba. The best time of year is from May to November, possibly December. Outside this period it is very dangerous, as the trails are very narrow and can be thick with mud and very slippery. Insect repellent is essential; there are millions of mosquitoes. Also take pain-killers and other basic medicines; these will be much appreciated by the local people should you need to take advantage of their hospitality.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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