Peru 3: Machu Picchu

I actually spent one whole day and night in Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu on an Inka trek (plus I spent another night and day there after the trek) as Cusco is the main hub for these tours, but for consistency and to prevent the post becoming an essay I will separate Cusco and MP into two blogs, starting with MP. It was while in Cusco, however, that I picked my tour. It was already not possible to do the official “Inca Trail”, the one where they only allow 400 or so people per day and it gets booked up 3 to 6 months in advance (and is more expensive than the other tours on offer) and I knew I wanted to do 3-4 days. So I eventually settled on the 4 day/3 night Jungle Trek for the following day, opting to book with a company called Inkas Destination as recommended by the hostel manager and with rave reviews on tripadvisor. So I booked and agreed to $259 USD ($40 less than on the website) and confirmed with Luis over he phone that either him or Miguel would be he guides, as they were the ones highly rated on trip advisor.

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Machu Picchu ready

I was advised I would be picked up between 7 and 7:30am so I woke early to pack and wait downstairs, but of course they didn’t arrive for me until 7:45am. We drove for an hour at first through the towns of Chinchero and Urubamba of the Sacred Valley through the winding mountains, feeling just a little bit car sick, and it was during this time I discovered that those in my group had all booked through different companies, our tour guide was not part of Inkas Destination but hired separately, we had all booked slightly different itineraries and had paid different amounts, and I would be getting the train back on my own as most were leaving earlier by bus.

I was angry and emotional – I had researched Inkas Destination and booked with them as I wanted their service specifically, and I expected that when spending 4 days on a tour with a group we would be doing the same as one another and not that I would be left at the end by myself. When we stopped for a break I spoke to our tour guide – Leo – about this and he basically told me that I was the problem and that he would happily continue without me and get me a bus back to Cusco. By this point I was so frustrated that I started crying; I’d already booked my bus from Cusco to Bolivia for after the jungle trek so I couldn’t start it the next day, and I  couldn’t believe how he was treating me. Fortunately everyone in my group was really supportive and after speaking to Luis on the phone he said that I could join his group of 3 the following evening if I wanted, but while he could cancel my train he wouldn’t be able to book me a bus back with the others; I would have to do that myself.

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Exhausted by the whole thing I decided to carry on and see how things went, with the minivan continuing for another hour through the winding mountains, through the town of Ollantaytambo, before reaching Abra Malaga with views of the snow capped Huacay Willca (Mt Veronica) where we were to begin our biking downhill. We were provided with bikes, knee pads, torso protection, a helmet and an overcoat, managing to look like something out of the power rangers, before receiving safety instructions regarding the descent.

To begin with we didn’t have to do much pedalling as it was a steep decline, mainly concentrating on negotiating the sharp bends around the narrow mountains and navigating vehicles coming in both directions. The view was absolutely stunning and it was still pretty cold at this point, but after we made a stop for a break and to gaze at views the rest of the journey required more leg work and provided more opportunity to take in our surroundings as we were allowed to cycle off at our own pace and speed having been given the end destination. One of the most fun parts was when you came across a stream crossing the road and you had to slow down in order not to slip but also lift you legs up so as not to get completely drenched, although my arse still managed to get a good soaking.

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We arrived in Huaman Marq’a wet, tired and happy, before being driven n the minivan for 25 minutes to the town of Santa Maria. Here we had a late lunch of soup, beef with mashed potato and a small slice of cake before walking 10 minutes to our accommodation for the evening; a locally-run hostel with a warm common area where only our group was staying and I got a room to myself. The afternoon was spent either water rafting (optional for 30 USD more, and although people said it was fun it also wasn’t the best as the water was brown) or relaxing, so I opted for wandering round the town and curling up on the sofa to read more of Marching Powder. Also, Leo was clearly trying to make up for things, asking me where I was from and about my travels, so I spent some time trying to build bridges with him – we had to spend at least another 24 hours together, after all. At around 7pm we went back to the same restaurant for dinner, once again having soup but this time followed by risotto and banana with chocolate. 

We had to wake up early the following morning for breakfast at the same restaurant at 6:30am, being served half an omelette and a pancake with the usual bread rolls, butter and jam. That morning the heavens had decided to open and it poured it down so hard that we had to wait in the restaurant and not set off at the time planned. In the end, it was so bad, that we ordered a bus to take us the 1.5 hour walk down the main road to the beginning of the uphill trek, as here we would at least be slightly protected from the jungle and it would make up for the time we had lost waiting for the rain to subside. We paid 4 soles each for the pleasure of being ridden over the narrow road over the river and land below, having a near-death experience as we went over a landslide.

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We made it to the base of the climb where we started our ascent through the jungle, passing a sign that marked we were walking along part of the official Inca Trail, before stopping at a local plantation in the jungle to learn more about coffee, yucca and the fruit trees as well as more information about the incas; how resourceful they were with Llamas was amazing, they literally utilised every part of the animal for their means! We also used the juice of fruit to draw on each others’ faces and dressed up in typical Inca clothing – all part of the experience, right??

We continued the trek through the jungle and out onto the open mountain-side where we were greeted with spectacular views of the Vilcabamba mountain range. It was incredible how high up we were and how high we had come, and sitting over the edge of the mountain with the sheer drop to the valley below was breathtaking.

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It was also really cool to climb down the official Inca steps and marvel kill and ability of the Inka’s. it was one of my favourite moments to walk along the same steps as them and to then sit over the edge of the stones, taking in the vast and impressive landscape. 

We then continued our trek, this time descending into the small village of Qellomayo where we stopped for a filling 4-course lunch of guacamole, a local chicken and veg dish, soup and spaghetti, before relaxing for about half an hour in the hammocks.

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It was then time to complete the last part of the trek for the day, hiking along the river and climbing up and over large stones to avoid the waterfalls streaming into the river.

It was also around this point that we had to take a “cable car” over the river for 5 soles each as the water was too high and viscous for us to walk across. It didn’t look particularly sturdy or safe, literally sitting in a metal box attached to cable wire with your legs dangling over the edge, but it was actually a really quick journey and pretty fun.

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From here we walked through an old train tunnel (I felt like I was in the Railway Children) before walking a bit further over the stones to reach the Cocalmayo hot springs. It was an optional 10 soles extra for this and, due to my dog bit wound still healing and not wanting to get an infection at this stage, I opted out and paid 1 soles to enter the springs so I could sit and read for a bit. 

It was around 7pm by the time our group had finished at the springs and, while you can walk the remaining hour to the town of Santa Teresa I can’t see why any group would want to after taking off their walking boots and refreshing their bodies. So we each paid another 5 soles to get a minivan to Santa Teresa, where we checked into our hostel (again I got a room to myself, this time with 3beds in it!) before heading to the restaurant next door for dinner; guacamole with bread, soup and then bifstek with rice and chips. Pretty standard really. It was here that I met up with Luis where we talked through everything and he introduced me to his small group; 3 guys from the US – Eddie, Kyle and Eli. We spent the next hour or so sat outside the restaurant drinking cusquena and chatting about our travels, trying to drown out the sound of the commercial music being played from inside the restaurant with other groups slowly making their way to the “dance floor” to perform awkward British moves, before we decided to hit the sack.

The following morning we had breakfast at a much more reasonable hour of 7:30am, at the same restaurant we had dined at for dinner the night before. One complaint about these tours; a lot of the time there are multiple groups dining in the same restaurant, where they only have a few staff, so why they tell all groups to arrive at 7:30am when some won’t receive food until 8am, due to limited serving resources, I will never understand. Anyway, after breakfast we were drenched to a zip-line site where you could pay an extra 30 USD to zip line between the mountains. I have had my fair share of adrenaline activities on my travels and have also done zip lining before so I decided against it. While most enjoyed it and some really really enjoyed it, if you have done any extreme activities before it seemed it would be enjoyable at most. I spent the hour and a half laying in a hammock in the sun, reading my book. I’ll take that in between all the walking.

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We were then driven to the hydroelectric power station (hidroelectrica at 6,270ft) where we had lunch of a pasta salad followed by chicken, chips and rice. We then started our walk along the train track to reach the town of Aguas Calientes; the town at the base of Machu Picchu. 

The walk along the track was quite repetitive and would have been mundane if it wasn’t for the passing people-trains; the bridge over the river that you could cross along the train track, stepping over wooden planks with big gaps in between with a sheer drop to the water below; and the first sighting of Machu Picchu atop the mountain in the distance. We passed by travellers going in the opposite direction, not looking happy to be making the same walk back the following day; this was the first time I was glad I had paid extra for the train back to Cusco.

I bumped into Luis, Eddie, Kyle and Eli on the way, my regular walking pace being faster than most, and when we reached Aguas Calientes we were taken to the same hostel by Luis where I once again had my own room. The rest of the afternoon was free time so I went for a wander round the markets and shops, and it was when I was chatting to a shop owner that I spotted Charlie, Ed, Jen and Dan walking past – I literally left the shop mid-sentence to greet my friends from the Colca Canyon!

We went for a few drinks with their tour guide, enjoying cusquena and Pisco sours, before they left for dinner and I went for a shower back at my hostel before heading for dinner with Luis, Eddie, Kyle and Eli. Luis took us to a bar where I had an avocado starter followed by trucker Aji, washing it down with more cusquenas, before the 4 of us headed for more drinks at street-side bars and devoured snack food.

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We finally called it a night and hit the sack at midnight before waking again at 4am with the intention to set off for Machu Picchu at 4:30am. Well, I was ready at this time but the guys weren’t, finally leaving at 4:50am for Kyle to have to run back as he had forgotten his ticket for MP. We took the 30 minute walk in the dark towards the base of Machu Picchu entrance at a hurried pace, crossed the river and then began the stuff, steep climb up the Rocky Mountain edge to make it to the top. Despite being dark for the majority of the walk and the air “cool”, the stones were so steep and the altitude tough that I had to strip off my top halfway up. A relatively short climb of 30-45 minutes depending on your fitness and altitude-resistance, it was tough and people would take breaks at the roads we crossed where the buses passed through (you can pay to take the bus up if you want).

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We made it to the top as the main entrance opened at 6:15am, where we had to queue for only about 10 minutes before getting in. Now, I have been so excited to visit Machu Picchu and been told how amazing it is by people who have been, but for some reason I still didn’t expect to be blown away in the way that I was; as we turned the corner and sighted the ruins for the first time, with Machu Picchu mountain as a backdrop, I was literally stunned by its beauty.

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I honestly was lost for words and just wanted to gaze at it for hours. As Luis took us around the ruins, explaining how they were used and the sorts of people living there, I was entranced by the architecture and how beautiful it still looked today. I also couldn’t get over the mountains surrounding me, which made me feel both tiny and powerful all at once.

As our tour by Luis ended I ran straight into Dan, Jen, Ed and Charlie, so we decided to take the walk up to the Sun Gate together. We had been informed this walk, that weaves around the edge of the mountain on a rocky path with an uphill incline, would take around 30 minutes but, with the heat and the number of breaks we took, I swear it took us closer to 50.

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Ed, Me, Jen, Charlie, Dan (and Machu Picchu!)

Either way, at the top, we had a panoramic view of Machu Picchu (teeny tiny from this distance) and the mountains, and we could really toast our Machu Picchu achievement with a beer and a smoke. We were actually pretty giddy at this point – ridiculously pleased with ourselves – and more likely than not were acting like kids, but we didn’t care. We were elated!

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The 4 of them were getting the bus back to Cusco from Hidroelectrica at 2:30pm so they had to get back down from the sun gate, climb back down Machu Picchu and walk all the way back to Hidroelectrica, so they left the sun gate before me while I stayed up there for a bit longer with Eddie, Kyle and Eli whom had recently climbed up. When I made it back down from the sun gate I spent a bit more time wandering around a Machu Picchu but it was really filled with tourists by this point so I eventually took the climb back down from Machu Picchu, my tired knees struggling with the steep drops.

Back in Aguas Calientes I treated myself to an hour massage for 40 soles (£10), which was actually one of the best I have had in a long time as she listened to me and really went to town on my muscles using her elbows, and had a large lunch of alpaca a la plancha; a disappointingly thin piece of meat that was over-spiced so I couldn’t really identify any particular taste. 

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At 5:30pm I took the short walk to the train station – located inside the craft market – to board my train at 6:10pm with Eddie, Kyle and Eli. The main difference in price being a 1.5 hour train followed by a 1.5 hour bus ride to Cusco as opposed to a 6-7 hour dodgy bus ride from Hidroelectrica that requires a 2 hour walk beforehand. Being able to relax in the afternoon and then board a comfy train – where we were treated to a snack as well as some bizarre performance/fashion show from the train staff – made the extra 80 USD worth it. JUST. It was on this train ride that Eddie turned to me and asked “so, do you get on this well with everyone –  as you’re really easy to get along with – or is it just us?” Oh, Eddie, it’s everyone. 

NB: I’m kidding. Sort of. I can get on with most people and I’m quite open, but these guys – and those from the cocoa canyon – I got on particularly well with, which is just chance. But then again, I am the common denominator… 🙂

We arrived back at our hostel – CuscoPackers – at around 10pm where we lazed on the sofas and updated our families before calling it a night just before midnight. Despite having a few irks and complaints regarding how the tour was run – not going with the actual tour company you booked with, not having everyone in your group on the same itinerary, not being told the entire truth when booking, having people randomly leave the group at bizarre points to then return to it, and the tour guides less-than-sympathetic responses to the issues you raise – I really really enjoyed the Inca Jungle experience and absolutely loved Machu Picchu, plus I honestly made some serious friends. I would recommend it over anything else in Peru – in fact, it was a highlight of South America for me.

LS.

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