Biodiversity in Belize
Biological Diversity in Belize
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Inca Trail Homepage

Part 1: Ollantaytambo to Wayllabamba

Part 3: Phuyopatamarca to Machu Picchu

Brachyotum grisebachii

Nasa limita

Nasa limita

Bomarea sp.

Bomarea sp.

Polylepis forest: the highest forest

Polylepis forest: the forgotten forest

Mountain Caracara

Viscacha, photographer unknown


Odentoglossum mystacinum


Calceolaria sp.

Treefern: Picture by Shawn Gregg


The Inca Trail

for the ecologically inclined

II. From Wayllabamba to Phuyopatamarca

This part of the trek is the most strenuous. Soon after you leave Wayllabamba, you can see the next goal; Warmiwañusca at 4265 m (13,650 ft) looming way in the distance.

The first section of the trail goes through a similar valley-bottom forest as we saw along the Cusichaca valley. Only it is somewhat higher here, possibly because of diminishing human disturbance. Officially this forest is classified as "Submontane, Subtropical, Very Humid Forest". Species that I noted here include Alnus acuminata/jorulensis, Fuchsia boliviana, Barnadesia macbridae/horrida (Llaulli), Oreopanax ischnolobus (Maqui Maqui), Passiflora tripartita, Piper elongatum (Moco Moco) Rubus bogotensis, Lycopersicon parviflorum (Climbing with yellow flowers), Duranta armata, Stenomesson pearce (Amarylidaceae), Clusia sp. This forest is quite dense with an understory of ferns.

Polylepis forest

Sometimes the trail comes out of the forest and reaches into the Puna. Such spots are good places to see butterflies. When you dive back into the forest, it has become a "Polylepis forest" This unique forest is dominated by Polylepis spp (Queuña). This forest with its gnarled trees covered with moss and a dense understory of herbs, is quite enchanting. Around every corner you expect a troll or at least a hobbit.

No such thing occurs here though, but the forest is teeming with birds.

Polylepis belong to the Rosaceae family and is easily recognized by it's pinately compound leaves with expanded petiole base (see drawing right). The thin, flaky, reddish bark and thick trunks with twisting branches are another good characteristic. The genus is strictly Andean and forming almost pure stands at altitudes that should support Puna.

Unfortunately, Polylepis forest is one of the most threatened forest types in the world. Originally it covered large areas in the high Andes, but generations of farmers burning the Puna to provide grazing for Llamas and Alpacas have reduced the forest cover immensely. Mature Polylepis can survive fire, but seedlings and young trees can not. As a result, the Polylepis forest shrinks a little after every Puna fire. For more information see the links that I put in the left margin.


Ultimately, you leave the forest behind and come into the real Puna. This is an open landscape dominated by grasses (Ichu). This last stretch to the first pass is steep and strenuous. You may see grazing Llamas and Alpacas here.

If you are lucky you may see raptors soaring above you. The Condor is very rare and threatened by extinction, so don't have your hopes too high for this one, but the most common larger bird is the Mountain Caracara. This attractive bird often allows close up looks.

On top of the Warmiwañusca at 4265 m (13,650 ft) you may want to indulge in a snow fight, if you have any energy left that is. Having come so high, it is kind of depressing to look down on the steep downward trail but there are interesting things to see here. Just below the pass, there is a curious collection of huge boulders, this is where Viscachas live. These rabit-like relatives of the Chinchilla (which is now extinct in the wild) often just sit there on a boulder, looking rather sleepy. They are usually so inactive that you may suspect that they are really just stuffed animals.

At the bottom of this slope lies Pacaymayu (3500 m - 11,200 ft). This is the largest camp site along the trail and quite a depressing place because of its frequent overcrowding. The camp lies at the tip of a Polylepis forest that follows the valley towards the Urubamba River, way below. This forest shows clear signs of recent fire damage.

From Pacamayu it is up again into the Puna towards the second pass which lies just above Runcurakay. Along the trail grow many Odentoglossum mystacinum orchids.

Near the second pass (3963 m - 12,680 ft) there are some small alpine "black water" lakes. Typically there is hardly any vegetation in these lakes, but some of these lakes are now filling up with vegetation. Possibly a result of nutrient input due to vast amounts of hikers and their porters defecating nearby?

These lakes are supposedly also good sites to see deer, but I didn't even find any tracks of deer, so they are probably very scarce.

Alpine lake: Picture Shawn Gregg

Below the second pass, you plunge back into the Polylepis or Queuña forest. The forest is actually quite similar to a cloud forest. As in a real cloud forest the trees are often laden with Epiphytes such as Bromeliads and Orchids. Very soon you will reach to an more open spot which actually has a Sphagnum or Peat Bog. The vegetation here is low, more like an "elfin forest" Many orchids and other interesting low plants can be found here. Very characteristic is a small treefern (or at least a fern with a trunk) that I initially mistook to be a Cycad.


From here on, the last stretch to Phuyopatamarca (3711 m - 11,875 ft) is not that strenuous. Enjoy the walk and continue with part 3.



Inca Trail Homepage

Part 1: Ollantaytambo to Wayllabamb (the lowest part)

Part 3: Phuyopatamarca to Machu Picchu (the descent)





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