Capitán was tough and rather ornery. His curly hair a testament to the endurance these horses were known for, mountain ponies bred in the rarefied atmosphere of the high Andes. Unlike the paso finos, renown for their outward swinging leg action and luxuriously gentle ride, Capitán had a kidney-rattling gait. He also had the irritating habit of stopping suddenly from a gallop (especially when riding bareback) or dashing unexpectedly under low branches, tactics aimed at getting me off his back, but he was a hardy beast and well suited for the journey ahead.
Hidden behind torrential river gorges and high mountain peaks lies the Peruvian province of Vilcabamba, known in Quechua as Huillca Pampa, the ‘Sacred Plain’. It is a notoriously inaccessible place. Except for Chuquichaca, where a bridge spans the confluence of the Vilcabamba and Vilcanota Rivers, entry is only possible at a few cable crossings or suspended bridges. This sparsely populated province of some 4000 square kilometres is protected by massive natural boundaries on all sides: to the North, the Urubamba or Vilcanota River plunges headlong through steep, densely forested canyons, and its southern border is formed by the mighty Apurimac River (Big Speaker, in Quechua) and the 5000 to 6000 metre peaks that stretch from the Salkantay to the Marcacocha range.