Machu Picchu may have been a tourist destination since the 80’s (or earlier) once it was noted as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it seems as though everyone and their mother has been traveling to South America recently. Really though – my own mom and dad took the trek this past summer to this New7Wonder of the World and I have four other friends who visited in the 12 months! Meghan and I were lucky enough to plan this trip at the beginning of the year and despite accepting a new job and moving to California, we were still able to make the trek. Of course, when you sign up and pay for the flights/trek, it really becomes a non-negotiable, even with a new job.
We both agreed that an active vacation would do us both good as we live our work lives behind a desk. We also agreed to minimize our time in museums as our study abroad experiences had us in and out of museums galore. After some perusing online, we decided to sign up for the REI Inca Trail Trek, a nine day adventure covering the Sacred Valley and four days of hiking the 27 mile Inca Trail until arriving at the “Lost City of the Incas”. Sure, it was a bit pricier than some plans online but it was absolutely worth it. Not only that but did you know if you sign up to be a lifetime member (only $20), you get a sick discount on adventures, special offers, an annual dividend, and have access to in-store garage sales! Ultimately the best $20 I’ve ever spent.
** This is going to be a very long post but I hope it can help future trekkers down the line, entertain current readers, and remind me in a few years what we actually did. **
Meghan and I flew out from LAX on Thursday and caught our nonstop flight to Lima, arriving around midnight in South America on Friday morning. We stayed at the Hotel Costa del Sol Wyndham Hotel, which is strategically located five steps away from the airport and includes complimentary access to the breakfast bar. After a 5-ish hour nap, we hopped on the Airport Express Lima and enjoyed a 45-minute ride to Miraflores where we would spend the day on a bike tour exploring the city.
Highlight of the day came in the form of a sandwich. We thought that Peru would bring many more renditions of chincharron but sadly this was the one and only delicious experience we encountered with the fried pork belly.
Friday afternoon we booked back to Lima via the Airport Shuttle, flew to Cusco, and began to acclimate to the steep 11,000 feet of elevation. Over the course of our trip we would range from 9,000 at the bottom of the Sacred Valley all the way up to 13,879 feet on day 3. I have to say that even though Meghan and I are pretty active and in shape, we were still a bit exhausted from that jump in altitude.
Peruvian Cuisine to Sample
~ pan con chincharron ~ pollo a la brasa ~ anticuchos ~ chicharrón de chancho (deep fried pork w/ potato & toasted corn) ~ lomo saltado (beef strips with fries/yucca + white rice) ~ cuy chactao (guinea pig – cusco // for full effect walk around San Pedro market) ~ ceviche (trout is very popular) ~ bistec a lo pobre ~ arroz chaufa ~ papa rellena ~ papa a la huancaina (potato w/ aji – Peruvian chili – crackers, peanuts + milk) ~ ainticuchos (beef hearts) ~ pisco sour (alcoholic drink) ~ chicha morada (purple corn juice) ~ Inca Kola (Peruvian soda)
Turns out that our form of vacations includes very little sleep or rather odd sleep schedules and a lot of walking around. Over the course of the next week, we would rise before 6a and go to bed around 8p or 9p. On Saturday morning, we popped upstairs to the complimentary breakfast spread and then set out for a morning walk. Because we weren’t fully acclimated yet, the altitude took a mini toll and after a couple hours of walking around the town center and San Pedro Market, we went back to rest, check out of one hostel and into our REI designated hotel. If you are looking for true Peruvian culture, I highly recommend scoping out San Pedro Market. You will find women selling all sorts of products, including skinned and fried guinea pigs, a Peruvian delicacy that I refused to partake in. Let’s just say I’m adventurous but not the next Anthony Bourdain.
To be honest, if I had been in charge of booking every single detail, I would have been super cheap and skimped on hotels, food, and tours. Why? No idea but I realized with the help of Meghan that we are frugal in most areas of our life so when booking a bucket list trip like this, you leave the details to the professionals. This also ensured that Meghan and I made it out 1) alive and 2) still speaking to one another.
Around 12:30 we met our guide, Edwin, who had been ranked the TOP REI GUIDE OF 2016!!! We would soon find out that we were ever so lucky to have him in charge. When meeting our group, we had a moment of panic after walking into a room filled with folks who were 65+. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to act a lot older than I am but it was going to be a long week if that was the case. Turns out we were in the wrong room and soon found ourselves with folks closer in age. I do have to say, we can’t always judge a book by its cover because there was one lovely older soul in our group who was 63 and was in better shape than a majority of the group. Once we all introduced ourselves, we set off explore Cusco, walk through a few churches, and soak in a minimal dosage of museum for the week.
Full-Day Exploration of the Urubamba Valley
|-“Sacred Valley of the Incas”|
|– Sacsayhuaman fortress|
|– Ruins at Pisac w/ warm up hike ~ 3 miles|
|– Town of Ollantaytambo (walking tour)|
Our official first day brought an early complimentary breakfast spread (are you noticing a trend? The Peruvian hotels love their breakfast buffet and so do I) and departure to the Sacred Valley. We hopped into a REI van, left the heart of Cusco, and headed deep into the Urubamba Valley.
More Sacred Valley Exploration
|– Village of Chinchero (visit textile cooperative)|
|– Inca ruins of Moray (agriculture research lab)|
|– Town of Maras and hike to the Salt Mines ~4 miles|
For the actual Inca Trail aspect, we spent about 4 days and 3 nights covering the 27 miles to Machu Picchu. Some groups condense this into just 3 days and while we physically could have done this, we were able to enjoy so much more of the flora and fauna. Hands down the hiking was my favorite part of the trip…until we got bug bites and then I was ready to come home.
I guess you could say that Meghan and I already edge on the odd side as we enjoy centering our social plans around running and workouts. Our typical Saturday morning routine includes some form of workout + brunch so why not extend those blissful weekend moments into a full blown vacation? Yes, indeed. So let’s dive into the actual trek itself.
~ trekking poles (the stairs are no joke) ~ toilet paper & sols to spend for “public” toilets ~ hand sanitizer ~ plastic bags ~ water bladder and/or Camelbak (only to refill w/ filtered water) ~ strong bug spray/deet (trust me, you need it) ~ lock for suitcases ~ camera w/ extra batteries ~ altitude medicine (side effects include tingling fingers and toes) ~
Notes for REI Trips
~ Everything is worth the price ~ Thank the porters – they will make your trek beyond amazing and who knows how they manage to RUN the entire way with those 50+ lb packs ~ You may be picked up/dropped off at the airport and be ready to chat. Our “guide” was really working for that tip and stuck around at the airport until we handed him some money. Just beware ~
TUESDAY 9/26/17 – TRAIL DAY #1
After another 6:15a breakfast, we met our assistant guide Moses and hit the road for about 80 minutes to drive to kilometer marker 82 where the actual trek would begin. There were tons of groups getting ready to trek and not only were the actual hikers packing their bags but the porters or Peruvian locals who would be carrying all of ours stuff – bags, tents, food, etc. – for the next four days. There were definitely times where I felt spoiled for being on such a trip and having these guys scurry around making sure it was perfect. We had 27 porters for 8 people (+ two guides) and we always made sure to show them respect and express our gratitude.
Once we passed through control, we were off like a heard of llamas! Tip: make sure to bring the passport you initially signed up for the trek with. Also make sure you have adequate time remaining on your passport prior to it expiring. I may or may not be speaking based on experience…
Not long after starting the trek, we all fell into our places or the order in which we would hike for the next few days. It wasn’t on purpose but we all naturally started to fall into a groove, usually with Meghan, myself, and John – the badass 63rd trekker – in the front. We hiked for a bit along the river until our guide Edwin had a “sorpresa” – a view of the archeological site Willkarakay below.
The weather had been relatively tame during our trip, a little chilly at the start and only a bit of rain along our next trail segment to lunch. By the time we arrived (1:30), the porters had already set up lunch and toilets and handed out passion fruit juice and chilled towels. Many of these amenities were amazing, don’t get me wrong, but also felt a little too luxurious and I wasn’t sure what to do. Each meal included an appetizer + main + dessert and we kicked off the 1st trail meal with salad (corn + lima beans) + lomo saltado + fruit salad.
We headed out for a couple more hours, arriving at our campsite around 5 where again, the tents and toilets were already set up. “Happy Hour” was around 5:40 and consisted of cookies, popcorn, poundcake, and salami. Around this time the rain started to fall but we were tucked away in the dinner tent enjoying squash soup + chicken breast + a cooked pear. By 7:40 we were finished with our plates, swapped a sufficient amount of jokes for the day and headed to bed.
Another amazing part of the trail was that there was NO CELL SERVICE. This meant you had to actually hold a conversation, soak in the environment, pay attention, and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Ok so 8pm may be too early for bed but our 8p to 5:30a sleep schedule was mighty fine.
WEDNESDAY 9/27/17 – TRAIL DAY #2
Day 2 on the trail or our first morning started with a 5:40 wakeup call. Moses (the assistant guide) was walking around tapping on tents and offering hot chocolate or coffee. If only every morning could start like this 😉 Once we got dressed, packed our daypacks and suitcases, we headed to the food tent and sat down to a neat spread of toasts and jams. Turns out most breakfasts were also were three courses. We were surprised after inhaling a couple pieces of toast that porridge and later eggs and bacon were on the way. What’s also interesting is that the Peruvian breakfasts are usually quinoa porridge or a form of lomo saltado, however they must adjust the menu for our American or tourist palate.
After breakfast we met with the porters to learn their name, how long they had been working the trail and if they were single or taken 😉 Many of them only spoke Quechua (the local language) and Edwin would translate for us. I’d say most had been working about 5-10 years on the trail and there were some who just started as well as a couple who had been there for almost 40 years!!
We departed shortly after 7:30 and even though we had just left camp, we were quickly passed up by our porters – I’m telling you, they are some strong men carrying those packs and cruising up the trail. Every 15 or so minutes we would stop to catch our breath and sip some water so we wouldn’t get too dehydrated. After a few hours of hill work, we had our first real encounter with the stone Incan steps and soon arrived at lunch. Our almuerzo (lunch) was an early bird special at 10:45 and consisted of corn soup, trout, and sweet tomato dessert. Meghan was in 7th heaven all week with the variety of soups that were being served. She claimed that “souping is becoming the new juicing” 😉
After lunch we hit the trail once more and hiked to the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass. From there it was another hour uphill where we reached the highest point in our trek – 13,870 feet. When we arrive the clouds started to open up and drizzle and of course once we all had our rain gear on, it stopped. Claaaaaasssic Mother Nature. Once we all took a sufficient amount of photographs, we started to descent the stone steps to our next camp spot. The downhill was certainly easier on the lungs but not much easier on the legs. ** Anyone interested in the trek should know that trekking poles are SUPER HELPFUL AND NECESSARY. ** This is coming from someone who didn’t really believe in trekking poles.
We arrived at camp around 4pm and dove into our respective tents to relax and read a bit. The altitude was getting better but we all were a little tuckered out at this point. Not to mention the constant stimulation of being with people – something I was not used to having at home. While we were in our tent it began to rain pretty hard. Fortuitously (Meghan’s word, not mine), it cleared up in time for happy hour. Tonight’s HH included an assortment of wonton treats, popcorn, and cheese. Dinner included chicken soup, fettuccine + vegetables, and a baked apple crisp. I won’t be able to emphasize this enough but all of our food was fresh and cooked on the premises. We did not have any of the pre-packaged selection that some camping trips offer. This certainly exceeded my expectations and I am still baffled at the creativity and skill that our chefs had.
Bedtime was once again a lovely 8pm.
THURSDAY 9/28/17 – TRAIL DAY #3
Although it had apparently stormed pretty hard overnight, the weather was all clear for our 5:40 wakeup. This time we paced ourselves better at breakfast, anticipating a three course feast. Turns out the joke was on us and it was a solo pancake for the day – we quickly shoveled a piece of toast with peanut butter in as if it was going to be our last meal. Again, huge joke there because immediately after finishing breakfast, we all packed a snack bag and knew lunch was only a couple hours up the road…
Today’s trek led us to the 2nd highest pass. We stopped by Runkuraqay on the way up, which was used as a resting place for Incan messengers. Once at the top of the pass, we hiked downhill and started to see some of the could forest and found yet another archeological site, Sayaqmarka. I was continually fascinated at the change of scenery and weather over the course of each day. It was smart to always dress in layers because you would be sweating climbing uphill and then packing the layers back on if you arrived in a cloudy overpass.
So I wasn’t kidding when I said we ate well every few hours. Lunch today was at 12 and right next to a patch of grass with LLAMAS!!! Our meal included leek soup, steak, quinoa, and frittata. Dessert was a chocolate salami concoction (think chocolate rolled with nuts and such) and while I could have finished off everyone’s leftovers, I refrained as I did not want to vomit on the trail. After lunch we were all encouraged to hike on our own, soak in the nature, and have some self-reflection.
Meghan and I started off and while we were a few feet apart, we didn’t really take in the kumbaya element as much as we probably were supposed to. We also probably made it there a bit quicker than anticipated – by 2p – which was an hour + earlier than most. Today’s campsite was my absolute favorite because you had a clear view of the surrounding mountains. The rest of the group was pacing a bit behind so we decided to drop our daypacks and explore the outlook points as well as Phuyupatamarka, city above the clouds, and just chill out on the rocks.
The benefit of this campsite was that we got a clutch view of the sunset before happy hour (popcorn, snacks and cookies) and dinner. This was our final dinner on the trail and included yet another soup, chicken stir fry, and a homemade orange cake that was extremely impressive given the fact that we were on the side of a mountain. People sat out, chatted and searched for shooting stars (spoiler: Kaitlin saw one!) before going to bed around 8pm.
One of my favorite parts about camping or boating is the ability to see a clear sky full of stars. I’ve seen some amazing nights up in Mammoth or even when boating on Lake Powell, but I’ve never seen a sky light up the way it did that night in Peru. Everything was amplified and the stars seemed to be out in droves – something you aren’t able to appreciate when you are in the city.
FRIDAY 9/29/17 – TRAIL DAY #4
For some reason I found it impossible to sleep in (maybe because we fell asleep around 8pm…) and I was up at 5:20 or so. We got dressed and went out to watch the sunrise over the Salkantay Peak, which was gorgeous! Afterwards, we indulged in an outdoors (out of the tent) breakfast, sampling as much of the spreads as possible. This time we were hit with a three course breakfast again (toast + porridge + mini omelettes), something no one really could prepare for. Don’t get me wrong, everything was divine, but we weren’t used to eating so darn much!
After eating and packing up, we said goodbye to our favorite spot and started the descent down thousands of Inca Steps. Apparently there would be 4,000 steps just BEFORE lunch and boy our quads would feel it. We descended through the clouds and explored a couple more Incan ruins and farming terraces before arriving at lunch. By then the temperature had increased significantly and it almost felt like we were eating in a sauna. That combined with the countless insects swarming around made me feel like I was in a pigsty. Have I mentioned or have you caught onto the fact that we hadn’t showered in a few days either? Lovely.
Our last lunch and meal with the porters included a mushroom ceviche (yellow mushrooms apparently don’t taste like mushrooms!), pork dish with veggies and yucca, and a coffee mousse for dessert. We took one final picture with the porters, walked over to the Winay Wanay ruins and then onto the Sun Gate. Our last official part of the trek was to Intipuku, the Sun Gate, where we would catch our first view of Machu Picchu. After some killer sets of stairs, including a set named the “Gringo Killer”, we finally made it.
Machu Picchu has been a top destination for people for some time but it wasn’t until recently that it started to become a true mecca or amusement park. After 3 days somewhat isolated in nature, we were not ready for the ambush of tourists and may have been a little snappy when encountering everyone. We hiked down into the grounds and took some pictures, because when you are in Machu Picchu, you of course need your profile pictures, Christmas Card pictures, and any other social media pictures.
Everyone was pretty beat (again, see above for no showers, 4 days of hiking, and no enthusiasm for tourists) so once we finished up at Machu Picchu, we got our passports stamped, and took the bus down to Aguas Calientes. Our hotel, Inkaterra, may have been one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed in. I certainly wouldn’t have coughed up the money on my own but oh dear it was my favorite. Maybe it was the fact that I was tired or that the food was so amazing. I would just love to go back and revisit the breakfast spread again and again and again.
After finally resting and taking a much needed shower, we met up with the group for dinner at 6:30 and indulged in our celebratory feast. I had a quinoa/pepper dish + pork and Meghan had salad and lomo saltado. We all headed to bed early in preparation for an even earlier wakeup call the next day. Of course that night I slept terribly, maybe due to the excess of sleep on the trail or the red wine or not wanting to miss our alarm.
SATURDAY 9/30/17 – MACHU PICCHU (again)
Today was the day that we visited Machu Picchu, learned about its historical significance, and hiked the nearby mountain Huayna Picchu. Since this is such a tourist mecca, we had to be up at 4:45, breakfast finished by 5:25, and in line for the bus by 5:45. We managed to fit this all in and after a short 40 minute wait, we were on our way and at Machu Picchu just before 7am. Edwin spoke to us about the site and I have to say, it was pretty cool to see it within the clouds and then have the clouds separate, revealing the ruins. I also have to say that because we had seen so many forms of ruins and Incan sites, Machu Picchu may have been a little anti-climactic. I know, not exactly what you should say but it’s true.
By 7:45 the site was already crawling with tourists. Around 8am we passed through the control to climb Huayna or Wayna Picchu. Everyone again was at their own pace and yours truly + Meghan were cruising to the top. We may have set a record for the group, summiting in around 35 or fewer minutes. Once everyone arrived, we took group pictures and then started to descend.
Because so many people are interested in these hikes, the control centers are pretty strict on entrance and exits. They require you to enter at your designated time and have you sign in AND out. Once we had signed our names once more, denoting our exit from Wayna Picchu, we continued to tour the main site of Machu Picchu including the industrial sector (where I dropped my phone accidentally onto another level…quite a scene for the well-traveled iPhone) and the Temple of the Condor. Around 11:30 we exited the city and enjoyed lunch at the local fancy buffet. Once stuffed (do you think we ate enough this trip?) we lined up to take the bus down once more and explored Aguas Calientes. At this point in the trip, I think I had tapped out. Meghan and I decided that we didn’t need any more drinks, food, or gifts and instead went back to chill at Inkaterra.
Around 3pm, we met up with the group and got ready for our train, which was departing at 3:48. This train would take about 90 minutes to reach Ollantaytambo and from there we picked up a REI van to travel the next two hours into Cusco. Those two hours were a wee bit rough between the windy and bumpy roads plus everyone’s stuffed stomaches.
Finally when we were back in Cusco, we had our final group dinner at Inca Grill. This was the restaurant that Meghan and I had eaten at on our first night and I think we may have enjoyed it a little more that 1st night than we did on the last. Everyone was sort of quiet and in a daze and others were already on their cellphones. Welcome back to reality. We walked back to our hotel, said goodbye and the biggest of thanks to Edwin, and then went to promptly pass out.
SUNDAY 10/1/17 – THE END
On Sunday morning, of course both Meghan and I were up at the crack of dawn. We dressed and went out to walk around before meeting our group for one final buffet breakfast. The city was just starting to wake up around 6:45 and while most stores were shut, plenty of people were out and walking to church or various meetings (from what I could assume). We even spotted a few runners but I had no desire to run 1) in that altitude or 2) on those rickety cobblestone paths.
Meghan and I caught a midday flight to Lima (probably the worst flight or takeoff in my life) and then struggle through a Lima city tour. We had not really planned out this last day and my mom was worried that Lima would be too sketchy for us to wander on our own. Meghan made a last minute tour arrangement and I give her full credit for this. The tour was perfect in the sense that the guide picked us up at the airport and fit our schedule. However, the guide changed prices on us, we were too exhausted to really pay full attention, and were still not ready to be in such a crowded city. We also were not prepared for the endless traffic or the fact that our driver appeared to be a beginning driver – at least in Lima. We made it back to the airport by 8, grabbed dinner, and then waited around for our 1:58 flight.
All in all the trip was amazing. I couldn’t have planned it any better on the Inca Trail and I could have been better at the Lima part but I guess that’s a lesson for next time. If you are looking for a group to guide you through any national park or experience more of an adventurous vacation, I give two thumbs way up for REI Adventures. They are organized and you will have every detail thought of and included in your trip.
“Live with no excuses and travel with no regrets” – Oscar Wilde