Flying past snow-capped peaks so close I could see their crevasses from my window seat seemed a fitting start to my trip to Machu Picchu. The famous archeological site had held a mysterious and dreamlike attraction for me since I was a young girl. I was finally on my way.
There are many companies bringing adventurers to hike to the Inca Trail, but Mountain Lodges of Peru offered a new approach. Rather than hiking through the Sacred Valley, we would be exploring the well-known Sacred Valley and the lesser-known Lares Valley. And, no tents for us. Instead, we would be sleeping in nice lodges owned by the company. Each lodge is accessible by car, making them perfect for all ages. Mountain Lodges of Peru builds their own hotels in remote villages, partnering with local communities to ensure future employment for the families and a bit of cultural exchange for the travelers.
Now, I was on a plane, banking heavily to the left. As Cusco appeared out my window, terracotta roofs spread out across the valley. We landed and took a first breath of air at 11,000 feet above sea level and zero percent humidity. The oxygen was scarce, but the sun was warm and welcoming.
The town was getting ready for a festival and we drove past food stands roasting cuy (Guinea pig) on our way to Saqsaywaman, an archeological site sitting at over 12,000 feet and overlooking Cusco. The locals jokingly call it “Sexy Woman.” One of the oldest citadels of the Inca Empire, the giant carved stones fit together without any type of mortar. The square stones with rounded edges fit together perfectly. The building stones were so perfect that the Spaniards, once they controlled the area, took stones from Saqsaywaman to build much of colonial Cusco, including the cathedral and many government buildings. Walking through the streets of hilly Cusco, I couldn’t help touching the stones and wondering what stories they could tell.
Altitude sickness was not part of my plan, but the body doesn’t always care. After exploring Cusco’s gold leaf filled Cathedral, I felt a headache coming on. Next thing I knew, I was curled up on my bed, nauseous, dizzy and unable to lift my head. They say one in eight people will come down with altitude sickness and I was the lucky one. From someone who knows, stay as hydrated as possible and use the hotel’s oxygen system the minute you feel any of the symptoms.
A hallmark of a Mountain Lodges of Peru trip is their trip flexibility. Each day, they offer optional activities from cultural immersion to strenuous hikes, making their trips terrific for multiple generations and groups with different interests. After my battle with altitude sickness the night before, I joined the cultural option. Instead of hiking over a mountain pass to our lunch, I communed with llamas and alpacas at the Textile Center, Awanacancha, to learn how seeds and plants become colorful dyes used to create the renowned weavings, scarves and traditional dresses. Afterwards, we toured the famed Pisaq artisan market to see those dyes in use.
I tried cuy, which tastes a bit like rabbit, for the first time at lunch. It was deliciously cooked in the earth, pachamanca style, along with chicken and several types of potatoes. Peru has thousands of different potatoes and two women potato farmers kindly gave us a tour of where they store their potatoes. After trying their homemade tools in the hard soil, I have much respect for the difficulty of their work. We toured the Pisaq archaeological site in the afternoon, which with its terraced fields, is thought to have been a major agricultural center for the region.
After a night in Lamay Lodge, with a rare opportunity to experience a traditional ceremony for a prosperous harvest, we headed off to Ancasmarcas, an archeological site with round buildings following along the cure of a hill. We explored the spectacular setting and unique architecture with only the breeze and wildflowers to keep us company, as most tourists don’t visit the site.
Later, we hiked along the edge of a mountain to reach almost 15,000 feet in elevation to cross a mountain pass used by animals and herders with stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains. Llamas and alpacas roamed across our trail as we trekked to our home for the evening, Huacahuasi Lodge. The newest lodge built by Mountain Lodges of Peru, it sits at over 12,000 feet and is staffed entirely by people from the community wearing the colorful clothing specific to that area.
The next day found us back in the Sacred Valley, mountain biking along the Urumbamba River and, for a time, along the Inca Trail. We traveled through small towns and stopped to talk with a woman turning alpaca wool into yarn as guinea pigs ran rampant around her feet. After biking over 15 miles at approximately 10,000 feet, we gorged on Peruvian barbeque and headed off to Tambo Del Inka, our hotel in Urubamba.
After a luxurious night’s sleep, we explored the incredible archaeological site of Ollantaytambo, which is thought to have been the meeting place between two valleys and is a good example of Incan architecture. The town below the citadel still has descendants of the original Incas living in the community and is where most people catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
Our final day brought us to Machu Picchu. It is just as mystical and beautiful as I imagined, though I will admit I wasn’t prepared for the long bus lines and huge crowds. We had spent several days wandering through smaller sites, with few to no other people. I had become used to peaceful explorations. Machu Picchu, upon arrival, seemed almost like Disney Land with several hundred people milling about as we pulled up to the bus stop. Fortunately, our guides took us where the crowds fell away and again it was our small group experiencing the ethereal site from above. After time to take the classic shot in front of Machu Picchu, we wandered at our own pace through the Room of the Three Windows and Temple of the Sun. I watched in awe as restorers used simple wooden dowels to slowly scrape away lichen from the rocks, one inch at a time, to protect the stones. They’ll be working for a while.
Climbing Huayna Picchu, the mountain behind Machu Picchu with its sheer cliffs is not easy. It’s worth making it up the steep trail and tiny, Inca-built stairs for the stunning view of the surrounding valleys and entire site of Machu Picchu. Just be forewarned that it can be dangerous, especially if raining. If you have a fear of heights, like I do, breathe deeply and go slowly. The camaraderie of the people climbing the mountain is reason enough to give it a shot.
Returning to Machu Picchu after seeing it from Huayna Picchu made strolling through the restored residences feel more intimate. Three llamas grazing their way through the abandoned plaza fit right in with the ghosts of the former residents. I meandered my way through the outer buildings, away from the crowd, marveling at the Inca’s ingenuity and creativity, as well as a new appreciation for the gods they worshiped. I gave those same gods my own silent thank you as I took one last look at the citadel and started my journey home.