By Timothy Scott
Through Vines and Banana Trees
We spend the next day hiking through thickening jungle, which means plenty of butterflies, begonias, and lupins. Unfortunately, it also means plenty of bugs. As I count more than 20 little gnat-like flying insects circling my legs at one point-of course this is the one day I decide to wear shorts-I can almost hear them laughing at the 7-percent DEET repellent I bought locally.
At the last lodge-Lucma-built in the midst of coffee, passion fruit, and banana trees, I start scratching mosquito bites that will end up taking weeks to fully disappear. But there's one good outcome of this lower 2,100-meter altitude: we're drinking wine with dinner now.
The last day of the trek is not an easy send-off. We go up 500 meters and down, then up a few hundred meters and down again, traversing 10 kilometers in a rainforest climate where orchids and moss surround us. Much of the time we follow the route of an original Inca trail, with the supporting stone work still in place.
We come to the ruins of Llactapata, partly restored but mostly reclaimed by the jungle. Bamboo and tree trunks are one with the ancient walls. Maybe the ruins are as extensive as some other sites around the Sacred Valley that have been restored, but nobody wants to spend the millions of dollars it would take to find out.
From this vantage point though we can see the most famous Inca site of them all, Machu Picchu, on the other side of a river valley. Over here, we see the great monument from a distant vantage point that few others get to experience. We are too far away to see small details, like the hundreds of tourists that are surely scampering around the terraces, so we can feel like true discoverers.
Machu Picchu, the End of the Quest
On this Salkantay trek, we don't get to hike directly to Machu Picchu. This branch of the Inca's trail system we are on hasn't been maintained past the river valley. The terrain is impenetrable. So instead we descend for several hours to the river and walk along it to a small local train station. Our walking time is finished, so we celebrate. The beer bottles pile up on the table, a bottle of Pisco makes its way into shot glasses and is soon empty. After a while, we forget about the sore muscles brought on by six days of hiking.
The train ride to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, turns out to be a bonus rather than a consolation. A few vendors come on to sell us more beers and bananas for the ride, others entertain with music, and we rumble past the misty jungle and a rushing river.
Upon arrival, bellhops from the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel whisk our bags away and we walk through the crowds to their oasis. Fittingly, the trek ends with a stay at one of the best hotels in South America.
The next morning, the group heads up to Machu Picchu, the object of our quest. No matter how many times you've seen the pictures, the experience of seeing the Andes Mountains circling the ancient walls is incredible. Unlike the tourists who have ridden the Hiram Bingham train direct from Cusco, we feel like we have earned our way to this point, soaking up the full context of the mountains and the history of its inhabitants.
We are here in December, so it's not as crowded at the ruins as it is during the high season of mid-May through September. The trade-off is that the weather can be unpredictable, the ruins shrouded in clouds at times instead of bathed in constant sunlight.
Mother nature cooperates though, and it's clear enough to see the whole series of buildings in all their glory, the peak of Huayna Picchu behind it. A few in the group hike to the top of the peak, while others have clearly had enough of that. I'm one of them. Feeling a few pounds lighter-despite the great meals-and with leg muscles that can't possibly get any more fit, I'm ready to take it easy for a while now.
If You Go
Rates for the six-day Mountain Lodges of Peru trek are $2,500 per person. This includes six nights of lodging, all meals during the trek, snacks, and ground transportation. Sodas, alcoholic beverages, and gratuities for lodge staffers and guides are not included. Bring a bathing suit, strong insect repellent, and plenty of sunscreen, but towels and toiletries are provided. You can reach the Mountain Lodges group by phone in the U.S., Europe, Brazil, or Peru. Get contact information and more at the Mountain Lodges of Peru website.
Review and photos by Timothy Scott.