Every year thousands of international travelers visit Machu Picchu, the historic lost city of the Inca in Peru. As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, its popularity is understandable. It’s hard to avoid the crowds at Machu Picchu and scoring a coveted peak season Inca Trail ticket to get there, will still leave you hiking with multiple tour groups. Instead, we chose the Moonstone Trek; an alternative route offered by Andean Treks and Adventures, an established operator since 1980. Having been attracted to the peacefulness of a less traveled route and the exclusivity of exploring ruins not widely known, we didn’t truly appreciate the magic in that choice until we arrived.
The nervous anticipation over hiking at altitude had been ever present for our group of three girlfriends from Vancouver leading up to the trip. But evidence of a solid commitment was present when our party girl control was tested the night before the 6am departure, as the waiter mistakenly delivered a second round of TRIPLE pisco sours, rather then just three drinks we thought we had ordered in Spanish. While we had prepared well with gear, training and altitude medications, we had somehow missed the fact that one of our companions was afraid of heights. Thankfully she soldiered on traversing cliffs, since as she put it, “What other options were there?” And when we bought our tech gear, we didn’t anticipate wearing it ALL to bed to stay warm while sleeping in tents in sub zero weather. But we all agreed that the request to separate liquid and solids in the chemical toilet tent had lead to some unintentional dancing back and forth with questionable success for the women on tour. These experiences however, were mere footnotes to the life changing adventure that lay ahead.
Our tour was a four-day trek that started at a trailhead on the Huaracondo River and ended in the town of Ollantaytambo, before boarding a train to Aguas Calientes for an overnight stay and visiting Machu Picchu on the fifth day.
Our local Peruvian guide lead us on daily 10-15km hikes through the Andes mountains from Cuzco to the Sacred Valley, while cooks, wranglers and horses to haul our gear, set up our next camp. Passing through numerous Inca ruins, we marveled at the labor to build at high elevations, and the thoughtful construction conscious of how the elements such as the sun and moon interacted. We passed remote Andean villages where farmers harvest potatoes, and women weave textiles in a simple, yet beautiful quest to sustain daily life. We labored with the sparse oxygen at high altitudes through three mountain passes, the highest being Accoccasa Pass at15,700 ft. But we were also charmed by tropical eco systems leading out from the Sacred Valley to the Amazon. Such was the diversity of our trek to Machu Picchu. Except for the odd villager, stray llama, wild horse or alpaca, we saw nobody outside our trekking group the whole four days.
A trip highlight was exploring, unrushed and alone, the ruins of the Inca shrine Huayrapunku or Wind Gate, propped high above the Sacred Valley and framed by Veronica Mountain. Huatta, a 2500 year-old pre-Inca fortress was exclusively ours to savour, as was the sacred shrine of Quillarumiyoq, or Moonstone. And exploring the Cachiqata Quarry, where the Inca sourced much of their stones for Ollantaytambo Temple and agricultural terracing offered a rare glimpse of the engineering involved. Being able to freely explore open burial tombs high above the Sacred Valley, seemed like breaking the rules when contrasted with the supervised or timed experience that touring other archeological sites has become. Of course being part of a six-person group, no doubt an outcome of travelling in shoulder season during October, provided a great ratio of time and attention with our guide.
One of the unexpected gifts of trekking remote areas was the time to think and reflect while being disconnected from the internet. Our group discovered conversation rather then connecting through social media and we also found community in our basic needs. Normally food, shelter, warm clothing and safety are a given, but suddenly our entire day was focused on sustaining life by ensuring these were in place. And while some in our group came to Peru with an attitude to conquer the physical and mental challenge of trekking, what we came to appreciate was the beauty in the simplicity of life in the Andes during the journey there. Removed from technology, kids walked to far away villages to attend school, farmers worked ground crops and took livestock to market, women made textiles, and life seamlessly beat on despite a wired world beyond their access.
This beautiful disconnect during our four days trekking was only fully appreciated once we were tossed back into the crowds at Machu Picchu where selfie sticks and the drive to post and share seemed ever present. But even that couldn’t detract from the historical significance of touring the ruins with our trek guide.
While Machu Picchu was undeniably the treasure at the end of our five-day tour, the trek there, having taken the road less traveled, became the unexpected gift.
If you go: Andean Treks http://www.andeantreks.com/
High season is April, May and August, during Peru’s winter. Shoulder periods of September and October can offer decent weather and fewer crowds. Expect sun, rain and below freezing conditions at night while camping at higher elevations. Fly into Cusco at least two days before trekking to allow time for high altitude adjustment and sight seeing. Be sure to either carry on or wear your trekking gear, since lost bags and delayed or cancelled flights are more common then they should be.
Pack light, experience more TIPS for this trip: Deciding to travel with just a carry on to hike Machu Picchu was likely my biggest packing light challenge to date. We had been warned to carry on or wear what would be needed for the trek, since lost or delayed bags happen frequently going to Cuzco, Peru. Most people in that situation would wear their hiking boots, but I decided to pack mine in the carry on, and just ensure that the insides of the boots were well packed out with items like socks, shirts etc. I preferred to travel in wedge sandals and something a little more well dressed with a light wool jacket. It’s just a personal preference. You never know who you’ll bump into while travelling, and there’s something about being decently dressed, having nice shoes and that extra bit of height that allows some grace and authority – when carefully used this has often resulted in upgrades. Here’s what we took: micro down jacket (packs into next to nothing but is incredibly warm – which you’ll need in the Andes at night, compacting water bottle, micro towel, neck warmer tube (perfect for evenings and at night for warmth), hats – both sun hat for the day and a warm wool or fleece ski hat for night. You will need it to sleep in – trust me! Warm gloves, leggings for warmth at night, zip up Lululemon jacket, zip off bottom pants – perfect for converting from long pants needed in the morning or late day, and shorts during the heat of the day. Good technical socks are an investment, the cheap ones will stink. You tent partner will thank you. Headlamp, wet ones to freshen up, toilet paper (many South American toilets don’t have paper, and remember not to flush it), 2 mirco tech shirts, fleece pants, runners, extra pair of shorts, rain jacket, sturdy day backpack and removable waterproof cover, and for Cuzco – flat shoes, jeans, something to go out in – but honestly it’s pretty casual, most people are either departing or returning from treks. An extra carabiner was handy for hanging wet items, and I always pack a folding large duffel bag – in this case I used it to bag check hiking boots and stinky gear to make room for souvenirs I had retrieved to bring home. While treking, we stored unneeded items in our roller bags at our AirBNB in a lock away. I always roll, not fold items – fewer wrinkles and items fit in spaces in a suitcase more easily. No space goes unused – that includes inside shoes and boots. Footwear take up a lot of space generally, so we always try to anticipate what will be needed for where we plan to go. On this trip I got it down to hiking boots, Sole sandals, wedge heel sandals, flats and running shoes. I could have left to wedge sandals at home.
Link here for my PACKING LIGHT downloadable tips sheet and check list, that includes travel documents, essentials, clothing and general tips on other important things like insurance and data SIM cards.