Rocketing through Peru’s Sacred Valley on my way to hike the infamous Incan Trail to Machu Picchu, I happened to tear my eyes from the winding road and look skyward. There against the sheer granite cliffside, more than 1,000 feet up, dangled four silver pods promising unparalleled panoramic views of the most beautiful region in all of Peru. “Skylodge Adventure Suites,” my driver said, nodding his head in the pod’s general direction. They looked like translucent bubbles suspended over the valley—undoubtedly a unique way to spend an evening.
This luxurious $500 per night human condor’s nest is more than a hotel; it’s an adrenaline-inducing adventure. Guests climb more than 1,000 feet “Via Ferrata,” in other words, connected to iron cables by dual carabiners as you ascend precariously placed iron rung ladders and handholds, to reach your final destination. A night spent sleeping among the stars, complete with a three-course Peruvian meal and a bottle of wine followed by a series of zip-line descents to the base of the mountain.
In the thin air of Cusco, a city already sitting at over 11,000 feet above sea level, this luxurious stay seemed like a good idea to me. I wasn’t particularly afraid of heights, and although I had never climbed before, I assumed it couldn’t possibly be more difficult than trekking for four-days at 15,000 feet along the ancient Incan trail.
Ascending to Sky Lodge Basecamp
Entering the Sacred Valley, a mere hour and a half drive from Cusco, I found myself surrounded by the green and gold foliage-covered rock spires of the Peruvian Andes. The valley between the peaks held a collection of small farming communities and the dull grey-hued waters of the sacred Willkamayu River. I was enjoying one of the most scenic drives in Peru as the guide explained the afternoon itinerary to my fiance and the two other couples who would be joining us in the sky.
Underneath the titanium dining and sleeping pods, we stepped into our climbing harnesses and began a 5-minute crash course on “clipping into” the cable. One of your two carabineers must always be attached to the thick cable that you’ll climb alongside. That way a fall would be a few meters at most, rather than a 1,000 foot plummet to your death. Donning helmets, headlamps, and fingerless gloves, we looked the part of real mountain climbers. Driven forward by the promise of 360-degree views from our cozy nest in the sky, we followed our guide to the base of the mountain.
As I stepped onto my first iron rung, drilled securely into the side of the cliff, I realized the magnitude of what we were about to do. This wasn’t a simple “ladder.” This was a series of rebar hand and footholds crisscrossing a behemoth of a mountain that required a lot of reaching, upper body strength, and extreme focus to prevent a disaster. The pods seemed impossibly far away, and as we began to climb, we fell into a silent rhythm; right hand, right foot, left foot, left hand, clip the first carabiner into the next section, clip the second carabiner. The wind pushed at my back as I repeated a mantra of “just don’t look down” for the first 300-feet of the climb. In my mind, “luxury” had meant tame adventure, but I was mistaken. Despite being reassured that both a 6-year-old and a 74-year-old had previously made it to the summit, I questioned why exactly I was clinging to the side of this mountain.
For over an hour, I navigated around Dr. Suess-like cacti and pulled my body weight up rocky outcroppings while the two guides nimbly scurried around us snapping photos. I began to feel confident enough to venture a look around. And it was breathtaking. The sun sank to paint the sky a brilliant orange and pink. If I didn’t focus on how far below me the ground was, it was almost peaceful. Then we reached the tightrope.
Three metal cables stretched taut across a 20-foot-wide abyss. It was clear this was the way forward. But my shaking knees and historically poor balance did not instill confidence that I could cross this obstacle effectively. Holding my breath, I gripped the top cable in my hands and began the world’s slowest sideways baby step across the tightrope. Maybe I am afraid of heights, after all, or have healthy anxiety about plummeting to my death. As I stepped onto semi-solid ground again, I was elated. A climber’s high; I could do anything. At the very least, I could enjoy the sights as I climbed for the last 40 minutes.
My Night in the Million Star Hotel
Pulling myself into the dining dome, a large clear pod fitted with three tables and a full kitchen against the raw rockface of the cliff, I was finally able to take off my helmet, unclip from the lines and fully take in the view. Sun-setting behind us, we ate pumpkin soup, chicken roulade with a side of whipped Andean potatoes, fresh apple crisp, and indulged in a personal (mini) bottle of Peruvian red to calm our frayed nerves. Despite the stellar views, it was still mildly unsettling sitting in the sky.
But I wasn’t done climbing yet. Getting to the private sleeping pod from the dining bubble proved to be more of a challenge than the climb up. Slightly inebriated, completely exhausted, and using only the light from my headlamp, I traversed the difficult rebar rungs to our pod.
Once safely inside, I inspected our residence for the evening. A composting toilet, sink, tower of drinking water, two small beds, and an extraordinarily comfy master bed surrounded by transparent walls. This would do nicely. Since it was still early, only about 8 PM, we finished off our bottles of wine, played cards, and marveled at the “million-star view.” Without WiFi, the focus was on pure relaxation, connection with my partner, and simply enjoying the serene vibe of the valley. We fell asleep to the soothing sound of the wind fluttering against the pod and the muted lights of the town far below.
I woke up with the sunrise and watched the mist snake through the valley below me from bed with a cup of warm mint tea. Breakfast was due to be served at 7 in the dining pod, so I harnessed myself, now comfortable with the procedure, and began the precarious climb on my own. Over a hearty meal of eggs, toast, coffee, and juice, I steeled myself for the descent and my very first attempt at ziplining. Six separate lines, one stretching more than 2,000 feet in length and done in tandem, and we would be safely on the valley floor again. Unlike the climb, the ziplines were pure, unadulterated fun. Soaring through the Andes watching the lush landscape wiz by, your only responsibility was properly breaking when the guide frantically waved his arms near the end of the line.
Is a Stay at Skylodge Adventure Suites Worth it?
In short, the answer is yes. The Skylodge is one of my top 10 favorite travel experiences to date. Nowhere else in the world can you sleep in a bubble on the side of a cliff, try out Via Ferrata climbing, and partake in a high-elevation zipline adventure. Plus the hotel sits smack dab in Peru’s prettiest landscape to boot. Of course, it’s not for everyone.
You must be reasonably fit and adventurous to complete the climb to the summit. Many guests chicken out. But Skylodge is working on a solution. In 2022, five more pods will be opening on the other side of the mountain with a little more emphasis on luxury. You’ll be able to reach these new translucent bubbles via a short uphill hike rather than a climb, and they’ll be equipped with a cliffside hot tub to soothe your aching muscles after tackling some of Peru’s most famous hikes. On the flip side, if you’re an adrenaline junkie and ONLY interested in the Via Ferrata climb and zipline course, you can join a day tour and skip the sleeping pods altogether.
INSIDER TIPAltitude is no joke in Southern Peru. Unfortunately, one of our fellow climbers had to be medically evacuated from the pods due to a bad case of altitude sickness. You should plan to spend at least two days in Cusco before your visit to Skylodge so you can properly acclimate to the altitude.