The Attainable Bucket List Adventure: Machu Picchu
Peru is the reason I’m a travel writer. In 2012, while in graduate school in Boston, I had a month off between semesters. I was 22, and I needed an adventure. After a poll from my friends, we ruled out Thailand and Brazil as my first solo travel experience: it was a unanimous vote. I bought my one-way ticket to Peru and figured out the rest once I got there.
At the time, I had no idea how much this trip would change my life, but since then, I’ve been hooked. I’ve gone from solo-traveling through the wild lands of Patagonia to hiking my way through Kosovo, but nothing feels quite like Peru to me. For my first real foray into what travel could mean in my life, I couldn’t have picked a more soulful place.
For my first real foray into what travel could mean in my life, I couldn’t have picked a more soulful place.
The first time I went to Machu Picchu, I backpacked with friends I met in Lima. We climbed to the top of Machu Picchu on New Year’s Eve, and I still have a scar on my left foot from a firework exploding on me in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas that night. It was as beautiful and legendary as most adolescent backpacking experiences are, and I’ll forever remember the freeness of that time in my life.
But for my second trip to Machu Picchu this April, I left my backpack at home and went with the experts in the region: Mountain Lodges of Peru. This unique, Peruvian-based company has built a system of lodges through the Peruvian Andes, connecting local communities to travelers, lending an inside look into what life is like in the Andean highlands. I went on the Lares Adventure, which Mountain Lodges of Peru launched at the end of 2015 to encourage social inclusion by reinforcing development and awareness of often overlooked communities. Mountain Lodges of Peru partners directly with these communities to benefit from the trek’s profits.
The Lares route blends the intimacy of mountain life with the intoxicating scenery of the Andes.
The Lares route accomplishes exactly what Mountain Lodges of Peru set out to do: it blends the intimacy of mountain life with the intoxicating scenery of the Andes, leaving time for many moments of cultural connection and reflection to ensue. From the moment I heard that first ethereal sound of the Andean flute (quena in Quechua), I knew there was something this culture understood about life that I didn’t. The people of this region worship pachamama, Mother Earth, the way many cultures worship gods, and they find a communion with nature unlike any other people I’ve ever met. This route connects you with this environment in an intimate way, which is why it’s allotted as the cultural route to Machu Picchu.
One thing most people underestimate about Peru is the sheer size of the landscape. Mountains spring from the ground and the scenery takes complete precedent. In such immense, monstrous beauty, the burden of everyday life slides into the background. You become present and invested in the precise moment in which you inhabit. Life feels ancestral, natural. Mountain Lodges of Peru’s carefully designed lodge-to-lodge system allows for many of the comforts often sacrificed during an intense trek, and whether opting to explore this region on the Salkantay, Inca, or Lares trail, here are a few things you should know before planning your trek to Machu Picchu.
Read: Pick up a Lonely Planet Peru edition, get inspiration, but do book a tour. Local guides in Peru have so much to offer. Don’t miss an opportunity to learn from them. Mountain Lodges of Peru offers a Salkantay route and a Lares route to Machu Picchu. The Salkantay is more physically intense, as trekking is the only option to arrive at the next lodge. The Lares route can be as intense or easy as you would like, as each day there’s a cultural alternative in addition to the trail route.
Dry season is from July to August, making it the most common time to go, due to the cool and dry temperatures.
When to Go: The trek to Machu Picchu winds through the Andean mountain range, but Machu Picchu is indeed a cloud forest, making the destination’s weather unpredictable. The temperatures usually range from 50 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rainy season is from November to April, which means less tourists are in the area. But another rush does spike during the December and January holiday timeframe. Dry season is from July to August, making it the most common time to go, due to the cool and dry temperatures. I went in April at the tailend of the rainy season, and the crowds were minimal.
The idea of ending a night with pisco sours may sound appealing, but your best defense against altitude sickness is a good night’s rest and minimal alcohol consumption.
Airfare: Nonstop flights to Lima are regularly available from international airport hubs like New York, Miami, and Dallas. Once in Lima, hop a short connection to Cusco, the colonial town where every Machu Picchu journey begins and ends.
Fitness: Every trek to Machu Picchu is different depending on the route you take. For the Inca trail, make sure your knees are in great condition, as this trek requires a constant up and down pursuit on stone stairs. For the Salkantay and Lares trails, you trek over high mountain passes, but if you’re in great physical health, you should be fine. And then there’s altitude… there’s not much you can do about this except give yourself a few days to acclimate in Cusco before you venture to the trail.
Health & Safety: The biggest threat on any Machu Picchu trek is altitude. The idea of ending a night with pisco sours may sound appealing, but your best defense against altitude sickness is a good night’s rest and minimal alcohol consumption. One beer can feel like three when you’re 10,000 feet high. Most guides do carry an oxygen tank with them, so in the event you are short of breath and need assistance, your guide will be there to help.
Not every journey to Machu Picchu requires a trek. It is possible to independently reach the ruins, but this way won’t work up a sweat. Using a combination of local transfers, public transportation and trains, you can make your way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, where you can hop a bus to the top of Machu Picchu.
When you see how many people are vying for their time atop Machu Picchu, you’ll understand how valuable and special time alone in the mountains can be.
For all of the hopeful trekkers, it comes down to picking the right trail for you. The Inca Trail is the most famous, which is a somewhat grueling 26-mile route through harsh altitude and a steep up and down climb over cobblestones. Choose this path if you’re hiking for the ruins. If you trek for the mountain views, opt for the Salkantay trail. Usually taking five days and four nights, this route is known to have the most stunning scenery. The trail reaches its pinnacle at the Salkantay Pass, which comes it at over 15,000 feet above sea level.
If you love culture and you’re up for meeting locals, choose the Lares trail. During my time on the Lares, I didn’t see a single other trekker until I reached Ollantaytambo. When you see how many people are vying for their time atop Machu Picchu, you’ll understand how valuable and special time alone in the mountains can be.
Trekking to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu journeys begin in Cusco. Once you leave the cobblestoned, colonial city, the journey reaches into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. You weave through the Urubamba Valley, and eventually arrive to Ollantaytambo, where you board the Peru Rail, Inca Rail, or Hiram Bingham for the Machu Picchu base town of Aguas Calientes. Here, you can hop a bus or choose to hike for a sunrise view of Machu Picchu.
Pro Tip: Get to the top of Machu Picchu early. Watching the mountains emerge from a clouded vortex can be one of life’s more palpable moments. Climb to the top of the Sungate Temple for a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains, or opt for the more intense hike up Huayna Picchu, which is the iconic towering mountain behind the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. And if you intend to celebrate spirituality in the Andes, salute the apus (mountains) and pachamama with a toast. First pour an offering to the ground: this can be beer, water, or whatever you have on hand. Once you’ve given this sacrifice to pachamama, exalt the apus and take a drink yourself. This salute to Andean nature is seen as a sign of admiration for the earth’s bounty.
What Lonely Planet Won't Tell You
The elevation decreases throughout the journey, so bouts of altitude sickness decrease as you move your way into Machu Picchu. Cusco is just over 11,000 feet above sea level, Urubamba is just under 10,000 feet, and Machu Picchu is almost 8,000 feet above sea level. Try to give yourself at least two days to acclimate in Cusco and drink prodigious amounts of coca tea. This tip can really lend to a much better experience.
The best trail advice I’ve ever received is to dress like an onion. Dress in layers, and be ready to take them off as the day progresses and the sun heats the earth’s surface. In addition to proper athletic gear, trekking poles are extremely helpful no matter what trial you’re on. The rocks can be very slippery, and when the rain begins to pour, trekking poles can save you from launching down a slippery slope.
Bring a poncho to protect any gear you may be carrying, and definitely pack some headgear. Keeping your head and ears warm will help properly insulate your entire body.
In addition to drinking coca tea, keep a pack of coca candy or coca leaves in your bag. Munch on these throughout the day or whenever you feel the onset of a headache. [H]