Andean adventures: Cusco and Machu Picchu

After taking a flight from Cali, we had a brief stop in Quito, Ecuador before continuing on to Lima where we had around seven hours to kill overnight. It wasn’t the most comfortable stopover (think makeshift bed of cafeteria chairs) and the fact that my backpack hadn’t made it to Peru didn’t help matters. Still, the next morning we were in Cusco and, after a few hours of much needed rest, my backpack thankfully arrived (I hadn’t been looking forward to trekking the Inca Trail in Neal’s clothes!)

We spent our first afternoon orientating ourselves and exploring the city of Cusco, as well as acclimatising to the altitude (3,400m). Cusco is a stunning city, with beautiful old churches, large squares, cobbled streets and arcades set against its mountainous backdrop. The city was lit up for Christmas and an illuminated statue of Christ looks down on the people from high in the hills. As we wandered the narrow alleyways, we came across a barber shop and Neal, with a little gentle persuasion, decided to brave the barber’s blade. The results were pretty good, particularly given that it cost less than $2.

The following day was spent finalising our arrangements for the trek – hiring sleeping bags, buying hats, ponchos and high energy snacks. That night, courtesy of our host, we sampled the local (alcoholic) speciality, Pisco Sours – made from ¨Pisco, lemon juice, egg white and sugar. It was quite delicious, but we werre careful to limit ourselves given the early start we had the following day.

The next morning we set off on our Inca Trail adventure, taking a bus to Ollantaytambo with our trek companions – we were a group of 17 from some 12 different countries. As we got kitted up at km 82, the weather couldn’t decide what to do, switching from bright sunshine to rain and causing us to keep putting on and taking off our ponchos (very attractive purple and green ones!). Our first day was apparently the easiest but, as we were carrying our own backpack as we climbed to 3,100m, it was still a struggle. The walk was picturesque and we passed our first Inca site, Llactapata mid way through, arriving at our campsite for the night at around 5pm. We were both surprised,from our first day onwards at how good the food was on the trip. The chef was clearly very talented as he whipped up everything from burgers and chips to soups and chicken roulade – all from what he and the porters could carry on their backs.On each day, we were amazed too by the speed and strength of the porters – they would literally run past us, up and down hill, carrying around 25kg each on their backs.

It was a 5:30am start the next day for what is considered the hardest day of the trek – around seven hours climbing up over 1,000m. We decided to hire a personal porter for this day and the next so that we could focus on enjoying the hike – definetely a wise move! Neal, along with many others in our group suffered from altitude sickness on this stretch of the hike, so every step of the ascent required a massive effort. After the climb, it was another two hours downhill to our camp for the evening where we would spend New Year’s Eve. As is tradition in Peru, many of us donned yellow hats, flowers and ties to bring us good luck for the coming year. Between us, we had a variety of bottles of whisky, rum, pisco etc which we used to bring in the New Year. We celebrated the occasion on European time rather than Peruvian as we were all exhausted from the long day and we knew we had another early start the next day. New Year’s night was freezing cold (by now we were at 3,500m) and thermals and llama hats were a must!

We were on the road again by 7:30 the next day, starting with a couple of hours climb before reaching a stretch of rainforest. The weather that had stayed mainly dry and sunny thus far, turned to rain for a good couple of hours but fortunately, after lunch it dried up once again. We passed through Inca tunnels and stopped at Phuyupatamarca, another impressive Inca site with ceremonial fountains and several grazing llamas. This was followed by a descent of 3,000 steps through some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. After the hard ascents, it was a relief to be going downhill, but the steps were a killer for the knees and, after nine hours of trekking we were glad to reach our camp and even to take an icy cold shower.

On our final morning, we were woken at 3:30am (not that we slept much/well at all on the trip as each night’s camp was set on hard rocky land), given a quick breakfast and set off on the final stretch to Machu Picchu. As the porters had to leave us to catch a 5am train, we were forced to sit in the dark for an hour until the final checkpoint opened at 6am (yes, this also meant we had to carry our own bag again!). Unfortunately by this stage, I was feeling ill from lack of sleep and the altitude. The final push was a real struggle but we reached the Sun Gate around 7:30am, where we were rewarded with our first incredible glimpse of Machu Picchu. We were fortunate to arrive as the clouds parted, as not long later, it was completely hidden by mist. From that point, it was less than an hour’s walk to the site itself. We arrived at the summit, affording us great views over the entire area – an incredible sight to behold.

After dropping off our bags, we were given a tour of Machu Picchu, learning about the temples to the Sun God, the Condor and Mother Earth. It was fascinating, although I must admit that at this point I was stuggling for energy and every step we climbed was a struggle! After the tour, we had a lovely nap on the ancient terraces which revived us sufficiently to continue exploring by ourselves for a couple more hours. Finally, that afternoon we made the descent to Aguas Calientes. Gluttons for punishment, we chose the hour and a half route down steep steps rather than hopping on the bus, but thankfully there were cold drinks and pizza waiting for us when we reached the town. From Aguas Calientes, we took a train to Ollantaytambo followed by a bus back to Cusco that night. Never have I been so glad to take a hot shower and climb into a comfy bed! That said, the whole experience was absolutely amazing – the hard work and sleepless nights were well worth the effort. The views throughout the trek were breath-taking and, as many others will testify, the trek itself is just as amazing as the finale at Machu Picchu!

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