When Peruvian tourism authorities implemented new restrictions at Machu Picchu last year, limiting both the number of daily visitors and the length of visits, many outdoorsy travel-lovers were pleased. Good, we thought, it’s about time. Machu Picchu wasn’t built to host 1 million visitors each year; the strain has been increasingly apparent.

A few months before the rules went into effect, Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) invited me to join them on a visit to the ancient Inca citadel. The “Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure” was a less-known, culturally immersive alternative to the crowded Inca Trail and challenging Salkantay Trek. There’s so much more to the Sacred Valley than Machu Picchu, the team stressed, and this experience would introduce me to the area and to the people who call it home.

Tourists take in a view of Cuzco.
The brochure boasted glossy shots of vibrant textiles, lesser-known ruins, and a private soaking tub perched outside of a particularly dreamy accommodation. Still, the climax of the lodge-to-lodge journey was billed as Machu Picchu, and that brought to mind crowds. I couldn’t help but imagine swarms of neon-clad tourists with GoPros and selfie sticks, all jockeying in line to take the exact same pictures.

Majestic Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and, for many, a dream trip. Still, I wondered doubtfully, Is it worth it to go to Machu Picchu anymore?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The view from L’Atelier, a hip coffee shop in the San Blas neighborhood
Outsmarting the crowds
The number of boot-wearing passengers on my flight did little to allay my fears. Neither did the streets of Cuzco. A friend who had visited years before had told me about this rugged little trekking town high in the mountains. But I wandered through the streets of a bustling metropolis, with sleek wine bars, a clutch of third-wave coffee shops, and chic boutiques so new, they hadn’t even made it into the pages of travel guides. I made a note to return to Green Point, a vegan restaurant with gluten-free offerings, and to people-watch from the window of L’Atelier, a second-story, white-walled café/shop that looks out on the trendy San Blas neighborhood.

To acclimate (11,000 feet above sea level is no joke), we spent our first full day close to Cuzco, walking the surprisingly quiet corridors of the popular market in Pisac. Besides our group of eight, few other tourists browsed the rows of T-shirts, piles of wooden spoons, and rainbows of wide-brimmed llama-wool hats that baked under flapping tarps. As we left, our guide turned and pointed up a mountainside to a long line of oversized buses. “Those are the day tours. They all take the same route. They’ll pack in here this afternoon,” he grinned, “after we’re gone.”
     

It became a running theme; after a morning clambering around the curious circular ruins at the lonely Ancasmarca archaeological site, we’d look down the mountain to see a line of white rectangles snaking its way up the slope. We’d finish a long afternoon hike to the Pisac Archeological Complex just in time to see a big group disappear in the direction of the parking lot, leaving us to peacefully marvel at the tombs pockmarking a cliff and listen to Andres Adasme, MLP’s head of product development and an enthusiast of archaeoastronomy, explain how the Incas designed and built their world based on the stars.

The origins of the Ancasmarca archaeological site are mysterious, but legend suggests that the spot was first settled by a shephard and his family who were looking to escape a terrible flood.
Immersion in the Sacred Valley
After that first day, I forgot about the crowds; we’d left them far behind. In fact, I doubt the tour buses could have made the drive through the hills outside of Cuzco to the Viacha community, where we lunched with potato farmers and learned about the land. There, our guide pointed out medicinal herbs and wild quinoa—the rainbow, bead-covered fronds look nothing like what you’d expect.

Two of the farmers showed us how to dig up tubers—purple potatoes, yellow yams, and a turmeric-orange root. Gesturing to a nearby mound, they explained how they bury those tubers again, creating a pachamanca, or earth oven. Potatoes, other vegetables, and foil-wrapped meat are all piled together on a fire, then covered with rocks, dirt, and tarps and left to cook for hours. Together with our teachers, we then unwrapped this savory present to reveal a toothsome lunch.
Doña María (second from right) and her crew of weavers
We continued on to the village of Choquecancha, where the women are renowned for their weaving. Doña María and her ladies welcomed us with a shower of petals into a mud-and-daub structure that will become a welcome center. At the time, it was still a work in progress, but someday, they’ll have a display room for their textiles, a courtyard for lunch, and space to spin wool then dye it in boiling pots of water. Mesmerized, I could have spent all day watching Doña María clack the shuttle back and forth across a large loom to create textiles with elaborate geometric patterns bordered by lines of marching llamas.

At every turn the Sacred Valley seemed to offer something different. Wild vistas punctuated by Andean mountains, village markets where mangoes and different-sized bananas were laid out on striped tarps, friendly llamas and not-so-friendly llamas, natural turqouise hot springs at 10,000 feet above sea level.
The common room at the Huacahuasi Lodge is an ideal place to get lost in a mountain daydream.
By the end of the day—each of which felt more like a week—our dusty, pleasantly exhausted group would file into our evening’s lodge. The large, bright, airy spaces accented with Peruvian design elements and local craft pieces seemed specifically designed to cushion tired trekkers. We’d spend a few hours visiting with the resident llamas at the Lamay Lodge, or soaking in the aforementioned private tubs at Huacahuasi, or chatting with the staff, most of whom lived in the closest village, about life in that spectacular setting. Then we’d all sit down to eat, rehashing the day and conversing like lifelong friends—not strangers who’d only met a few days prior.

The realities of Machu Picchu
Arriving in Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Machu Picchu was a shock. It was the first time we’d seen crowds in four days. Crowds packed onto the train platform. Crowds queued for this train. Crowds realized this wasn’t their train, then queued for the next train. Then there were the lines.
A crowded car on the Inca Rail speeds toward Machu Picchu.
There was a line to get into Machu Picchu (which may not surprise you), as well as lines for the bus to Machu Picchu and lines for the tickets for the bus. There was a line for the bathroom at Machu Picchu (be warned that it’s on the wrong side of the entrance, so plan wisely). There were also lines inside the sanctuary; they’re visible in all of my selfies. True, there was plenty to do and places to spread out, but somehow, there always seemed to be a line.

Luckily, our guide knew what he was doing. He took us to the Inca Bridge at the edge of the compound. There, the narrow stone walkway ends abuptly and a tree trunk bridge covers the 20-foot gap to the spot where the ledge reappears—an ingenious safety measure. It’s not very popular with the casual crowd, so there’s space to breathe and time to contemplate what life may have looked like when this place was thriving.
The Inca Bridge was once made of dried grasses and wood; today, two tree trunks lay across the gap to demonstrate what it may once have looked like.
Then there was Huayna Picchu, that hump of a mountain you can see in the iconic Machu Picchu shot. Entrance to the sanctuary might be limited, but access Huayna Picchu is even more so. Only 400 people can buy entrance tickets each day. And the hike to the peak is brutal. But that’s where I finally had the blissful, standing-on-top-of-a-mountain-spinning, exhilaration-filled moment that we all secretly dream of when we think about visiting a sacred place.
     

As we exited the main citadel at the end of the day, we stopped to drink in the most iconic perspective of Machu Picchu one last time. Our guide turned pointed up at a dip in the ridge behind us and the stream of people emanating from it. “There,” he said, “is where we pass when we do the Inca Trail. You do it at sunrise and there’s no one else around. It’s truly magical.”

Measuring worth
When people ask me today if Machu Picchu was worth it, I hesitate. The first thing that comes to mind is never the UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s everything else. I can honestly gush about each arresting ridgeline in the Andes that I gaped at and about meeting the indomitable Doña María and her band of weavers. I still make excuses to describe MLP’s chic lodges in excruciating detail and to show off my wide-brimmed llama-wool hat. Wandering through Cuzco’s arty alleyways and sipping a pisco sour at Bodega 139 was worth the trip, as was hiking Huayna Picchu, as was every day spent surrounded by the spectacular Sacred Valley.

A view of the valley from Ollantaytambo, the starting point for the Inca Trail
If you haven’t been to Machu Picchu, you may think that the journey there is a means to an end. But really, it’s the other way around–especially now with new rules restricting the experience (which, again, is a good thing). Whether you opt for a culturally immersive multi-day experience or embark on a challenging trek, it’s everything that happens on the way that makes Machu Picchu so memorable. The site itself is impressive, sure; it’s a sort of open-air, high-altitude museum. But it’s the journey there that I’ll go back for.

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