13 Years Later, Seeing Machu Picchu in a Completely New Way

One AFAR editor retraces the steps of a college spring break trip with the help of local guides, a celebrity chef, and a few new friends.

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Modern Adventure connects you with local communities in each country it visits, including Peru.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

By the time we reached the “Oh My God” stairs, the final 30-odd stone steps leading up to the Sun Gate and the end of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, our group had spread out hiking at our own pace. Thankfully, only a few souls were around to hear the string of expletives that came out my mouth before this last effort. “Oh my god” is keeping it polite.

But it’s not like our guide Juan Carlos “JC” Yañez hadn’t warned us. It was one of the first things he mentioned with mischievous glee as we started our “short” day hike of the Inca Trail that began roughly 2,000 feet lower—and seven miles earlier—that morning.

My calves and lungs burned and sweat streamed down my back as I monkey-crawled my way up the nearly vertical steps, each one seemingly steeper and more uneven than the last. Those Incas had a sense of humor 600 years ago. As I clamored to the top and walked through the Sun Gate, there lay Machu Picchu: The cloud cover parted and the sun shone directly on the 15th-century Inca citadel set on a mountain ridge just below us. I felt . . . relief. And a deep sense of accomplishment. And then there was the other Yañez brother—Juan Manuel, aka “Manny”—mimicking a roaring stadium of fans to cheer me on for completing the trek.

When I hiked the Inca Trail with the Yañez brothers in May, they estimated they’ve done this trek—plus the traditional four-day, three-night hike from the Inca town of Ollantaytambo, the trail’s entry point about 25 miles out—“hundreds” of times in their 20-plus years of guiding in their native Peru. They had the institutional knowledge to show for it, rattling off every species of orchid and hummingbird I asked about, as well as tips like “bring two shirts on the Inca Trail to change halfway if you sweat through one.” (Genius!) When I worried out loud that my fingers had gone all pins-and-needles and started to shake, Manny was there to tell me it’s a common side effect of my altitude sickness pills (especially if you take too many at once, whoops).

What was also evident on the seven-day, six-night trip to Peru with the tour company Modern Adventure—where the Yañez brothers were our group’s local guides in the Sacred Valley—was the sheer joy and passion for this region they passed along to me. It made me realize I’d hardly scratched the surface the first time I went to Peru.

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Scenes from the Inca Trail: A Wiñay Wayna orchid, meaning “forever young” in Quechua (L); The view from the Sun Gate (R)

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

In 2009 as a senior at NYU, I spent my spring break prior to graduation doing what amounted to the same trip as in 2022. For nine days, four of my college friends and I explored the Sacred Valley after a 24-hour bus ride along the cliffs of the Andes Mountains to Cusco from Lima. This time, I chose convenience (and safety) with the one-hour flight to Cusco. The hotels and restaurants on the Modern Adventure itinerary were infinitely more upscale than the hostels I stayed at and grocery store meals I cobbled together as a college student. Yet, 13 years later, I returned to landmarks like the Cusco Cathedral and realized not much has changed at Machu Picchu—other than a more organized path visitors need to stick to because of its increasing popularity. But this time around felt completely different, thanks to the local intel from the guides.

Modern Adventure is known for partnering with the type of local guides you’d sing from mountaintops about. However, the main draw of Modern Adventure trips is the direct access to big-name chefs and other tastemakers who will feel like a friend by the end of the week-long tour.

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Chef Neal Fraser helps locals prepare a traditional Andean pachamanca meal baked in an earthen oven during a visit to an indigenous community in the Sacred Valley.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

Before I went on this particular trip—traveling with chef Neal Fraser of Redbird, a popular modern American restaurant in a former church in Downtown Los Angeles—I assumed the tastemaker was the tour guide, that Fraser would plan the itinerary from top to bottom using his connections. Really, Modern Adventure staff does the planning, the local guides and a Modern Adventure staff guide handle everything on the ground, and the tastemaker is mostly along for the ride like any other guest.

“I’m the bait,” Fraser joked over beers and cocktails at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu, where about half of our group of 20 travelers split off after our tour of the archeological site. Not to say his interests didn’t guide the trip. On the first day of the tour in Lima, when chef Ignacio Barrios took us around a local market, Fraser was also there to answer questions about mystery ingredients. When he found me staring slack-jawed at a saffron orange orb the size of a golf ball dangling from a raw chicken in the meat section, he explained it was the embryonic egg growing inside of the chicken. Then he bought it and cooked it up at the class that followed at Barrios’s Urban Kitchen cooking school. (For those as curious as me: Cooked embryonic egg tastes like a bland omelet, but the bit in the middle that’s the bird itself starting to grow is delightfully chewy. Adventurous eaters only need apply.)

Connecting with local guides, as well as locally owned boutique hotels where possible (we stayed at Inkaterra properties in Machu Picchu and Urubamba and the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco), and organizing meals with Indigenous communities have earned Modern Adventure its B Corp status. That means it is conscious about not only the environmental aspect of its tours but also the sustainability of tourism when it comes to making sure money stays in the local communities in places they visit.

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The Moray archaeological site as seen from the farm land of Mil Centro restaurant in the Sacred Valley, Peru.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

“Income is sustainability,” Jan Brack, our guide at Mil Centro, reminded us on a farm tour before dining at chef Virgilio Martínez’s restaurant located 11,000 feet above sea level near the Moray archaeological site in the Sacred Valley. Consistently ranked one of Latin America’s best restaurants, Mil Centro is on land owned by Indigenous farmers who keep 50 percent of what is grown for their families and sell 50 percent to the restaurant. Before sitting down to the eight-course lunch made with local ingredients like alpaca, black quinoa, and airampo cactus fruit, we were also treated to a weaving demonstration. Indigenous women showed how they dyed alpaca wool with botanicals like chilca leaves foraged on the farm. That yarn is then sold in the gift shop at the restaurant, providing income to those women.

Who Modern Adventure trips are for

Because of the unique structure of Modern Adventure trips including the tastemaker, most people on the trip signed up to travel with the chef and not for the group aspect of the tour, necessarily. Things to keep in mind before you go on a group tour: It may not be for you if you’re used to setting your own itinerary every day and need lots of down time to sleep in or book spa appointments. While the guides are there to help you make the experience as fulfilling as possible, sometimes schedules change and things have to get cut from the itinerary. It’s best to bring an attitude of curiosity rather than rigid expectations.

“My idea of vacation is very different from my wife’s idea of vacation,” Fraser told our group on the final night’s dinner at MAP Café in Cusco. “I want to come back from vacation exhausted and my wife wants to come back from vacation never wanting a piña colada ever again—so this is definitely more [in] my realm of vacations.”

Modern Adventure tends not to repeat the same itineraries over and over again with the same tastemakers, so you may not end up at the same spots as I did on my tour. But it does have five upcoming tours to Peru scheduled as soon as later this month and up through May 2023 with the likes of chef Traci des Jardins and mixologist Enrique Sanchez of San Francisco’s Jardinière and Yellow Moto, respectively, as well as chef Andrew Black of Oklahoma City’s Grey Sweater and Black Walnut.

If you go, say hi to Manny and JC for me.

Lyndsey Matthews is the senior commerce editor at AFAR who covers travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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