Almost every flight to Cuzco, the capital of the ancient Incan empire, must go through Lima first. As the principal city of modern Peru Lima is a sprawling metropolis. Unlike Cuzco it has long lost its Spanish colonial feel, rather these facades have made way for clubs, restaurants and condos. While the Lonely Planet Guide for Peru states that the capital is not to be missed, I can confidently say I have no regrets that our sojourn in the city was brief. While the food was good and the atmosphere was very busy and excited, I was keen to get out of the dry urban climate and go on to the Incan navel of the world, Cuzco, which also happens to be the starting point for all travel to Machu Picchu.
This World Heritage Site stands at the threshold of the sacred valley, the foothills of the Andean mountains resplendent with Incan ruins, picturesque villages and boasting beautiful natural formations. Not everything is idyllic though. For people visiting the city one of the biggest issues is the altitude. Cuzco sits at about 3400 m above sea level, more than 3350 m higher than London, New York City and Melbourne. Needless to say it takes a bit of time for your body to acclimatise. My recommendation: rest and coca tea. Coca tea is controversial internationally. Made with the coca leaf, the tea on its own is harmless, however the alkaloids found in these leaves are used to make less wholesome products. Despite these annoyances, the tea is legal in Peru and can provide relief from the symptoms of altitude sickness as well as functioning similarly to coffee in its ability to wake you up in the morning. Our guides en route to Machu Picchu also swore by this remedy and would wake us up with coca tea when our treks began in the early hours of the morning. There are also coca candies that you can buy in any convenience store.
If coca is not your thing there are a number of places where you can get nice detoxing smoothies (Green Point being the most popular). There is also a random Australian coffee shop called Jack’s Café where you can get a flat white. Just make sure to get there early, a line tends to develop around brunch time. Whatever you do, don’t just leave for the trek day one. We were arriving from Bogota, which is 2,640 m above sea level and we still suffered from headaches, soreness and dry throats. All very mild compared to the stories we heard about others.
|Plaza des Armas, Cuzco|
A lot of this advice we got from our Inca trail guide, Mario, who came to visit us the evening we arrived. He also gave us a low down on all the stuff we needed for the trek. Turns out we were all severely underprepared. Headlamps are a must for early morning climbs and late night bathroom trips, also good climbing shoes (which we had), windbreakers (also covered), warm sleeping bags (kinda screwed up there), sunglasses, toilet paper, snacks, bug repellent (trust me you’ll need it), sunscreen, uv-protective lip balm (nothing worse than burnt lips, I speak from experience), clothes for all seasons, gloves, hats, water (yes you have to drag it up the mountain but it only gets more expensive the higher you get) and walking sticks (if you felt so inclined).
As we were smart enough to plan a day off before our trip we had time to scour the markets for the gear we had forgotten at home. This also gave us a chance to walk around the city a bit and take in the beautiful Spanish architecture (especially in the Plaza des Armas) and a few small Inca sites. I don’t think I was quite prepared for how many tourists there would be, and how many tourist traps to ensnare them in, watch out for quechua women dressed in traditional costume carrying around lambs and people handing out flyers for massages. This didn’t bother me too much as the beauty of the city more than made up for it.
After a day of exploring Cuzco we were ready to begin our great Incan adventure. Waking up before dawn, we set out towards the main square to wait for our guide. There we met the 3 other people who would be trekking with us. All 20 somethings who seemed adventurous and quite athletic, a quite important detail as we all intended to carry our full packs up the mountain (you can also pay a porter to carry your backpack and just hike with a small day pack if you don’t feel up to it). We piled onto a bus and head out. On the way to the trail starting point we passed a number of small villages with tourist amenities, for those who desired to live outside of the city with easy access to the natural draws of the Andes.
The first true adventure in our trip pounced on us about 2 hours from the trail starting point when the bus broke down. It didn’t come as that much of a surprise. The driver had been starting only on downhills since we left Cuzco, but it was still quite an unfortunate development. We ended up having to wait until a local minibus passed. We all piled in with our bags perched precariously on the roof. The bus was tiny and already full of commuters so our porters, food and bedding had to wait for a truck to hitch a ride. We all managed to get to the starting point relatively unscathed. There we picked up our bedding and strapped it to our packs.
If you think our bags look heavy the porters were carrying three times our load and they walked at double our speed, it is kinda terrifying.
In the early hours of the afternoon we reached the check point where we got our passes to begin the Inca Trail. At this checkpoint you get documents that allow you access to the trail. There is an upper limit to how many people can be on the trail at any given time due to the fear of erosion (500 per day of which about 200 trekkers) so book early! There are also other trails if the Inca Trail is booked out or you want a lest touristic path. All have their own charms, but the Inca Trail is the best known and the main road for accessing Machu Picchu. It also features the most archaeological sites which sealed the deal for me.
I recommend going in the dry season no matter what trail you choose. It is hard enough to get up as is, no need to make it more difficult by adding rain into the mix. The trail includes a number of different types of environments, from mountainous scapes, to cloud forests to open plains. This is where the clothes for all seasons comes in. When up high and exposed the temperature can be very cold especially at night, but when the sun is shining in the middle of the day a tank top and shorts might do (especially since you are sweating from the physical exertion of the trek). The sun is always a hidden problem so even when it is cold wear sunscreen if you don’t want to be burnt to a crisp by the time you get to Machu Picchu.
The trail is littered with archaeological sites and epic vantage points. These photo opportunities provide good rest points, so do stop and take a look around every once in a while. Your guide may have his own personal favourites and will happily point them out if you show interest.
Day one of the trek was quite mild for us, we got to every camp site well ahead of our ETA, which earned us the nickname Speedy Gonzales. However, remember the trek is not a race, take each segment at your own pace and take plenty of water breaks. There is no shame in using walking sticks or deciding midway you need a porter to carry your pack. The worst thing would be to push yourself too much day one and then be burnt out for day two. Because in the 4 day trek, day 2 is by far the worst. This is the day to prepare for pain. All but the last hour is uphill and steep, going up the Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 m). On the bright side there are llamas at the first break point, so something to look forward to. Also the view from the top is incredible. The entire thing is incredible really, but it requires a bit of willpower and a good group.
Because we were too fast we ended up doing a 3 day trek instead of 4 meaning our last day was pretty intense. There is a lot to see during the last leg of the trek, round messenger houses, religious sites, inca tunnels and stepped farm land. These cultural highlights gave us something to work towards, achievable milestones to keep us motivated for the long trek to Machu Picchu.
In the end it was all worth it because we got to walk through Machu Picchu as the sun was going down. If you take the trail you arrive at Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, up at the top of the site. Reaching Machu Picchu is the most incredible feeling in the world. You can see the flag for the site and the town of Aguas Calientes below from a ways away which gives you a good dose of motivation but nothing prepares you for the site once you hit the top. The feeling of achievement was made better by the fact that we were some of the only people arriving from the trail with full packs, covered in sweat and dirt. Of the 2500 visitors to Machu Picchu that day you are part of the 1% that didn’t take the front entrance. The views are also stunning and it helps to know that from there on out it is all downhill.
After sleeping in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes we woke up early the next morning to reach the site by sunrise. What we did not consider is that about 50% of tourists had the same plan so we ended up in the bus line for quite a long time. We ended up only just making it to the summit in time to snap some photos before it was all over. Next began the tour. I must admit after the amazing experience of the trek Machu Picchu itself was rather underwhelming. Crowded with tourists, most of which care more about their holiday snaps than the actual site, getting through the city is a chore. Our guide was also clearly more suited to the challenges of the trail and seemed to want to spend as little time on the hill as possible.
After our short stroll around the others in our group went down to the hot springs, something I wasn’t too upset about missing out on as I had read a number of bad reviews. While they were off relaxing we took on the challenge of one final hike, Huayna Picchu, the mountain that stands alongside the site. Though the trek up is steep and difficult with very few supports, the lack of tourists and the view prom the top were worth all the sweat and we rewarded ourselves with snacks at the top.
We decided to head back into town to say goodbye to some of our colleagues who were leaving early, this turned out to be a terrible idea as there is very little to do in Aguas Calientes and our train did not leave until late evening. We ended up walking around aimlessly and then sitting at the train station for about an hour, not the best ending to our trip. Especially since there was another site up on Machu Picchu (the moon temple) that we could have done.
The train ride allowed us to relax and spend some time off our feet, while the atmospheric music meant we could not really sleep the seats were very comfortable and they did give us snacks, so a pretty good deal.
Back in Cuzco we pretty much passed out straight away. I was probably the most desperate for sleep as I had promised a friend to meet at her hostel before she left at 8 the next morning. It ended up being entirely worthwhile and her trekmate ended up joining us on our adventures that day. We did a lot of shopping for llama/alpaca wear, tried to get up to the white Christ (which turned out to require either paying 70 dollars or going through a pretty dangerous neighbourhood so we passed), and went to a few museums (don’t go to the inca museum it is not worth it). What is worth it is an Alpaca burger and a Pisco Sour, regular fare at most local restaurants. You can try guinea pig but to be honest the presentation is better than the taste.
After taking in all the experiences that Cuzco had to offer we finally head back home for some well deserved post-vacation vacation back in the magical land of Oz (aka. Australia).
So if you are planning a trip to Machu Picchu consider doing it like the Incas of old and walking in their footsteps down the royal Incan highway, you won’t regret is.