Article and photos by Josh Steinitz

We were in a remote valley in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, with no other people in sight. The sun’s last rays were lighting up the fluted snow-covered ridges of Salkantay in a soft pink, creating a stunning alpenglow effect on the highest peak in the range. Where exactly were we? High on a mountain ledge, looking out from our tent, shivering inside our sleeping bag? In a rough stone mountain refuge, looking at maps by headlamp? No, we most certainly were not. In fact, far from roughing it, we were enjoying this spectacular mountain scenery from the comfort of a piping hot jacuzzi at the Salkantay Lodge. Did it feel like cheating? Maybe a little. But after hours of gorgeous hiking up the valley, everyone in our group felt perfectly happy to enjoy the day’s last light from the comfort of a lodge, with a glass of wine or a cold cerveza in hand.

End of day at the Salcantay Lodge

Peru has long been on the backpacker adventure circuit, but only recently has it come into its own as a true luxury travel destination, combining incredible experiential travel options with top-shelf lodging and guiding services. For too long, while the magnet of Machu Picchu drew itinerants and travelers from around the world, the country didn’t offer the more discerning traveler experiences comparable to other global adventure destination draws, like Patagonia, New Zealand, or Africa’s high-end game lodges.

Two companies have recently changed all of that in a material, and quite satisfying way — Orient-Express and Mountain Lodges of Peru.

A Compelling Alternative to the Inca Trail

For many years, trekking the Inca Trail was the signature adventure travel experience in South America. Over time, it became overrun and loved to death, prompting the government to limit daily hikers. Still, while it’s undoubtedly a classic, it’s become a bit cliché and still remains crowded with gringos from around the world — not exactly what most hikers look for in a mountain wilderness experience. In response, some outfitters began offering alternative trekking routes, taking travelers to more off-the-beaten-path locations with equally, if not more, spectacular scenery. One of those was the Salkantay Route, starting above the highland town of Mollepata, winding between two massive glaciated peaks and over a high pass, and then descending down through the cloud forest toward Machu Picchu. About five years ago, Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) made this route radically more comfortable by building a series of four lodges along the route, which are only accessible to groups booking the fully guided trekking itinerary.

After our first day of hiking, we arrived at the Salkantay Lodge, the largest of the four properties, situated in a flat valley (pampa) at the base of 5700-meter Humantay, and with stunning views of Salkantay (20,000 feet) as well.  Since the MLP itinerary includes a layover day here for acclimatization, it was the only lodge where our group of nine was not totally private — and that meant only one other small group was there from the prior day’s departure. Since mules carried most of our gear, we only carried light daypacks, though everyone was still pleasantly tired from walking and the high altitude (12,600 feet).

Salkantay Lodge sits in flat valley just south of the massive Humantay

After the jacuzzi session, dinner and a few drinks, everyone was off the following morning for a day hike up to a spectacularly-turquoise glacial lake at the foot of Humantay. It was a relatively steep climb up to the lake at 14,000 feet, but not too difficult. From there, some of us hiked a further thousand feet up the glacial moraine for an awe-inspiring full-frontal view of Humantay’s glaciers spilling down the south face, along with huge views back down the valley.

Turquoise glacial lake beneath Humantay

The MLP lodges and associated logistics were truly impressive on multiple levels. Hearing the term “mountain lodge,” I expected rustic accommodations with simple food, basic amenities, and limited services. Instead, we were treated to fantastic Peruvian cuisine plus some Western options (breakfast and dinner at the lodges, lunches either on the trail or at the lodge depending on the day), hot showers, well-decorated rooms with soft beds, and generator-provided power from 6am to 11pm every day.  Each lodge had a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, comfortable common areas, and complete privacy. For each night, we had the run of the place. Not to mention, that one uber-amenity – the jacuzzi (available at all but the final lodge, and always starting at 5pm). In addition, our guide, David, Cusco born and bred, filled us in each evening on the day’s itinerary and cultural and natural history along the way.

Hiking up to Salkantay Pass beneath the massive peak

As one might expect based on the experience, our group was not the usual collection of international backpackers who were comfortable speeding through the route and camping in fields of llama shit. Instead, it was entirely American, and comprised of a variety of professional types (doctors, lawyers, etc.) along with other folks who shared the similar trait of not being 21 years old with limited means of support. Because MLP always offers the option of riding the mules instead of hiking, it’s also become popular with many older travelers with an adventurous spirit, who may elect to move at a different pace and occasionally take advantage of mountain transport on especially difficult days.

Mules carrying gear near Salkantay Pass

For most MLP trekkers, that day is the third day, when we ascended Salkantay Pass at 15,100 feet, the highest point of the journey. Into the rain and clouds we rose, until we eventually crested the pass in a swirl of wind and whiteout conditions, quite common at this altitude after midday, when the moisture from the nearby Amazon rushes up the eastern slopes of the Andes as it warms. Descending from the pass, we hiked through a goblin’s paradise of lichen-covered boulders, strange plants and rock spires occasionally emerging from the spooky mist. Eventually, after a warming lunch along the trail, we reached the Wayra Lodge, set in a stunning location on the edge of a plateau where the high mountain terrain of rocks, grassland, and shrubs plunges sharply downward into the cloud forest of orchids, hummingbirds, and increasingly large trees. At 12,700 feet, it’s slightly higher than the Salkantay Lodge, and, while we couldn’t assess the surrounding terrain when we arrived given the dense clouds and fog, morning brought an incredible “ah-ha” moment, revealing glacier-clad peaks (the north face of Humantay, the west face of Tucarway) piercing the blue sky.

Wayra Lodge and Humantay

Full of vigor and with the previous day’s lethargy washed away by the bright morning, another guest and I hiked steeply up to an alpine lake beneath Humantay with the assistant guide Lix (“Lees”) and a local kid who knew the way (he of massive lung capacity). Standing beneath something as massive as an Andean peak might permanently alter one’s sense of scale in the universe. After a round of photos, we headed down the trail to rejoin the group, hiking through increasingly lush foliage as we descended – first gradually, and then much more steeply, as we lost over 3,000 feet of elevation in only a few hours of walking. Eventually, we cut down to the river below, and then steeply back up the opposite bank, to reach the Collpa Lodge, set on a grassy plateau with a picture-perfect view over the green valley below and surrounded by forested mountains on all sides. Collpa’s picturesque setting, friendly vibe, great food (lunchtime barbecue cooked in the traditional way in a pit dug out of the ground), and homey interior won several guests’ and guides’ votes for “best lodge” on the trek. At only “only” 9,300 feet, it was also the first lodge to feel like we were approaching the jungly setting of Machu Picchu. That evening, we practiced several Peruvian card games that David and Lix knew…some of us proved quicker on the uptake than others, though luckily they were about as easy to learn as card games get.

Collpa Lodge sits on a small plateau in the cloud forest

The following morning, we hiked out of the lodge and passed several other groups who were doing the same route and who had camped in the field of a local enterprising family. While I’m an avid backpacker and generally enjoy camping and the associated wilderness experience, I have to admit that I was perfectly happy to have spent a comfortable night in a great lodge in the company of interesting people, rather than sitting out the rainstorm and reading in my tent by headlamp while trying to keep my gear dry. It was also one of the few times we really saw any other gringos on the trail, since they were generally packed up and gone by the time we headed out. Descending the valley down a dirt road, the scene became alive with tall trees, rushing water, and parrots – we had entered the lower cloud forest. Approaching a bridge, we veered off the road onto a foot path that followed the river downhill, passing increasingly lush foliage as the temperature and humidity rose. As was the case on virtually every day, the morning’s blue skies gave way to increasing clouds and then thunderstorms as the day wore on—-a mountain weather pattern familiar to many in North America, but supercharged by the moisture of trillions and trillions of trees in the Amazon.

Roasting coffee beans near Lucma Lodge

After a lunch stop under cover (with entertainment provided by a veritable animal farm of pigs, dogs, turkeys, and chickens), we eventually reached a dirt road, where a bus carried us further down-valley to the town of Lucmabamba. From there, a short walk up an Incan road through coffee fields brought us to the Lucma Lodge, the final MLP-owned property. A short while later, we took an interesting excursion to visit a local coffee-growing family and watched their old-school hand-roasting process (surrounded by their family of guinea pigs, or cuy, an Andean delicacy).

Eager guinea pigs

That evening, our last as a private group, many of us let loose with free-flowing wine and boisterous conversation. It’s amazing how comfortable people can get with one another in a short period of time—no better witness to this fact than the easy repartee among groups members (and guides) with a healthy amount of “shit-giving” thrown in to boot.

Lucma Lodge

In fact, that copious wine proved to be the undoing of David the morning after, as he stuck to the back of the line as we hiked up to a pass on the ridge above, before descending to visit the Inca ruins of Llactapata (only partially restored, and with distant views to Machu Picchu) and then stopping at a lunch spot with million-dollar views of Machu Picchu across the valley — a view most visitors to the area never get to see. After an hour or two of steep downhill walking, we reached the hydroelectric station on the Urubamba River, where we boarded the train for the short ride to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Pulling into the ramshackle town, it was something of a shock to suddenly be in the midst of gringo backpacker overload, instead of alone on the trail with just our group and the occasional horse, donkey, or mule.

Walking through a primeval forest

The following morning, after a restful night’s sleep at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (the only hotel located adjacent to the ruins themselves), I arose before dawn to be in line to enter the park when the gates opened at 6am. As one of the first 30 or so people inside, I managed to experience a few hours of the magical place with only a few hundred others milling about vs. the hordes that would descend later on (peak visitation is between 10am and 3pm). It was my first time at Machu Picchu, and as most past visitors will attest, no amount of prior tourism marketing adequately prepares you for the site itself. Yes, you know what it looks like from a thousand brochures and photos. But those images can’t really capture the full spectrum of the location, surrounded by mists and rainforest-clad mountain spires. In between moments of snapping away like a drunken idiot, I did manage to pause and take it all in. Words definitely don’t do it justice, so if you haven’t been, just make sure you get there at least once.

A wisp of cloud hangs over Machu Picchu at dawn

A short while later, I met our MLP group at the park entrance, and David gave us a private tour, leveraging his years of knowledge of the area. What’s perhaps most surprising about Machu Picchu is that, while much is known about the site and the Inca people, even more is not, and remains subject to debate, conjecture, and outright speculation. Overhearing other guides, it appeared that each merged the official history with a bit of personal opinion or special facts — I suspect that each tour of the area is a little bit different. For example, almost everyone asks the obvious question: how could the Incas have shaped such perfectly form-fitting stones without the use of metals like iron or steel? Using other hard rocks? That’s not an especially satisfying answer. Likewise, questions about means of transport (without use of wheels) remain, as does the ultimate question — what exactly was the purpose for which Machu Picchu was built? A last bastion? A royal retreat? A sacred religious site? Perhaps some, or all, and more.

Machu Picchu Mountain looms behind the ruins

Ultimately, perhaps Machu Picchu’s true power today lies in its capacity to elicit powerful emotions and a sense of wonder from modern people, across the spectrum of nationality, class, and religion.

Incredible stonework exists in a variety of forms at Machu Picchu

Stylish Luxury at Home in Peru

As any Peru veteran will tell you, it would be a shame to do a trek in the country without sampling the charms of Cusco and the Sacred Valley, either before or after the trek (or on their own for that matter). While very much in the heart of the South American gringo trail, Orient-Express has brought a dose of style and luxury to an area long popular with backpackers.

After a second night at Machu Picchu, I again woke at dawn, took the first bus up from Aguas Calientes, and hiked Huayna Picchu (the famous mountain next to the ruins themselves) for a bird’s eye view of the citadel. Just before saying goodbye to the place, the morning sun broke through the clouds, casting an incredible glow on the granite stones.

Terraces built into the steep mountainsides above the citadel, with Huayna Picchu in the background

Later that morning, taking the Vistadome train out of Aguas Calientes (a highly recommended alternative to the basic trains), I got off to explore the Incan ruins at Ollantaytambo, the last town in the Sacred Valley before the Urubamba River plunges down an increasingly narrow canyon on its journey north toward the jungle. From there, I caught a short taxi to the Hotel Rio Sagrado, just outside the town of Urubamba, an increasingly popular crossroads in the Sacred Valley, and hotbed of local activities.

Peruvian fashion show on the Vistadome train

Incan ruins at Ollantaytambo

The Hotel Rio Sagrado, opened about five years ago by Orient-Express, offered an incredibly peaceful and tranquil respite after a long day of bus and train travel. Set amidst manicured lawns, gardens and waterfalls along the banks of the Urubamba River, the hotel’s rooms and casitas are spacious and private. The grounds are a pleasure to walk around, the spa is quiet and relaxing, and the restaurant and bar are stylish and well-designed. Offering many different takes on Peru’s national drink, pisco, the bar menu is surprisingly extensive, and the bartenders never let a glass get to empty. My personal favorite version combined pisco with ginger ale and fresh ginger, lemon, and simple sugar.

Room with a view at Hotel Rio Sagrado

In addition to the pleasures of relaxing at the property, one of the benefits of the Rio Sagrado is its proximity to some fantastic scenery and cultural attractions. Early the next morning, I set off by foot. After a short walk along the river, I crossed a bridge and began heading up into the highlands. After a short while, I reached the famous salt mines, where local workers still harvest the Peruvian “pink salt” from over a thousand evaporating ponds terraced into the arid hillsides. It’s a stunning scene. From there, I continued walking up a dirt path to the town of Maras, set on a high plateau with stunning views across the highlands and east to the Cordillera. Asking directions from a few wizened locals, I turned right on a certain street and headed off to Moray. A helpful policeman ensured that I took the footpath, instead of the gravel road for cars, for the 90-minute walk.

Workers carrying heavy bags of salt at the salt mines near Urubamba

According to some, Moray was the centerpiece of the religious landscape of the Incas. Regardless, it’s fascinating to see the terraced circular depressions in the mountainside, each supposedly used as an Incan agricultural laboratory, with the climate changing as the terraces descend down toward the center low point. Its location, high on the windswept plateau, only adds to the ambiance, much as it does in Machu Picchu (in fact, for some, the location IS the thing). Afterwards, the Rio Sagrado had helpfully arranged to have a driver meet me at Moray with my bag, in order to take me on to Cusco directly (with a short stop to see the impressive ruins at the highland town of Chinchero). I resolved to come back and take up Hans (the day manager) and Fleury (the GM) on their offer to sample some of the area’s best mountain biking trails.

The high plains above the Sacred Valley near Maras

Local girl tending her flock of sheep and alpaca near Moray

In Cusco itself, the Hotel Monasterio has long been considered the classic place to stay in the city. Eponymously named, the former monastery has a beautiful courtyard, a sumptuous breakfast buffet, a private chapel, a bar and lounge, and many other luxuries large and small. While the rooms are somewhat small (as befits the monastic heritage), the overall experience continues to impress, years after it became a landmark Cusco property. The location, just a block from the Plaza de Armas, doesn’t hurt either.

Hotel Monasterio

Ambling around the city, I sampled some of the top can’t-miss attractions, including the Incan fortress of Sacsaywaman towering over the city, the atmospheric Plaza de Armas, the eclectic San Blas neighborhood, and the Santo Domingo church, built on top of Incan walls in that classic form of Spanish syncretic conquering.

Sacsaywaman looms above Cusco

Taking a page out of the “buy and refurbish” book, Orient-Express has just opened, as of June 2012, an incredible new property right next door to the Monasterio—the Palacio Nazarenas. The all-suite hotel was similarly converted from a convent, and exploring the nooks and crannies of its many garden courtyards was a joy. As befits a new property, some of the landscaping will take a little time to come into its own, and the library should benefit from further stocking over time, but the hotel was impressively put together for a new entrant. Though the weather was hardly tropical (at 11,300 feet, it perhaps rarely is), the contemporary heated pool beckoned, the restaurant offered a solid array of Peruvian and international dishes, and the staff was more than helpful. However, likely the signature feature of the hotel was the room itself. The ornate bathroom came with heated marble floors, a full tub with bath salts, a shower with two different heads (along with fancy bathworks from the UK) and Italian soaps and lotions. Likewise, the suite was divided into a sleeping area with four-poster bed and local herbs available for sleep aids (and an inset flat screen TV that went unused), and a sitting area with free access to espresso, minibar and snacks, and even a pisco sour alongside a classy sofa and chair and another flat screen TV. Oh, and to ensure the altitude doesn’t bring on a case of soroche (altitude sickness), oxygen-enriched air is piped in automatically. My assigned “private butler” Giancarlo was more than happy to show me around the room, pointing out all of the above, plus a hundred other little touches. From my perspective, Palacio Nazarenas has set a new standard for lodging in Cusco, and indeed for the whole city.

Evening at Palacio Nazarenas

I decided to use my last day to visit Pisac, a short 30-minute taxi from Cusco. Rising early, I was the first person to arrive at the ruins high above the town, and had a blissful 45 minutes of waking alone among the stone walls and turrets, set on a rocky promontory with stunning views down to the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba below. The evidence suggests that Pisac was one of the few Incan fortresses with multiple primary functions, including agricultural, military, and religious. As the sun broke through the clouds, I hiked steeply downhill to the town of Pisac itself, and spent several fun hours haggling with local merchants for gifts of jewelry and alpaca clothing, and enjoying the people-watching of locals buying and selling fruits, vegetables and meats at the locals’ market adjoining the tourist craft market. Yes it was “touristy,” but no more so, and probably less, than many other market hotspots around the world.

The locals' produce market at Pisac

On my last evening in Peru, I sat at the bar at Cicciolina and enjoyed a truly sumptuous feast. Several glasses of Argentine malbec perfectly complemented the onion soup, Peruvian potato gnocchi (so soft it melted in my mouth) and osso bucco with pumpkin ravioli. Through the pleasant haze of wine and too much food, I realized that Peru had become the sort of place where one can have the best of both worlds – incredible off-the-beaten path experiences with real authenticity, alongside stylish luxury and great food at a level at or above the best standards in the world. Peru has always been known for adventure, and more recently for its cuisine as well, but now it seems it’s put together the total package — adventure without the compromise.

Sitting at the bar at Cicciolina

Practically Speaking

Mountain Lodges of Peru offers the 7 day/6 night lodge-to-lodge Salkantay trek. The trips run daily outside the rainy season from March through November, and fill up quickly, so it’s best to book well in advance. A solid level of fitness is required, though you certainly don’t need to be an athlete, and riding muleback is always an option if the altitude or terrain gets the better of you. The trek costs $2,990 per person ($600 lower in shoulder season), and includes transport to the start of the trek from Cusco, one day’s entry to Machu Picchu, one night’s lodging in Aguas Calientes, and a Vistadome train to Ollantaytambo.

Salkantay evening alpenglow

Orient-Express operates five fantastic properties in Peru. While traveling through Lima before or after your trip, the Miraflores Park offers an excellent home base with all the modern amenities and a great location on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean (visible if/when the famous Lima fog lifts). Lima is worth a day or two in its own right, if only to take a quick spin around the historic center and then sample some of its famous cuisine and nightlife in neighborhoods like Barranco, San Isidro, or Miraflores.

Evening in Barranco, Lima

In Cusco, the Hotel Monasterio and Palacio Nazarenas are both excellent choices. The former is long-established and popular with high-end tours, so you might consider the Nazarenas before the word gets out too much – you won’t be sorry.

Ornate bathroom at Palacio Nazarenas

In the Sacred Valley, the Hotel Rio Sagrado has an enviable location and a truly serene setting, making for a great home base for several days of exploring the area or simply relaxing. The staff is friendly and exceedingly helpful.

In Machu Picchu, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is the best choice if you want to stay close to the ruins and in the forest, far from the hustle and bustle of Aguas Calientes. It can be busy during the day while buses disgorge a constant stream of visitors at the park entrance, but it’s a welcome refuge in the evening when everyone else has left. Plus, since it’s right next to the entrance, you can skip the bus rides and come and go as you please between the ruins and your room. If you prefer to stay in town to access more services, or if the Sanctuary Lodge is full, the Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel is a great option. At the far lower end of town, it’s relatively removed from the noise and crowds, and offers well-appointed rooms with breakfast and dinner included. If you’re on the Mountain Lodges of Peru itinerary, you’ll likely already be booked into the Inkaterra hotel, so if you want to stay a second night, you’ll have to decide whether to stay on there or move to one of the alternatives.

The Sumaq Hotel in Aguas Calientes enjoys a nice location along the Urubamba River at the base of Machu Picchu

Several train companies compete to bring visitors to and from Aguas Calientes. The Hiram Bingham, named after the famous “discoverer” of Machu Picchu, is the luxury service, complete with private dining and musical accompaniment. The Vistadome will be the train of choice for most discerning travelers, as it’s much less costly but still offers a higher class of service than the basic train and perhaps most importantly, per its name, has overhead viewing windows, the better to see the towering peaks above the gorge of the Urubamba. Both are available for purchase through the Peru Rail website.

If you’re hoping to hike Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, be advised that both require an advanced-purchased ticket. The former is especially popular, and sells out quickly as it’s limited to 200 people for a 7-8am departure and 200 people for a 10-11am departure. The round-trip takes most people around 2 hours, with plenty of time to enjoy the view from the summit. Machu Picchu Mountain is a longer and higher hike, and somewhat less popular (though many claim, equally beautiful). You can also easily get a great bird’s eye view of the ruins by walking up the Inca Trail to the Inti Punku, or Sun Gate, which takes about 30-40 minutes.

Many airlines offer service into Lima, including LAN, Delta, United, and American. From Lima, LAN offers frequent service into Cusco. Be advised that connections with flights to North America are not ideal, usually necessitating an overnight stay in Lima and/or a long layover in the airport.