Getting High in Peru
I honestly might not have gotten to Peru but for the urging of my travel buddy, Margaret, who has held Machu Picchu high on her wish list for years. Our travel materials claimed that National Geographic Traveler Magazine named the Inn-to-Inn trek as a “Tour of a Lifetime.” For me, such the hyperbole morphed into reality in June, 2014.
Machu Picchu was, indeed, fascinating and mysterious (stay tuned for an upcoming blog) despite the heat and crowds. But I was captivated more by the days preceding our visit to that city, which was reclaimed a hundred years ago from the choke of dense forest overgrowth. After a night in the ancient Inca capital of Cusco (elev. 11,000'), our group of ten followed our super-capable and fun guides, Manolo Lazo and Pepe Soldevila into the Andes. (Note: signing on to an open-enrollment group is always dicey; we all agreed that this one was 100% good! No whiners. No outliers. No oddness. Nice.)
On the two-hour drive through the city and suburbs of Cusco to our trailhead, we stopped to see Tarawasi Archeological site in Limatambo where the Incan “ruins” (with beautiful intact walls) were overbuilt by a Spanish church in the invaders’ relentless campaign to subsume the indigenous culture. Later, we stopped in Mollepata, a highland town (elev. 9,512') for snacks and a visit to a textile co-op. For 45 soles ($15), I got a great alpaca hat!
Then, we walked—one of my favorite pastimes—for six beautiful days in the high Andes, and were coddled at four “Mountain Inns of Peru” each night (think hot showers, warm beds, good food, adult beverages—yes, I am perhaps getting soft. I blame Margaret.) The inns are intimate (we were usually the only group that would fit) and the people kind and generous. First we walked mostly uphill to Salkantay Lodge (elev. 12,750'). On our “rest” day there to acclimate, we ambled up to Humantay Lake (elev. 13,845'), for fun. The group, with variable experience on such uneven and elevated terrain, was tended with great skill and respect by our guides.
The next day was something I looked forward to since 2007 when I was last at high altitude (in Nepal, where several times I reached 18,000+ feet, but overall the trip didn’t go terribly well). I was curious to see how I’d do tramping up to Salkantay Pass (elev. 15,340'). Happily, my passage went well, as it did for the others. We were rewarded with good weather, with Salkantay Peak (20,500') silently observing our progress from its preeminent place in the stunning Vilcabamba Range.
Our safe passage was rewarded by a warm welcome at Wayra Lodge (elev. 12,000, which by then felt rich in oxygen!). The jacuzzi was divine... I was sad, as always, to leave the heights of the alpine world, but it was time to travel through the high pastures and into the cloud forests as we made our way to Collpa Lodge (elev. 10,300') and then Lucma Lodge (at the downright low elevation of 6,600'—but still higher than Denver) over the next couple of days.
From Lucma we had an unexpectedly challenging ascent to Llactapata Pass (8,900') to lunch overlooking a still-distant Machu Picchu from a vantage point few travelers get to see. Then came a knee-jarring straight-down descent to the Urubamba river valley, where we boarded PeruRail for the ride into the town of Aguas Calientes. The only rain we had was on that short, 35-minute train ride!
What I learned was that, although I’d been thinking “I’m going to Machu Picchu” for months, I actually fell in love with the larger context of Peru. Not to take anything away from that world-renowned site, but these places (especially its highlands) easily trumps it, in my opinion.
And I highly recommend getting high (that is, gaining altitiude). It’s worth the sweat, the burning muscles, the effort. One immense reward is the night sky. Unimpeded by light pollution, the stars glistened and shone, and we could clearly see the vast storyboard of Andean legends in the Milky Way, right there alongside the Southern Cross. What an terrific adventure!