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Gasping Machu Picchu Hike Hits Peak of 14,000 Feet

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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. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

June 16 (Bloomberg) -- “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.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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