Machu Picchu is on everyone’s bucket list but the hackneyed hiking route is over-hyped and in danger of being destroyed by overuse. What many people don’t realize is that the Andes are laced with dozens of Incan trails, not just the one royal Incan Trail to Machu Picchu.
Mountain Lodges of Peru offers a blissfully uncrowded lodge-based alternative route to the sacred Incan site for those of us who would like to make the trek but who would prefer to exchange the bed roll for a real bed and add fine food and wine and even a massage or two into the equation.
This inspired guided pilgrimage takes you across 15 different bio zones on the alternative Salkantay and Llactapata Incan Trails to Machu Picchu. Instead of crowds and camping, you stay in four distinctive mountain lodges designed by a local architect who studied Incan engineering. On the 64-km seven-day walk guides explain the Incan story as you pass by Salkantay Peak, one of most revered Incan sites, and visit traditional agricultural villages of Quechua-speaking Incan descendants. When at last you reach Machu Picchu, you will have a much greater appreciation for their culture and history having heard their stories and walked in their footsteps.
Our first day’s trek is along the terraces of an Incan irrigation system rimmed with lupine flowers and doe-eyed cows. We spend two nights acclimatising at Salkantay Lodge (altitude 3869 meters), its Inca cross designs and rounded stone cornices modeled on a royal palace. Day two, is a short hike to the entrancing aquamarine Lake Humantay. That evening we enjoy a lesson in making Pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, and buy beautiful hand-made weavings from the local villagers.
Day three and the 12 of us and our two guides are huddled in a cave gobbling nuts and chocolate for our final slog, in a howling snow storm, across 4,630-meter Salkantay Pass. Perhaps this was not such a great idea.
Two hours later we are cheering our good fortune cozy in a cook tent on the other side. Our two chefs, who’ve strode ahead of us with mules, serve steaming corn soup. In another couple of hours after walking beside rushing streams across a mossy red-rock-strewn landscape we are welcomed by smiling local staff bearing hot tea and towels at the thatched-roof stone Wayra Lodge guarded by glaciers and the soaring peaks of the high Andes. Hot showers, hot Jacuzzi, a hearty stew and a bottle of red wine later we are snug inside comfortable beds where staff has placed warm healing bags filled with grains, eucalyptus and aromatic herbs.
After our victory across the pass, we descend into cloud forest, mountain streams turning to torrents, hillsides of begonia, clouds of butterflies, groves of papaya, banana and ancient avocado trees, delicate wild orchids, hummingbirds and fuchsia lining the way. We step aside for mule trains carrying supplies, including our gear, from village to village as they have done for centuries and rest in villages where big healthy chickens strut and women dressed in fedoras and colorful blankets work the fields.
The local staff greets us with hot towels and sweet corn drink at Colpa Lodge and we relax under a thatched shelter watching chefs prepare a traditional pachamanca meal, marinated chicken, lamb and guinea pig, baked under stones in the earth with Lima beans and a multifarious array of potatoes, just two of the vegetables the Incas gave to the world. After hot showers, we sit down at a long table to devour the feast, with some cold Cusquena beers. Later, relaxing in the outdoor Jacuzzi, with panoramic views over the valley we marvel at the ingenuity of Inca astronomers as a darkening sky is pricked by the constellations they harnessed so well.
At Lucma Lodge, set amidst agricultural terraces of banana and avocado trees, we visit the coffee farm of one of our porters, who proudly welcomes us to his home with its million-dollar view. His wife, her long black hair pulled back in a traditional braid, roasts the beans over an open fire in their shed, which doubles as home for the guinea pigs.
At the Lactapata ruin, one of Machu Picchu’s satellite settlements, we get our first vista of Machu Picchu across a deep valley framed with jagged snow-covered peaks. We are the only trekkers at a nearby rustic cliff-top cafe with dress-circle views of the majestic Incan site. Our guide Pepe points out a condor, a threatened species in Peru and the Incan symbol of the Upper World or afterlife, soaring in the blazing blue sky.
The next day, at Machu Picchu, I wait for the crowds to part to take a picture of its carved stone head at the Temple of the Condor, but seeing the real bird, soaring into oblivion, not unlike the Incas themselves, is the image I cherish.
As you will see from my blog, I am an avid walker. I’d love to hear your suggestions about other wonderful hikes in Peru, or for that matter, anywhere in South America.
My trip was courtesy of Mountain Lodges of Peru.
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