The Glorious Sunrise over Machu Picchu

Our last night sleeping on the Inca Trail was a night to remember (or forget depending on how much you had to drink!).  The party began at 4:30 pm as our group gathered for our Incan Golds atop the overlook in Winay Wayna which means “forever young” in Quechua.  We drank our beloved beers, laughed, talked and enjoyed each other’s company along with the other hundred or so guests for the night at the Trekker’s Hostal located at only 8858 feet/2700m.

The Trekker’s Hostal was no paradise but after three days trekking and sleeping in a tent, it was nice to have at least a western toilet (instead of the detested, stinky toilet tent), cold beer (which the porters carried up three hours on their back from the nearest town), and music which unfortunately played until 11 pm.  I tried my best to go to bed early but it was impossible to sleep since we were right next to the bar filled with revelers singing their hearts out to American rock.  But I knew our 4 am wake-up came awfully early and I was finally beginning to lose steam after so little sleep on this trip.

The noise slowly stopped and I fell into a deep sleep until my rude awakening at the crack of dawn.  The sun was hardly up, and it was pitch black save the moonlight shining down upon us.  I dressed quickly, ate a hearty breakfast and snapped a few fabulous pictures trying to capture the beauty of the sun rising over the Andes.  If only I had a better camera! I cried.   Here are some photos and documentary along the way.  Day 4 trek to Machu Picchu.

5 am:  Our last day of the trek to Machu Picchu.  Picture of the sun rising over the mighty, snow-capped Andes Mountains.

5:30 am departure:  We were on a race to cover the short distance of an hour and a half in order to reach Machu Picchu at the peak of sunrise and before the busload of tourists (who didn’t do the trek there) arrived and spoiled the view.

We left quietly and quickly into the darkness trying hard to watch our step carefully.  Below is a picture of the Trekker’s Hostal below in the distance. What a fantastic location!   Unbelievable.

The last hour of the hike to Machu Picchu was spectacular.  It was so incredibly peaceful and tranquil.  I tried not to talk much and indulge myself in the beauty of this magical place.  I listened to the birds singing softly while the sun rose over the lush, verdant mountains.   I closed my eyes and realized that this is why I do it, why I trek.  It isn’t the accomplishment of climbing a mountain or finishing a multi-day trek that is important to me, it is the peace and serenity that I achieve with my inner being and soul that is priceless.  For I am in my element and doing what I love best in life.

We are approaching the final turn in the trail that would bring us to our destination:  To the lost city of the Incas known as Machu Picchu, hidden by the world until their amazing discovery in 1911 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham.

Then as we turned the corner, we suddenly saw it:  The glorious lost city of the Incas perched high atop a ridge at 7,834 feet/2400m in the Andes.  The first sight of Machu Picchu was breathtaking and absolutely spectacular.  We made it just as the sun was to rise above the blanketed peaks of the mighty Andes.

After four days of hiking through jungle, cloud forests, and steep, stone stairs, the sight of Machu Picchu took my breath away and made my heart melt.  I could immediately see why the Incas choose this remote location.  It was incredible.

As we approached the ruins, we had no time to stop and marvel at its beauty and mystique because we knew that the buses of tourists were loading up below in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes and soon our private viewing of the site would be over.

The place was astounding and I could hardly believe my eyes.  How the Incas built such an amazingly, intricate city located in such a remote, mountainous area is beyond belief and a miracle.

A panoramic view of the site.  The Incas chose the most remote, sacred part of the Andes to build Machu Picchu.  The high mountains form a natural open valley with a perfect perch in the midst where they could build their shrine.  Machu Picchu was built on a rocky enclave with steep, thousand foot drops off the side making it difficult to reach and impossible to see from the nearest town, Aguas Calientes, located thousands of feet below.  No wonder the Spanish never found it, leaving it hidden for over 400 years. An amazing feat!

On the righthand side is the perilous Huayna Picchu, a beautiful mountain that offers stunning and views from a different angle of Machu Picchu which is 400 m below.  Climbing it however takes some serious guts since it is extremely steep and there are no guard rails…..climb at your own risk!  Yet of course the view is absolutely stunning!

It had rained the night before and thankfully cleared up enough to give us excellent, picturesque views of the mountains and of course, Machu Picchu.  I found the low hovering clouds to be lovely.

Finally around 7:30 am we arrive at Machu Picchu with very few tourists.  The beauty of doing the visit on foot!  (The gates do not open to the public until later meaning trekkers have a huge advantage since they can arrive before the crowds).

We made it!  My dad and I at Machu Picchu in November of 2001.

I could not stop taking pictures of the ruins.  It was so incredible.  Apparently only 10% of the ruins were visible when Bingham discovered the site and it took many years until all of Machu Picchu was uncovered.  Persistence paid off!

Our guide Limas gave us a detailed tour of the site and we stopped to take a picture of at the intricately carved stones.  How did they accomplish such an amazing feat of architecture?  It must have taken hundreds of men and years to build.

As the clouds blew in, it enhanced the mystical feeling of this amazing place.  There are so many unanswered questions and many things we will never know.

I stood in awe and amazement as I took this picture.  It is by far my favorite of the entire trip because it illustrates the incredible mystique of Machu Picchu.

After touring the ruins, we took our lives at hand and climbed the short, yet difficult peak of Huayna Picchu.  I had heard and read that the views from atop were the best of Machu Picchu.  Yet the hike up was pure hell and scared the wits out of me.  It didn’t help that our guide informed us of the unfortunate tourist who fell thousands of feet to his death while he was climbing Huayna Picchu. 

It was rough going up.  Thank God there were metal chains and ropes to hold on to for extra support and safety.  As I mentioned before, there were no guard rails and if you made one wrong step, you would fall thousands of feet to your untimely death.  I’m not sure whether or not this has changed over the last ten years, but this kind of safety mishap would never fly in the US (where we have more lawyers than we know what to do with!).  I wasn’t sure why I did the climb, but when I got to the top I realized it was worth the pain and the fear.

The view below of Machu Picchu blew me away.  Incredible!

I’m king of the world….well, not really, but it was fun to believe for a moment (especially for all those Titanic fans!).

I was relieved to head down to the safety of the ruins and flatter land.

Meanwhile the tourists began to arrive.  I was so happy we had arrived early and got so many spectacular “tourist-free” pictures.

After our visit to Macchu Picchu was over, we arrived safely down in Aguas Calientes feeling grimy, dirty and exhausted.  Yet we were excited to find a nice place to eat.  Thankfully neither of us got sick along the way (a few of our friends got a bad case of the runs….definitely no fun when there are no bathrooms!). I was happy to avoid any stomach mishaps and glad to be heading back to Cusco where I’d get a nice hot shower.  It was going to be heavenly after four days gathering dirt and grime.

The town:  This picture isn’t the best (my eyes are closed) but I thought it was worth sharing since it shows the poverty of the place.  This is Aguas Calientes, the town located a couple thousand miles below Machu Picchu and a launching off point to see the ruins.

The poverty

I recalled a story our guide Limas told me along the way.  As a young boy growing up in the mountains of Peru, he lived in a rural village with no electricity and little material goods.  He had to walk almost two hours to school each day, which thankfully for him, he spent studying (yes, while he walked).  The other boys from his village used the walk to horse around and those were the ones that never left the village.  Education was only required up until age 12 and most children just simply dropped out.  It is an unfortunate reality for many rural Peruvians who grow up uneducated and poor.  Yet, their strong culture and pride remain and still continue to inspire us.

Peru is a place I’ll never forget!

Stay tuned….I’m dusting out my files and hope to write about another fabulous trip.  Not sure yet whether it will be Australia, Argentina, Chile or New Zealand.   It all depends on what inspires me at the moment.  Thanks for reading! thirdeyemom

Adventure Travel Peru TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

The little makeshift bar in the clouds along the Inca Trail

Day 3 hiking the Inca trail was the longest and more tiring day of all.  From our campsite at Pacamayo we hiked an hour up to the fantastic ruins of Runkuracay, a lovely sample of what was to come.  After stopping briefly to take some photos and a rest, we climbed up another forty-five minutes to the top of Abra de Runkuracay (at 13,123 feet/4,000 m) the second pass of the Inca Trail.

Next we headed down the steep steps (some of them original) of the Incas, trying to ignore the sharp pain in our knees while marveling at the intense beauty of our surroundings.  This was perhaps some of the most beautiful scenery of the hike.

An hour or two later, we followed a superbly designed stone staircase that lead us to  the second set of ruins called Sayacmarca which means “Inaccessible Town” and perfectly describes the location of these fabulous ruins which are protected on three sides by sheer, steep cliffs.

The hike continued down into a magical cloud forest awash with orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and flowers which passed through an intricate Inca tunnel carved into rock bringing us to the third pass at 12,139 feet/3700m.  After admiring some of the 20,000-foot-peaks off in the distance we arrived at the most impressive ruin so far, Phuyupatamarca which means “Town in the Clouds”.

Finally, a few hours descending down thousands of step, hostile steps we arrived wearily at our lodging for the night, The Trekkers Hostal, a crowded, party-like atmosphere for our last night on the trail before arriving in Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn.  Here are the photos along the way.

Our campsite at Pacamayo at 11,811 feet/3600m.  Given the altitude, we didn’t sleep well.  It was freezing cold inside our tents, even for me a die-hard Minnesotan!  Thank goodness I had a wool cap along.  I slept in my hat as well as everything that was packed inside my backpack, dirty or clean.  I covered my face beneath my sleeping bag to protect my frozen lungs and drifted fitfully asleep.

Setting off from our campsite en route to the ruins of Runkuracay.

View of our hidden campsite from the trail.  In the background you can see the rushing waterfall that provided us with water, makeshift showers and noise to help lull us to sleep.  Always welcome when you are sleeping in a crowded campsite.

The climb up to the ruins on original paving of the Inca Trail.  A lot of the trail had to be restored over the years yet there are still original stone steps and trails like here.  Being on the original trail felt much more surreal.  It was also surprising at times how narrow and small the steps are.   The Incas were fierce warriors yet also very short compared to the modern height of most humans (especially taller ones like me!).   The short, steep steps made it even more painful on the knees.

Up to the right are all that remains of the ruins of Runkuracay.  These small circular ruins occupy a commanding position overlooking the Pacamayo valley below, which most likely explains their strategic location.

What I found most fascinating about the hike today was the amount of ruins leading towards Machu Picchu.   Apparently, all of these ruins were built to act as forts and rest stops along the way fo the Inca couriers walking the trail to reach Machu Picchu.  Some of the ruins even had Inca Baths were the couriers could perform ritual worship of water.  To this day, it amazes me that the Inca trail was so well hidden, for our 400 years, from the Spanish.  What an amazing feat!

The difficult, back-breaking job of a porter climbing up the step path, usually in terrible footwear and carrying 62 pounds each.  Yet this was nothing in comparison to the mighty Inca couriers who wore sandals and likely carried heavier loads.

We finally reached the beautiful, mystical cloud forest of the high Andes and were surrounded by incredible orchids, hanging mosses, wild flowers and ferns.  It was paradise and a nice break from the hard climbing.

It is important to remember that the trekking can also be dangerous as evident from this mudslide that happened last week making the trails treacherous and slippery.

Some of the pretty wild orchids found along the trail.  There are thousands of varieties in the Peruvian highlands.

Heading up to the splendid third pass and the ruins of Phuyupatamarca or “Town in the Clouds” afforded in my opinion the most spectacular nature view of the entire trek….Unbelievable!  The 20,000 foot snow-capped peaks were covered in the clouds.

The clouds blanketed the mountains in a mysterious, spectacular way.

Finally, we reached the ruins of Phuyupatamarca or “Town in the Clouds”.  The aqueduct system still provides water to the ceremonial baths after hundreds of years, and the circular walls were constructed with amazing intricacy, a trademark of the Incas.

Leaving the ruins, you descend thousands of steep, narrow, perilous stairs but the view was worth the pain.

After lunch the sky started to fog up which meant only one thing:  Rain!  We knew it was very likely to happen so thankfully we were well-prepared with waterproof jackets.  The steps were becoming slippery and our knees were starting to throb.  Our guide Limas offered us a choice:  We could either continue down the treacherous, knee-throbbing stairs or take another route, one that is perhaps “the road less traveled”.  We opted to take the second option which brought us through forest and jungle.

Little did we know, the “road less traveled” ended up being quite an adventure in itself.  Not long into the hike, it began to pour cats and dogs.  We were completely soaked within minutes, even with our waterproof gear on.  Yet my hiking boots were filled with wet, cold water making each step rather squishy.

Our adventure thus began, with the feeling I was right smack in an Indiana Jones set.  The once-there-trail magically disappeared and we were left walking up a steep, muddy path through thick jungle, slipping and sliding the entire way. There were a few wipe-outs into the mud but we managed to laugh and joke.  We ended up lost for at least a half and hour and began to wonder whether or not we’d ever get out and find the Inca Trail again.  Luckily we had Limas with us and he was able to navigate the way out of the thick, wet foliage back onto the trail.

We breathed in a big sigh of relief as we saw our campsite off in the distance.  I would not have wanted to spend the night in the jungle!

We could see the muddy, earthen river flowing below through the valley.  Fortunately there are plenty of rivers along the trail to wash up.  We didn’t of course drink from the rivers yet our pots and pans were rinsed in them (which was a little frightening given the fact that I witnessed one of the porters peeing in the same river!).

Finally, after a long, tiring day we made it!  We joyfully arrived at the infamous Trekkers Hostal where I was delighted to find a little makeshift bar in the clouds.  There were showers (for a buck), a restaurant and best of all, beer!!!!  After three long days of rugged, body-aching trekking, nothing sounded better than an ice-cold beer along the Inca Trail.

My Dad and I celebrating our day with a delicious Cusquena known as the Gold of the Incas….indeed! 

Our entire group indulged in probably too many Cusquenas yet we had a fabulous time for our last night together.  I can’t think of any other bar in the world with a view as amazing and special as this one! Perhaps we had a little too much fun for our 5 am departure….yet “When in Rome!”

We went to sleep easily, exhausted and slightly drunk. Drinking beer at high altitudes is definitely NOT recommended. But we didn’t care for when on earth will we ever be able to drink Cusquenas in the clouds among the spell of the mighty, mysterious Incas? Never!

Stay tuned….next post is my last in this series and will feature the dawn arrival at the incredible Machu Picchu!!!!

Adventure Travel Peru TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

Day 2 Hiking the Inca Trail

Day 2 of the Inca Trail was to be the hardest day of the trek as we would be climbing up from Wayllabamba village for about three hours through gorgeous wooded forests and spectacular terrain to the treeline and lovely meadow known as Llulluchapampa at 12,073 feet/3680m. 

Then it takes another hour and a half of slow walking and short, heavy breathing to reach the highest point of the pass, known as Abra de Huarmihuanusca or “Dead Woman’s Pass” at 13,779 feet/4200m.  At this point in my life, it was the highest elevation I have ever been and I felt it.  My lungs struggled and each step upwards was grueling.  Looking back now after having gained more experience at altitude, I realized this trip didn’t really give my body enough time to fully acclimatize.  But I made it and didn’t get altitude sickness (some people do and if so, you need to descend back from where you came from and fast).

The day didn’t start off too well given our lack of sleep from the night before.  A few hours after we were happily tucked into our tents after beers, popcorn and laughs, we were reminded about our crazy accommodations right next to the old farmhouse.

At about two am, for a reason unbeknown to us, the group of stray dogs living outside starting barking in sync.  At first I was irritated and thought they’d stop after a few minutes, but then just when I thought we’d be going back to sleep in peace and quiet the good old donkey joined in the fun with his “hehaheha” right outside of our tent!  Well, that of course got the dog gang barking again along with the “hehaheha” and it was complete chaos.  Needless to say, we had to laugh but we certainly did get much if any sleep especially once the roosters started going off at 4:30 am when the sun began to rise.  What a night!

By 7am after a light breakfast of toast with jelly, hot chocolate and tea we were packed up and off for our grueling day.  Our campsite was at 8851 feet/2700m and would be climbing up to our highest point of the trek at 13,779 feet/4200m.

Leaving the campground, the scenery was spectacular.

The trees provided a nice shelter against the hot sun and began to change as we ascended higher up the trail.  The foliage was extremely green and lush, loaded with beautiful flowers and we could see several waterfalls off in the distance rumbling down the hills.

I was sweaty, tired but had a huge smile across my face for I was in my element and doing what I love best.

We took at short break before making our one and a half hour ascent to the highest point of the trail “Dead Woman’s Pass”.  I didn’t like the sound of the pass but by the sampling of the stunning scenery we were entering, I knew it would be heaven.

Our wonderful, hardworking porters took a rest for a moment.  They each carried 62 pounds on their back and made only $4/day.  I felt terrible about the low wages and heavy loads, yet this is a way of life for them and being a porter is actually a better job than farming.  It pays more and guarantees three meals a day.

Climbing up, up, up on the real Inca stone-carved steps that were placed here hundreds of years ago.  It was grueling work and slow going but exciting all the same. The scenery changed dramatically as we climbed higher as well as the temperature.  I continually put back on layers moving from shorts, to a long-sleeve shirt and finally hiking pants near the top.  The temperature also varied a bit depending on clouds, sun and wind.  Thank goodness for convertible hiking pants!

Finally, we made it!  My Dad and I are at the top!   The views were incredible!

We took a short break and our fellow Swiss man, a young guy named Johnny of course had to celebrate the Swiss way….with a bottle of wine!  He informed us that the Swiss always carry a bottle along for celebration at the top.  Whether or not this is true, I have no way of knowing but I thought it was a great idea!

Our group at the top feeling cold, tired and exhilarated to be here.

Swiss pride:  Not only do they carry a celebratory bottle of wine, they also bring their flag.  I was so impressed!

Feeling part of the gang.  It is amazing how quickly you develop friendships while hiking.  I truly enjoyed the people we met and we had so much fun talking about our unique lives and the differences.  Lots of laughs as well.

After a zillion pictures, a glass of wine and a rest, we were off again for the rest of our hike.  The descent from the pass was very steep but not difficult except for the pain in my knees.  We hiked down for about ten minutes until it was time for a much-deserved lunch.

Famished, we all thoroughly enjoyed another delicious lunch that was waiting our arrival.  The porters and cooks had passed us on the trail in order to get to our lunch spot ahead and have everything ready.  We ate hearty homemade corn soup and a veggie stir fry.

We only had an hour left of the hike until we reached our second night campsite is at Pacamayo at 3600m.  It was only 2:30 pm yet we were all completely worn out and ready for a break.  The campsite was beautiful with lush, tree-covered mountains surrounding us.  It was much higher than our first campsite so we felt a little bit of the altitude still.  I was extremely pleased because there was an actual toilet and shower at the campsite, a nice luxury after two days (much better than using the “toilet tent” with a hole in the ground….yuck!).  The shower was ice cold since it was fed by a neigboring river yet the shower made me feel clean.  The porters had even carried up a big surprise for us…..a few bottles of Argentine Red wine!  What a treat!

Our Swiss friends never seemed to make us smile and laugh.  They even put up their flag outside of their tent.  What a riot!

Our wonderful guide Limas and I stood for a photo just after sunset.  It was starting to get cold up here in the mountains but it was so incredibly lovely.  There were waterfalls, birds singing and the air was as fresh as could be.  This was heaven on earth in my book.

I sat down in my tent to write in my journal for awhile (these are the notes which I am now using, ten years later, to write this post!) and enjoyed the fantastic view.  What a place and so incredibly peaceful.  No wonder the Incas choose this trail to lead to their hidden, sacred temple.

As the sun set, I pondered on what an amazing country Peru is.  I felt sad that the people are so poor, and live on less than $125 a month.  It was hard for me to fathom how difficult these people’s lives are.  They work so hard for so little.  Yet they are so happy and so wonderful without all the material stuff we have.

Traveling like us for this kind of adventure or even leaving the country in itself is out of the question.  I felt so privileged to be here and pinched myself several times while marveling at the rugged, raw beauty of the Andes.  I told myself to remember what I’m seeing and what I’ve learned.  For we are so fortunate and so spoiled.  Never take anything for granted, that is for sure!

Adventure Travel Peru TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

The Bumpy Ride: Day 1 Hiking the Inca Trail

Four am came bright and early.  It was the third consecutive day of rising at ungodly hours and my body was starting to notice the lack of sleep.  I was exhausted beyond belief yet exhilarated for today was finally day one of trekking the ancient Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail is part of the the incredible Inca road system which was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America.  What makes this trek so incredible is its combination of awe-inspiring scenary, culture, and mystery.  For after four days walking, you rise at dawn and come upon the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu (before the tourists have arrived by train) and see the sight in all its glory.  An amazing experience!

We packed our gear for the four-day trip in the bright blue, ugly plastic knapsack provided by our tour company and to be used for our Quechua porters who would be carrying our gear for us along the trail.  Looking back, I much would have preferred that they carried our belongings in a large backpack as it felt inhuman to make them carry these makeshift packs, tied to their backs.  But I didn’t know and understand as much as I do now about trekking and the social obligations of humane treatment and respect of porters.  This was my first trek I’ve ever done and became the turning point for me in how I like to travel (i.e. by foot….the best way in my opinion).

We met our bus at 5 am, too early to really have any sort of breakfast, and boarded the jammed pack mini-bus which would take us to the start of the Inca trail.  Getting out of Cusco and its surroundings took forever.  We continually made stops to pick up other trekkers as well as our porters.

About half-way through the drive we stopped at a small, run-down village where we had a quick breakfast at a local tea house and then were rounded up to board another, much smaller bus.  We were a bit confused about why we were changing buses until we found out that the main highway to the Inca Trail was closed and we would need a smaller 1960s-styled bus in order to make the bridge crossings on the “detour” route.  I didn’t quite understand what they meant by that statement yet decided to just go with the flow.  Then, the adventure began….

Above is a photo of the village we stopped in for breakfast.  I could see the Andes mountains summoning me, hidden behind the low rising clouds in the background.

As often happens in a foreign country where there are language barriers, we had no idea why we were changing buses from the big to the small and then why we had to wait for thirty minutes on the bus before leaving.  It wasn’t explained until our cook finally boarded the bus, a half an hour later. 

There were five other people from all over the world, joining us on our four-day trek along the Inca Trail.  As the days went by, we would get to know each one of them quite well and were lucky to have a great group of people with no spoilers.  We also had a guide with us named Limas, our cook and several porters who were Quechua, the indiginous people of  Peru.  Apparently all the porters are farmers and do porter work on the side because it pays better at $4 per day and they are guaranteed to be fed three meals a day (reality check: the average salary in Peru was less than $1,000 a year…less than the cost of my trip).  Unfortunately none of the porters spoke English or Spanish making it impossible to communicate with them.  The local language of Peru is Quechua which was the official language until the Spanish conquistadors took over the country and brought along their Spanish language and culture.

As we proceeded along, the driver drove like a maniac, constantly honking his horn at any obstacle in his path from goat, donkeys, pigs and even people!  Then, a bit further out of the village I suddenly realized that the paved road had somehow magically disappeared and we were on some kind of rural, gravel road that was extremely bumpy and very narrow.

I tried not to think about any surprise encounters with an unsuspecting goat or worse yet, villager, and held my breath to fight the motion sickness that was engulfing my already queasy stomach.

Thankfully we couldn’t go very fast given the poor roads.  Our first bridge crossing was awaiting ahead.  One look at the size of the bridge made me instantly realize why the big bus had to go.  We would never have fit!

When we reached the bridge, our small bus came to an abrupt stop and all of the sudden I noticed the porters standing up and getting off the bus.  “Everyone out!”  Limas cried.  Confused, we got off the bus and were told to cross the bridge and wait on the other side.  It took me a minute to figure out the problem.

We never would have made it across with the extra weight of the passengers!  Culture shock!

We watched our bus, crossing our fingers that the bridge wouldn’t collapse and breathed a heavy sigh of relief once it successfully crossed.

The rest of the ride to KM 82, the start of the Inca Trail, was even crazier and it felt as if we were in some nutty movie scene.  The bus following us got stuck in a mud patch and then out went the porters who had to push and pull the old bus out to drier land.  The scene was hysterical.  The trials and tribulations of traveling in a third world country, huh.  And, Phew….another relief! 

We thought we were saved yet then came another bridge and another.  At this point, the road was hardly visible and we drove right next to the edge of a twenty foot drop into the river with only a foot on each side of the bus to spare.  What a way to go! I thought, anxious but trying to see the comedy in the situation.  Meanwhile a foreign woman started to scream “Let me off!” in her broken English.

Of course the road was a one-way and inevitably another bus was to come, which it did, causing us to back-up for ten minutes straight.  Everyone on the bus was quiet and had white knuckles by the time we reached KM 82, feeling relieved to get off this piece of sh*t.  The trip could only get better, we hoped.

Photo above of me, feeling sick to my stomach but relieved to be off that stinking bus and finally here, safe and sound. It was only 10 am and we had the whole day ahead of us!

My first impression of the area was one of awe and amazement.  I was struck by the absolute beauty of my surroundings and the remoteness and mystique.  The landscape was very lush and green with rugged mountains jetting up to the sky off in the distance.  If you strained your eyes further, you could see the craggy snow-capped peaks of the Andes bursting out of the clouds.  The entire place seemed surreal.  Like a fantasy-land.  No wonder the Incas chose this place to construct their sacred Machu Picchu. 

Finally a little past ten, we set off on our way trekking the famous Inca Trail which the Incas built hundreds of years ago. 

Our group included seven guests (3 Swiss, 2 Brits, plus my father and I Americans), our guide Limas, two cooks and five porters.  Apparently we lucked out with the small size of our group.  Normally there can be up to 18 trekkers which in my opinion would not be fun.  I prefer the smaller, more intimate groups when it comes to hiking.

The first part of the hike is through lush, tropical jungle and the gorgeous countryside did not disappoint.

We hiked for two hours, talking and laughing especially at the random passing of a wild pig on the trail (photo below) until we came upon a nice, grassy place for lunch.

Our cooks set up shop, making a fire and cooking us a fresh meal of homemade chicken vegetable soup and spaghetti with tomato sauce from scratch for lunch.  It was surprisingly good and everyone ate heartily while enjoying the views of the distant waterfalls.

Here are some views of our lunch spot:

With cloud cover….

With less clouds….we can almost see the snow-capped peaks sticking out in the distance.

After a delicious lunch, we packed up and were off again trekking.  The porters rushed ahead to get to our destination first so they could have our tents ready to go.  I was amazed by their speed, agility and strength, especially given that they were practically half my height!

The first day of the world-famous trek along the Inca Trail in Peru brings you to the fantastic hilltop ruins of Huillca Raccay. The Incas built this watch fort here since it offered the perfect view up and down the Urubamba Valley as well as the entrance to the Cusichaca valley, allowing them to watch for upcoming enemies and hold their turf.

At first sight, it looks intimidating, like some kind of ghost town. Yet when you close your eyes and imagine the powerful Incas living here and protecting their grounds, you get a surge of energy and excitement for the final day of the trek along the Inca Trail: The viewing of Machu Picchu, the most incredible Incan ruins in the world.

A closer look….

We continued on along the Inca trail rambling away with our new friends and learning about everyone’s unique life.  This is one of my favorite things about trekking.   The people you meet.

It felt surreal to be hiking along the very same trail the Incas made hundreds of years ago from scratch.  How on earth did they do it?  And how did they find this place?  The questions added to the mystery of the place and its aura. 

The sun slowly began to disappear behind the mountains.  We were surely approaching our campground for the first night.

Finally, after about 7.5 miles/12 km we set eyes on our first campsite for the night, an old rundown farm near a village called Wayllabamba.  Although the hiking wasn’t the least bit hard, we were all exhausted from the early rise and chaotic start to our day on the bus.

The porters got to work setting up our tents right outside this old, rustic farmhouse while the cooks set up a fire to start another home cooked meal for the group.  There was quite a ruckus that night trying to sleep through all the dogs barking and the farm animals squawking about.   We ate popcorn later and even enjoyed a Cuscuena (Peruvian beer) each, a rare treat as the porters had to carry it this far.  We sat up late talking, enjoying each others’ company and trying to believe we were in this place full of roosters, puppies, dogs and donkeys, en route to the magical Machu Picchu just as the Incas had done hundreds of years before.

Stay tuned…next post is Day 2 trekking the Inca Trail.

Adventure Travel Peru TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

Unraveling Cusco: The Heart of the Inca Emprire

We woke up day number 2 of our trip at the crack of dawn once again.  Our 6 am flight at the Lima airport required an early check-in since apparently flights in Peru are notorious for leaving early. Thankfully, I had read the guide book and knew this advance.  The plane left twenty minutes before its scheduled departure!

The flight to Cucso was only one hour which made it hard to sleep.  I was able to get a few shots out the window and thought excitedly about the journey ahead to the Andes.  I love mountains and couldn’t wait for the trek.

Cusco is known as the heart of the Incan Empire and was founded in the 13th century where the Incas ruled until their tragic defeat by the Spanish in 1532.  Located near the Urubamba Valley in the midst of the Andes mountains, it has an alarmingly high altitude to the newly acquainted tourist:  11,200 feet/3,400 m.

In 1983, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and serves today as a major tourist destination and launching off point to the sacred Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.

As we made our descent into the Cusco airport, I was alarmed with my palms sweating full force.  Due to the high altitude and precipitous location of the town, the pilot had to do some crazy maneuvering over the 12,000-foot high mountains and at one point it felt like we would make a crash landing right into the mountains!  I was completely freaked out. Just when I thought it was over, the pilot swerved violently, making a rapid, frightening decent into the steep valley where the airport was perched at a mere 11,000 feet. I felt faint but recovered most likely once I realized that after I pinched myself, I was alive.

If you have never landed in a high altitude place, it is a strange, discomforting feeling.  Normally, you have time to adjust and acclimatize to the altitude of a place. For example, if you are driving out west in the United States to the Colorado Rockies, you slowly ascent and get used to the altitude.  But this is not the case in the height of the Andes Mountains!  I felt the 11,000 or so feet instantly after exiting the plane. My young, twenty-eight-year-old body felt winded and breathless.

Thankfully, a driver and representative from our tour company, Andean Life, was there at the airport to meet and greet us. He went by the name of Timothy and most likely reached my armpits (the indigenous people of Peru are quite short, especially compared to a tall American woman).  We were once again welcomed by a live Peruvian band which woke us up out of our stupor.  Timothy lead us to the modest car, and loaded our luggage in the trunk.  I sighed with relief knowing that everything was safe and got in the back seat of the small car with my dad.

My first impression of Cusco was one of amazement.  It is a fascinating, old and outright grimy city in the valley of the spectacular Andes mountains. Once again, the poverty of the place was instantly noticeable, much more so than in Lima.  Being in central Cusco felt like stepping back one hundred years in time.

The houses were very old and dirty. The roads were bumpy and awash with scum. There were no signs of luxury except for the majestic cathedral which was probably THE most impressive cathedral I’d ever laid eyes on (this is a big statement given the fact that I’ve spent years traveling throughout Europe and have seen a lot of impressive cathedrals). I think what stuck with me most was the fact that the Spaniards literally tore down the Incan Empire and placed their Catholic Church right on top of it, and adorned it with the most amazing, impressive Silver and Gold-encrusted altars that I’ve ever seen. This kind of beauty and wealth juxtaposed to such poverty seemed to me like an outright crime.

Timothy brought us directly to our hotel a lovely authentic place called El Balcon located in the heart of the Incan Empire, Cusco.  Here is a picture of my dad carrying his “luggage” (we were requested to pack everything for our trek in a duffel bag) outside of the hotel, El Balcon (or “the Balcony”).

Photo of the street leading from the main square to our hotel.

We were warmly welcomed by the owner of our hotel, a Quechua woman who spoke no english or spanish whatsoever.  We gingerly climbed the one flight of stairs, stopping to catch our breath at every step and came upon this view of the rooftops and the courtyard garden below from the large balcony spanning the width of the hotel.

Our room was spartan but clean and served its purpose for the night.  We would be guaranteed a good nights sleep in this peaceful place yet were to be rudely awakened the next day at 4 am to start our travel to the start of the Inca Trail.

The balcony was gorgeous and intricately carved reminding me somewhat of the gorgeous balconies we saw in Lima but on a more casual construction.  We were offered some coca-leaf tea, a common drink in the high Andes, which is supposed to relieve altitude sickness.  The tea tasted remarkably good.  Yes, the coca leaves are derived from the coca tree, the same plant as cocaine.  However, there is less than 0.4% trace in the tea and it is a common drink in the high altitude Andes countries.  (No, I didn’t get a high from it but it did reduce my headache slightly).

I was fascinated by the beautiful red rooftops and couldn’t get enough pictures of them.  I also loved the dramatic mountains in the background which offered a promise of the beauty that was to come.

The city of Cusco with a shot of the main square and cathedral in the background.  Hard to believe that this village was once the stronghold of the great Incan Empire that now ceases to exist.

After a brief rest and more coca tea, we decided it was time to explore the town.  Timothy would be our guide for the afternoon.  But first we were going to walk around a bit and grab some lunch. Here is a photo of me (mind you, ten years younger) holding the map to this mysterious city.

We ate lunch in the building on the right, outside on an old bright blue, wooden balcony.  We lavished in a delicious red beet salad and delightful pizza, a bit surprised by the level of international cuisine in a town that seemed so impoverished.  The beggars seemed to be missing a bit from Cusco.  Perhaps we were just in the wrong part of town.

After lunch we met up with Timothy, our guide for the afternoon, and headed to the main square, Plaza des Armes (aren’t they all called that in Latin countries!).  Below is a picture of the main cathedral, the Cathedral of Santo Domingo that was one of the most impressive piece of architecture I’ve ever seen.  Inside, there are two dramatic altars, each one at least 100 feet hight, soaring to the sky, and one of the altars is completely embossed in silver (an amazing sight).  The cathedral was built in 1654 taking almost one hundred years to complete, and was literally built smack on top fo the remains of Corichancha, an Incan temple torn down by Spanish colonists.

This picture below is of another, smaller catholic church in the Plaza des Armes, the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, a rival church to the cathedral.

Larger picture of the Plaza des Armes.

It was amazing to be in a place with so much history and so much tragedy.  I reflected a bit on the defeat of the great Incan Empire and the spread of christianity throughout South America.  It felt so unjust.

After our tour of central Cusco, we headed to another part of town, where the only remaining Incan ruins still stood.  These ruins are called Sacsayhuaman (which made me laugh as the guide pretty much called them “Sexy Woman”).  The walled complex located on the northern outskirts of Cusco are a rare find.  Like many other constructions made by the Incas, Sacsayhuaman is made without mortar.  Each boulder was carefully cut, polished and fit together as seen in this picture below.  An amazing feat of architecture!

To demonstrate the size of these stones…here is my silly dad.  There is much debate among scholars how the Incas moved and worked these stones to complete this amazing structure.

After our tour of the ruins, we headed back to our van.  I couldn’t help but notice a local shepherd in the distance, herding his sheep and working the old-fashioned way.

The view of Cusco from Sacsayhuaman is absolutely stunning.  The old Inca Empire in all her glory.

As we approached our awaiting van, of course there was a market located directly across from the parking lot.  The locals were selling all sorts of Peruvian goods such as handicrafts and blankets for next to nothing.

Then there were the local children offering you a “Kodak moment” for a buck.  Although I felt guilty encouraging child labor, I couldn’t resist taking the shot.  The only one smiling is the laughing llama.

Then I got the whole family in traditional dress.  Cost?  Priceless.

We climbed back the meager flight of stairs, breathless and exhausted beyond belief by the last two days of travel and adventure.   I climbed into my thin cot, pulled over the wool covers and was out as a light as soon as my head hit the pillow.  For tomorrow was going to be yet another day of extreme adventure and fatigue.  But I was ready…

Stay tuned….next post documents Day 1 trekking the world-famous Inca Trail.