A FEW THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO…
- You must plan WAY in advance to book your Inca Trail Trek (there are only a limited number of spots and they fill up fast).
- In order to get to Machu Picchu you’ll need to take a bus/plane/train to Cusco, then a train to Aguas Calientes, and then a bus to the site. Or you can walk for 4 days.
- You don’t need to bring everything you’ll need! As with most countries we’ve visited, Peru has all of your daily essentials for cheaper than you can get them in the US.
WHEN WE WENT…
WHERE WE WENT…
We originally booked our Inca Trail hike in the beginning of February for April 18th, 2013, knowing that we needed to be in Cusco by the 16th to acclimate to the elevation. This had been the only solid plan that we had had to date and was always on our minds when planning our route throughout South America. It was nice to finally arrive in Cusco and prepare for our epic adventure to Machu Picchu.
Cusco is a lovely and safe city (with a Starbucks!!!) and we spent two days exploring the various churches and markets and eating delicious Peruvian food. We also did a full day tour of Sacred Valley which was a nice intro to the story of the Inca people and would later be expanded upon during our Inca Trail trek.
One thing that we were NOT prepared for was the fact that a large portion of the city is built up a hill… not a big deal in normal circumstances but a very big deal when the city sits at 11,200 feet of elevation. Our hostel, the Piccola Locanda happened to be at the top of a long set of stairs that were torturous and exhausting to climb every time we wanted to go home. In fact, all seemingly menial tasks like walking, talking, and tying our shoes resulted in excessive sweating and labored breathing. It actually turned out to be fantastic training; climbing hundreds of stairs on the Inca Trail was a cake walk compared to climbing the 50 stairs to get to our hostel.
A few highlights of the trip to Cusco… visiting the outrageously odd Natural History Museum (totally worth the $1.50 to get in, just for a laugh), buying sweet new Peruvian high top sneakers, and, of course, finally getting a decent cup of coffee at Starbucks!
Since we were going to be using Llama Path for our Inca Trail trek, we figured we would check out their style on a Sacred Valley tour. The tour was a good time – we got to stop at an animal refuge shelter and get a close-up view of condors, which are enormous birds we’ve seen throughout South America. They are extinct because they mate for life, so when one dies the other loses its ability to procreate. The refuge saved animals who were being exported illegally and those that were used in illegal fights.
From there we went on to see loads of Inca ruins throughout Sacred Valley. Our tour guide was engaging and awesome and told us great stories of Inca warriors and kings. Our group made the unanimous decision not to shop (who would’ve thought I would get sick of shopping?) so we were able to cover a lot of ground and see a set of ruins that most groups don’t have time to see. Okay, maybe I wasn’t SO sick of shopping because I did manage to pick of a few more pairs of sick legwarmers…
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu:
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was an epic and unforgettable trek. We did a bit of research on various tour companies and eventually decided to go with Llama Path because they are known to treat their porters very well. And that was evident from the very beginning. The porters all live in a house together that is paid for by Llama Path, and they provide education for the porters when they are not busy on treks. They are also given proper shoes and clothing for the hike. Other porters that we saw along the way were not so lucky. On the second day we trekked uphill all day in the blazing sun to Dead Woman’s Pass and I saw so many porters from other companies looking so hot, sweaty and miserable I couldn’t stand it another minute. I started giving my water and snacks to the poor guys. I ran out of water but made a lot of tired guys pretty happy so it was well worth it. Lesson being, Llama Path is the way to go.
Llama Path porters carry food, tents, sleeping pads and other various essentials for the group and we are responsible to carry our sleeping bags, clothes, and miscellaneous other items that we want to bring along (for example, a horse head mask). There is also the option to hire a porter to carry your personal belongings which most of the group opted for. There were only four of us (Nick and I included) that decided to brave the heavy packs.
Each day we were woken up by the porters who gave us coca leaf tea in our tents (such a lovely wake-up, wish I had that everywhere I went!). Treks started fairly early, we were up by 6am most days. Then a breakfast together in the dining tent (what that chef can do with minimal supplies in the middle of nowhere is amazing), and then we were off. Mornings were chilly but we started stripping off layers almost immediately as there was quite a bit of uphill trekking and we had amazingly sunny weather every day. They also provided us with water and snacks to hold us over till lunch. The porters would run ahead to get everything ready for our arrival for lunch and then again for dinner and camping. We were always greeted by applause from our porters, and we always clapped for them as they passed us (mind you we would be huffing and puffing and they would run by with their 50 pound packs, like ain’t no thing). At the end of the day they provided us with warm water and soap for a very necessary hippie shower and then we had a happy hour of popcorn and coca tea while we waited for dinner to be ready.
Everything was timed and planned perfectly… it was the easiest camping I’ve ever done! The valley views and the Inca ruins along the way were fantastic. Our guides, Marco and Ronnie were entertaining and had great stories of the Incas at our various stops. One night at dinner Marco told a story of a woman who was complaining the entire way and couldn’t finish the trail and had to be carried by a porter (apparently this is quite common), and they accidentally (?) dropped her… hilarious!
Our group was also great fun. They were from all over; London, Australia, China; and we all got along great. There was a small group of us that enjoyed hiking slowly and taking loads of pictures. We hung out till wee hours of the night (okay, we were all in bed by 8pm but that’s late when you’re up early and trekking all day!) and shared funny stories.
On the final day, the Machu Picchu day, we were up at 3am to get to the front of the line at the gate to start the hike to Machu Picchu. Our guide recommended that we do that because the path is quite narrow and hard to pass anyone ahead of you that is going slow. And the goal is to get to the Sun Gate around sunrise to catch the first glimpse of Machu Picchu (hopefully with no one there to get in the way of your photos). The gate opened at 5:30am and we hiked our little buns off, almost two hours to get to the amazing and majestic Machu Picchu.
Sweet sweet Machu Picchu. This was the sweetest reward anyone could ask for after a long four day Inca Trail trek. And the best part? Nick’s sis Courtney was there waiting for us! Such a sight for sore eyes. She flew into Lima a few days before and had been checking out Peru before arriving to Machu Picchu the same day as us but quite a bit earlier.
Our guide, Marco gave us a tour of the highlights of the ruins with accompanying stories. It was nice to have some context as opposed to wandering around aimlessly (the site is HUGE). Turns out there are many more terraces in the jungles below as well that have yet to be uncovered and reconstructed.
When Nick and I had originally signed up for the trek we also decided to hike Huayna Picchu which is the mountain that overlooks the entire valley. It sounded like a great idea at the time… who wouldn’t want to get the most out of the experience right? Wrong. After four days of trekking up hills and down stairs, my mind said “yes” but my body said “no way in hell”. My legs were a trembling pile of jello and the thought of more uphill hiking made me want to curl into the fetal position and cry. But we had already paid the $60 fee to climb it and it felt like a shame not to so… The views were great but the hike was horrifying. Not just tiring but also a bit sketchy with steep narrow stairs and tiny caves to crawl through. We snapped a few pics from the top but I was ready to be on solid ground and get a beer.
I have to end with a few *minor* complaints… first of all, the squatty toilets are repugnant. And the doors don’t go all the way to the ground so if a peeping tom had a closer look… let’s just say you shouldn’t take a closer look. And second (and this is a big one), I guess we didn’t realize when we booked this very expensive tour that we were then expected (required) to tip at the end as well. Or at least we didn’t realize how much we would be expected to tip. The tour company makes a big production about marching the chef and the porters out and talking about how great they are (they are fo reals awesome) and then they pass several envelopes around and give you the “expected” tip amounts for each envelope. So if you divide the total “expected” amount by the number of people in your group it should (hopefully) add up. Unless, of course, your group includes people from non-tipping countries like Australia. Or if they just don’t feel like they should have to tip that much. So the rest of your group sort of has to make up for it. When all was said and done I’d say that Nick and I tipped at least $100 (so plan for the additional cost and bring cash).
At around 1pm we took a bus down the narrow winding road to Aguas Calientes for lunch and much needed cervezas. After lunch we hopped on the train where we got a hilariously entertaining alpaca wool fashion show and a traditional costumed dance. We arrived back in Cusco by 8pm and couldn’t wait to have a shower and a good nights rest (and I got the top bunk!).
Puno and Lake Titicaca:
Puno wasn’t originally on the list of places to visit in Peru but we heard a few people talk about great tours of Lake Titicaca so we chose to stop on our way to Bolivia. We decided on a two-day tour that takes you to three islands in the lake and includes an overnight stay with a local family. The first stop on the tour was Reed Island which was fairly interesting because their island is made entirely of reeds and they use the reeds to build houses and boats (and they eat part of the reeds as well). We found this island to be extremely touristy… their main goal seems to be to give tours and sell tourists their handmade art.
The next stop was a three hour boat ride away… it was an extremely bumpy ride and we attempted to take naps to avoid seasickness. There we were introduced to our host family where we would be staying for the evening; we were to call them Mama and Papa. They were a lovely family with a lovely home and they were very gracious hosts. This island had no police and was governed by a small group of authorities who whip you if you try to get a divorce. The people on this island are also vegetarian and consume more potatoes than one should in a lifetime. That evening our Mama and Papa dressed us in traditional attire and took us to a Discotheque where a local band played and a few local people taught us their traditional dances. It was entertaining but again, seemed to be sort of a show for the locals and we wondered if they did this when we were not around.
The last day was another series of long boat rides and one short island stop. When we got back we were exhausted and ready to leave sweet sweet Puno to check out the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca… Copacabana!
After spending a bit of time surfing in frigid water and needing to wear wet suits, I was more than excited to get to Mancora where we had heard that the water was warm and the surfing was decent. We arrived the day before Nick’s 31st birthday and decided to splurge a bit on a nice hotel with a pool right on the beach. From the moment we arrived it was absolutely paradise. We spent our days walking on the beach to town, surfing the one major break, lounging by the pool, and having cocktails on the beach.
Nick’s birthday started uneventfully… we had morning cocktails at the pool and then changed to head to town. We had more cocktails on the beach and ran into some old friends from Pucon who joined us in the celebration. I had a few too many cocktails and decided it was a great idea to get my nose pierced (I’ve wanted it for quite a while but was too chicken).
Considering I walked into the tattoo shop drunk and drinking a beer, I’m surprised he was willing to take a needle to my face but he obliged. From there we danced the night away on the beach.
We were also lucky to get to meet up with our old friend Wolf from the rafting adventure in Bolivia. She is travelling with some new friends and the 5 of us had an eventful evening of games, peeing in strange places, and more dancing. On a dare, Wolf decided to pick me up over her shoulder and jump into the pool… we both spent the rest of the night with wet hair wearing boys clothes. Crazy girls.
It was very hard to leave Mancora but we were both excited to check out Ecuador so after one last surf sesh we boarded a night bus North. On the road again…
The Nazca Lines are ancient geoglyphs in the Naza Desert believed to have been created by the Nazca culture between 500 BCE and 500 CE. There are hundreds of simple lines and shapes and more than 70 designs in the likeness of animals or humans.
In order to see the Nazca Lines you have a few options… you can drive up to a few of them and view them from the ground (one or two had a viewing platform) or hire a private plane and pilot and take an hour-or-so trip around the area. We opted to hire a plane and at the time it was around $70/person plus an airport tax (not including gratuity which is expected) but I’m certain the price has gone up since then.
I’ve got to be honest with you for a minute, riding around in a tiny plane is pretty awesome but the lines are… overrated. I hate to say that because they are an ancient phenomenon and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but, in all reality, they just look exactly like all the photos you have already seen. Nope, they are worse in-person than the photos because the images have been photoshopped to add clarity and from the plane most are pretty damn difficult to see.
In Nick’s words “they are interesting but not life-changing”. Agreed.
Peru is a very nice mix of city life, beaches, mountains, and culture. The people are lovely, the food is TO DIE FOR (I was on an all-ceviche-all-the-time diet for far too long when we were on the coast), it’s super safe, and they have llamas AND Machu Picchu! What more could you want from a country??? Book your Inca Trail hike early and acclimate! Oh, and skip Lake Titicaca…