Story and Photos By Timothy Scott
While the famous Inca Trail in Peru contains more ruins and a direct route to Machu Picchu on foot, this upscale Salkantay lodge-to-lodge hike offers far more comfort and stunning scenery.
Lying in a large circular whirlpool, steam rising from the hot water, I look out at the white Andean peaks of Salkantay and Huaymantay. There are more stars than I have seen in a very long time. A shooting star skirts across the mountain range and then disappears behind it. Am I really on a six-night hiking trip to Machu Picchu? Isn't that supposed to imply, well, roughing it a little?
Not on this trip run by Mountain Lodges of Peru. We are trekking from one lodge to another through the Andes Mountains. Eventually we will arrive at Machu Picchu, but by a different route than the more better-known (and more crowded) Inca Trail.
Even if you take one of the ultra-luxurious and expensive Inca Trail trips through a tour company, you will still sleep in a tent at night and use what is essentially a glorified outhouse. Sure, you will you will use fine stemware with good wine in it, have a masseuse working you over at night, and the porters will set up and break down all the tents. But still, you're camping.
I reflect back on my own Inca Trail experience a few years earlier as I take off my thick bathrobe and curl up under a comforter in my heated room, the sheets warm from a hot water bottle the maid placed there while I was at dinner. Can it get any better than this?
Snow in Summer on the Andes
As we start off on the first day riding from Cusco, our tour is not feeling all that luxurious. We stop at a local market, one where animal parts on display in the meat section would make even the most adventurous eater squeamish. Before we start walking, we stop for coffee in Mollepata, at a restaurant where guinea pigs are running around in a separate hut. No, they're not pets; they are being bred for dinner.
The intro is quickly forgotten though as we get our first glimpse of the glistening white peaks of the Andes Mountains, set against a blue sky. At 6,271 meters (20,574 feet), Salkantay is nowhere close to being the highest peak in Peru, but it towers over the surrounding mountains.
After a couple of hours walking along a dirt road we arrive at the Salkantay Lodge, which has the most spectacular mountain views imaginable. Up above, high peaks are covered with snow and glaciers, while at our level the bucolic valley is dissected by streams and wildflowers. Horses and mules are grazing peacefully on the green grass in a scene that couldn't be painted more perfectly.
Everyone in my group is smiling as people break off to explore the valley, soak in the hot tub, or just lounge by the big windows and fireplace in the main hall of the lodge. From any vantage point, the views are spectacular.
We are a diverse group: a German family of three, a Brazilian business man and his model-beautiful daughter, two Brazilian guys with the same nickname, an American couple from San Francisco, and an Austrian man in his 60s who is my roommate for the week. It's a fairly small group, but we will hike with two guides, two cooks, and a team of mule drivers.
We spend two nights in this first lodge, giving us time to acclimate and enjoy the area. On our full day there, we hike several hours and nearly 1,500 feet up to a glacier and the lake right below it. We finally rest beside the lake, all of us panting and one person getting a dose of oxygen from a guide. We pull snacks from our bags-chosen from a range of goodies placed on a table for us to choose from that morning-and take in the powerful scenery of carved cliffs and powerful glaciers. Twice we spot a condor soaring overhead.
It is quiet and peaceful until we hear a splash nearby. Despite the chunks of ice floating in the water, a hearty German father in our group has stripped down to nothing and jumped into the freezing water for a dip.
On the way back down we visit the home of a local family, a small stone house with a thatched roof. It is so dark inside that I can't see the bedroom until someone sets off a camera flash. It's also full of smoke. The wood fire stays burning all day as a heat and cooking source. After my eyes adjust I see only one small vent up above, the whole inside of the ceiling blackened by decades of soot.
When we return to the lodge, lunch is served. We dive into an impressive meal of quinoa salad with nuts, peppers, olives, and white cheese, then tender marinated beef and a pudding dessert. It gets even better at dinner, when everyone starts gravitating toward the same question: Can you still gain weight even though you're hiking every day?