Gasping Machu Picchu Hike Hits Peak of 14,000 Feet

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Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Tourists explore the lost city of Machu Picchu, Peru. The ancient city is visited by some 858,000 tourists per year.

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Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Tourists explore the lost city of Machu Picchu, Peru. The ancient city is visited by some 858,000 tourists per year. Close

Tourists explore the lost city of Machu Picchu, Peru. The ancient city is visited by some 858,000 tourists per year.

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Cars speed through the town square in Cusco, Peru. It is recommended that tourists acclimate themselves in Cusco before attempting to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Close

Cars speed through the town square in Cusco, Peru. It is recommended that tourists acclimate themselves in Cusco... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Houses line the valley and hills surrounding Cuzco, Peru. The city is the starting point when journeying to the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Close

Houses line the valley and hills surrounding Cuzco, Peru. The city is the starting point when journeying to the... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

A guinea pig peers out from his cage near Cuzco, Peru. The rodents are considered a delicacy in Peru. Close

A guinea pig peers out from his cage near Cuzco, Peru. The rodents are considered a delicacy in Peru.

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Roasted guinea pig at a restaurant in Urubamba, Peru. The rodent is considered a delicacy by Peruvian people. Close

Roasted guinea pig at a restaurant in Urubamba, Peru. The rodent is considered a delicacy by Peruvian people.

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

A stone cut with 12 angles encompasses part of a wall built by the Inca people in Cuzco, Peru. The Incas were adept at building earthquake-proof walls of stone without using mortar. Close

A stone cut with 12 angles encompasses part of a wall built by the Inca people in Cuzco, Peru. The Incas were adept... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Cows rest in the mountains on the Inca trail near Kilometer 82, in Peru. Llamas and alpacas are also common sights along the Inca trail. Close

Cows rest in the mountains on the Inca trail near Kilometer 82, in Peru. Llamas and alpacas are also common sights... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

A tropical flower grows in the wild on the Inca trail near Macaymayu, Peru. The 27 mile trek leads to the lost city of Machu Picchu. Close

A tropical flower grows in the wild on the Inca trail near Macaymayu, Peru. The 27 mile trek leads to the lost city of Machu Picchu.

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

A large bird is perched in a tree on the grounds of the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, Peru. The hotel's heliport was used to evacuate tourists after 72 hours of rain caused mudslides and took out the rail line near Machu Picchu. Close

A large bird is perched in a tree on the grounds of the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, Peru.... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

A porter carries a heavy load up a steep hill on the Inca trail in Peru. Our group of 15 tourists were escorted by 22 porters, a cook and his assistant, and 2 tour guides. Close

A porter carries a heavy load up a steep hill on the Inca trail in Peru. Our group of 15 tourists were escorted by 22... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

A hummingbird is perched in a tree on the grounds of the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, Peru. Close

A hummingbird is perched in a tree on the grounds of the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, Peru.

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Tour guide Cesar Farfan Guzman describes Inca building techniques in Machu Picchu, Peru. The lost city was rediscovered in 1911 by Yale University archeologist Hiram Bingham, who was said to have been guided to the site by a local farmer and young boy. Close

Tour guide Cesar Farfan Guzman describes Inca building techniques in Machu Picchu, Peru. The lost city was... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Hikers ascend hundred of steps to an elevation of 14,000 feet on the Inca trail in Peru. Many people suffer from elevation sickness at this altitude. Close

Hikers ascend hundred of steps to an elevation of 14,000 feet on the Inca trail in Peru. Many people suffer from... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Walls for housing are built on existing rock in Machu Picchu. The Inca people were masters at working with stone. Close

Walls for housing are built on existing rock in Machu Picchu. The Inca people were masters at working with stone.

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Llamas graze as tourists climb steps in Machu Picchu, Peru. Some one hundred people take care of the ancient citadel which was re-discovered by Yale University archeologist Hiram Bingham. Close

Llamas graze as tourists climb steps in Machu Picchu, Peru. Some one hundred people take care of the ancient citadel... Read More

Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Machu Picchu in the mountains of Peru. The ancient city is visited by some 858,000 tourists per year. Close

Machu Picchu in the mountains of Peru. The ancient city is visited by some 858,000 tourists per year.

“Is there a Starbucks on the trail?” I heard someone ask. The answer, of course, is “No.”

Hiking Peru’s Inca trail to Machu Picchu requires going without things we take for granted, including good coffee, alcohol and showers. This is a must-do, “Bucket List” vacation, delivering Stairmaster torture in return for breathtaking Andes mountain vistas and a close encounter with mysterious ancient ruins.

First, however, we must endure three days of acclimation in Cuzco, about 2 1/2 hours by car to the start of the trail. Once the Peruvian capital, the city is 11,200 feet above sea level and has plenty of shopping and nightlife to keep us entertained while we get used to the thin air. I was fairly confident that my usual cycling and gym routine would serve me well during the climb. It turned out that 21 pounds of camera gear and some clothes ensured that I was winded about 95 percent of the time on the trail. I lost four pounds in five days.

The 27-mile hike starts at a place called “kilometer 82” on the railway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu.

Dating from 1450 A.D., Machu Picchu was built for the Incan upper class. The site was likely abandoned in the mid 17th century out of fear that the Spanish invaders would discover it. They never did.

I initially planned to take the train to the start of the trail, but it was closed after flash floods in January. Repairs are expected to be finished by the end of this month, but the closure has cost Peru as much as 550 million soles ($192 million) in tourism revenue, according to Peruvian Foreign Trade Minister Martin Perez. Visitor numbers have plummeted and wiped out 17,000 jobs in the local tourism industry.

Sturdy Legs

These days, 500 people per day are allowed on the trail. 300 are guides and porters who carry food and survival gear, including tents. The remaining 200 are tourists, who had better come prepared with durable, comfortable hiking boots and strong legs.

Our tour was expertly set up by Andean Treks and our guide, Cesar Farfan Guzman of Pangui Travel Adventure, had encyclopedic knowledge of the many plants, birds and archaeological sites along the trail. He’d happily answer any questions we could throw at him.

Day 1 was relatively easy, with some minor climbs ending at a camp called Huayllabamba at about 9,700 feet, where beer and soda were available. Cesar warned us not to drink too much and turn in early to be ready for a tougher day ahead.

‘Gringo Killer’

Day 2 offered the biggest challenge, as we ascended to roughly 14,000 feet, yielding postcard-perfect panoramas of the Andes. The grueling climb included a section Cesar called “the gringo killer,” with its hundreds of stone steps elevating us higher and higher into ever-thinner air. We arrived at our campsite in Macaymayu, at 11,822 feet, exhausted from being out of breath all day.

On Day 3, we started to explore Inca ruins, many of which had been used as lookout posts for guards of Machu Picchu. After several climbs and descents, we arrived at our camp in Phuyupatamarca; now we were at 12,024 feet.

On Day 4, we descended to Inti Punco, the Sun Gate, where we got our first up-close look at the lost city of Machu Picchu. After lunch we climbed down to the town of Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters) on the Urubamba River, where some of us opted for a cozy hotel rather than a fourth night of camping. After a good night’s sleep, we would enter the citadel early the next morning.

Last Resort

Finally, Day 5 brought us to Machu Picchu. Cesar explained how the city was discovered and made sure we examined the intricate Inca stonework and architecture. Llamas dotted the landscape of the terraced city, while artisans restored stonework. Vast mountain vistas in every direction made it seem obvious why the Incas thought that this would be a great place for a vacation resort for the upper crust.

Around 100 people look after the site, which is visited by some 858,000 tourists per year when the trains are running. The lost city was rediscovered in 1911 by Yale University archaeologist Hiram Bingham, who was said to have been guided to the site by a local farmer and young boy. Looking at Machu Picchu today makes one wonder how it ever could have been lost.

(With additional reporting by Alex Emery and John Quigley. Paul Goguen is a multimedia producer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Paul Goguen in New York at pgoguen1@bloomberg.net.

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