Travel March 2012

Five-Star Trek

A pampered tour through the Peruvian Andes

A marvel of the 15th-century Incan empire, Machu Picchu was a center of agricultural and religious importance. (Ralph Hopkins/Lonely Planet Images)

The hot hand towel was unexpected. It was proffered, with a pair of tongs, by a lovely uniformed woman in the hotel entranceway, and from it wafted little lemony tendrils of steam. I took it slowly, a little unsure of where to wipe. The hike to the hotel had taken several hours, mostly uphill, and I was standing in damp fleece and wet wool socks, having just left my muddy boots outside the door. I did not smell of citrus.

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, my wife and I were making a weeklong trek through the Peruvian Andes to the royal city of Machu Picchu. We were following the Salkantay Route, a less heavily trodden alternative to the classic Inca Trail. And instead of tents, we were staying in a series of tiny, high-end lodges built on the footpath along the way.

Trekking and luxury are not words that commingle easily, and any meditative nourishment from the one might seem to risk cancellation by the material indulgence of the other. But at 12,500 feet, as the temperature was dropping, it was awfully nice to walk into the Salkantay Lodge’s heated, tastefully appointed lobby; stand under the rain-forest showerhead in my room; soak in a hot tub; eat a fine meal with good wine; enjoy the handmade confection on my pillow; and then slip between high-thread-count sheets.

For years, my travel choices have been guided by a few precepts: in poor countries, go low-budget, the better to meet local people and see the culture as it really is; seek out the unfamiliar and the uncertain, the better to create a sense of discovery and adventure; travel independently, avoiding group tours, for the same reasons. But, in a concession to middle age, my wife and I chucked all of these on this trip. We were traveling with 10 other hikers, mostly Western professionals, who with us filled each lodge each night; Mountain Lodges of Peru, which owns the hotels, operates them as part of an all-inclusive group trek.

Two guides led us, previewing what lay ahead and taking care of every logistical detail. Mules bore our packs. We were trailed by a horse, nicknamed “911,” which carried medical supplies, extra water, and snacks, and which could—in a pinch—be ridden to the next lodge.

All of that (mostly) fell into the background as we walked, passing through alpine meadows nestled among green, brown, and white peaks. Mount Salkantay—­its icy top looking thin and sharp as a marlin’s fin—loomed above the rest, dominating the first stages of the trek. The mountain’s grooved face grew slowly closer, brilliant in the sun, until our third day, when we struggled up to a 15,000-foot-high pass beside it, the highest point we would reach. 911 was already at the top, waiting, when I got there. He’d passed us as we began the steepest part of the ascent. I caught my breath and high-fived my fellow hikers. He swished his tail indifferently.

On the other side of the pass, moist winds blew up from the far-off jungle, toward which we would descend over the next several days, through boulder fields and cloud forest, then along steep, verdant river valleys dotted with orchids and scarred by mudslides. At times, we followed the remnants of stone Incan roads. It was a lovely and varied hike, interrupted by comfortable evenings spent having a massage, chatting over long dinners, and playing backgammon on modern sofas in the lounge. Wireless Internet access was somehow available in the lodges. I grumbled a bit about that, when not checking the score of the Jets game or the latest New York Times headlines.

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