I’m not sure how many trip reports I’ve started with, “I’ve wanted to go to X place for ages…” Having a penchant for travel and adventure, a bent for research and planning, and a desk job with access to the internet make it a very long list. I have planned literally hundreds of trips that may or may not ever make it onto these pages, but, I have been planning a trip to South America since I was 19..almost since I started planning trips! Here’s a map I drew in my journal planning my route way back then:
But life gets in the way and after years of research and planning and saving and stalling, I never made it farther south than Costa Rica. My problem was that I was trying to see it all at once, everything from Cartagena to Tierra del Fuego, and preferably on a motorcycle. It’s a trip that I still hope to do someday, but it will take months and thousands of dollars, so I decided to start with one place: Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was top of my list for South America and it got us to Peru but I’m just not going to go all that way and only see one thing. So we landed in Lima and got ready to eat – Peruvian cuisine has become world-renowned in recent years (much more than Pisco and ceviche now!) and so we planned to feast at Central, Astrid y Gaston and Maido – the 4th, 14th and 44th best restaurants in the world, according to some.
We booked the restaurants before we booked our flights and somehow I didn’t go back and check the dates – meaning that I scheduled our meal at Central a week too far in advance. The Horror! But the host found us a spot in the lounge and disaster was averted. It was absolutely incredible and we’ll be keeping an eye out for more opportunities to eat there. Maido was even more amazing, if that’s possible, but Astrid y Gaston was a bit of a disappointment. Very luxurious with some excellent dishes but unfortunately not consistent.
Because we were staying in Miraflores (an upscale, safe suburb of Lima), and because we had travelled so long to get there (left the house at 5:30 AM and got to out hotel at 2:30 AM the next day) we didn’t go to as many museums as I would have liked but we did visit the Plaza de Armas and went on a monastery tour of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad with its mouldering library of books from antiquity – untouched since WWII, beautiful courtyard and a depiction of the Last Supper with cuy (guinea pig) for dinner and Pizarro as Judas. It was beautiful but the all the stray dogs, some of them dead, were just heartbreaking.
And the traffic was incredible – 30 minutes by cab to get across town – so we spent some time lazing around the hotel and exploring the Barranco district nearby. Bohemian and busy, we were reminded of Madrid; everyone out on a Saturday night, taking wedding photos, strolling with babies, recording music videos, practicing guitar on a bench and of course eating and drinking. We stuffed ourselves with ceviche and Pisco sours and then it was time to hop on the plane.
I was terribly worried that Cusco was going to be a tourist trap and almost regretted how much time we had to spend in the city but on arrival we found it to be a gorgeous city, full of history and culture and warm people. Before we noticed any of that, however, we noticed the altitude. As soon as we came out of the airport we swooned, and I wondered if that was the Hawthorne Effect or a combination of our fatigue and being out of shape. After some coca candy, a nap and some altitude pills we were feeling alright but still trying to remember to breathe deeply, walk slowly, etc.
Cusco was the Inca heartland and the stone walls still form the foundations of the city but everything else has been taken over or topped by the Spanish. Qurikancha, the sun temple was the most important site in the Inca empire. Dedicated to the sun god, it was filled with life-sized gold statues but now not much of it is left – only a few rows of stones topped with the Santo Domingo convent. It’s sort of is a miniature model for Cusco itself, full of beautiful Spanish colonial art and architecture with Andean flavor. Our hotel was a retro-fitted Spanish mansion with meandering hallways, surprise courtyards and fountains and the walls were covered with with religious oil paintings. It felt a lot like Granada.
Our first night we wandered around the historic centre, saw the incredible Inca stonework and the famous 12-sided stone as well as the Plaza de Armas, then ended up on the patio at Papacho’s (a burger place owned by Gaston Acurio) on the square. It was a bit chilly but watching all the people and dogs and Andean woman with bundles of weaving and alpaca rugs was just the thing we needed. I had a drink with tumbo (banana passionfruit) that was too tropical for the Andes but really delicious and Matt had his first coca tea – not realizing that although it is much weaker than cocaine it is still definitely in the stimulant category and he was going to have trouble sleeping.
I could have spent days longer in Cusco, climbing up the hills to the Sacsayhuaman ruins and the San Blas neighbourhood (I saw them later) but once we had acclimatized to the altitude, we were off in search of motorbikes.
So many people told us that we needed to explore the Sacred Valley but the options we had were all by bus; wake up at 5 AM, see all the sites and get back to Cusco by dark. I am always conflicted by bus tours; you get to see the sites but you pay in advance for a set itinerary and if you want to stay longer you’re hurried on to the bus and if you want to skip something, you can’t. Eventually I found a place that rented dirt bikes for super cheap and we made our own plans.
Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. First we had to explain that we wanted two motorcycles – that I would not be riding on the back of a 250cc dirt bike at altitude – and then we had to go and pick up the second bike – in the back room of the proprietor’s house, up the stairs, on a street dug up for construction. But eventually we were on the road and heading out to explore the Sacred Valley. First stop, Maras, the ancient Inca salt flats that are still being worked today.
Getting out on the bikes was amazing! It was Matt’s first time on a dirt bike and the altitude affected the speed quite a bit but travelling through small towns, walls painted with slogans from various political parties, llamas grazing all over the place, women selling textiles at high altitude markets….and of course the backdrop of the Andes. It was thrilling. When we got to the salt evaporation ponds, we walked down and took a look around, then got back on the bikes and went on to explore more of the valley. We ended the day by signing some house purchasing documents at the hotel and celebrating with a round of pisco sours, our new tradition.
We had brought our backpacks as luggage with us to South America, but as the time arrived for us to set out on foot, we stashed books, shoes, our nice clothes and whatever else we thought we could do without into a bag that we left at the hotel, then filled up our water bladders and got the weight adjusted on our backs. We had wanted to walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu rather than taking the train and once that decision was made it hadn’t occurred to us that we wouldn’t carry our own gear. We found out later that most people opted to carry day packs and have a porter take the rest.
After being on the bus for hours getting to breakfast and the trailhead, the pack weight felt good and we bounded along the rolling “Inca flats,” stopping to learn about the cochineal beetle on the prickly pear cactus from which carmine dye comes, the angel trumpet that is used by shamans in a hallucinogenic tea or to visit with the Andean families (and their dogs) at the rest stops. It was hot but not very strenuous and we were both delighted and annoyed to find our porters setting up the tent for a hot lunch. It seemed unnecessary to be stopping for so long, so soon, but not even a few hours later we were glad of the pace.
Our guide was excellent and we learned that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles, as well as an important crossroads for trade and Inca trails criss-cross the Sacred Valley (and the Inca empire, from Santiago to Quito) but the one we were following was meant for royalty. The Inca venerated nature and stone – mountains were objects of worship – so they chose the path that went the highest into the mountains to be close to the sky and one that followed the valley without destroying anything. Lucky for us that meant straight up.
The Urubamba river follows the same path as the milky way and the Inca trail to Machu Picchu starts at 82 km close to Ollantaytambo, passes the Patallaqta ruins, and then climbs up through the high jungle to Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmi Wañusqa) at 13,700ft. Day 2 was spent almost entirely gaining altitude. When we got to the pass after climbing all morning we could still see the campsite where we had started out that day.
We were exhausted and moving so slowly, dragging ourselves up on our hiking poles, chewing on coca leaves and gasping for air as we got closer to the pass but having only gained a space of about 30ft at the summit, we almost immediately started the trail down. Up 3000ft in one day and then back down another 1000 before making camp.
Machu Picchu was fairly remote, even in Inca days, but a series of relay runners were set up to deliver a message from Cusco in only 6 hours. On special occasion, fish could be brought fresh from the sea in about 16! Because of the distance and the speed of the runners, the Spanish never found out about Machu Picchu. They only got to about Ollantaytambo (where we started our hike) and from there, bridges were destroyed, the trail was covered and the Inca royalty escaped to the jungle.
Our third day of hiking was the “scenic” day where we stopped at the site of several ruins but at times it seemed only to alleviate the constant descent. My toenails! My ankles! My knees! In many ways it was worse than the ascent but maybe only because I hadn’t accounted for the difficulty. The experience of hiking the trail was so worth doing but Matt and I agreed that without a doubt it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.
On the last day we got up at 3:30 AM – not to see the sunrise from the Sun Gate, as we had originally believed, nor to be the first at Machu Picchu, but because the train for the porters leaves before 5 AM and they had to run down the mountain to meet it. I cannot believe that with 500 people on the day every day that a better arrangement can’t be made, but maybe the tourists are just too tired when they get home to advocate. We were able to walk to the end of the campsite but couldn’t go further because the checkpoint doesn’t open until 5:30 AM. Standing there in the dark, someone joked that we waiting in line in the dark on Black Friday but otherwise we were pretty quiet, waiting for the last stretch.
This was the last, “easiest” day and we were buoyed up by the fact that Machu Picchu was only a few hours away but we were beat and before we got to the Sun Gate we needed to climb on hands and knees up the Inca “staircase” and try to keep from falling into the valley (some 6000ft) below while hikers jostled past. But we made it and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the mist was still magical in spite of all the photographs that exist.
We were awed and wowed by this city in the clouds. Watching the mist cover and reveal the city it seemed as special as it has ever been – to the Incas and to Hiram Bingham when he ‘discovered’ it and every morning with every new batch of visitors. That the Incas build such a monument to stone and sky so beautiful and so remote is incredible, but that it has survived virtually unharmed after more than 500 years is astounding.
The city has about 200 buildings, with a quarry and farming terraces to support it, high above the Urubamba river, although archeologists still say that there would not be enough infrastructure to sustain a completed and populated city there. But in one hundred years there was a quarry built on top of the citadel (to bring the granite slabs down to where they were needed, instead of up), terraces, houses, and several temples. The most special parts of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor and the Room of the Three Windows.
The Inti Watana translates as a place to “tie up the sun” and on a certain day it is a marker for the sun. Similarly, the Sun Gate lines up with the Temple of the Sun with mathematical precision. For our part, it was just neat to look back on it and see how far we’d come only that morning, never mind that week.
Our amazement at the ruined city was tempered by our fatigue, hunger, pain and stench and hopped on the bus that would take us down the hill to our hotel in Aguas Calientes. Cruel joke that Matt had booked us into a room without an elevator and we groaned as we climbed up to our room on the third floor, quads aching.
The rest of the trip was spent recovering; thermal baths, reading, wandering around Cusco and drinking pisco sours. My mom asked me today if I would go back and I would without hesitation. I’d love to see some of the other ruins and to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu. I’d even do the hike again, although maybe a different path.
See all the photos here.
Also, check out the story I wrote for Steller stories: