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Reaching the Heights of Machu Picchu

One backpacker decided that the perfect high school graduation gift for his nephews was a hike to the lost city of the Incas. Here’s how you can do the same.

Since we have no children of our own, my wife and I made a commitment years ago to give our nephews memorable, life-enhancing high school graduation gifts. It all seemed like something far, far away. Then that day came, and we had to make a decision that we hoped could help steer them forward into adult life.

After much contemplation, we decided on a trip to Machu Picchu, the ever-popular lost city of the Incas. The trip had long been on my short list of must see places. I’ve been backpacking for more than 30 years and, much to my dismay, I realized I had yet to share this passion with my three nephews. My motto is “go hard or go home,” so it made sense their very first backpacking experience would be a trek high into the Andes.

The trip posed several challenges, chief among them finding the boys suitable gear. I had given them plenty of outdoor apparel over the years, but their gear closets were still in need of a serious makeover. But, after months of logistical planning, gear research and acquisition, my nephews now had some of the best stuff on the market. We were ready for the trail.

After a four-hour long packing “seminar” and last minute preparations, we were off on our Peruvian adventure. A day later, we arrived in the former Incan capital of Cusco. We spent several days acclimating to the altitude in preparation for our four days en route to the ancient citadel. What follows is out day-to-day plan on the trek. It’s a good path to tread if you, too, want to take someone who has never experienced a backpacking tip on the trek of a lifetime.

Day 1

Our guide picked us up at our hostel at 5:30 a.m. for a 90-minute bus ride to Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast and then proceeded to the trailhead to begin our trek. After some last minute packing, we were on our way down the trail.

The number of people on the trail at any given time is monitored via a series of controls that each hiker, guide and porter must pass through before continuing. You are required to provide your passport at each of these control points along with your ‘ticket’ (our guide held on to these throughout the trek).

Our first trail meal was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting typical backpacker fare and yet it consisted of 3 delicious courses. We got our first sight of Inca ruins from a scenic vista overlooking what was once a large city that cultivated, harvested and transported food to neighboring villages, cities and outposts within the empire.

Day 2

Our wake up call came before sunrise. One of the guides greeted us outside our tent offering coca tea. The guides encouraged each of us to drink the tea as they believe that the leaves help eliminate the effects of altitude on the body.

This day was all about covering distance and gaining altitude. After reaching Dead Woman’s Pass at just under 14,000 feet, it was all down hill to reach our camp for the night.

Day 3

When it came to pure natural beauty, this would prove to be the most scenic day of the trek. We crossed two passes over 13,000 feet, saw many spectacular Inca ruins and passed through multiple microclimates along the trail (including high altitude rain forest).

At the conclusion of the day’s trek, we were only an hour from the Sun Gate and the highlight of our journey.

Day 4

This day started with our earliest wake up call yet. All of the groups were eager to line up promptly at the last control to assure a pre-sunrise arrival at Machu Picchu.

Our precise planning brought us to this archaeological wonder on the winter solstice. It is the one time of the year when a beam of sunlight will illuminate the window of the sacred Torreon Sun Temple. We arrived at the ruins as the sun’s rays slowly creeped over the mountain shadowing the citadel.

It was a breathtaking sight and worth the 28 miles of hiking and the 13,000+ foot mountain peaks and passes we climbed to get here.

The trek was an epic bonding experience for this uncle and his three nephews. We rounded out our three-week trip with a visit to Lake Titicaca and sandboarding on the Nasca dunes. It was an expedition that I think sparked a lifelong love of adventure travel for the boys at a formative time in their lives. I hope they learned that life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.

Clay Abney is the owner of No Boundaries Media, a PR and Marketing firm based in North Carolina that promotes the outdoor lifestyle.

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