The New Ancient Inca Trail - Page 2

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Snow-covered Apachet Pass, Peru
Peruvian Ambulance: En route to the first pass in the MLP trek  (Nathan Borchelt)
The Salcantay Lodge, Mountain Lodges of Peru
Number One in the Circuit: The Salcantay Lodge  (Nathan Borchelt)
When you're in the Peruvian Andes at 15,000 feet, running on an hour's sleep with your stomach in knots and barely able to take more than two steps without gasping for breath, you understand the value of an Andean ambulance (read: a horse). I know I did. So, take time to acclimatize—and maybe pass on the second pisco sour the night before. But later that day, I limped past a young boy who was being rushed to lower elevations. He was suffering from cerebral edema triggered by an ill-advised push up the mountain, led by less-experienced guides. Suddenly my night-long spate of vomiting and diarrhea was put into perspective.

Enrique Umbert, founder of Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP), first hiked the Camino Salcantay Route back in 2000, and instantly envisioned a series of lodges built along this Inca-era trail. Less than eight years later, after corralling funding from such altitude-enlightened visionaries as the founder of Mountain Travel Sobek and building at breakneck speed, Umbert's dream became a reality. Today, that 42-mile trail—the same route used for centuries by Andean farmers, carving through some of the most visually stunning mountain vistas this side of Patagonia—is arguably the central highlight of MLP's signature seven-day journey to Machu Picchu, with overnight stays in four new, high-altitude Andean lodges.

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You start by acclimatizing to the high altitude in 11,500-foot Cusco, a cobblestoned city so steeped in ancient history that you could close your eyes and spin around, and whichever way you faced when you stopped and opened your eyes would likely be occupied by some sort of ancient ruin. Long established as the main Peruvian gateway into the Andes, you're also liable to see more Gore-Tex-clad travelers than almost anywhere short of Everest Base Camp, with post-hike revelers diving into the active nightlife, buying up artisanal souvenirs, or dining in surprisingly contemporary restaurants. To keep you grounded, MLP arranges a day tour of the area, including a stop at the Incan ruins of Sacsayhuamán, whose tongue-in-cheek pronunciation ("Sexy Woman") doesn't detract from its vast archaeological value; new ruins were discovered as late as 2008.

After adjusting to the altitude, you drive four hours from Cusco through the Rio Blanco Valley to Salcantay Lodge, the first in the network. Modeled after an Incan palace, the two-story structure boasts massive windows that overlook the valley and 20,574-foot Nevado Salcantay, a jagged peak that juts into the azure sky, capped in snow the color and texture of butter-cream frosting.

And thus begins the trekking part of trip. An early rise and hearty breakfast is followed by the hardest portion of the route: an eight-mile slog with a 3,000-foot ascent to 15,091-foot Apachet Pass saddled between Salcantay and Humantay glaciers—the highest part in the hike. From there, it's a steady descent into the adjacent valley and, eventually, the next lodge.

Over the next three days the route continues its gradual descent, the landscape shifting from snowcapped peaks to verdant jungles. You go from passing columns of loose rocks stacked in honor of the mountain spirits to wild orchids in full bloom; from reclining in an outdoor hot tub under a star-filled sky to dining on pachamanca (a traditional Peruvian meal cooked in an earthen oven, typically served with guinea pig) to listening to live Peruvian folk music; from passing a group of tourists on horseback to wandering by a small farming village filled with adorable, outgoing kids; from gurgling waterfalls and pools fed by hot springs to teams of donkeys kicking up dust as they gallop past, until you finally reach the riverbed of Rio Santa Theresa, where a short bus ride takes you to Lucma Lodge, perched at the same elevation as Machu Picchu in the Andean cloud forests. From there you rest, eat, and embark on a short hike on the final day of the trek to see a seldom-seen view of Machu Picchu in the distance.

Then you head to the ancient city itself. First, an hour-long bus ride on a road that hugs the serpentine Urubamba River, followed by a train that departs from the hydroelectric station and zigzags up a steep mountain before chugging to Aguas Calientes, where another bus takes you up into Machu Picchu's heights.

In other words, swap the Inca Trail for the MLP experience, and the journey and the destination become equal.

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