It’s easily South America’s most popular destination: Machu Picchu, the sprawling complex tucked away in the Cordillera Vilcabamba range of the Andes. Forget the Inca Trail; try trekking to the Inca Citadel, Machu Picchu, on a new route. It’s Peru’s backdoor trail with luxury accommodations.
Historians offer theories on Machu Picchu’s original purpose – from a convent of sorts to a retreat for royalty – but its true purpose remains shrouded in mystery, much like the entire complex is hidden from below by overgrowth and incredible misty clouds. This July marked the centenary of historian and adventurer Hiram Bingham’s famed discovery of Machu Picchu. A Quecha-speaking guide led Bingham to the ruins that had long been locally-known, but was left inexplicably undiscovered by the colonial Spanish.
For those who possess a sense of adventure and want to capture just a tinge of that same rush of excitement felt by the explorers a century ago, the Salkantay Route is the way to go. Though this route is certainly well-traveled, it’s not as popular since most visitors opt for a bus or train to ferry them to the impressive ancient citadel. Some even hike along the more crowded and grueling Inca Trail from Cusco. But without a doubt, trekking on the undulating slopes along the Salkantay and retiring each evening to the Mountain Lodges of Peru is hands-down the most comfortable way to reach the ancient ruins.
MLP was born out of a genuine desire for an alternative to more primitive trekking opportunities with Machu Picchu as the goal – “true comfort and true service, amidst true adventure.” The family of four lodges is spread along the Salkantay Route, acting as cozy stepping stones on your path. Why pitch your own tent when you can instead enjoy the rugged scenery with a roof over your head and a masseuse at your disposal? Why stuff all you could possibly need for a five-day trek into a bulky, heavy backpack when you can entrust a team of porters to guide your belongings safely to the next destination? Why take in the placid Vilcambamba scenery anywhere that doesn’t involve curling up in a fireside chair, soaking in a bubbling outdoor hot tub or drifting off under a down comforter each night? Why, indeed?
Although being physically fit helps, you don’t need to be an Olympian to accomplish this trek. Time spent hiking between lodges varies from 3-6 hours each day, with the distance traveled proving more demanding than the terrain encountered. Lodge fare, dubbed “Andean Energetic Cuisine” by the food and beverage director, is made with high-quality local ingredients and optimized to replenish one’s strength and lessen the physical effects of the trek on one’s moving parts. And so it is on the trail, too, with hot lunches that are always high-energy while granola snack mixes are constantly on offer to keep stamina high. There is no shortage of visual stimuli to keep you pressing onward – the spectacular scenery around you will surely get your pulse racing, your eyes eager for more snow-capped vistas and your lungs craving more cool mountain air. Your physical efforts each day are rewarded tenfold by the splendor of your lodge amenities. Bio-climactic architectural standards employed during the construction of the lodges make the most of the sun and wind exposure while keeping guests sheltered from the elements in utter comfort. This genius use of traditional techniques has resulted in miniscule energy consumption and a small footprint left on the fragile hills.
Despite its energy efficiency and remote location, all of the amenities at a modern hotel are afforded visitors: wireless Internet, luxury bedding, climate-controlled rooms and en suite baths with a constant supply of hot water, enhanced by the soothing lather of organic shampoos and soaps. Each communal living and dining area is a welcome retreat after a day of trekking, as the wood-burning stove centerpiece casts a warm glow over the plush furnishings and stone finishes while you get to know your guides and fellow trekkers.
Trekkers begin at Salkantay Lodge and Adventure Resort in the shadow of Salkantay Peak, the highest in the region at 20,600 feet. Acclimating to the altitude is the goal here, aided by an introduction to high-mountain trekking and an unforgettable swim in the Humantay Glacial Lake.
Reach the highest point on the trek between Salkantay and your next stop, Wayra Lodge. Begin traveling through Rio Blanco Valley, circling Humantay Peak with Salkantay Peak’s south face ever in view until you reach 15,906 feet and the thousands of stone markers at Apacheta Pass. For centuries these Apacheta rock piles have been left on high mountain passes to pay tribute to Pachamama, Mother Earth, a tangible prayer for good health and a safe trek. Continue down to 12,630 feet and Wayra Lodge, a name that means “the place where the wind lives” and aptly named since the lodge perches cliff side overlooking the Rio Salkantay snaking into the distant jungle far below. This meaning is also reflected in the lodge décor which pays tribute to the mountain spirits and deities from local legends. Next, reach “the eyebrow of the jungle” at Rayanpata, the point of transition between the rocky slopes of the high Andes and the lush jungles leading to Machu Picchu. Shed your jacket as you feel the climate shift and trek to Colpa Lodge at 9,180 feet where the Salkantay, Chalan and Totora Rivers meet to form Rio Santa Teresa. Jungle wildlife abounds and is often spotted through the trees, while colorful butterflies are more forward, flirting with you as you enjoy the outdoors. After your downward trek, it will be hard to resist the natural hot springs located on lodge site. Before you depart, celebrate your trek with a traditional Pachamanca meal prepared in Colpa’s garden. This treat of roasted vegetables and meats is as much a hearty meal as it is a spiritual offering, prepared in reverence to Mother Earth and roasted in the ground, buried and sealed by hot stones. La Playa’s riverside town usually marks the end of the trekking for Machu Picchu’s pilgrims, but on your journey you will continue on to the tropical Lucma Lodge at 6,890 feet. Stands of coffee, banana, avocado and eucalyptus welcome you to this verdant lodge site, encouraging you to explore outdoors and watch for parrots and parakeets darting between the trees. Adjacent to the accommodations, uncover an ancient Inca trail that has been painstakingly restored, offering a glimpse into the path traversed by countless mountain residents of the past.
The final pass on the trek at 9,843 feet is Llactapata, where you will see your goal in a stunning panorama. From this vantage the whole of Machu Picchu is visible as you gaze out towards the Sun Gate of the Lost City. Your journey by foot ends not far from here as private vehicles take you onward to Aguas Calientes, where you will await your chance to enter the citadel to explore and celebrate the completion of your trek.