Although the classic Inca Trail is already booked up through fall 2008, thankfully other ways to hike to Machu Picchu are still available.
An Alternative Inca Trail Hike
Although the classic Inca Trail is already booked up through fall 2008, thankfully other ways to hike to Machu Picchu are still available. One ideal alternative hike that officially kicked off earlier this year is the Mountain Lodges of Peru or MLPtrek (tel. 011/511-421-7777; www.mountainlodgesofperu.com), which gives hikers a feel for the Inca Trail without being quite so rough. This new hike follows a string of ancient Inca roads and mule trails for about 40-miles eastward to Machu Picchu (versus the western-bound route of the classic trail), and hikers following this route stay in four comfortable Mountain Lodges along the way. You can book directly with Mountain Lodges of Peru for $2,500; a number of leading adventure travel operators also offer the trip, throwing in private tours and airfare for a bit more money. Backroads (tel. 800/GO-ACTIVE; www.backroads.com) is one highly recommended MLP operator. It's known for both its personal service and its dedication to small group sizes; this photo shows half of an average group setting off on a hike.
Hotel Monasterio in Cusco
Any hiking trip to Machu Picchu should start with a stay in the 600-year-old Inca capital of Cusco. At 11,000 feet., and just a few hours from the fabled ruins, Cusco is a great place to rest up and get acclimated before setting out on your high-altitude trek. And there's no better place to rest than the Hotel Monasterio (tel. 800/237-1236; http://monasterio.orient-express.com), which has long been considered the best hotel in Cusco. This converted 1592 monastery offers distinctly modern perks like oxygen-enriched air (it costs $40 a night to have air pumped into your room, and is worth the price if you're suffering from altitude-sickness) and beautifully-decorated rooms, along with a good dose of colonial history. If you can't afford to stay in the hotel (doubles start at $435 a night), then at least stop by the Restaurante Illary: overlooking the hotel's pretty courtyard, it serves excellent local cuisine like alpaca and lake trout. Other hotels are listed in our Cusco destination guide.
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Inca Warrior at Q'enko
While most people travel to Peru to see that greatest-of-all ruins, Machu Picchu, anyone stopping in Cusco should also see some of the spectacular sites that lie just outside town. Backroads features a hike to some of these ruins on the first day of its MLP trip; this hike is 5 miles long, but it's spread out over a few hours and makes for a relaxing way to get used to the elevation. The first stop along this hike is Q'enko, where this ancient warrior guards the entrance to the small cave-like altar that's the focal point of the ruins.
Backroads is nicknamed Snackroads for a reason -- any trip with them means lots of good food. The first lunch of their MLP trip consists of delicious homemade picnic grub like hummus, veggies, roasted chicken, fresh bread, and local fruit like grenadillas, and diners are serenaded by some beautiful highland music during their meal. It's a great way to fuel up for the roughly weeklong journey that lies ahead and to learn about Peruvian culture at the same time. The musicians shown in this photo are playing a quena, an Andean flute dating back to the pre-Colombian times; a zampona, another wind instrument local to Peru; and drums.
Slide at Sacsayhuamán
Most impressive of the ruins immediately outside Cusco is Sacsayhuamán, an Inca religious temple whose fortress-like walls probably also served some military purpose. It took nearly 100 years to construct the perfectly-crafted massive walls of limestone at this sprawling site. Only the outer walls remain today; some of the base stones are 11 feet tall, and were fitted together without any mortar. The ruins are popular with people of all ages -- kids particularly like gliding down the natural "slides" shown in this picture.
Cusco's Plaza de Armas at Dusk
In addition to its Inca ruins, Cusco also has a number of colonial sights worth visiting. In the center of town, at the Plaza de Armas, is the Templo de la Compañia de Jesús, a 17th-century Jesuit church pictured here. The Plaza de Armas at dusk is an attraction in its own right: grab a bench, watch the locals and tourists interact, and enjoy the dazzling sunset over the surrounding Andes mountains.
Interior Salkantay Lodge
Day one of the Mountain Lodges of Peru trek kicks off with a 4-hour scenic drive from Cusco to the town of Mollepata. Hikers then choose between a roughly 4-hour trek, or a shorter, hour-and-a-half path to the first MLP lodge, called Salkantay. The views from both sides of the lodge can be literally breathtaking: nestled between the mountains of Salkantay and Humantay, and at an elevation of 12,500 feet, it can be hard work just to get a good lungful of oxygen. Yet the trip is worth it, for anyone who stays here is rewarded with lush accommodations, featuring high quality linens, hot showers, whirlpools, and cozy dining areas where local haute cuisine is served. With 12 rooms, Salkantay Lodge is the largest of the MLP properties; the others have 6 units each. Salkantay is also the most easily accessible of the four MLP locations -- two of the others, Wayra and Colpa, are only reachable on foot or mule and so were built in a painstakingly piecemeal fashion. (42,000 sq. ft. of sustainable materials had to be carried over an average of 6 miles to build these lodges.)
Glacial Lake outside Salkantay
On day two of the MLP trek, hikers journey almost 4 miles up to a beautiful glacial lake at the base of Humantay Mountain. Wear layers and bring rain gear: this picture was captured during a hailstorm that started right after one Backroads group reached the lake. Hikers then return to Salkantay Lodge in time for a late lunch and have a few hours to go horseback riding, gear up for the big next day, simply relax, or even see a demonstration on how to make pisco sours. (This quintessential Peruvian drink combines pisco -- a wine brandy -- with lime juice and egg whites, making for a tasty concoction.)
Porter at Salkantay Pass
Day three of the MLP trek involves hiking from Salkantay Lodge to the Huayraccmachay region of Peru via Salkantay Pass, which at nearly 15,500 feet is the highest point of the trip. Porters like the one in this picture accompany all MLP hikes, bringing with them horses, water, food, and oxygen tanks. After getting to the top, hikers then make their way down to the base of the mountain for a hot lunch cooked by a personal chef of Mountain Lodges of Peru. The MLP cooks mainly use organic ingredients, either grown near the lodges or purchased from local farmers. In addition, all the MLP staff is made up of locals and donations to the charity Yanapana (www.yanapana.org) are encouraged to help eradicate poverty in the area.
Exterior Wayra Lodge
After fueling up on lunch, the MLP group heads slightly downhill along a landscape, which, with its rolling green hills and mist, may call to mind Ireland. After about an hour's walk, Wayra Lodge, the second Mountain Lodge of Peru, peeks out unobtrusively from the mountains. This is the coziest of four very cozy MLP lodges, with a B&B-like feel that extends from the warmly-decorated lounge area (decked out in the same soothing red and white color scheme as the other lodges) to the "mud room," where hikers can remove what are by now their quite muddy hiking boots to be cleaned.
Pachamanca at Colpa Lodge
Day four of the MLP trip takes travelers farther downhill, away from the mountains and into a decidedly different, tropical landscape. Hikers journey 5.5 miles, with 3550 feet of elevation loss, to get to the Collpapampa region and Colpa Lodge, the third Mountain Lodge of Peru. Along the way, the MLP guide (the lodges boast 10 experienced lead guides, along with assistants who accompany larger groups) will point out insects, frogs, birds, and exotic flowers like orchids. Upon arrival at the lodge, a late lunch called a pachamanca, a ceremonial roasting of food in the ground, is prepared. Cuy, or guinea pig, is usually a key component of this ceremony -- it's considered a delicacy in Peru, and is served with head and feet upturned.
Peruvian Girl on Way to Lucma Lodge
On day five, hikers wind down from Collpapampa to the Lucmabamba region and, as the elevation drops even more (to just 6,560 ft.), villages pop up and the landscape becomes even more tropical. The girl pictured here works at one of the number of food stands that dot this 11-mile trek, which is the longest of the trip. The hike culminates with a stretch of the official Inca Trail that leads to Lucma Lodge, the last Mountain Lodge of Peru. Lucma is similar in style to all the other mountain lodges, but it is the only one without an outdoor hot tub or heaters in the room. (It's much hotter down at this elevation, after all.)
Llactapata Ruins, with View of Machu Picchu in the Background
Though they're not as vast as some of the country's other ruins, the Llactapata ruins, pictured here, are perhaps more impressive than most, if only because of their location. These ruins are situated on a peak right across from Machu Picchu and its neighboring mountain, Huayna Picchu, which means that from here, there's a view of both famous mountains that few get to see. (Visitors to Machu Picchu can't view Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu side by side in this manner.) Llactapata makes for a great lunch break spot during day six of the MLP journey, which involves a nearly 7-mile hike to a hydroelectric station. From there, hikers take a 30-minute train ride to Aguas Calientes, the base town closest to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu in the Early Morning
The final day of the MLP trek is the trip's high note -- a long-awaited visit to Machu Picchu. The Backroads group purposely leaves Aguas Calientes early in the morning to beat the crowds arriving on the earliest Cusco train. This picture shows Huayna Picchu in the background at around 9am; if the picture were taken a mere hour later, it would've shown crowds of tourists. Anyone who can should hike up Huayna Picchu -- the views of the ruins from almost 9,000 feet are spectacular.