Cusco, the Inca Trail, and Machu Picchu, Peru

I’m still always amazed when we arrive somewhere and the person that’s supposed to pick us up is actually there waiting for us… and, I love when they have a sign with my name on it! Dave found our driver, we picked up our bags, and we were at our “hotel” in Cusco at around 2:30pm.

When we signed up for our Inca Trail trek with Inca Trail Reservations, we had asked for hostel recommendations and were told that there were a couple of rooms located right above the tour company’s office and we could stay in one of them if we wanted. We thought that was a good option, since we were leaving the next morning at 5am, and coming back late the night the tour ended. We ended up not being very happy with the accommodations, but I’ll get to that later.

We had a few hours to explore Cusco before our Inca Trail information session at 6:30. I hadn’t been feeling great all day and was thinking about just staying in the room to rest, but I wanted to see Cusco at least for a little while. We walked up and down streets in the adorable town and through the town square. There were tons of restaurants, cute shops, and storefront after storefront offering day trips to all of these awesome looking adventure activities like zip-lining, rafting, horseback riding, and more. Dave said that it reminded him of Queenstown in New Zeland and we both already wished that we would have planned for more than just an afternoon there.

After an hour or two, I was feeling really tired and wanted to lay down for a little before our meeting. Dave dropped me at our place and went back out for some more exploration and to try to find a good spot for us for dinner.

He came to get me before our meeting and we walked downstairs to get all the info we needed for the following morning. It was a pretty standard information session and we had pretty much already known everything going into it (you know we like to do our homework), but we did learn one thing that was a shock to us. The half porter we hired and paid for ($54 for 7.5 kg, or 15 lbs) included our tents and sleeping mattresses, which we hired from the tour company. I had gone back and forth about this with the representative I had been corresponding with and we had decided that we only would need a half porter between the two of us, which would allow us 7.5 kg (about 15 lbs) worth of stuff. We had also rented sleeping bags, and I had specifically asked whether or not the sleeping bags were included in the 7.5 kg the half porter would be carrying. The woman had said no. Well, turns out she was wrong. So, we had to get another half porter to carry our bags since the one we had already paid for would only be able to carry our sleeping bags and mattresses. This was annoying, but we figured we didn’t really have a choice but to pay the extra $50 or so. Well, we didn’t even think about the fact that another porter might not be available! Luckily, our guide, Carlos told us to bring an extra 150 soles on the bus in the morning and he would try to find us an extra porter when we arrived at the Inca Trail. Fortunately he was able to, but nevertheless we’ll still be complaining about the $50 miscomunnication, along with the fact that there was a loud party in the backyard of our hotel the night before we left for our trek which kept us up until midnight and the fact that our hotel didn’t have hot water (not surprising in South America but we thought since we were staying above our tour company they would have hot water the night before a 4 day trek, especially for $40/night which we quickly realized after getting there was prob twice the going rate).

After our meeting, Dave said he had seen a bunch of great dinner places, so we headed out to find those. Pasta seemed to be the thing in Cusco and we figured it would be good to load up on some carbs, so that’s what we were looking for. All of the restaurants also had these amazing specials for a three-course meal for very cheap, so between those two things, we knew exactly what we were looking for. We finally settled on a place that had pretty much the best deal we’ve ever seen. For 15 soles ($5), we got a huge bowl of quinoa soup, a plate of pesto pasta, a whole loaf of garlic bread, dessert, tea, AND a pisco sour. We also ordered a pasta carbonara because we expected the portions in our special to be somewhat small, but we ended up with so much food, we didn’t even know what to do with it all! We had to skip out on dessert and tea at the end because we were so full and we could hardly make a dent on the huge bowl of soup (they brought everything out of order and we ended up with our soup after our 2 huge plates of pasta). Either way, all the food was great (though pesto is always tough because we’re comparing it to Linda’s pesto, which is the best ever) and we left stuffed and ready for bed.

We were leaving for our trek at 5:15 am. I woke up at 2am with a fever, the chills, and pretty much felt so sick that I had no idea if I was going to make it in the morning. Dave and I were both up from 2-5am trying to decide what we should do. Should I go and try to make it even though I felt awful? Should I stay back and try to go to the doctor and use our trip insurance to get reimbursed for the trip? We were going back and forth and back and forth. Finally, I started to wonder if it could be malaria, even though I had taken (and was still taking) malaria pills. This freaked us both out, and we decided that I should probably stay back. Then, Dave looked up the symptoms of malaria. I had some of them, but in looking up the symptoms on the internet, Dave learned that they don’t set in until at least 8 days after getting bitten (and can take up to a year to set in). Since we had only been in the Amazon for 3 days before, we were quickly able to rule that out.

At 4:30, our alarm went off, and we still hadn’t really reached a conclusion. I was worried that if I went, I would get worse and then be sick for the rest of our trip. On the other hand though, this was something I had been looking forward to almost more than anything else and would probably never get the chance to do it again. At 5:02, Dave finally convinced me that I at least should go and try it out for the day. If I still didn’t feel well the next morning (Day 2 of the trek, which was supposed to be the hardest day of the trek), we could go back to Cusco and then just take the train to see Machu Picchu on the 4th day. We had packed, unpacked, and repacked our bag based on whether we thought I was coming or not, all in a matter of 15 minutes, and luckily, we made it out of our room just in time for Carlos to pick us up.

Before we got on the road, we made a stop to pick up the other members in our group. First, we picked up a mother/daughter duo, Kathy and Felice. They’re from Santa Fe (I’ve always wanted to visit!). Felice (the daughter) is a teacher for Teach for America. Kathy (the mom) is a nurse, but seemed to be looking for some kind of life change and was taking this trip to gain some clarity on what she wanted to do next in her life. Next, we picked up a father and his 2 kids. They were from Peru, but by the time they got on the bus, I was fading so didn’t get to talk to them too much at that point.

Once we picked everyone up, I slept for almost the entire 2 hour ride to the start of the Inca Trail (except for our stop for breakfast along the way), and when we arrived I wasn’t feeling any better and was starting to wonder if I had made the right choice by coming. The first day is supposed to be the easiest of the 4. They call it the practice day, and I struggled all day long. I definitely still had a fever, my chest was killing me, and I could hardly breathe. On every uphill portion (and there weren’t many on the first day), I thought I wasn’t going to make it. Finally, we made it to our camp at around 5pm, I immediately set up my sleeping bag and passed out. Dave woke me up for dinner and I could hardly eat anything. I think this was when he knew I was sick, because I can always eat.

Day 1 was pretty awful for me, but Dave took great care of me all day. The whole day, he was making sure I was ok, had enough water, enough food, asking me if I needed anything, needed help, needed to slow down, he was great. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go on for day 2, but at least I made it through day 1 and Kathy gave me a Benadryl to help me sleep through the night.

Miraculously, I woke up feeling a lot better. Definitely not 100%, but I felt strong enough to keep going on the trek. Day two was supposed to be the hardest day, so I knew if I made it through that, I would pretty much be home-free. We were woken up at 6am by our porters, who brought us cocoa tea to our tent’s (nice touch, huh?; cocoa leaves are supposed to help with the altitude). We got dressed, packed our bag for the day, and went to breakfast. It was pretty amazing what the cook was able to do with the little resources he had at our campsite. First of all, for every meal, they set up a tent with a big table, chairs or benches, and actual plates and silverwear. For breakfast, they served us pancakes and then toast with butter, jam, etc. To drink, we had a hot quinoa juice. It sounds weird, but it was delicious. With every meal, we also got hot water for tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. All the hot drinks were just what I needed.

We got started at about 7:30 and our guide, Carlos,gf told us that it would be about an hour to an hour and twenty minutes until the first check point, where we should all meet. He also told us that the easiest part of the day was to the first check point, after that would be 2 very hard hours with a ton of steps, and then another 2 hours, the last 40 minutes of which would be the hardest of the day.

We set off and after about an hour and a half, Dave and I still hadn’t seen the first checkpoint. We thought we had been making good time and there was no way we had exceeded the amount of time he’d told us. We also had started going up a ton of steps, similar to what he had described the 2nd (very hard) two hours to be like. Something didn’t seem right, so we stopped and asked someone where the first checkpoint was. They told us that we had passed it at least 30 minutes ago. Whoops! We had seen a clearning after about 45 minutes where a few people were stopped, but there weren’t any benches nor was there anyone selling water, both of which Carlos had told us there’d be. We hadn’t even thought twice about stopping there. The good (great) news though, and maybe our saving grace of the whole day, was that we had gotten at least 30 minutes into the hard part of the day without even knowing it! The same person we had asked about the checkpoint told us that we only had about an hour until checkpoint #2. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all!

We made it to the second checkpoint in about 2 hours (Carlos had told us it would take 3). The hiking was hard, but definitely not impossible, and I finally started to feel like I was really going to make it the whole way (to Machu Picchu). We waited for an hour at the second checkpoint for the rest of our group to catch up.

Once they were there, Dave and I were ready to take off again. During this last part of the hike was when I finally started to notice how beautiful all of the scenery was. Everytime I stopped to catch my breath (which was about every 20 steps bc of the altitude), I was amazed by the views. What amazed me even more though, was that as we were hiking all of the porters started to pass us. They were running by with huge packs on their backs (they each usually take 35 lbs). It was hard for me and I was carrying nothing. I have no idea how they do it. I also had to keep stopping to put on or take off layers of clothes, which was pretty annoying. Everytime we were in the sun it was extremely hot. As soon as the sun went behind a cloud or we were covered by the trees though, it was freezing! This was something that continued to happen throughout the entire trip. I was constantly putting another layer on or taking one off.

After about 30 minutes or so, I could tell that we had hit the hardest part of the day. It felt like we had about a million of the steepest and tallest stairs to climb, and stairs (especially tall stairs) are not easy, esp when you don’t have very long legs. Luckily, our guide had taught us a trick that morning: instead of walking straight up, it’s easier if you walk in a zig-zag. Dave also figured out another trick, to find wherever the shortest step up was on each step, even if it meant you had to walk out of your way to get there. I didn’t come up with any tricks, I was just trying to take it one step at a time. I stopped after about every 10 and told myself I just had to go 10 more. It was hard, but after a while, Dave made it and I could see him at the top waiting for me!

I got there about 10 minutes behind him and have never been so proud of myself or so ready to walk downhill! We made it up in great time. Carlos had told us that on average, it takes people 5 hours to get to the top. He said if you’re going very fast, you can make it in 4. We made it in 3 hours and 15 minutes!! Go us! We had a snack at the top, took a few pictures, and then we headed off for the 2 hour downhill hike to our camp.

As much as we had been looking forward to going downhill, that was tough too! It was very steep and we had to go down about a million more stairs to get down. Again though, the whole way down, we had beautiful scenery to look at, so it wasn’t so bad.

We got to camp at around 2pm, set-up our stuff in our tent and were ready for lunch (another feast, complete with soup, rice, meat, another carb, and then tea to finish up. We tried to not scarf down everythign on our plates, considering the fact that we’d be eating dinner just a few hours later.

We didn’t want to take a nap for the fear we wouldn’t be able to fall asleep that night (we pretty much went to sleep right after dinner every night at around 8 since there was really nothing else to do after it got dark plus the fact that we had to be up so early to start hiking every day), so we started a game of war. At around 4, the rest of our group got to camp and we sat with them while they ate. At 5:30 each night was happy hour, where we were served hot chocolate, popcorn, and crackers. We sat there until dinner time (7pm) and talked to Freddy Jr. for a while (the son in the Peruvian family who also happened to be a Peruvian Michael Cerra look-alike). Then, we had dinner (another feast of pasta and veggies, and tea, of course), and then all hit our tents for the night.

Day three was the longest day of the trek, but was also supposed to be the most beautiful. We set-out at 7:30 and we wouldn’t be back again until 5. We hiked uphill for the first couple of hours of the day until we reached the second summit of the trip. It wasn’t bad, other than the fact that we were all a bit sore going into the day. Between the three or four archaeological sites we stopped at along the way and more of the beautiful scenery we’d been seeing throughout the whole trip, I can definitely see why they say this day is the most beatiful. We stopped for another feast for lunch mid-day and then started the descent to our camp. It was very steep going down for a lot of it, and after such a long day of hiking, it was tough. When we finally got to camp, we were all tired and ready for happy hour.

We sat down to our last dinner at 7 (another feast, of course). This was the first meal that our guides ate with us, which was nice. At the end of the meal, the cook brought out a cake for Dave and me becuase we told them that it was our honeymoon. I couldn’t tell you how they baked a cake without an oven, but it was delicious and so thoughtful of them. We called it another early night, this time because we had to be up the next day for our two hour hike to MP at 3:30am.

We had to get up so early so that our porters could catch their 6am bus (if they missed it, they had to wait a whole other day). It was pretty silly though because at 4am we had a 5 minute walk to the checkpoint we had to go through to get to Machu Picchu. But that didn’t open until 5:30 am, so we just had to sit there and wait in the dark and in the cold for an hour and a half. Once we finally got through there though, we started our two hour hike.

After an hour, we arrived at the Sun Gate and we were finally able to see Machu Picchu!! We took about a hundred pictures from a ton of different points throughout the next hour so we made sure we had every shot and every angle. Finally, we got to Machu Picchu and took the “postcard picture” shot. Wow. The day before, Dave and I had been talking about the fact that we hoped we weren’t underwhelmed once we finally got to MP. We spent 4 days getting there, and at that point there was so much hype, we were nervous that we might be disappointed. Boy were we wrong. We both thought that it was one of the most beautiful (for me the most beautiful) place we’d ever seen. Words and pictures can’t even do it justice, you really have to just see it for yourself to understand. Carlos gave us a tour and then we spent the next couple of hours exploring on our own. We took a 20 minute hike (as if we needed to do more hiking) to the Inca Bridge, which is supposed to be beautiful, but that, we thought, was overrated. We wished that we had spent that extra time at MP. Seriously, everytime I looked at it, it literally took my breath away and I was amazed and in awe all over again. We spent our last 15 or 20 minutes there just sitting on one of the many ledges staring at the view. Neither of us wanted to leave. Unfortunately though, we had to go meet Carlos in the town to pick up our bags. We waited until the last possible minute to go and get on the bus. We had seen the bus stop earlier in the day and there hadn’t been any line. This time when we went out, the line was so long, we didn’t think we’d make it in time to meet Carlos! Luckily, we caught him and were able to get our bag.

We had some time to spare before our bus left that evening, so we wanted to check out the hot springs that everyone had told us about. We paid the 20 soles to get in (as soon as we paid, someone came out and offered their tickets to us for free; argh!), rented a towel, bought a bar of soap (we were told there were showers there and were pretty desperate for one since we hadn’t showered in 4 days, plus we knew our hostel that night wouldn’t have hot water), and walked into the hot springs. It was not at all what we were expecting, was more like a hot tub than a hot spring, and was more lukewarm than hot. But, it was an experience and was fun anyway. Then, we went to find the showers. We were, of course, expecting actual showers in the bathroom. Nope. Instead, there were 2 rows of public showers outside next to the springs, which tons of people were using with their soap and shampoo. So, we joined in. At first, we thought all the showers were cold, but finally we found a hot one and it was glorious!

After our “shower” it was time to find the train and head back to Cusco. First, we used our last 11 soles (and 3 dollars US which Dave still had in his wallet; we were trying to avoid having to go to the ATM again since we’d be leaving for Brazil the next morning) to buy some bread, meat, cheese and pringles for dinner. Then, we found the train and 4 hours later, we were home.

Now, onto Iguaza Falls and our three weeks of buses through Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile! Stay tuned.

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