Our first view of Machu Picchu was from across a cloud-covered valley. My daughter Betsy and I had hiked three hours in air so thick that you could cut it with a machete. We were exploring the partially restored Inca ruins of Llactapata with our companions on a seven-day trek to Machu Picchu via the less traveled Salkantay Route. Just as we reached the ruins, the mist lifted and afforded us a magical view of the mystical Inca city. It was the high point in a trip full of spectacular vistas, all-terrain hiking, high-carbohydrate food and spirited companionship.
Betsy and I have gone on father-daughter trips before: scuba diving in the Bahamas when she was 11; following a pack of camels across the Kenyan bush when she was 16; conquering Kilimanjaro when she was 21. Finding a venue that satisfied her yen for an athletic challenge and met my propensity for a warm shower and cold glass of beer at day's end was no easy task.
We found it with a 5-year-old travel company, Mountain Lodges of Peru, which has put together a string of eco-lodges in the wilds of Peru's Vilcabamba Mountains and wrapped it all up in a 39-mile, seven-day trekking package that ended at Aguas Calientes, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu exploration.
The brainchild of Peruvian businessman Enrique Umbert, the lodge-to-lodge concept took four years and $4.2 million to bring to reality. Although the Salkantay back-door route to Machu Picchu is more than 500 years old, it has been overshadowed by the more popular Inca Trail. Umbert saw an opportunity to put together a first-class trek, with hot tubs and gourmet food, and at the same time give back to rural areas.
Thus was born a partnership between locals and luxury travel: In exchange for the rights to buy the parcels of land on which his lodges are located, Umbert pledged to hire local laborers and train local staff members. He also created an eco-friendly organization called Yanapana, which provides funding for small businesses, supports craftsmen and aids in educational efforts.
Today, Mountain Lodges of Peru hosts about 2,000 trekkers annually. In comparison, more than 150,000 trekkers and porters trudge up the "gringo" Inca Trail each year. Our route was definitely less crowded.
Our trek was led by 15-year veteran guide Jesus Cardenas. With a smile that made even the most grueling of climbs seem effortless, Jesus provided sound advice ("Drink water. Drink water") coupled with ample encouragement ("Don't give up…only five minutes more!"). His easy-going style contrasted with that of his more serious assistant, Helen Reinoso, whom we dubbed "Hell-on-wheels" for the torrid pace she set.
Our group was diverse.
There was an emergency room doctor and his pharmacist wife from Boston.
Another couple, Mark and Mary, were an exceedingly fit duo from Green Bay, Wis. In fact, he was a rugby player who trained for this trip by hiking around Green Bay carrying a 50-pound pack.
Another Green Bay couple, Yvette and Travis, were in great shape, but both were beset with trailside mishaps: Travis when his foot caught the edge of a sharp rock while swimming in a glacier lake , necessitating the attention of the ER doctor, and Yvette, whose hiking boots disintegrated on the soggy trail. Duct tape to the rescue.
Then, there was an enthusiastic family from Boston — a radiologist mom, lawyer dad and three college-age sons. The boys bounded from boulder to boulder like human pinballs. The boys' father, Jim, suited up daily in more orthopedic gear than the Bionic Man, while their mother, Jamie, graciously hung back with me.
Finally, there was my daughter, Betsy, 27, a New York advertising executive, and me, a 63-year-old flatlander who lives at zero-feet above sea level on the Florida Gulf Coast. Betsy had cashed in all of her two weeks' vacation for this trip and despite the fact that she had to put up with my snoring, it soon became apparent that she was having a blast matching the boys step-for-boisterous-step up and down the mountain trails, then kicking back and sipping wine with the adults like the woman of the world she was fast becoming. I had trained for four months slogging up and down the highest "hill" on the island where I live, a Calusa Indian burial mound with an elevation of 20 feet, while carrying a pack filled with coconuts, croquet balls and power bars. I wished I had trained harder.
Accompanying us were six Waykis, horsemen whose steeds carried everything we needed for our trek, including all our gear, extra water and most of our food.
The trek was as advertised — strenuous. Our hiking time varied from three to four hours to six to eight hours. Our combined vertical ascent and descent was a little less than four miles. That's a lot of knee-pounding, quadriceps-burning locomotion. Parts of the trek seemed harder than Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Most of us took a daily dose of the altitude-sickness prevention drug, Acetazolamide. With only one exception, we were able to complete the trek without suffering the more severe effects of high-altitude sickness. One trekker had to be transported down the mountain on Day 3 from 13,625 feet because of recurring headaches and joint stiffness. After a stay at lower altitude, she and her husband were able to rejoin the group.
The first day of our trek started with a bone-jarring bus ride from the little town of Mollepapa to the Salkantay Trail jumping-off point.
Soon, we were trekking into an Andean forest at 12,000 feet above sea level. The noon sun was overhead. There wasn't a trace of humidity. We slathered on suntan lotion and bug juice. The woods were awash in earthy smells with an undertone of fresh mint. Some of us sucked on coca leaves. Natives chew coca for energy and protection against altitude sickness.
The hiking was easy enough that first day, with the exception of a narrow pathway above an ancient Inca aqueduct that gave me the willies. Before tackling it, I remembered my yoga training, found a focal point, took two cleansing breaths and stepped out into the unknown. I thought I looked like a Flying Wallenda as I picked my way down the path. Betsy thought I resembled a water buffalo in heat.
After traversing a rickety log bridge spanning a gently flowing stream, we were welcomed with open arms, hot towels and warm Munoz tea at the breathtakingly beautiful Salkantay Lodge, located at 12,690 feet above sea level. This lodge featured a large reception area, a comfortable bar and lounge area with a wood-burning fireplace, a well-stocked apparel store, an even-better stocked bar and a large dining area. And then, there were the sleeping rooms — vaulted masterpieces with inviting twin beds festooned with locally embroidered blankets and gleaming bathrooms with an unlimited supply of hot water and fluffy towels.
Food on the trek was amazingly good. It included barbecued guinea pig (it does not taste like chicken), a wide variety of hearty soups, creamy desserts and mouth-watering pasta. We traveled with our own chef and kitchen assistant. And most of our food was transported by our caravan of horses.
The next five days flew by. Each had its high point. Day 2 saw us frolicking in the glacier-fed, turquoise blue waters of Lake Humantay at 12,690 feet. Day 3 found us (me at least) huffing and puffing up a series of switchbacks called, ominously, the Seven Snakes as we wound our way to the highest point of our climb, the 15,213-foot Salkantay Mountain Pass.
On Day 4, we descended 3,000 feet to a verdant valley filled with orchids, hummingbirds the size of robins and fluorescent-tailed butterflies. That night, while the mists from the hot tub swirled above, we felt as if we could reach up and touch the stars as we counted 15 "shooters" painting the night sky with their gleaming contrails. Day 5 took us on another white-knuckle bus ride and ended with us being dropped off at the Loreta-Llactapata Inca Trail, where we followed the broad grass-lined path through small coffee plantations.
Day 6 dawned cloudy and wet — our first inclement weather. We were thankful for the overcast as we clawed our way up 2,000 feet through the cloud forest and then down 1,000 slippery, ankle-twisting feet to an overlook.
And then, the "wow" moment that none of us will forget: As our guide Jesus gestured into the sea of roiling whiteness that separated us from getting a glimpse of the fabled city, the mist began to rise as if a huge vacuum cleaner were sucking all the clouds up and out of the valley.
It left us with a clear view of Machu Picchu, shimmering like a green jewel not more than two miles away. The hauntingly beautiful 8,600-foot emerald spire Huayna Picchu stood sentinel over a series of terraces and temples. The ruins looked much like they might have 100 years ago when Hiram Bingham first viewed them.
"You are seeing Machu Picchu from a point few visitors will ever know," intoned a for-once-in-life solemn Jesus. "This is a special place from which you can launch your own special dreams."
We all smiled in agreement.
Betsy and I high-fived each other in a congratulatory gesture that would forever bind us as some of the privileged few to see the Lost City of the Incas from this unique vantage point.