Did you know that Cusco means belly-button of the world?
True story. Also, it is in the shape of a Puma.
To be honest, we were expecting this town to be ruined by tourism. This may be totally unfair, but our impression of the typical tourist in Peru is someone who goes directly to Cusco and takes a selfie in front of Machu Picchu, then back on the plane. We enter the city nervous about hoards of tourists.
However, this city is cute. The people are friendly and personable. The tourists are more or less everywhere, but in early November it’s not a bother. Yes, it’s touristy, but the benefits of good restaurants and numerous options of places to stay and things to do are all taken as positive things. We’re really happy here! The environment is relaxed and welcoming, even if a few random dudes are offering my girlfriend free cocaine.
Stone streets that wind like labyrinths are connected by steep and long staircases that offer great views of the city and surrounding mountains.
The city was developed by the Incas as their capital, then converted by the Spaniards. Incan temples were demolished and replaced with Catholic churches.
So obviously, we’re going to Machu Picchu. We sortof have to, right?
In addition to the famous and over-booked Inca Trail, there are many tours that take you through the surrounding area before finally visiting the ruins of the ancient city of Machu Picchu. We decide it’s best to do a tour, as the logistics, costs and high level of control over the ruins leave a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong.
We choose the five-day Salkantay Trek which takes you over a 4600m pass by the towering Salkantay mountain, then dives thousands of meters down through cloud forest and jungle before arriving at the base of Machu Picchu. After our solo trek in Huayhuash we are more than prepared for this journey, so we approach the trip as a luxury experience: mules carry our stuff, chefs cook our food, and we don’t have to worry about anything. Muy relax.
Day 1: Road Walk
We get up at 3am, only to be picked up late at our hostel around 5am. We’re too tired to be properly angry, but somehow the doorman of our hostel is furious with them. “Que clase de servicio ofrecen?!” he yells at them.
The tour bus takes us a few hours away to a small town. During breakfast we meet our group: twelve people from all over the world plus our guide, Virgilio, who declares that we are a family now.
Our group hikes all day along a dirt road and some well-traveled trails to the valley below Salkantay. The day is mostly sunny with great views in the valley, however in the last 500m of our hike we are suddenly pelted with strong hail. Something the guide hadn’t seen before. Why does this always happen to us?
We seek shelter under some trees, then make our escape to the communal campsite. Everyone is very tired and most are unaccustomed to the altitude. We have hot soup for dinner, then beer and whisky. Our guide introduces us to the concept of Te Macho (tea with whiskey), and I am overly proud to invent Machocolate (guess). We pour some on the ground as an offering to Pachamama. Looks like we are a family that drinks together.
Day 2: Apu Salkantay
Hail and rain storms throughout the night leave us with absolutely perfect weather for our hike up to the Salkantay pass (something our guide hadn’t seen before either).
It’s a very pleasant climb to the pass. Ok, some people from our tour group reading this may be thinking I should go eff myself for saying “pleasant”, as it was three hours of uphill at very high altitude. But the trail itself was so pretty, following a creek, and the weather so spectacular, constantly changing views of the peaks and valleys around. It was really pleasant, damn it.
And really rewarding to reach the top.
The Incans revered the mountains as gods. Once we all arrive at the top of pass, Virgilio talks to us about Salkantay and the other important peaks in the area around Machu Picchu. Even though these higher mountains are extremely difficult to summit, they have found several mummies left long ago as offerings at the peaks. Virgilio’s voice goes from jovial to serious as he takes us through a ceremony of offering coca leaves to the mountain. “Apu Salkantay.”
After taking in the sights, and about a thousand pictures, we start a five-hour descent down the other side of the pass into another climate of cloud forest.
We sleep at a small community campsite, and we realize that we’re lucky to have a group (sorry, FAMILY) that is coming together so well, especially after having tackled the hardest hiking day. We finish the whiskey and head to our tents for much needed rest.
Day 3: Into the jungle
Downhill. Downhill. Will it ever end?
Today we’re following a river descending deeper and deeper into the valley. Instead of mountain views we’re now enjoying tropical flowers, bird songs and the roaring river next to us, growing wider and stronger by the minute.
Our motivation for the day: hot springs by our campsite.
We eventually arrive at a lunch spot where we fill our bellies with an amazing mountain of guacamole. From here it’s a short bus ride to the Santa Teresa campsite. We leave our bags and head to the nearby hot springs.
They feel really good on our tired, smelly bodies.
Back at the Santa Teresa campsite, we are told there will be a campfire and music in the evening. We buy a bottle of rum and some coke to enhance what I thought would be a relaxing campfire-sing-along.
It’s a Campfire Disco.
Several tour groups gather around the fire, and someone somewhere flips a switch which turns on flashing colored lights installed on some beams above, and large speakers start to play some extreme danceables, such as the Macarena and Bailando.
Whereas the other groups start to filter back to their tents, our group is finishing the first bottle of rum and going for a second. And we’re pretty damn proud of ourselves. I think we even labeled ourselves the “Condors” for a few minutes until we realized that was really lame.
It’s difficult to remember the rest of the night, but I feel the easiest way to summarize is to say we sang and danced like pirates after sacking a village.
Day 4: Hungover Ziplines
OUCH. Recommendation: do not drink straight from a bottle of Applton Rum.
Our group was the last to leave the camp, because packing was impossible. Nonetheless, they stuff us in a bus and take us to “La Cola del Mono” for a series of six ziplines, flying high across a canyon. Our whole family has opted-in to this optional adventure.
The hike up to the ziplines is painful, and the ziplines themselves are really scary. As a tourist you are equipped with a helmet, a harness, a work glove, and a leather hand brake (really just a rigid glove).
You are instructed to hold the pulley with your left hand to keep your body from spinning, and to grab the wire you are zipping on with the leather hand brake if the guide on the other side starts waving his hands at you because you’re coming in too fast.
That’s a lot of responsibility to give to a tourist who a) has never done anything like this and b) is still a bit drunk.
So they start sending us across the canyon, one at a time. One girl (who was hesitant to begin with) held onto the pulley incorrectly during her run, which caused her to break and stop dead in the middle of the line, hanging freely in the air some 1000m over the canyon. Our hearts sank as we watched the instructor zip out to her and haul her in. Poor thing!
Léa made it over no problem, and then for some reason, without breaking, I stopped about ten meters before the end. I’m afraid of heights, so I was not happy about this. Nor was I happy that when I start pulling myself along the cable, trying not to look down, the guide yells at me that I should “pull myself over to him faster, like a man.”
Once I finally reach the other side, I’m immediately clipped into the next zipline and flung across the canyon again. Coming in too fast this time, the next guide signals me to break. I look up at the cable flying by, reach up with my hand, and pull down with the leather handbrake. It works.
On the sixth and final line, you have the option to put your harness on backwards to fly “superman” style, and you can go in parallel with someone else. So we did.
That. Was fun.
After the zipline, we have to walk to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu that exists solely for tourists to spend the night before an early ascent into the ruins. The walk to the town along the train tracks is long, and the rain starts pouring, but we finally arrive, soaked.
The group splits into separate hostels, though we regroup and finally get our Machu Picchu details at the restaurant Virgilio uses as our headquarters.
When visiting Machu Picchu, there are several things you should know. You need to book in advance. And in addition to visiting the ruins, you can also climb to one of two peaks: Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) or Machu Picchu (Old Mountain). Neither of these options were very clear to us when planning our visit, and the first option requires reservation far in advance.
Anyways, it seemed a bit like a lottery when Virgilio handed us our tickets with various options included or not. Luckily Léa and I had a ticket to climb Machu Picchu.
With all those logistics out of the way, we decide to leave this restaurant/headquarters: because we want GOOD PIZZA, which we eventually find.
Day 5: Machu Picchu
We wake up at 4am to catch the first buses that head to the ruins. We enter the ruins, and Virgilio gives us a brief tour. Then we hike up the mountain. Amazing views from the top. With tired legs we explore the rest of the ruins, with mostly sunshine with occasional showers. The ruins are really amazing, though there are many tourists – and we were there on a light day.
Anyways, here is the picture everyone has been expecting most from our entire trip:
And here are some other pictures we took:
After walking up and down the ruins, eventually we hit a point where we’re too exhausted to explore any more. So we head back down to Aguas Calientes to catch a train, to another town, to a bus, to Cusco late at night.
After five VERY full days, it’s actually tough to say goodbye to this group. Part of Virgilio’s parting words were that he’s never had a group that did everything together: drinking, dancing, the zipline. A solid family.
Before leaving Cusco
We have one more order of business: our housemate from Barcelona, Marti, is in Peru on business and is passing through Cusco to fit in his own Machu Picchu experience.
We spend an evening with Marti, and it reminds us of home.
Now, we’re off to Lake Titicaca, because that is ABSOLUTELY another thing we must do!
Categories: Posts in English