One of the things which every traveller to South America needs to do is see the lost city of Machu Picchu. It is a truly awe inspiring experience, and in many ways the journey is just as important as the final destination. Nowadays you have a number of options out of Cusco to see the ruins:
- You can take the train and then the bus directly there and arrive relaxed and sweat free. Please note that unless you have limited walking ability, this is known as “cheating” and will involve everyone who does it properly pointing and insulting you.
- The official Inca trail. This is a four day hike from near Cusco and requires you to book a permit from the government, of which there are a limited number. As this is the most famous trail, it is also the most expensive, and will cost in the region of US$400-500+.
- The Salkantay trek. This takes you north of Machu Picchu into the mountains for five days, where you will hike at altitude and stay in tents. At this time of year, you will most likely also get rained on a lot, which when you’re hiking 7-8 hours a day is not pleasant.
- The “Inca Jungle Trek”. This is the one I chose in the end. After going to a couple of agencies and comparing their prices, we got the tour and the additional activities included for a total of US$215, which is less than all the other groups, so bargaining counts. The tour was four days, three nights, through the jungle which is the start of the Amazon, and including a number of outdoor adventure activities.
We drove for a while to our start point, during which time the group got to know each other a bit. As it turned out, in the group were two Irish people and an Australian, so between the four of us we had the basis of some pretty horrific jokes but good banter. The activity on the first day was mountain biking from 4,200m to 1,500m above sea level, however when we got to the top of the hill, the clouds and rain were so thick that we needed to go to a slightly lower altitude. But we still started at 3,500m, so it was a two kilometer vertical ride. Only thing is, it was in the pouring rain, so hard that at times we were blind, with nearly vertical jungle cliffs on the side of the road and lorries driving towards us. And in parts, the road was a river you needed to ride through, soaking your shoes, trousers and everything else. But we eventually got to the town at the bottom, got some beers, drank them on the local school playground like a bunch of pikeys, and had our shoes dry in the oven of the local restaurant.
After a bit too much beer the night before, some of us were feeling a bit precious. The cure: white water rafting. Down some class 3 rapids. I was at the front of the boat, and seemed to act as a shield to the girl behind me. But it was great fun. Then for the rest of the day it was hiking through the Amazon, with part of it being part of the official Inca trail. Which means some very steep, very old stairs. I would not want to do that in the rain. We stopped at a house in the mountains where our guide Rene explained some of the indigenous plants and customs. We also had our faces painted with a plant dye. Some people were made to look like jaguars, some like Inca warriors. When mine was done, I was made to look like Marilyn Monroe with eye shadow, blush and lipstick. And it didn’t come off all day. That is, until the end of the 8 hour hike and time for some hot springs. Just what the doctor ordered. At the end of the night, we started having some Peruvian shots in the bar, and playing drinking games, which turned into a long night at the local club. I never want another Inca Tequila / Chilli shot again.
Day started with ziplining, which was ok, across the canyons. My problem was that almost always I didn’t get fast enough, so I got stuck before I reached the other end. This involved me then having to pull myself across the canyon upside down, and once I was just so tired / incredibly hungover that the guide had to come and help pull me across. That day only had another 3 hours of hiking to the town of Aqua Caliente along the railway tracks. And yes, the railways are still in use. And yes, I did take a photo in front of one of the oncoming trains. Who wouldn’t? When we finally got to the town, we had dinner, and we were all knackered so had an early night.
This was the day we got to the ruins. We woke up at 4am, walked to the gate for a 4:30am start, and then began walking the nearly 2,000 stone steps to the top of the hill where the ruins were. Our guide’s advice was “take it easy, it’s not a race”. Of course it’s a race! So I powered up as fast as I could, arrived at the top completely covered in sweat. The rest of the group arrived about 5-10 mins later. But when you get to the top and see the ruins, it does take your breath away. The ruins are huge and pretty spectacular, especially when the clouds lifted. We had a guided tour for about two hours, at which point some of us climbed the nearby mountain of Wayna Picchu for a different look at the ruins. Those stairs were even steeper than those to climb the hill in the first place, but the view from the top was amazing. After getting back down, we had time to explore the rest of the ruins. I decided to go see the sun gate, which was used to see when the sun was rising for the solstice. Waste of time. Took me an hour in total, and it’s just four stone pillars. When I met up with the rest of the group, it had begun to rain, so we had lunch, and decided to then see the Inca bridge. During this time it was beginning to get progressively more rainy. We passed some Americans on the way who said the bridge would be the highlight of our entire trip. I don’t know what they were smoking, because when we got there, it was two planks of wood over a small ravine. And we were soaked to the bone. So much so that we took the bus back to town. Where the electricity was out. So we went to a pizza restaurant so we could warm our wet clothes on the pizza oven. We then got a train and bus back to Cusco. And well, we went out to a bar and got somewhat trollied.
All in all an amazing trip, well worth it, even if I have a slightly damaged ankle now. But now it’s time for a couple of days of chilling in Cusco to recover before it’s off to Lima.