To very briefly set the scene, we had celebrated our last night with the rest of the group in Cusco, hadn’t slept and had taken advantage of the many free drinks offers. After the final goodbye’s to the others, our guide found us and seemed a bit confused by our current, non-sober, no-sleep state. I’m sure he’s seen similar before though and after a quick shrug of his shoulders we took the world’s most uncomfortable minibus towards the start of our 4-day adventure to Machu Picchu, South America’s most popular tourist destination, and one of the places I had dreamt about visiting since I first booked my flight. There are a plethora of different ways to get to Aguas Calientes, the town that sits in the shadow of this great ruin, the most famous being the Inca Trail. Unfortunately, you have to book that months in advance and my plan of not really having a plan was going really well. It also costs a lot and they close the route in February anyway. So we decided on the Inca Jungle, an adventure trek which started with mountain biking, included trekking, zip-lining and hot springs along the way.
We arrived at the top of a misty mountain still feeling a little worse for wear. It turned out that the mountain biking was actually all on road and smooth tarmac road at that. After getting padded up, helmets on, we set off from the back and started the long and windy descent. After a few minutes I found I had overtaken everyone around me except the guide and when I looked around I was joined only by Adam and Ed. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel a little extreme after partying all night and now leading the rest of the group down the mountain… The guide kept us from going too fast and perhaps getting a little carried away and after a couple more hours we finished the day. It was a good hangover cure and a great way to start our Machu Picchu journey but we definitely had some unfinished business with the mountain bikes…Luckily Death Road in Bolivia was waiting, which I can now mention as it’s been done and I’m still alive! No need to give the folks any more reason for sleepless nights! That evening we spent the night in Santa Maria, had a stroll down to the river and caught up on some much needed sleep.
Day 2 was a hiking day with several breaks along the way, the first was to visit a mischievous monkey. We were warned not to let it get near watches, bracelets etc as it would have them off in a flash. It was entertaining to watch but its life essentially seemed to be waiting for tourists to arrive while chained to a door with about 2metres of leeway which I wasn’t the most comfortable with. We continued to climb up a mountain and the next stop was a little better. Again, there was a token monkey along with some other animals and some typical food found and made in the jungle around this area. After sampling fresh juice, honey, pure chocolate and getting painted with traditional markings we continued. We now met a part of the Inca trail and we were treated to incredible scenery and some of the best hiking footpaths I’ve come across.
The majority of the day, we were close to a crashing river, whose power was simply staggering. After using a rickety old rope bridge to cross the river we marched on for another hour or so until we saw some people on the other side. From this distance it wasn’t clear how they had got there but as we rounded the next corner it soon became apparent. We were to cross the wild river and the 250m or so gorge in a bucket bridge. We were soon pulled across and paid our 5 Soles each for the pleasure, although I’m not sure what the option was if we didn’t want to pay.
As the day neared to an end we walked the final couple of miles and arrived at a natural hot springs. This one was a little more commercial than the one we had experienced in Colca Canyon but in an almost equally unbelievable setting. With three pools, varying in temperature, we spent the evening relaxing there, jumping from pool to pool and beer to beer. The night was spent in Santa Teresa and after a hearty meal we hit the ‘main strip’, a street with a couple of bars at least. Spanish was practised, friends were made and good times were had. There had been a change in our 3-man wolf pack as we all decided to get a reasonably early night. Zip lining was on the cards for the next day and we decided to be fresh for it, a decision never seen before when the three of us have been together.
So, the following morning, with reasonably clear heads we were driven to the zip line centre. After being harnessed up and a quick 30-minute climb, we reached the first of the zip lines. One-by-one we were connected to the cables and sped off across the valley. The second of the lines was the longest, a huge 1.5km across a massive gorge. It was a lot of fun and I can’t help but mention the entertainment provided by one of our South Korean friends on the trek. I assume she didn’t understand the instructions despite her good English and she didn’t decelerate as she approached the end of the line, this lead to her stopping in about half a second and being thrown upside down on to the cable. I would feel guilty mentioning this but she was okay after being untangled. Of course on the next run, she was terrified of the same thing happening and stopped about 30m before the end, panicked and began to scream. It’s easy enough to pull yourself to the end but in her state of fear one of the guides had to go and rescue her. Everybody found this hilarious but tried to depress their laughter except her boyfriend who laughed wildly throughout and didn’t seem to offer any help or sympathy. The rest of the course passed reasonably uneventfully with the final zip line ending in the middle of a valley rather than on solid ground. We were then lowered down through the tree canopy at the speed we determined. I may have accidentally hit the guy in the eye and after I answered his question of ‘Do you like speed?’ positively, he had no hesitation in dropping me at high speed and stopping my fall a couple of metres above the ground which I’m sure he took great pleasure in, fortunately so did I.
The final activity of the morning was a high suspension bridge which traversed yet another of the valleys in the area. Only a few of us chose to do it and the guides enjoyed trying to swing us off. Of course, we returned the favour as they neared the middle and wobbliest parts of the bridge.
The excitement of the morning reached an end and we were next taken to a large hydroelectric dam, just a few miles from Aguas Calientes. After lunch, we walked the train line for around 3 hours amidst yet more unbelievable scenery. We caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu way above on the top of one of the valleys before finally arriving into the town. The evening was spent relaxing and preparing for the following day, a 4am start was on the cards to allow us to be amongst the first people up there.
One of my main concerns about Machu Picchu was the number of people that I was going to have to share my experience with. Luckily, our visit coincided with the wet season meaning there would only be close to 5,000 people and not the 10,000 it reaches in peak season. This was about 4,980 people more than my experience at Ciudad Perdida so I was a little sceptical. Additionally, there was a risk that our views would be obscured by clouds or we would spend the day getting drenched. We had heard from Hanna and Katrin that their visit was a bit of a disaster with neither of them being well, Kati being soaked to the skin before they had even arrived and the majority of the day being spent in clouds of mist. We were definitely a little apprehensive as we sat in the hostel the night before listening to the rain hammering down on to the roofs around us.
As we awoke in the dark and looked out of the window the rain seemed to have stopped and we set off at typical wolfpack double pace. We reached the turning point where we stopped retracing our path along the train tracks and started the climb up the steep steps. By 5:50am we arrived and waited for the rest of the group to assemble. The day started with an uninformative tour and in all honesty all we wanted to do was go off and explore the incredible ruins by ourselves. We were finally ‘released’ and enjoyed an hour or two just admiring the jaw dropping surroundings. When I have been asked about my Machu Picchu experience by other South American travellers, I always respond with ‘No hay palabras, en ingles o en espanol’ which simply translates to, ‘There are no words, in English or Spanish’. It’s a bit of a cheesy copout but really, it was an incredible place and I hope the photos I have can give you an idea of the day we had there.
We had been recommended by a number of people that while we were there we should climb the neighbouring mountain, Huayna Picchu. I am very glad that we took this advice as we got a different perspective of Machu Picchu. There is a limit of just 400 people a day who can climb this so it was a little more peaceful than the experience in the ruins themselves. The climb was very tough, steep, narrow and with ladders and caves that just wouldn’t be allowed back in the UK. After a tough hour’s work we were the first to the top and had the best of the views while we enjoyed lunch.
We then decided to walk a little further and go and see the Gran Cavernas. The path became more ridiculous, more incredible and we were really one of the few people to visit them that day. The walk back from the caves was almost entirely uphill and by the time we returned to Machu Picchu we needed more food, more water and a sit down. The beautiful site was now inundated with the type of tourists who take a bus to the top, stay in posh hotels, don’t go anywhere without their guide and don’t even consider the idea of learning Spanish or integrating with any locals. Perhaps you can tell, not my favourite. Luckily, it threatened to rain, in fact, even one of the locals said it was going to, so the trashy tourists scarpered. Fortunately, the wolf pack had waterproofs and a bit of rain wasn’t going to stop us making the most of our one day here.
Eventually, as darkness approached (still no rain) we made our move and started our walk back down the steps. It had been one of the most incredible days and despite my concerns about the number of people at the site, in my opinion, the Peruvian’s had done a good job of managing the demand against preserving the experience of visiting the site. We arrived back into Aguas Calientes tired, smelly and ready for a beer. We killed some time until our train was ready and immediately all passed out as soon as we sat down. After a 5-minute change to take a bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco, we fell back asleep and made it back to our hostel around 1am.
The next day was to be our last night in Cusco so naturally we planned to celebrate. That day, we went with some Chileans to the market and while there we were told there were strikes planned for the next two days. It turns out the Cusquenan’s weren’t happy as there had been gas shortages in recent months. This is despite the fact that the region around Cusco supplies not only a lot of Peru with gas but also areas of Chile. It seemed a plausible reason to go on strike although it did mean we were spending three days longer in Cusco than expected. No buses meant we were ‘trapped’. Of course, the three of us were devastated to be stuck in a beautiful mountain town with a cracking night life and travellers from around the world to share our experience with…
The next three or four days were a little blurry, we met a lot of people including making friends with some more Chileans who along with Argentines, seem to make up the majority of travellers we have met. We moved to a different hostel, witnessed a hostile, hostel takeover, saw a large police presence on the street and enjoyed our terribly difficult time ‘stranded’ in the town. Eventually though, services resumed and we begrudgingly hit the road again. Peru was over, it had been a most amazing country: beaches, waterfalls, mountains, valleys, gorges, canyons, rivers, deserts, islands and jungles complimented with hiking, swimming, zip lining, partying, sand boarding, dune buggying, wine tasting, penguins, sea lions, condors and of course, countless great people. Yes, it’s safe to say Peru treated me very well and I would recommend it to anyone.