Biodiversity in Belize
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Part 1: Ollantaytambo to Wayllabamba

Part 2: Wayllabamba to Phuyopatamarca

Part 3: Phuyopatamarca to Machu Picchu

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Check out Incatrail_peru for walking the Inca trail or DosmanosPeru if you want to do the Inca trail in just two days

Jan taking notes along the trail

At night I was taking down my trail notes

Alvaro Sabogai

Alvaro Sabogai

Shawn Gregg

Shawn Gregg with our tent

Jan on top of Huana Picchu

Me at the end of the trail

Most pictures are my own, some are from Shawn Gregg or from Amy Heusinkveld. Some pictures can be enlarged, click the image.

WWF Andean Ecoregions


The Inca Trail

for the ecologically inclined

Jan Meerman, 2004

(This is not about Belize, but about Peru. Just in case you were wondering)

There are many reasons to walk the Inca Trail. Getting to the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu and seeing abundant historical monuments along the way is one obvious reason. Suffering the hike and enjoying the sense of achievement is another. Experiencing the flora and fauna of the Andes is a next one. Doing it for all three reasons, is obviously the best of all.

There are several sites on the web that give descriptions of the trail. Some are poor, some are good. Most of these sites are rather short-lived, so I won't present any links here. Just use your search engine and look for "Inca Trail", "Inka Trail" and/or "Camino Inca". Most of these sites describe the trek itself or the abundance of stunning Inca sites. Few give more than fleeting attention to the ecology along the trail. To provide some ecological background I came up with this site.

I joined the Inca trail in July 2003 as faculty member and group leader for Environmental Expeditions, a Maryland based travel company specializing in educational tours. For the local logistics, Environmental Expeditions teamed up with Peruvian Odyssey which proved to be a winning combination. Our guide on the trip was Alvaro Sabogai. Alvaro was an inexhaustible source of information on the Flora and Fauna of the trail.

To understand the ecology of the Inca Trail, it is important to understand the effects of altitude and rainfall. If you travel Peru from west to east, you will notice the immense change in ecosystems and climates. The Andes is the most important factor in this. Essentially, the cold gulf stream in the Pacific Ocean prevents rain formation on the west coast leading to desert conditions in the west. In the east lies the moist Amazon basin but rain coming from that direction can not cross the Andes and alleviate the drought in the west, but the eastern slopes of the Andes are lush and green.

Although on the Inca Trail you don't travel exactly from west to east, the above transitions are still noticeable on a small scale. The transition from dry to moist here are mostly a consequence of altitude. Still, the influence of the nearby Amazon basin is becoming apparent.

A schematic overview of the altitude changes on the Inca Trail:

Altitudes along the Inca Trail

Climate Graph Cusco

The trail starts around Km 82 along the Urubamba River in a zone that the Peruvians call "Quechua": This zone is between 2300 - 3500 m (7,500-11,500 ft) and has temperate, dry weather with average temperatures that range from 0 -210C (32 -700F). The rainy season is from December to March. The rest of the year is dry or even parched from May through September (see graph for Cusco at the left). This region is extensively cultivated and essentially, there is no natural vegetation left.

Above Wayllabamba, lies a zone called "Suni" or "Jalca": Technically this is the zone between 3500 - 4000 m (11,500 - 13,000 ft). There is still some agriculture possible at this altitude. Above that lies the "Puna" which is a zone from 4000 - 4800 m (13,000 - 15,750 ft). The weather here is very cold with frequent frost. It is mostly grassland with a type of grass called "Ichu" (Stipa spp., Festuca spp.) and the area is used for grazing Llamas and Alpacas.

Descending from the "Puna" through the "Suni" you gradually move into the "Yunga Fluvial": which are inter-Andean valleys on the east side of the Andes roughly between 1000 - 2300 m (7,500 - 3,300 ft). These valleys have a moderate, moist climate and abundant vegetation. They are the first signs of the wetter and hotter Amazon basin further below.

These zones do not strictly follow altitudinal lines but serve as general outlines only. The different vegetation cover in these zones is clearly demonstrated in satellite imagery. For example in the 1993 Landsat 5, TM Satellite Image below. This image is in false colors (for the technical people, this is a section of an image taken 1993/08/07, path 04, row 69 using bands 543 [RGB], resolution 30 m).

In this false color image:

Blue/purple (see example in white circle) = Snow, Blue = Water

Bluish Green (see example in pink circle) = Grassland or Puna

Pale Green (see example in orange circle) = Shrubland, mostly Dodonaea viscosa

Orange Brown (see example in yellow circle) = Forest


On the image I superimposed the Inca Trail in yellow and indicated various points along the route. From this image it appears that the first half of the trail leads through grassland only. Closer inspection however, will reveal narrow orange bands following the valley bottoms. The strips of forest here are so narrow that they barely register on the image but the forest is very distinct along the trail, only then you don't realize how little forest there actually is.

The following pages will describe the trail in somewhat greater detail. Enjoy your walk!

Part 1: Ollantaytambo to Wayllabamba (the lowest part)

Part 2: Wayllabamba to Phuyopatamarca (the highest part)

Part 3: Phuyopatamarca to Machu Picchu (the descent)


Some literature that I found and used (but which can be extremely difficult to find!):

Cassinelli del Sante, G. 2000. Trees and bushes from the Sacred Valley of the Incas

International Travel Maps: Cuzco Region Machu Picchu, Peru 1:110.000. Vancouver Canada.

Lemoine, M. 1999. Guia de Flora y Fauna Valle Sagrado - Camino Inca, Machu Picchu Peru.

Fjeldsa J & N. Krabbe. Birds of the High Andes

Rainforest Expeditions S.A.C. Field Guides.


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