The New Ancient Inca Trail
|Through the Looking Glass: Machu Picchu, seen in a less-familiar light (Nathan Borchelt)|
|The Familiar Ancient City: Machu Picchu, seen from the typical elevated view (Nathan Borchelt)|
You know that old saying about the trip being more about the journey than the destination? Machu Picchu pretty much disproves that. Consider the typical tourist's approach: Board a bus at the mountain base and endure a stomach-lurching switchback ascent; disembark and become one with the crowd at the entry gates; make a 30-minute baby-step ascent up the stone ruins along the verdant mountain's eastern ridge; cross over grass as green and as tightly cut as a putting green to reach the terminus of the hill; turn around to take in a view that's been captured literally thousands of times before, dutifully emblazoned upon every postcard, magazine brochure, and T-shirt in Peru.
But it's then, when you finally stop and catch your breath and look down on that famed Incan city for the first time, that the how you got there is overwhelmed by simply being there for the first time. Even with an army of like-minded touristssunburnt Aussies in madras shorts and black socks, Japanese tour groups wearing headphones synced to their guide's microphone, teenage girls in Andean ponchos hauling backpacks twice their sizesuddenly the vast and mysterious ancient city becomes yours and yours alone. A photograph fully realized, right there, at your feet, waiting for you to explore.@#95;box photo=image_2 alt=image_2_alt @#95;box
And if you came by the Inca Trailthe only way to reach Machu Picchu by footthen the journey/destination divide definitely weighs heavily toward the latter. The famed route is now so trafficked that crowd regulation is a necessity and months-long planning is required, while the trail itself is littered with tourist refuse. It's about as genuine an Andean experience as eating chicken wings at a Dallas Ruby Tuesday's and proclaiming it's Texas BBQ.
As a result, a good portion of tourists (even those prone to hiking) rely on more convenient modes of transport to reach Machu Picchu. Fly into Lima, and then transfer to Cusco, the gateway city to the Andes and an attraction in its own right. From there you can hike into remote stretches of the Andes or hop a train to Aquas Calientes, a town that consists of shops, hotels, and restaurants at the base of the mountain on which the ruined city sits and where the aforementioned bus delivers you to Machu Picchu. Not exactly the rugged, off-the-beaten-path approach, but most find it a saner alternative to a three-day stomp across crowded, rubbish-filled Andean hiking trails. Or you could forego Machu Picchu entirely, and hook up with an outfitter that leads backpacking trips to some of the lesser ruins (with corresponding smaller crowds).
But for those who long for both a genuine taste of true Andean life and that view of Machu Picchu (among many others), along with a heady combination of luxe digs, delicious local fare, experienced guides, a dearth of Life List tourists, and isolated, snowcapped peaks, then the recently established Mountain Lodges of Peru is your salvation. And did we mention the hot tubs?
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication