It’s been said that by reflecting on our past we are sure to find an authentic path toward our future, guided by the lessons that we (hopefully) learn along the way. I’ve certainly learned most of mine from Enrique Umbert Sr., Mountain Lodges of Peru Founder and President, who passed away recently. He was also my dad and our family’s rock, mentor, and guiding light—the hero who inspired us to be fearless on our individual life journeys and taught us the importance of, in his exact words, ‘being citizens of the world’. But it was Dad’s vision and passion for MLP that validated his rhetoric and gave us the chance to experience first-hand the true meaning of ‘walking the walk’.
Dad had always been an avid outdoorsman—skiing, mountaineering, mountain biking, horseback riding, etc. One day in 2005-ish, he called a family meeting (which meant Dad, my brothers Felipe and Enrique Jr., and myself) and told us of his new ‘life project’: building the very first lodge-to-lodge trek along the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu. The three of us just stared at him wide-eyed, wondering if this was the beginning of a mid-life crisis. Dad’s career focus had always been in commodities trading and at that time, we three were at some point in undergrad and graduate studies. “But Dad, we know nothing about the hospitality industry OR trekking in Cusco!” Sensing our panic, he simply said, “The thing is…I’m getting tired of camping and I’m sure other people are too. Don’t worry about it right now! I’ll circle back with more info…”. Umm, okay. Before we knew it, he had commissioned an exploratory trek with some Salkantay locals, a few architects and environmental experts, and long-time Austrian friend, Edi Rauchdobler, a fellow mountaineer and future MLP Chairman of the Board.
His goal was to pioneer a first-class adventure program that had not previously existed in Peru. While ‘hiking the Inca Trail’ was not a new concept for adventurers, few knew that there were other Inca trails to explore, and Salkantay is arguably the most beautiful, with breathtaking vistas and landscapes so varied that you begin to wonder if you’ve stepped into some Inca version of The Hobbit. But what Dad had in mind became a game-changer because, let’s face it, discovering amazing Andean mountain landscapes and fascinating Incan archaeological sites en route to Machu Picchu is much better—and more safely done—with an expert guide and cozy mountain luxury accommodations well-earned after a long day of hiking. The kicker, though, was his uncompromising vision that authenticity be a huge part of the equation, along with maintaining the integrity of Salkantay’s natural resources and the cherished traditions of the Andean communities that breathed life into this extraordinary corner of the world.
Fast forward two years…and despite some resistance from local authorities (long story!), along with challenges like transporting all building materials, furnishings, appliances, and power generators to ridiculously remote locations by man and mule ONLY, he pulled it off. And authentic they are—each lodge blends seamlessly into its environs and all are manned by Salkantay locals. Added bonus: the rare opportunity to hike into a remote Andean village and be welcomed to spend meaningful time with the community learning about their daily lives and ancient traditions.
Anyway, my ‘walk the walk’ initiation arrived soon after. Ironically, before embarking on my first Salkantay trek I’d never been on a hike that lasted for more than two hours, much less a 7-day journey of hiking at an average of 10,000 feet. At that point, my idea of trekking was slogging along crowded city streets after a Manhattan snowfall. As I prepped for departure, Dad insisted on guiding me through my packing list at REI, which I soon learned was the legit mecca of the outdoorsy crowd. Our outing definitely had its funny moments…I can still picture the sales guy’s face when I asked if they had hiking pants that were more form-fitting and if the boots I liked came in other colors. Priceless.
Once armed and ready, six friends and I set off on our journey, led by the late Williams Davalos, an amazing guide and human who became a close friend. I’m not gonna lie, the road to Machu Picchu was definitely challenging at times and gave ‘digging deep’ new meaning but by the end, this pilgrimage had changed my life. I honestly couldn’t believe that I’d done it, and the achievement actually framed how even now, I often look to jump out of my comfort zone and ‘rock’ a new adventure. Magical.
But even more inspiring were my experiences each time we passed through villages that dot Salkantay. Somehow word would spread that I was Enrique’s daughter, and the locals welcomed me and reverently shared how much they admired him. It became clear that he’d had a profound effect on their lives, further confirmed when I learned how many ‘godchildren’ that they had entrusted to him. While I’d heard Dad’s stories of the friendships that he’d cultivated along the trail, I hadn’t yet understood the magnitude of what it meant to bond with these traditional communities who’d always been suspicious of outsiders. There was just something about him…and I’d like to think that it was his generous heart and the genuine look in his eyes that made him irresistible.
To be honest, we’re still somewhat incredulous that this whole thing ‘panned out’…and of course, beyond grateful to work together in something both commercially and personally rewarding. Aside from our awesome MLP adventures, we’ve also been blessed to work alongside our NGO/non-profit organization, Yanapana Perú, to create social, educational, and health improvement programs and co-ops to enrich the lives of our Andean friends. In truth, that’s probably been the best part.
So here we are, our entire MLP family looking toward the future without the physical presence of our fearless leader yet sensing that his spirit is with us every step of the way. Even through this current pandemic we will carry on, fortified and inspired by the dream that became much more than a ‘life project’. Here’s to you, Dad! We have some pretty big shoes to fill—and we hope that we’ll make you proud.
Enrique Umbert Sandoval
February 12, 1949 – March 11, 2020