Old Mountain - Our Journey to Machu Picchu
The famous ruins of Machu Picchu have been on mine and Tiffany's bucket list for a long time. I guess the allure of Peru lies in a lot of different places; having never been to South America, the architecture and the sheer mystery of how such incredibly large stones were perfectly cut and lifted into place, a whole new library of food we had no exposure to, and not least of all, alpacas. For me personally, I've been intrigued by South American culture ever since I watched "The Motorcycle Diaries", a chronicle of the epic journey taken by a young Che Guevara and his friend through Brazil and Peru that laid the foundation for his revolutionary views. The vibrant people, music, landscapes, and food really set a fire in me and making my way down there was only a matter of time.
We started our journey in Cusco, as most do. It's a pretty widely accepted rule that, unless you live at high altitude year round, you should give yourself a solid 48 hours to acclimate. Cusco sits at about 11,000 feet (3400 meters) so it's a good place to prepare for Machu Picchu at 8,000 ft. While you're there, make it a point to carry a lot of water and take your time. The smallest of hills, especially on your first day, feels like a mountain. Seriously, we had to climb a flight of stairs built into the sidewalk to get from our outstanding hostel (more on them in a minute) to the city proper about a half mile away, and we had to stop every 10-15 steps to catch our breath. Don't underestimate it. That said, definitely take the time to explore the city. Cusco has a lot to offer, from excellent food to beautiful architecture to interesting people, as any city that's nearly 3,000 years old should.
We usually take rather contemplative approaches to our trips, but were really looking for something different this time around. Peru is well known for its ability to cater to thrill seekers and adventurers, and with that in mind we went into this trip with the intention of going a little wild. If you're looking for a lively place to stay, we can't recommend Loki enough. It's near the downtown area, has an EXCELLENT bar and restaurant, with different themed parties and events every night of the week, and even has a couple of really nice private rooms, though you'll want to book them well in advance since there are only two of them and they're only $30 a night. Moreover, their partner company located next door, Loki Travel, is who we chose to book our trip through. Generally, we don't like to use guided tours, preferring to be free to make and modify our itinerary on the fly. However, Machu Picchu is an exception. Contrary to some reports, you CAN actually go to Machu Picchu without a guide, but you would be making a mistake. There are a lot of things to do in between Cusco and the ruins, and you would be hard pressed to book those things on your own. We chose Loki because they seemed to offer a well rounded package that ticked all of our boxes at a reasonable price.
Click below to learn more about Loki and their trips!
We decided to take a 4 day 3 night trip, and were not disappointed. The night after the group briefing, we set out in the early morning for a short bus ride to the top of a nearby mountain. Waiting for us there at the foggy summit was a row of mountain bikes and all the protective gear you could want and then some. After a brief run down from the guides on the condition of the mountain roads, we headed off. I've never been one to enjoy bicycles, preferring their motorized siblings, but this was a perfect way to start the day. Rushing down the misty hills between the towering jungle peaks, through shallow water crossings, clinging to curvy cliffside roads all the while, was exhilarating. Hearing nothing but the rush of wind and the buzzing of my wheels coasting through such a fantastically beautiful setting was cathartic. Once at the bottom we had a brief lunch and then loaded up in the van for a short journey to our hotel. Nearby there was optional white water rafting, but we were pretty wiped out and chose to spend the afternoon reading in hammocks, listening to the sounds of the western Amazon around us.
The next day saw us loading up our packs and heading off towards one of our most anticipated parts of the trip: the Inca Trail. We started out in the jungle as our guide gave us a detailed breakdown of local agriculture including the infamous coca plant.
Along our trip we would actually chew the leaves or make tea as the natural ingredients have no relationship to the highly processed derivative drug, cocaine, and help to deal with the altitude. Meandering up the mountain, stopping along the way at local fruit stands (one of which had the best pineapple I've ever tasted in my life) we really got a chance to absorb a feeling for the culture. We stopped at the top of a mountain in a small village and tried Peruvian chocolate, got our faces painted with native vegetable dyes by our guide, and took a shot (ok several shots) of liquor from a jug with a SNAKE in it.
In the morning we donned our packs again and headed further into the mountain range, finding ourselves on the incredible Inca Trail by mid morning. The winding cliffside paths, devoid of any safety measures and only 2 feet wide in places, had us walking with the mountain face on our right, a sheer 1500 foot drop to the left into the Sacred Valley. It was exhilarating and beautiful and terrifying and absolutely one of the coolest experiences of my life.
We spent most of the day trekking through the mountain range coming back down the other side in time for my favorite (and, I think Tiffany's least favorite) part of the trip: ziplining.
When I say this was intense, it's an understatement. Taking the leap into empty space with nothing but the jungle and river hundreds of feet beneath you is one of the most adrenaline pumping things I've ever done but was INCREDIBLY fun. We made a series of five long ziplines the last of which I went down Superman style headfirst (which I HIGHLY recommend). After unhooking from the final zipline we traversed a fairly terrifying suspension bridge. The slats were about three feet apart so you're taking pretty long strides over nothing and the whole thing is shaking and wobbling in all directions. I had to keep reminding myself that I was clipped into a safety line and would be fine even if I fell but it was still pretty trying.
Our efforts were well rewarded that evening with natural hot springs to wash off the dust and soreness of two days on foot after which we had a couple beers and immediately went to sleep.
Our final day of the trek began in Aguas Calientes, a smallish town that basically exists solely for Machu Picchu. We headed out at about 4:00 am, something we haven't done since the Camino. We made it to the entrance to the trailhead leading up to the ruins and ate our breakfast in line with the other adventurers waiting for the guards to open the gate. What followed is one of the most physically demanding hikes I've ever experienced.
Two hours of climbing hundreds of natural stone stairs up the side of the mountain leading up to the saddle in which Machu Picchu is nestled. The climb is so staggeringly steep you immediately understand how nobody really knows how the Inca people got the granite stones all the way up to the site from the river valley 1300 ft below. It really is incomprehensible. I myself have a theory involving wooden platforms on which were mounted a series of cantilevers that transported the stones up the side of the mountain but there are a lot of holes in that idea and I'm sure people much smarter than me have played that theory out themselves. Nerd theorizing out of the way, reaching the top provided a great sense of accomplishment and we couldn't wait to get into the park itself.
Now, there are a lot of fantastic places and things Tiffany and I have seen in our travels that could be described as "mind blowing." However, for me, I have never seen anything man made that was this fascinatingly incredible. The stone work on much of the walls of the structures is perfectly level and has no mortar. The stones are cut completely flat by a culture who supposedly did not possess the technology to cut stone to design at all. There is a compass stone in a public square that is somehow aligned perfectly with both true north and Orion's belt on the summer solstice. All of the grass terraces have different soil compositions so as to make them more conducive to growing different types of agriculture, though only grass grows there presently. The entire area is connected by a massive and intricate irrigation system consisting of tiny underground stone tunnels and little canals and aqueducts providing water distribution across the grounds. Every square inch of the ruins (which are four to five times larger than I had anticipated) is a marvel of engineering given the supposed technology of the era. It is truly the most mind boggling, incomprehensible, fascinating thing made by man that I've ever laid eyes on.
After giving us a wonderfully detailed and comprehensive tour, our guide for the trip said farewell and left us to roam Machu Picchu at our leisure. We spent the next hour or so wandering around exploring the ancient homes, climbing to the highest point for pictures, and trying to get close enough to one of the resident alpacas to touch them (and failing). Feeling satisfied, we caught a bus from the visitor's center back to Aguas Calientes and roamed around the market picking up a few trinkets and enjoying the wonderful food. We caught an early morning train the following day back to Cusco for one final day of exploration.
If you decide you want to experience this magical place for yourself (and you absolutely should) go knowing that you are simply scratching the surface. There is A LOT of culture and history in Peru and, indeed across all of the continent. It is a great feeling to have my travel to do list running into the margins, and a lot of that is due to Peru. The hooks are in and we will definitely be exploring other South American countries in the near future. Until then, stay tuned for our other journeys this coming year. We're planning our first foray into Cuba in April, a summer thru hike along Hadrian's Wall in the UK, a return father-son trip to Peru so my dad can see Machu Picchu for himself, a possible trip to Sweden next winter for the meal of a lifetime at Chef Magnus Nilsson's Fäviken, and maybe even a summit climb of Kilimanjaro. More to come soon.