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.
Machu Picchu itself, you will be unsurprised to hear, was a destination worth a week’s walking—a sublime ruin that serenely exceeds its hype. Among the Incas’ many talents was an evident knack for site selection; historians and anthropologists believe that mountains were of special significance in Incan religion, and most of the ruins we visited in Peru—old temples or retreats for the high-born—sat on high ground, with beautiful vistas. Even so, the setting of Machu Picchu is unmatched, and mesmerizing. Jagged green mountains surround the ruin closely, like the spikes of a crown. A few reach above the ruin; several lie below.
One can see, at Machu Picchu, many of the technological advances that allowed the Incan empire to rise so quickly and decisively in the 15th century, before it was brought low just as abruptly by European steel, horses, and disease. The ancient road coming up over a high ridge, through the Sun Gate, and into the heart of the settlement hints at the vast, sturdy road network that once spread throughout the empire. (Supply depots, built at regular intervals along these roads and stocked with food, spare sandals, weapons, and other sundries, allowed armies and officials to travel light, at a pace that was unprecedented. Runners, stationed all along the roads, carried news and orders more quickly still.)
Agricultural terraces cling to the steep slope below the city. (The Incas were, above all, master farmers, and their clever land use, experimentation with different soil mixtures, and skill at growing different crops at different altitudes allowed them to offer more-bountiful harvests to neighboring tribes that acceded to their dominion.)
The buildings themselves, which are believed to have housed 500 people—royalty, courtiers, priests—were famously constructed from stone blocks so precisely carved and fitted that they required no mortar, and were so well engineered that many have withstood centuries of storms and earthquakes. Our presence among them, and, as the day wore on, that of a steadily rising tide of other tourists, speaks to a different sort of assault. Yet even when mobbed, the city retains its grandeur. Walking through it, and staring out into the distance, one cannot help but wonder what another 100 years of empire might have produced, had Pizarro never landed.
After careful reflection, I decided it probably would have led to the creation of high-ceilinged lodges along the roads, with oversized bathrooms and hot, scented hand towels. I wonder if wireless access would have been available.