Cusco. We love this city. It is so beautiful and a kind of “user-friendly” sorta place. Admittedly, it is rather touristy but it’s big enough and full of real-life-living sort of people, that you sorta don’t mind all the shops that sell the exact same thing, the massage-sellers, the desperate “free” walking tour guides offering tours, the millions of travel agencies where you can book your Machu Picchu experience, the tourist restaurants, etc. There is a hustle and bustle about this place that makes it feel, to us, like a place we could see ourselves living in.
The Plaza de Armas is where it’s all happening and where we make our way every day. The buildings look impressive, the restaurants offer set-menu prices (cheap: we can get soup, main, dessert for about $10 AUD per person), and plenty of people to watch.
We have already spent a lot of time here (or rather, our belongings have spent a long time here) since May 9th. It’s the longest we’ve stayed anywhere on our trip. It is a convenient home-base where we can go to other locations easily.
Now I must write about Machu Picchu. When I was in university, I met a girl who talked about how she was going to go to Peru. This was probably 2005 ish. I was 22 or so. I said to her “Peru???! What the heck do you want to go there for?” I was very young and naïve. I had no idea how amazing Peru is, and I also had never heard of Machu Picchu. Once I found out, I thought it was a neat place to see.
Originally, our 9-month trip was going to be seeing the rest of the wonders of the world, but, after some heavy-hearted decision making, we thought going to the Middle-East (for Jordan, to see Petra) as well as Egypt was not a great idea considering the current political climate. We will make our way there one day. So, we are seeing only three of the seven wonders this time, and Machu Picchu was one of them.
The traditional 4-day Inca Trail trek is so popular, that you have to book it at least 6 months in advance. When we booked our trip, we didn’t quite get the dates we wanted, but got our second choice, which was the second week of May. It really cemented our trip for us when we paid the enormous deposit, as it is not cheap. Our first month was all about seeing as much as possible before having to get to Cusco. They suggest arriving in Cusco a couple of days before doing the trek, in order to acclimatize to the altitude. Since we’d already been in Bolivia and in particular, places which are much higher than Cusco, we didn’t really need to get used to the altitude, but, we were there two days before to get everything sorted. There were snacks and walking poles to buy, packs to organize and pack, last-minute blog writing to do, and most importantly, laundry to get cleaned.
The first day we were picked up from our hostel at 5:30am and made our way to Ollantaytambo, a town about two hours outside of Cusco. It was here we ate a hearty breakfast and introduced ourselves to the rest of our group, ten others who were all such great people. We were so thankful we had great personalities with us on the trek. Americans kinda overtook our group, but there were two other French-born Canadians, a Chinese woman, and two British girls. I miss these people. We were a little family on our trek, all in it together.
We drove a bit further to a place called km 82 and it was here we got ourselves organized, got our passports checked, our tickets stamped, and our walking poles ready. We began. The first part was downhill, looking at a lovely river. I thought “This is gonna be the best thing ever!” The next five minutes were climbing a steepish hill. I thought “Oh, geez, what did I get myself into?” as I panted away an took a huge glug of my water.
The first day’s hike was 7 hours and was actually quite lovely. We took plenty of breaks for drinks and snacks, saw some Incan remains along the way, and felt tired yet cheery by the end of the day. We hiked about 12 kms. The sweetest part was when we made it to our lunch campsite and all of our porters (20 in total) applauded us as we arrived. These porters are serious business, man. They hike twice as fast and carry three times as much as regular people. They’re not huge men, either, but they were impressive. Anyway, the first day we were tuckered out and after our dinner at 7pm, we all basically went to bed. Despite being very exhausted, I did not sleep well. These bones were not meant for camping, I tell ya. The ground was hard, the temperature was cold, I wasn’t wearing my normal pajamas, I felt out-of-place. Callum, of course, slept like a log.
Day 2. Oh, you ferocious beast, Day 2. So, we were warned long before arriving in Peru that Day 2 would kick our sorry butts, and indeed it did. Now, I have a bit of a natural talent for complaining…most would know this about me. It’s not the greatest character trait, but I think it’s progressed to an even worse kind of complaining, thanks to living in Australia where everyone “whinges” about something. I told myself before this trek that I would try very hard to keep the whinging to a minimum. So, I did really well with the ascent of this killer mountain up to a scarily named “Dead Woman’s Pass”. I actually beat my hiker-husband. Granted, I had hired an extra porter for the day so that all I had to carry was my camera, but still, that hike was hard. I couldn’t stop. Every time I stopped to take a break, it would be doubly hard to continue on. If I kept moving, no matter how slow and pathetic, I could make it. That’s why I beat Callum—he took breaks every switchback and corner.
That mountain was steep, I just want to reiterate. When I got to the top, I took a video of my surroundings and of myself which I might not share, since I don’t look my most flattering self, and all I could say was “I’m absolutely knackered.” I ate my celebratory Snickers bar and waited for Cal. He came ten minutes later, also absolutely knackered and we took some photos before heading down. Now for the easy part, is what I told myself. Downhill. Oh, no. No, no, I was very wrong. It was torturous going down after all that up, and it was really really really down. Our knees were sore, our backs were sore, our necks were sore from looking down and concentrating on all the different sizes and shapes of stones to navigate. At one point, I am sorry to say, my resolve to quit complaining went out the window and I whinged so much that I actually started to cry. It was my weakest moment on the whole trek. I was so beyond “done” that I was really losing it. We were the very last ones into camp that night. The others were like “Hey!” and I basically gave them all a death-stare. How dare they sound cheerful after all of that torture? Day 2 sucked. I felt so victorious at the top, and so defeated at the bottom. We hiked 10 kilometers and it took us 8 hours.
Day 3 it rained in the morning. It was a bit ominous. I hate rain. Some of the others were celebrating that they hadn’t bought and lugged around their rain gear for nothing. I would have been happy if that were the case for us, but there you go. Out came the rain jackets and the rain ponchos. We suddenly realized none of our bags were waterproof, so ponchos became bag protectors and we just had to make do. The day’s hike was the longest in terms of kilometres (16) but the going was a lot easier than the day before. There was a lot of gradual up and down and over again, and the views were spectacular, even in the rain. These Andes Mountains, guys. They are for real. Every five minutes I found myself lifting up my poncho, digging into my rain jacket pocket, locating the Nikon, slipping it out of its case, and taking a picture and returning everything to its spot. Then, five minutes later doing it all over again. The upside is that the sun decided to come out and ponchos and rain jackets could be put away. The downside was that the final descent for the day was 3000 steps, about twice as much as the day before. It sucked. I think part of what made it bearable was that we were warned about these steps beforehand and knew it was coming. Also, the steps were not as steep as the day before. We were exhausted and I had the best sleep of my camping life after this day.
Day 4. We were woken at a ridiculous hour of 3:15am. This is in order for us to get breakfast from our porters, clean up, and pack up so that the porters could all scoot down to catch their train at 5:30am. Also, the gate to the final day opens at 5:30am and there is competition with other trekking groups to get there first. We ate a very simple breakfast of one crepe and one piece of bread with strawberry jam and half a cup of tea, as we were kind of rushed. We got ourselves organized and then made our way to the entrance gate. We waited for 45 minutes. The park has a rule that people can’t trek until there is light in the sky, so that made sense. We hiked for only about about 5 kms before finally seeing the Incan remains from a distance, at the Sun Gate. Wow! I nearly cried again because it felt like we’d done it! We made it! But I was too tired to cry, even from happiness. I merely got myself to the front, got Callum, and got some photos. I might have become a bit budgey and greedy for about five minutes before realizing my childish behaviour.
We had another 45 minutes or so to actually get down to the actual remains. By the way, all the Incan sites we saw are termed as “remains” instead of “ruins” because “ruins” means they were destroyed by a group of people—probably an invading army or expedition. “Remains” denotes leftovers from years before that have not been destroyed by anything but the natural elements.
We took lots of pictures and then our lovely guide Edwin talked to us at length about what exactly we were looking at. All of us were so tired, the sun was so beautiful, and Edwin’s voice so soothing, that I’m sure half of us were in danger of falling asleep. I kind of felt like half of me didn’t care about anything anymore, because of my exhaustion. I told that half to shut up and pay attention—I had made it to my destination. I had come to Peru for this specifically, and I had walked the Inca Trail.
I could write about the things I learned about Machu Picchu, but I kind of want ya’ll to go and discover it yourself. I was impressed with how organized the city is and how much thought was put into its design. You don’t have to do the 45 kms hike to the remains (by the way, there are about 20,000 kms of Incan trails, so we only hiked a tiny part of it)—you can do a day trip. I’ll think you’re a bit of a sissy though. I remember overhearing some people say at the entrance to the remains “Oh, I better buy a water. It’s gonna be a lot of walking today,” and pretty much scoffing at them. Another person said “Geez Louise, this is a lot of steps! This day is going to kill me!” Also scoffed at her. You have no idea, lady. Also, you’re a big sissy.