The 100th Anniversary of Machu Picchu’s rediscovery will draw a record number of visitors to the site. Most will make their way through Peru’s Sacred Valley, known more for crowds than authenticity. But one eco-minded outfitter is turning the Camino Salkantay, a backcountry route through unspoiled ecosystems and undisturbed hamlets, into the Next Inca Trail—and setting a new standard for sustainable tourism in the Andes.
By Andrew Berg
The men of the Mollepata Mule Drivers Association filed into the mayor’s office, tipped their hats and introduced themselves shyly, their cheeks packed with coca leaves. They praised the mayor, a scowling fellow with a scar on his neck, and welcomed their foreign visitors without looking us in the eyes. Then they turned to the man they’d really come to see, the true dignitary of this dirt road town at the mouth of the Salkantay Valley—Enrique Umbert: adventurer, investment tycoon, jazz guitarist, nightclub impresario, High Andes philanthropist, and godfather to 18 children between Mollepata and Machu Picchu.
“We are honored to see you again, Don Enrique,” their spokesmen said. Then he lodged a formal complaint against lentils. They were time-consuming to cook and difficult to digest at altitude. Would it be possible to supply the muleteers with something else? Rice, maybe. Or potatoes?
Don Enrique, 62, a small, dignified man with soulful basset-hound eyes, listened patiently. He was used to these conversations. In 2006, he and his partners invested $3.1 million to establish Mountain Lodges of Peru, an adventure travel operation with four modern eco-lodges in the buffer zone of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. His guides lead guests in what he calls “high mountain comfort” along the Camino Salkantay, a notoriously rugged footpath through the Vilcabamba Range from Mollepata to Santa Teresa. The route was long the sole domain of muleteers and serious trekkers, but overcrowding and over-reliance on the classic Machu Picchu circuit has increased demand for an alternative. Umbert and company are turning the Salkantay into the New Inca Trail—and using it as a proving ground for a new model of sustainability.
While MLP is guiding travelers on supreme Andes adventures, its affiliate N.G.O., Yanapana Perú, is bringing a lifeline to local communities. Don Enrique’s goal is to ensure that any growth in tourism along the Camino Salkantay improves conditions in the region. With investments in health care, education, and green energy to training in tourism and organic cooperatives, MLP has become the real powerbroker in the valley. The Mule Drivers Association is one of their creations. They provide the animals with veterinary care and the men with their daily rations.
Umbert—in wool poncho and riding breeches, a flower in the band of his gaucho hat—stretched his legs and adjusted his knee brace (courtesy of a recent heli-ski mishap in Colorado.) “I can’t promise anything,” he said, “but I’ll see what I can do.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Judging by the muleteers’ faces, lentils were as good as off the menu. If he was wearing a ring, they might have kissed it.
Andrew Berg, formerly Senior Editor of National Geographic Adventure Magazine, has written about travel, culture, and archaeology for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, and others.