With hot-water bottle and WLAN.
Journey. Eduard Rauchdobler from Linz and Enrique Umbert from Lima wanted to make the trek to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu more comfortable. Today her project "Mountain Lodges of Peru" is flourishing. And the two entrepreneurs are thinking about multiplying their concept in many other places of tourist interest.
The departure signal comes at 3600 meters altitude, four hours by car from Cusco. The lama willows and the quinoa fields of Soraypampa, which stick to steep slopes, will only take two hours to walk. But for the first day the program is enough, the thin air already lets the trekkers, catapulted into the high Andes, breathe hard. To their guide Toni they say "muchas gracias" for horses carrying the big luggage. Lorenzo of the Quechua people motivates additionally by playing in traditional costume and pan flute. A bit reminiscent of the pedestrian folklore of a major German city. Only the white prongs of the six-thousanders pushing themselves into the picture don't really fit to it.
The highest is the Salkantay, with 6271 meters almost one and a half times as high as the Matterhorn and hardly less beautiful. The path is named after him and will lead to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in four to five days.
At 68 kilometres, the Salkantay trek is longer than the famous Inca Trail, but there are fewer vertical metres to climb. But above all, things are a little quieter here. While the 500 starting places per day on the Inca Trail are allocated many months in advance and are in great demand, there are still no numerical restrictions.
But even more important for many travellers on the Salkantay-Trek is another difference. You have to camp on the Inca Trail. Toni's group, on the other hand, checks into the Salkantay Lodge. On arrival, there will be moist towels and ginger-mint cocktails. A warm fire is burning in the tiled stove. Anny, the mid-fifties girl from North Carolina, smiles gratefully: "I'm too old to go to bed without a hot shower at the end of a long, dusty day."
Anny has given her daughter Sarah's trip to high school graduation and a little bit to herself as well. In a few months Sarah will move out and start her studies at the renowned MIT, tuition fees per year: 80000 US dollars. The $4,000 per person for the week-long trek is not an issue. The two now dedicate themselves to their three-course menu: Sweet potato soup, Lomo Saltado with polenta, quinoa tart. The lively atmosphere at the table is not provided by bitter coca leaves, but by several glasses of Argentinean Malbecs. When they say "Good night" later, a hot-water bottle will have already preheated their feather bed comfortably.
The idea that trekking and comfort are not mutually exclusive is by no means new. In Nepal, the DAV Summit Club had its own lodges built many years ago. And in Ecuador, South America's most famous mountaineer Marco Cruz has his own luxurious lodge at the foot of Chimborazo. In Peru, Austrian Eduard Rauchdobler and his local partner Enrique Umbert set up the "Mountain Lodges of Peru" (MLP) project:
Rauchdobler, born in 1944, grew up in Linz, did an apprenticeship at the coffee roaster Julius Meinl, then obtained his Matura and enrolled at the University of Linz. He is ambitious and gets a Fulbright scholarship to study at a university in Texas in 1971. With an MBA in his pocket, he returns. He now works for Linzer Intertrading, a subsidiary of Voestalpine AG, which also trades in raw materials.
Rauchdobler is responsible for the worldwide trade in grain, rice and fish meal. The latter is one of Peru's main export products. This is how the Austrian meets Enrique Umbert. The Umberts are an influential family in the Andean state. In the 1970s, for example, they set up the country's radio network. When the junta takes power, the Peruvian must resign from his leadership positions. He goes to the USA in the 80s. There, Umbert becomes commodity trader for Continental Grain, one of the big players in this business.
The two men do not only get to know each other - they make friends, explore the Andes in Peru and the Alps in Austria on foot together. "Enrique especially liked our rustic mountain huts," says Rauchdobler, "but he found them too spartan. He used to say to me: "We need something like this in Peru, too, only more comfortable."
For a long time, it's just a vague idea. Both managers are fully challenged in their jobs, and Peru is going through politically difficult times even after the rule of the military. At the beginning of the new millennium, however, the two of them want to reduce their professional time and spend more time in nature. But at the same time maybe try something new again.
Now they remember the idea of comfortable mountain huts, which still do not exist in Peru. Because they know little about the tourism business, they fly together to a trade fair in Seattle in 2005 and present their concept for the "Mountain Lodges of Peru" (MLP) to Leo Le Bon.
Le Bon has been considered a pioneer of adventure tourism since he led the first commercial trekking group through the Nepalese Himalayas in 1967. The co-founder of the Californian tour operator Mountain Travel Sobek lifts his thumb and encourages the duo to put their ideas on the road. He likes the idea of building luxurious lodges along the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, which was still considered an insider tip at the time. Instead of a sleeping bag, guests should bring swimwear for the open-air Jacuzzi that each lodge will receive. In this way, entrepreneurs want to attract wealthy guests to the Andes. Encourage them to leave their comfort zone, but only a little. And at the same time offer an alternative to South America's trekking highway Inka-Trail.
In 2006, the two families and business partners signed a shareholder agreement. It's getting serious. Their plan is to build four lodges, each in its own style. They are even launching an architecture competition. Now they still need properties on which the lodges are to stand. Not all locals like the fact that the wealthy Umberts purchase land for their mountain hotels on a grand scale, especially as they are "immigrants" from Lima who don't even speak the local idiom Quechua. It will also be a logistical feat. There are no roads. All building materials, transformers for the generators, vast quantities of eucalyptus wood, even every bulbous glass of red wine must be transported on mules over passes and through valleys.
9,000 mule charges will be required in total. The positive thing about this is that 150 locals get a job in this way, albeit for a limited period of time. This is important to change the mood and appease the skeptics.
In July 2007 the families inaugurate the four lodges - Salkantay, Wayra, Colpa, Lucma - along the Salkantay trek during a hike together. They have now invested two million US dollars. Around 80 employees look after the well-being of the guests. Most of them come from the poorest sections of the population and are trained in the low season. "We all had to go through a learning curve," remembers Rauchdobler. "At first, we certainly underestimated the importance of involving village communities along the Salkantay route."
It is not enough to offer a tourist product of the upmarket category. This must also take into account the social and ecological needs of the region. Today, MLP has many partners who are developing additional sources of income through targeted cooperation and in this way are given an opportunity for independent development for the first time: Farmers who sell crops and meat to the kitchen; Quechua women who offer homemade honey and jam; a textile cooperative that makes hand-woven ponchos dyed with natural dyes and other garments whose local design sets them apart from the usual souvenirs.
All this serves to strengthen the cultural identity and self-esteem of the people as well as to preserve the traditional way of life of the Andean inhabitants, emphasises the Austrian. To do even more, his wife Elisabeth Leitner-Rauchdobler and Enrique Umbert founded the Yanapana Peru Foundation (Yanapana means "help" in Quechua). It supports the local population through a wide variety of projects, for example in training and further education. Yanapana is mainly financed by MLP, but also receives donations in kind and money from private individuals and institutions.
More than 150 families benefit from the project, be it through a job, the chance to sell their goods, shorter distances to school or access to medical care. In 2009 MLP was awarded the TO DO! prize at the world's largest tourism trade fair ITB in Berlin. Awarded.
MLP is also a success in entrepreneurial terms. Now, every year 2500 guests hike from lodge to lodge on the Salkantay-Trek, the hostels have a load factor of 75 to 80 percent. A good two thirds of the trekkers come from the USA and Canada. MLP does a lot of advertising there because US Americans have less annual holidays and are therefore more willing and able than Europeans to spend a lot of money a day. They also appreciate maximum security and an all-round carefree package with massages, WLAN and laundry service.
Just like the three brothers from Michigan. For the trio, the moderate trek is the ultimate adventure. "We've never done anything like this before," confirms Miguel, the oldest. The internist brought his son with him, already heavily overweight at 16. Miguel hopes that such an outdoor experience might activate the hiking virus in his Junior.
The trekking novices don't mind their guide giving Toni the babysitter: "Apply sunscreen and mosquito repellent, put on the cap, take enough drinks with you," he advises his protégés. They don't see this as paternalism, but as inexperienced hikers they are grateful for the tips. And they also appreciate the fact that there is always a pack horse trotting beside them, carrying extra water and emergency oxygen in case one of them falls ill with altitude in the thin air.
The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu has thus become feasible for a wide range of guests. Rauchdobler sees this with mixed feelings: "In 2007 it was a lonely, primal way, today there are many people on the road. But at the same time we have also created the basis for health care in the region."
For travellers who attach more importance to unique cultural experiences, the expanding company MLP has therefore also created an alternative since 2010: MLP lodges were also built in the still primal Lares valley, a side valley of the Valle Sagrado of the Incas. There, the indigenous people are not only employees, but also co-owners of the lodges, because they stand on their land.
Enrique Umbert finds that this model works even better and more conflict-free. All decisions - for example on the construction of water pipes - would be taken jointly. And the locals would share in the profits: "It's a nice sum every year."
For Umbert, the "Lares Adventure" is not so much a sporting challenge as a contact with local culture: "The people in the Lares Valley are direct descendants of the Incas. We dive deeply into their everyday lives, visit small, lesser known ruins, take part in celebrations and ceremonies. The perfect preparation is to learn a few chunks of Quechua. This facilitates the contact with the often shy people."
Communication is the key to success. "The people here have their own values, visions and organisational structures that are not always identical or even compatible with ours. Both sides must approach each other."
This year Eduard Rauchdobler turned 75, Enrique Umbert is 70 - but both are not tired at all. On the contrary. They are now thinking about offering their successful comfort trekking also in other mountain regions of the world - in Bhutan, Nepal or Tanzania.
Maybe, they smile, but it will also be a test for the next generation. The sons of the founders, in their early 40s, are already actively involved in MLP: Enrique Umbert junior and Felipe Umbert run the company operationally, Jarmo and Julian Juen-Rauchdobler sit on the supervisory board. Julian had already proven his entrepreneurial gene in another field. "He came to Peru as a child and often drank cactus juice with shamans," Rauchdobler senior reveals. "Its stimulating effect inspired him to turn this prickly pear into a drink called Kaahée."
The entrepreneur Hans Peter Haselsteiner, known to the general public as an investor and jury member of the start-up show "2 minutes, 2 million", already predicts a great future for the lifestyle drink: "I don't rule out that Kaahée could become a similar success story to Red Bull. Then the guests of the MLP lodges will probably soon be greeted with Kaahée instead of the ginger-mint cocktail.
The alternative way to Machu Picchu.
General information: www.peru.travel/de
Arrival: With Avianca (www.avianca.com) via Bogotá to Cusco
Media: Sandra Wolf and Helmut Hermann: "Peru", Travel Know-How Publishing House, 2019
Author: Dr. Günter Kast
Photos: MLP // Tobias Silence // Günter Kast