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Peru: Mother Nature's Masterpiece

Words by Courtney Cox

My earliest memory of the now ever-persistent travel itch takes me back to seventh grade geography in which a poster of Machu Picchu decorated the classroom wall (#NerdAlert). Since then, the ancient Incan citadel has sat atop my “must-see mountain.” Fast-forward 16 years and, as an exultant editor of DID, the Peruvian invitation I had been waiting for, finally crossed my desk.

 My humble hosts, Mountain Lodges of Peru, have been offering a different take on treks to Machu Picchu for over ten years. Instead of following the famed Inca Trail beginning in Km82 and camping every night, MLP’s treks focus on cultural immersion via a less-traveled route through the Andes Mountains. At the end of each day, hikers kick-up their feet at a MLP-exclusive lodge. I signed up for the five-day Lares Adventure, a new addition to the MLP’s line-up and less grueling than the seven-day, established Salkantay Trek. The Lares Adventure allows for flexibility depending on your interests or physical stamina, making it a great option for honeymoon couples. Hikes range from 90 minutes to eight hours, but all culminate in a solid night’s rest at a comfortable lodge. After reading through the helpful materials MLP sent me in advance, it was time to make my childhood dream a reality.

 After an hour flight from Lima to Cusco, I finally planted my feet on Peruvian soil in the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. I broke in my hiking shoes exploring the city’s cathedrals and public markets, and reinforced my caloric reserve with local beer and empanadas at Inka

 Grill and fresh ceviche and pisco sours at LIMO – both of which are conveniently located off the main square. El Mercado, a boutique hotel owned by the same folks as MLP, is a great home base with comfy beds and an inviting center courtyard, complete with a fire pit and live music.

 Starting at 12,980 feet, and after a 90-minute drive from Cusco, my group set off into the clouds for our first hike. Rounding a rocky bend and most definitely out of breath, I was surprised to see a very external struggle – woman vs. donkey. As it turns out, this local spit-fire (the woman, not the donkey) was to be our guide up the trail and into the mouth of the Sacred Valley. After a lunch consisting of smoked meats and six different kinds of potatoes (my kind of meal!), we made our way to the archeological ruins at Pisaq. Arriving at the site in late afternoon, we found it empty and under the halo of the setting sun. Determined to the end, I climbed what would be the first of many steep, stone staircases (aka Inca elevators) and was rewarded with a sweeping view of stone terraces dating back to the 15th century.

The remainder of the trip followed a similar, fabulous formula. Hours spent walking through breathtaking (no pun intended) scenery, getting to know Quechua-speaking locals and exploring some of the most impressive and best-preserved Inca archeological sites. These included Ancasmarca; circular storage structures spilling down the side of a mountain like honeycomb, Ollantaytambo; a temple of religious significance and an amazing example of Inca city planning, Machu Picchu (of course) and many others.

 Just as memorable as my long-awaited visit to Machu Picchu, was an eight-hour hike from MLP’s Huacahuasi Lodge to the mountain village of Patacancha. While a hike of this difficulty might sound unbearable, it’s a must for experiencing this country as it’s meant to be seen. There’s no need to keep your eyes on the road when walking – you’re free to let your senses wander and take in the surrounding natural beauty. Five hours in, and after climbing to the highest point (14,600’) en route to Ipsaycocha Lake, I was overcome with mixed emotion. With a rapidly thumping heart and watering eyes, I felt immense relief at having accomplished something I imagined to be impossible. What better way to bond with your new spouse than by pushing yourselves to the limit and supporting each other to the other side?

For helpful tips on making the most of your trip to Peru, visit destinationido.com/peru

Photo Credit: Courntey Cox (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) and Mountain Lodges of Peru (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th)

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