Photo Essay: Hiking the Andes with Mountain Lodges of Peru

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Mountain Lodges of Peru's Inca Trail alternative is a seven-day journey that includes acclimatization in Cusco and a five-day, four-night trek to Machu Picchu that starts at the plush Salkantay Lodge, positioned in the lush Wayraccmachay Valley.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The route follows a series of ancient Incan trails through the Camino Salcantay, a much less popular route to the famed ancient city. When we arrived there last July, a small enclave of travelers on horseback were bedding down for what promised to be a very brisk night.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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After dumping our gear, we headed out for a quick stomp through the valley, previewing the terrain that we'd face the next day. Then, we feasted on pisco sours and a fresh trout prepared by the lodge staff; 98 percent of the lodge employees was recruited from the local population, who are now learning to speak English and work in hospitality.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Dawn brought clear skis and crisp temps around 40 degrees—average for July in the mid-level elevations in the Andes. Here, you can see the snowcapped peak of 20,574-foot Nevado Salcantay, punctuating the valley in which the first lodge resides. The lodges themselves were built within a year, the materials transported through the route over the course of 3,500 mule trips.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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That portage included more than 43,000 board feet of sustainably harvested eucalyptus to avoid felling trees in the valley. But beyond those miraculous feats, it's the little things—like cleaning your hiking shoes each night after you leave 'em in the basket next to the door—that really offer the memorable touches.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Unfortunately, no amount of clear skies or clean footwear would remedy the fact that I spent that first night weathering a stomach tortured from the high altitude. Dawn and the start of the hike came far too quickly. I managed to suck it up for the first half of the day. But MLP's 'ambulance'—a guided horse—was on hand.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Eventually my comical pace (step forward, gasp for breath, step forward, grip stomach, groan, try to step forward...) just became sad, so I hopped on the horse as we approached Apachet Pass.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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At 15,091 feet, the pass is the highest point in the entire trek, dramatically saddled between the Salcantay and Humantay glaciers.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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I contend that I could've made it...eventually.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The pass was marked by massive collections of cairns, stacked stones that are meant to pay tribute to the mountain spirits.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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I hopped off the horse at this point, committed to at least walking downhill unassisted. The horse seemed appreciative of my new-found determination.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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After crossing the pass, the trail rolled into the belly of the next valley, where the Wayra Lodge waited. Each lodge in the MLP chain embodies a different Andean theme, and this lodge was designed and decorated in honor of Mother Earth and traditional Andean religions.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The following day we continued our descent from the higher elevations into a lush valley populated with verdant foliage, small villages, and the occasional convenience shack that has sprung up in response to the trekkers now plying the Salcantay route.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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We reached Colpa Lodge, where a traditional pachamanca was prepared, in the early afternoon after crossing the Santa Theresa River. The cooks dug a pit in the earth and used layers of hot stones, leaves, and tarps to bake a selection of fresh veggies and meat, including a distinctive Peruvian delicacy: guinea pig.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The final day of hiking continued our gradual descent, a dusty affair punctuated with refreshing encounters with gurgling waterfalls.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The trail funneled out into this verdant valley, where a bus was waiting to take us to...another trail (this one blissfully short) that would lead to Lucma Lodge, the final lodge of the trip.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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These two charming girls—sisters—reside on the last stretch of the trail leading to Lucma Lodge.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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In four days we'd traded the high-altitude, snow-capped peaks of the upper Peruvian Andes for the lower-lying cloud forests of Machu Picchu. MLP guests also take a short day hike from the last lodge to a spot that overlooks the Incan City before embarking on the final leg.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Jose-Luis Corpancho, or 'Pepe,' our MLP guide, riding the train that picks travelers up from the hydro-electrical station on the Urubamba River. The train zigzags up the valley (literally going forward and backward) before churning onward to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Once you reach Aguas Calientes, you hop a bus that snakes up a narrow road to the gates of Machu Picchu. Here, the neighboring peak of Huayna Picchu—which you can climb, if time allows, for an eagle's-eye view of the city—is framed by one of Machu Picchu's western archways.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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After spending the better part of the day exploring the ruins, we hopped the train back to Cusco. Mid-trip, the train employees put on a show. First, a quick cultural exhibition (pictured here), followed by a surreal fashion show—complete with blasting Bee-Gees, profiling the latest in cutting-edge alpaca apparel. Then they sell the products, row by row.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
 
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