Note: Yeah, this is really late, and I’m about two months behind. Apologies. Colombia will come later (hopefully soon), but I wanted to post about Machu Picchu while it was still relatively fresh
Seriously. Just look at these pictures.
I mean, I fell in love with the Colombian countryside, but the Peruvian Andes took it to a whole different level. The green. The mountains. The clouds. The lakes. The absolutely endless beauty in every direction. All I can say is, go there. Now.
6 Days of Hiking in 7 Days
In the course of six days of adventure spanning seven calendar days, Matt and myself, along with a varying number of other Remote Year travelers and their friends (depending on the hike):
- Summitted over 16,000ft
- Saw more colors in a single mountain-scape than ever before
- Raced a mountain guide up a mountain at 15,000+ft (not recommended)
- Witnessed three avalanches within a half-hour
- Found the most vibrant mountain lake I’ve ever seen
- Hiked through a torrential downpour in the middle of the jungle
- Learned how to play Go Fish in Spanish
- Played the “toss-the-coin-the-in-the-frog’s-mouth” game (name, in case you couldn’t tell, unknown)
- Swam in true hot springs
- Ate a wide variety of amazing meals
- Danced around a campfire with fellow hikers
- Ate a massive meat-platter for two (and only two) at the feet of Machu Picchu, followed by dinner 30 minutes later
- Woke up at 4am to try to get to the gate of Machu Picchu by sunrise
- watch plans go completely out the window, try to remedy
- Arrived at the gate drenched (literally) in sweat, but just as the crowd started moving
- Saw Machu Picchu (relatively) empty
- Took selfies with llamas
- Visited the Sun Gate and the Inka Bridge
- Found real craft beer back in Cusco [honestly, probably the most impressive feat]
On Monday, the day before our hiking began, we arrived in Cusco around 4 in the afternoon. The rest of the day consisted of finalizing hiking details, finding rental gear for a few of our compatriots, and attempting to sleep early.
Day 1 (Rainbow Mountain)
Tuesday morning at 3am, we embarked in a van for Rainbow Mountain. Our day started off sadly as one of our friends had awoken with severe foot pain and was unable to join us (thankfully she was able to return for the main trek a few days later). With that in mind, however, we looked around the completely packed van and weren’t quite sure where they intended for her to sit, but such wondrances were to be left unanswered.
Not quite two hours later, we stopped in a little mountain… neighborhood. Not even a village, but rather a small stretch of road with a few houses and nothing else around (magnificent landscape aside). There we ate a phenomenal breakfast, shopped at the table outside for last minute warm clothing (homemade alpaca sweater and gloves for the win), and began to acclimate to the higher altitude.
Returning to the van, we journeyed on for an hour more before reaching the trailhead. Coming from a world of barren trailheads where you’re lucky to find a lone toilet, hiking in Peru was endlessly surprising as each trail had numerous tables for drinks (soft and otherwise), snacks, clothing, and more. By this point, however, our bags were prepped, all that remained was to begin the ascent.
About a half-hour into the trek, we hit the “horse-point”, where those who preferred to ascend via horseback selected their ride and local guide. We learned later that the chance to be a guide was considered a great privilege for the locals, and they usually only were allowed (due to the number of available guides) to ascend once or twice a month, spending the rest of the time working at the stables caring for the horses or returning to their other labors.
While the opportunity to ascend by horse was intriguing, our crew decided to summit by foot, in large part to test our acclimation before the longer trek just two days later. As we moved forward, we began to split into smaller groups for the remainder of the hike. The landscape here was gorgeous, though at this point still resembled much of the grassy fields of Colorado foothills.
After passing through the official entrance gate however, the colors swiftly began to change. Almost immediately a deep red began rising to the surface of the mountainsides, and glimmers of the blues and rarer shades to come started to poke through the clouds hovering around the peaks.
In a foreshadowing of the week to come, Matt and I were joined for the rest of the ascent by a stranger who would soon become a friend. A Colombian girl named Valentina met us at the gate, and provided some much appreciated translation assistance. From there she accompanied us to the very peak, all the while we has the chance to chat about travels; languages (she was a phenomenal spanish instructor); cultural similarities, differences, and quirks; professions (A programmer, a lawyer, and a personal trainer walk into a bar…); and of course the awe-inspiring nature surrouding us.
For much of the hike, our trio was apart from the rest of the group, content to push ahead at our own pace. Eventually, however, one of our two guides caught up with us and motivated us forward (by which I mean he appeared without the slightest signs of being tired or out of breath, all while having just completed some of the steepest parts at a significantly faster pace than ourselves). It was at this moment that I had a moment of sheer brilliance: challenge the guide (who, as previously noted, is not winded from the previous ascent) to a race. In the course of 400 meters I went from feeling relatively good, considering, to flat on my back convinced there wasn’t enough air on the entire mountain to revive me.
Sidenote: if you ever think you’re starting to really understand a language, try speaking it while severely oxygen deprived. It’s a fun new challenge. Really.
Shortly after this impressive display of mountain fortitude (by the guide), we reached the saddle of the mountain. It’s here that all of the colors are on display, and is where most of the hikers stop. Our guide warned us not to stay at this height for more than about twenty minutes, due to the severerly low oxygen (~16,000ft). Naturally, there were several locals with stalls selling drinks, snacks, etc who had clearly been there all morning, and would likely be there all afternoon. Obviously we felt greatly accomplished in our ability to breathe here at all.
From there, it was a final push of about 400 vertical feet to the summit, which, though cloudly, was eminently rewarding. No matter what mountain I have hiked, there’s always a comraderie at the summit that cannot be found anywhere else. Perhaps not surprisingly, but still happily, this is just as true on summits where everyone is from a different country as it is when everyone is from the same state.
The rest of the day consisted of the descent through the same gorgeous terrain, somehow still surprising despite having just witnessed it a few hours before, lunch in the same small neighborhood (equally delicious), a sleepy van ride back, ordering pizza (because we hiked hard, ok?!), and an almost immediate slumber.
By far the quietest of all days, day two included:
- Wandering/exploring the town of Cusco
- A 90-minute massage
- Discovering decent beer
- (Finally) finding beef jerky and other trail snacks
- Seriously, do you know how hard it is to find protein-heavy snacks outside of the US? It’s ridiculous.
- A (surprisingly) amazing vegan dinner (don’t quote me on that, I’ll deny every word)
Blessed with a slightly later early start (4am this time), we departed Cusco to begin the first, and easiest, of five days upon the trail to Machu Picchu. Our first stop, however, was not part of said trail, but rather an excursion to view Peru’s national bird: the condor.
The road to that stop was winding, full of loose gravel and dirt, and at times inaccessible to a full van. About 3⁄4 of the way there, we all had to exit the van, and, twice along the next few switchbacks, several of us had to join the guides in pushing the van out of a poorly tractioned divot. Upon reaching our final Puebla, however, it was more than worth it; we were welcomed by several of the villagers, including two young boys eager to show off their soccer (ahem, futbol) skills.
After a brief snack respite, we hiked out to a few different view points (which is tour guide speak for “sheer cliffs where you can see cool things if you don’t fall off”), and had the chance to see several condors, both adult and child, take flight not more than a hundred feet away.
After lunch, we took our final vehicle ride for the next few days to our first camp spot (like I said, this day was pretty easy). The campsite was a short walk from our stop, where we got to enjoy both a gorgeous sunset and the magnitude of the night sky away from city lights. During dinner, we also had the chance to meet the rest of our tour crew, including the chefs, horse men (responsible for walking pack horses with the heaviest of the gear to each campsite), and the two interns who were accompanying us. Much of the crew still spoke Incan primarily, meaning broken Spanish was the closest we all had to a common tongue. Needless to say, this was provided endless entertainment.
In contrast to the past day, this was by far the hardest day of hiking. Ascending around 3,500ft in the morning, to then descend nearly 5,000ft, we crossed the Salkantay Pass, slogged (literally) through a jungle downpour, and nearly submerged into slops of mud (please, please say it was only mud) along the way.
The morning introduced what would become our standard procedure: awoken around 5am by the guides, who greeted us with hot tea and warm water to brush our teeth, we dressed and packed up our belongings before a hot breakfast (seriously, can I ever hike without such luxury again?!) and any necessary water refills. Once everyone was ready, our hike began with a moderate ascent in the shadow of the pass, but thankfully reached a sun-bathed slope that we were able to maintain nearly the entire morning.
While in general we remained largely together in our group, we also had the opportunity to intermix with several other groups along the way, meeting travelers from Chile, England, Spain, France, Germany, and Greece, just to name a few. For the next four days, we’d hike, dance, play cards, and share beers with nearly all of them several more times along our way.
The rest of the morning ascent proved rather uneventful, which is to say that the whole trek was one 3-hour long event of non-stop breathtaking views (and some breathtaking altitude as well), capped (quite literally) with three avalanches and a beer at the pass. And then, as a bonus because we’d made good time thus far, we took a short detour to one of most beautiful mountain lakes I’ve ever seen. Somehow, nestled in it’s little valley, nature cranked up it’s hue slider and the teal quite honestly radiated off the lake.
From there, we began our descent, first through boulder fields, then a beautiful open clearing overlooking a roaring river slicing through the valley beneath, a brief stop for lunch, and then plunging into a jungle deluge like I’ve never experienced.
There are two facts you should know about jungle rains:
- If you have proper rain gear, they’re actually quite fun
- If you have to pee whilst on the two miles (that’s just over three kilometers, for my imperic friends) of narrow trail which offer no outlet, the constant roar of rain upon your “proper rain gear” is less than helpful…
Our descent ended at a campground filled with fellow travelers, many of whom we’d met along the trail earlier in the day. After hanging up nearly every article of clothing we possessed and scarfing a warm dinner, we proceeded to raid the bar (because after hiking all day, a liter of beer is definitely worth $3) and play “Pescandes” (Go Fish, but in some cross between Spanish and Quechuan, which is the native language of our guides) well into the night.
The next day offered a much easier trek, as we had a slow descent for much of the morning. Unfortunately the floods had wiped out a necessary bridge on the official trail, but the dirt road we followed was essentially the same route just on the other side of the river, so we still got to enjoy much of the beautiful scenery. Perhaps the best moment included fording an ice-cold stream that crossed the road (and dropped off into a waterfall immediately afterwards), which included the (almost) loss of both the socks and shoes of one of our compatriots mid-stream.
At lunch we once again met with many of the hikers we’d had dinner with the night before, and found a “toss-the-coin-in-the-frog” game (still no idea on the real name), which was oddly addictive, but won me a free Pisco Sour, so definitely worth it. From there we made our we to the campsite and headed out to some much appreciated hot springs.
The night ended with a dance party back at the campsite, and far too many 1 sole ($0.33) shots of “Inka Tequila,” which is really just well marketed bottom-shelf (possibly actually floor level) tequila.
Since the floods had again impacted the trail, we had to drive for part of day 6, however that afforded us the opportunity to go on the most amazing zip-lining adventure I’d ever done. With speeds of up to 40 miles an hour, we rode lines that crossed a canyon of roaring water, including one over 1 kilometer in length. And because this wasn’t the US, “safety” is a bit looser of a term, so they allow you to go upside down, on your stomach (“like a condor”), and backwards. We also crossed a high-wire bridge, with barely enough slats to even reach between steps.
From there, we finally arrived at the actual Inka trail and joined with all the other hikers on their way to Machu Picchu. The route includes several miles of train tracks (with a train that’s still active, so alertness is paramount) and a few brief glimpses of the ruins high on the ridge.
At last, near mid-afternoon, we arrived at Aguas Calientes, a town created purely for tourists, but for one evening we were grateful for the conveniences it offered. After consuming an entire meat platter by ourselves, Matt and I joined the rest of the crew for a dinner (yep, secondses). Then, after finalizing the details of the next morning’s trek, we crashed early in preperation for our final hike of the week.
Our final day began at 3:30am, with the goal of beginning our hike by 4:30 so we would arrive by sunrise. Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication with our guide, we were unable to leave until nearly 5:15, and arrived at the base of our ascent at 5:30, leaving us 30 minutes to make what was estimated to be a 90-minute ascent.
Matt did it in 27 minutes.
I managed it in 36.
And with amazing efforts, the entirety of our crew made it to the gate in well under an hour.
Sweat-soaked and exhausted, we entered Machu Picchu.
From here, the pictures largely have to tell their own story. There are no words to describe it. From the sheer magnitude of the city, to the impeccable craftsmanship of the stone-work, to the roaming llamas that have long since quit being impressed by scenery and people alike, you are immersed in history and culture from the first minute to the last.
We were not only fortunate to have phenomenal weather (despite it being rainy season), because we were in the off-season our guide had time to teach us about all the history and meanings of the various buildings and artifacts.
Then he told us it was all a lie.
In truth, that was a bit of a lost-in-translation moment, but he was quick to remind us that they really don’t know what happened there, or how life was lived in that era, other than conjecture and hypotheses based on what they know of similar cities. Perhaps that’s part of Machu Picchu’s appeal. Everyone can craft their own story. And after wandering the cobbled streets for a few hours, everyone should.