I know that in La Paz we decided that biking is far superior to hiking, but we decided to give it a second chance here in Peru. Of course, we had also booked our hike to Machu Picchu way back in January, so it’s not like we had too much of a choice! In the end, we had a great time. The weather was good, our guide was personable, the scenery was outstanding, and the food was excellent. For most of the 4-day hike we were in various stages of recovery and relapse from previous stomach ailments, so it was more challenging than it should have been for us. Besides the stomach problems the hike was a breeze. We did less than 10 miles a day, and the porters carried the heavy stuff. More on the porters later, since there is still our ride into Cuzco to describe.
Last time we updated we were spending a day in the city of Sicuani, about 100 miles from Cuzco. We were stuck there for a day because I (Daisy) ate a pomegranate that gave me food poisoning. I spent an entire day alternating between the bed and the bathroom, and Jason was absolutely wonderful about taking care of me. He only left my side to venture out for food. The next day I was recovered enough to ride, but just barely. We made sloooow progress towards Cuzco, and managed to make it about 45 miles down the road to a cute town with a simple hostel. The next day we again made slow progress, but it was fast enough and we entered the city of Cusco exactly on schedule. Minor miracle!
The next day we met our guide, Ronald, for our hike briefing session. Ronald is about our age, and worked first as a porter when he was a teenager, then as a cook, and finally as a guide. Our hike started the next day at the incredibly early hour of 5 am when the minibus came for us at our hotel. It was about a 2 hour drive to the trailhead, where we loaded up our packs and started walking.
It was nuts. For each tourist that hikes this trail, there are about 2 people hiking it to support them. For our small group of 3 tourists, for example, there were 4 porters, a cook, and a guide. The porters carry these giant sacks (25 kg, 55 pounds) with simple shoulder straps, and many of them wear sandals as they run up and down the trail. They are supermen. Why do they need to carry so much? Because this hike turned out to be a luxury hike. We ate every meal in a meal tent, and they cooked elaborate meals fresh every day for all three meals. For breakfasts there were pancakes, or omelettes, for lunch and dinner we had soup followed by a plate with four different preparations. On our last night, there was even a fresh baked cake!
Enough about the food though. You probably want to know all about the beautiful mountains, lush valleys, and the Inca paved trail. Well, they were all just as wonderful as we had hoped. The mountains were so steep and impressive that it was like being inside a postcard. The valleys were full of rushing rivers and tiny hamlets. On the Amazon side, the forest was lush and we were serenaded by birdcalls. Finally, the trail was unbelievable. The Inca trail is carved out of steep hillsides and high mountain passes. For much of the trail we were walking up or down steep stone steps, and a couple times we had to go through tunnels created on the hillside. Walking this trail was like walking through a little bit of history.
On our first day we were mostly in a valley where people still live, so we saw Peruvians going about their daily life with livestock and crops. We also saw the first of many Inca ruins.
That night we camped in a farmer’s terrace, and spent time in the evening playing cards with our fellow hiker and our guide. Our group was small, just three, so we were lucky to be matched with Thiago, a friendly Brazilian. We had a nice time chatting with him during the day and in the evenings. When we had stomach problems he gave us some medicine, and when he got sore legs from the climb we gave him some ibuprofen, so we really were a team!
That night we fell asleep early, which is unsurprising considering the early start. The next day we got to sleep in until 5:30 AM! Ha. The porters woke us up by pounding on the tent and pouring us cups of coca tea. We spent all morning climbing up and up to a high pass with spectacular views. Many of the other tourists we saw on the trail seemed to be suffering from the climb and the altitude, but we had a nice time. The descent on the other side was tough! It was essentially a very long and very uneven staircase. We made it though!
Our third day was our longest, and most eventful. We got up early again, and were climbing another pass for the first two hours of hiking. After that we got to poke around a lovely Inca ruin before walking through a cloud forest to yet another pass. In the afternoon it was all steeply downhill, and sometimes it was very, very steep. We reached another Incan ruin composed of agricultural terraces stretching up and down a huge hillside. It was stunning, and we learned that the Incas used some of their agricultural terraces as huge agricultural labratories. They domesticated and modified crops, as well as learning about what conditions produced ideal crop growth. The terraces, with their regular altitude shifts, made this possible.
Near our final camp was yet another ruin, and this one was our favorite so far. It was another agricultural workshop, but it also included 20 stacked baths where the pilgrims to Machu Picchu would wash themselves. The best part was wandering through the ruins without another tourist in sight.
The final, much awaited day began at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am. The porters needed to catch the early train out of the valley, so we had to be out of our tents and moving super early. Of course, we didn’t move very far. About 5 minutes of hiking after leaving camp we had to sit and wait for 1.5 hours for the trail control to open. It was cold, but we managed. As the sky slowly brightened we hiked quickly towards the Sun Gate, the overlook from which we would get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
We were very lucky, and the conditions were perfect. The sky was clear, and we watched as the sun slowly climbed high enough to reach Machu Picchu. It was lovely. From there, it was all downhill to the lost city of the Inca.
Our adventure wasn’t quite over though. We still had to climb Huana Picchu, the hill behind the city. There is an ancient fortress at the top, and a long series of perilous steps that wind up the mountain. When we signed up for this ‘bonus hike’ we didn’t actually know how terrifying it would be! The trail wound up the mountain, and near the top it became a set of narrow, insanely steep steps. After a few celebratory photos at the top it was time to start down again, but this was the scariest part. Imagine climbing down with that view, without anything to hold onto, and on narrow, uneven, steep steps. It is unbelievable that up to 400 people do this (and survive) every day. It was a great relief when we were back on more even ground.
Even though we were done with Machu Picchu by 1 pm, we still had many hours before returning to Cuzco. The nearest town (accessed by a very curvy bus ride!) is called Aguas Calientes, and it is only accessible by train from the outside world. This made for a fun afternoon of wandering the car-free town and eating lots of cake and coffee. Our train left just after dark, and we were back in Cuzco close to midnight. A very long day!
The best part of returning to Cuzco was our welcoming party: Jason’s parents! They made the long trip to Cuzco so they could spend a week with us, and we have had a truly lovely time with them. You’ll have to wait for our next update to read about it though!