You cannot say the word “Peru” without someone immediately following it with a comment about Machu Picchu. This means two things regarding the Lost City of the Incas: It is a truly magnificent destination in South America and secondly, it’s the biggest tourist magnet south of the equator. With this in mind and our constant desire to take the road less traveled, we opted to not hike the “Classic Inca Trail” (which was partially paved by the Incans and packed to the gills) and started researching tour companies that could provide an equally cultural experience without as many gringos. After weeks of researching, all signs were pointing to Andean Treks and their Moonstone to Sun Temple five-day trek. With 32-years of experience leading adventures throughout South America, Andean Treks knows the ins-and-outs of the Incan back roads for the most intimate access to the ruins of the Sacred Valley.
Traveling along the Royal Inca Road, which goes from the historic Inca capital of Cusco through the northern villages of the Empire, ending in the majestic Machu Picchu, we made the first stop at the sacred Inca shrine known as Quillarumi (“Moonstone” in the Quechua language of the Incas and the inspiration for our hike’s namesake). Here, our six new hiking mates share a smile and a bit of common jitters before we embark on our five-day high-altitude adventure.
We arrive at the WATA trailhead to meet our hiking crew, encompassing two guides, two chefs, four wranglers, and six horses (hey, you can’t go roughing it too much on a honeymoon!). We weren’t expecting such luxury for a camping trip but the team carried all of our bags, set up all the equipment, and always hiked speedily ahead to make sure camp and meals were ready and waiting upon our arrival.
The Machu Picchu hike started along the west bank of the Huaracondo River. After an two-hour warm-up hike, we reached Huatta, a breathtaking pre-Inca fortress dominating the crest of a ridge at 12,645ft. In the forefront of this shot you can see one of the burial areas for the high priests and nobility, and in the distance you can see all the mountains we would traverse in coming days, including the “W-shaped” 15,200ft. mountain pass.
The mountains of Peru are like nothing you will see anywhere in the world–from jagged peaks, to glacier-encrusted horizons to the perfect triangle formations seen in the above photo.
One of the most amazing parts of the hikes was the window it gave us into local life in the mountains, from a women driving a herd of sheep to graze on a terrace to horses loaded down with the day’s potato harvest. We were very excited to hear that much of the food we were eating along the way was purchased from the local villagers who graciously allowed us to camp on their land. Andean Treks is extremely conscious of the footprint they leave, trying to minimize the impact on the land and maximize the benefits for its inhabitants.
Each day was adventurous and breathtaking, but we never hiked to exhaustion. We took plenty of stops to learn about the Incan ruins we were passing, enjoy a hearty snack from the chefs and take in the scenery. Above, the team starts day three with a glimpse at Mount Pinkulluna and the towering Veronica Glacier in the distance.
Descending through the rock fields of the Incan quarry and passing through acres of quinoa fields along the base of the Sacred Valley, we reach the sacred 15th-century town of Ollantaytambo on Day 4. The stone streets wind like a labyrinth, revealing a still traditional Andean way of life. Meandering through, we arrived at the home of the first Andean Treks chef to for lunch and to celebrate the 45k hike we had just completed.
The one seemingly bad thing about not hiking the Classic Inca Trail is that you have to do your final leg to Agua Calientes/Machu Picchu Village by train. Though with Peru Rail’s panoramic windows looking out to the towering peaks, Incan ruins, and the rushing Urubamba River, we quickly forgot this fact.
Wedged between massive mountains and a rushing river, it is amazing to think that a bustling town like Agua Calientes even exists. Upon reaching Aguas Calientes, the first item on our list of things to celebrate was Mike’s birthday. We went to dinner at a romantic Italian restaurant then relaxed under the stars at the town’s famous natural hot springs.
On day five, the day we’d all been waiting for, we woke up before dawn to catch sunrise over Machu Picchu. Our sense of accomplishment and excitement was through the roof as we gazed over the 15th-century marvel and it only got better as the day went on. It is hard to believe that this incredibly complex city took 50 years to build then was abandoned a little over 100 years later to avoid Spanish conquest. Amazingly, the Spanish never actually discovered the city and the site was virtually untouched until 1911 when American historian Hiram Bingham arrived guided by some locals. With 400 undisturbed years and many recent years of painstakingly accurate restoration, Machu Picchu is an impeccable example of the way Incans built, farmed, worshiped and lived.
Touring the temples, houses, terraces, and shrines of Machu Picchu is at the heart of a visit to this UNESCO heritage site but for a real sense of its grandeur and ingenious construction, you must climb Huayna Picchu. Yep, that massive peak behind the citadel, also said to be the nose the sleeping Incan (turn your laptop sideways, you’ll can see his profile!) Not exactly for the faint of heart, Huayna Picchu is a 1,080-ft ascent from Machu Picchu—and we mean straight up! Using our hands, knees, and ropes when available, we hiked the very windy tiny stone stairs and ledges leading up to this dizzying Incan site.
Way below our feet you can see the clearing in the trees lies Machu Picchu. After five days of hiking through the most extreme and beautiful mountains in Peru, the feeling we had sitting together above the legendary Machu Picchu was as fulfilling as a honeymoon gets.