Peru Vacation – Machu Picchu

Catch up on days 1 & 2
Catch up on day 3
Catch up on day 4
Catch up on day 5
Catch up on day 6
Catch up on day 7
Catch up on day 8

Day 9: Wednesday, June 1

We woke up around 4 am, had a tasty hotel breakfast at 4:30, then lined up before 5 to take a bus up the mountain from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance. We saw tons of people walking by the hotel, starting a hike up the mountain in the dark to save $12 (or for the thrill of it). By the time we arrived at the bus stop just down the road, the line was already several blocks long.

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The buses started up the mountain at 5:30, but despite the crowds of people, it didn’t seem to take long to make our way to the Machu Picchu entrance.

We, along with 20ish other people, met up with our English-speaking guide for a 2-hour morning tour. There were hoards of guided tours just like ours, bumping into and talking over one another. Around 7:30 the sun peeked over the adjacent mountain and shone right onto Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu – the iconic mountain next to the ruins. It was breathtaking!

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The tour was really interesting – we saw the terraces, a garden, the lookout tower, sundial, sun temple, king’s house, many buildings, etc. Researchers think it took over 100 years to build Machu Picchu, holding 400-500 people. It might have been part of a pilgrimage. Despite popular belief, it is not the Lost City of the Inca. Hiram Bingham III was led there by a native boy when searching for the Lost City in 1911. According to our guide, because several thousand people walk on the ruins every day, it is slowly sinking. (I’m not sure if I believe this) He said there is talk of limiting the time guests can stay there, or even building a cable car so people just view it from above while crossing between mountains. If that’s true – I’m glad we made the trek when we did!

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Sun dial

After the tour we decided to take a hike to the Inca Bridge. Unfortunately Machu Picchu tourism is designed to be one-way, so we had to go all the way down the steps and back up to get to the trailhead. (We’re talking many, many flights of steep, rugged steps.) Once we signed in at the entrance of the trail (to make sure everyone makes it back alive, I suppose), it only took us about 15 minutes each way. The scariest part of the bridge has been barricaded off since someone fell to his death a while back. It’s an extremely narrow section of the trail carved into a sheer cliff, connected by a wooden plank. If you follow the trail with your eyes, it goes up the mountain and disappears – never uncovered.

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Inca Bridge

Even the last section of the hike prior to the cutoff point had a cable to hold on to, being quite narrow.

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Narrow path to Inca Bridge

It was still late morning when we returned from the Inca Bridge, so we headed to the top of Machu Picchu and hung out on a terrace, watching a few llamas graze on the grass. The crowds were starting to die down a bit, so it was as picturesque and serene as you might imagine … until the guards ran all of us tourists off the terraces.

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We decided to have an early lunch – hungry from all the flights of stairs we’d been climbing. We enjoyed a fancy included buffet at the Machu Picchu Lodge. We tried all kinds of dishes, including ceviche, which we decided we didn’t need try again. They also had ICE! I made myself an iced coffee and we took our time and indulged in way too much food.

After lunch, we went back out to explore on our own.

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It was much less busy than the morning, so we visited every piece of Machu Picchu we could find, including some secluded areas on the backside. We took fun photos, ran into a chinchilla, and theorized about the big open area in the middle (possibly an arena?).

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Chinchilla

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We had to pay 1 sol to use the restroom, then we hopped on the bus and made our way back to Aguas Calientes in the late afternoon.

Back in town, we had to kill a few hours before our train left, so we walked through the market, ate overpriced ice cream, bought sandwiches for the train ride home, and hung out on park benches in the town square. (I got scolded by a police officer for lying down on the bench.)

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Urubamba River running through Aguas Calientes

We took the 6:00 train to Ollataytambo, where someone was waiting with our names on a list to take us in a large van back to Cusco. The van sped through the windy, steep countryside, so it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable trip. We walked a few blocks to our hotel, finally arriving around 10:30.

We happily found our luggage waiting for us at the hotel, so we showered and made it to bed around midnight, exhausted after 27,000 steps and over 300 flights of stairs climbed.

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Peru Vacation – Hike to Machu Picchu

Catch up on days 1 & 2
Catch up on day 3
Catch up on day 4
Catch up on day 5
Catch up on day 6
Catch up on day 7

Day 8: Tuesday, May 31

Our early morning began with scarfing down some yogurt and fruit right when continental breakfast opened at 5:30, then catching the train literally right outside the hotel at 6:10. Boarding the train was pretty informal – nothing like an airplane – they just scanned our tickets right outside our train car. The train was nice, with skylights, big windows, and tables. We enjoyed a beautiful hour and a half ride, seeing mountains that changed from rocky and snow-peaked to tropical. The tracks stretched along the roaring Urubamba river. At “kilometer 104” we departed for our day hike to Machu Picchu. Some people start a four-day trek to Machu Picchu in Ollantaytambo, most people take the train or bus all the way, and we chose a route in-between, just because we didn’t want to spend four valuable days of our trip just getting to one spot.

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We crossed a long footbridge over the Urubamba river to the checkpoint, where you must meet a guide and show a pass for the Inca Trail. At 148 sol (~$50), it was probably our most expensive excursion of the trip. We started to get nervous, as we couldn’t find our guide anywhere. Finally another couple also looking for their guide found ours still waiting for us by the train stop.

Our guide Rossi was sweet and tried very hard, but her English was pretty rough, and she was very quiet, so it was hard to understand her. I felt bad, because she was fighting a cold/cough and still had to guide us along mountainous trails. We took a quick bathroom break and the three of us headed out onto the Inca Trail at a fast clip. I briefly stopped to take photos regularly, but other than that, we only had a few rest breaks.

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The first half of the Inca Trail – all the way to our lunch stop – was uphill. For some reason I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be, because Machu Picchu’s elevation is lower than Cusco where we began. I guess I didn’t realize we’d be going up from the train at the base of the mountain, then have to climb over and around a mountain to get to Machu Picchu. There were a lot of precipitous cliffs and steep steps to climb (sometimes even having to use our hands). Although it was chilly in the morning, we got hot quickly, ready to shed all our layers at the first stop 45 minutes in.

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Inca Trail with Winay Wayna ruins in the distance

I’m so happy we hiked at least part of the Inca Trail – the views were breathtaking! I guess I never realized how tropical Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains were – nothing like other mountain ranges I’ve seen. We saw beautiful foliage and wide-open views of the Andes Mountains and the Urubamba river below.

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A couple of hours into our trek, to our surprise, we came upon a beautiful glacier waterfall. I would guess it to be a couple hundred feet tall! We took a few photos near the bridge in front of it and moved on.

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There were a few ruins along the way, including the breathtaking Winay Wayna.

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Winay Wayna

It’s built into a steep hillside overlooking the river and the mountains – so climbing the steps there proved to be almost the most difficult part of the hike. We had to stop and catch our breath multiple times. Once I realized how fast we were moving, I wish we’d spent more time exploring there. The ruins consists of many terraces, probably for growing potatoes and carrots, upper and lower houses that supported about 100 people, and fountains for the elite. There were also a few random llamas grazing there.

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Exploring Winay Wayna

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A short time later, we came to the day 3 campsite for people who hike the entire Inca Trail, so we stopped there for our box lunch at 10:40 a.m. After a bathroom break at the squat toilets, we continued on. From there, it leveled out for a bit, but we continued to enjoy beautiful views.

After a while, Rossi told us we were getting close, then we climbed some extremely steep steps (the kind we had to use our hands on), and when we reached the top – we were at the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu!

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Steep steps to the Sun Gate

Jerod was so tired he immediately sat down and didn’t even realize we were there. The Sun Gate, which was the entrance to Machu Picchu for travelers, was farther away from Machu Picchu than I realized, but it was still really crowded with both Inca Trail hikers and tourists who hiked up from Machu Picchu.

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The Sun Gate with Machu Picchu in the distance
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First view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

After sitting to rest and enjoy the view for a while, we began the 45-minute hike downhill on large stones, which proved to be pretty rough on our knees and feet. We approached a couple more ruins, including a cemetery, on our way down. After taking all of the standard obligatory photos of Machu Picchu, Rossi guided us down to the entrance.

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I thought we’d get to explore since it was only 1 p.m., but we headed straight for the line for the bus. Each one-way ticket to and from Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu was $12! We finally found the tourist trap of the trip.

Rossi walked us to our hotel and gave us a confusing and contradictory briefing about the next day (telling us we needed to buy bus tickets and meals when we were told they were included), then went on her way. We tried getting ahold of our travel agent, but the wi-fi was horrible, so we finally made a phone call from the front desk. A while later, she showed up at our hotel admitting she was incorrect and asked to take our passports to get our bus passes. It was another one of those moments when I really struggled to put all my trust in our travel company. But sure enough, she got our bus passes for us and everything got straightened out.

The hotel was very nice, and it even included complimentary drinks in our fridge, so we finally tried out the famous Cusquena beer and Inka Cola – neither of which we liked. After lounging around at our hotel for a while, we walked all around the little town of Aguas Calientes. It was quaint with a touristy, yet cute square. Even though Machu Picchu seemed crowded, the town wasn’t too bad.

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Aquas Calientes city square

We had an included dinner that night, and when we showed up, Rossi was there, so we invited her to join us. We tried to make conversation, but she didn’t understand the majority of what we asked her, so she’d answer with a completely irrelevant (yet somehow interesting) story. We did finally get out of her that she was staying the night in Aguas Calientes and going home via train in the morning – we thought maybe she’d had to turn around a couple of times to deliver information to us and missed her train home. Jerod and I ordered stuffed avocado and trout from the price fixe menu, which was pretty good. We went to bed early with another uber-early wake-up call ahead of us.

Baby On The Way

No, this isn’t my pregnancy announcement!

I had the pleasure of taking photos and creating a pregnancy announcement for one of my favorite couples. I am beyond excited that they are expecting their first baby in August! They are the most deserving couple you’ll ever meet, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that they’re going to be amazing parents.

They are avid backpackers, so we took a hike to one of their favorite trees, stopping for several photo ops along the way. We had to get the perfect moment in the perfect spot. And I’m so glad we did, because I think these turned out just right!

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Photo(s) of the Day: Nature Sanctuary

One of the aspects I love about where I live is that despite the size (pop. ~30,000), and the location (the Midwest), there are still fun things to do. The Matha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon. We’ve taken a picnic and gone on a few hikes there twice now, but this was the first time with Baby K. Saturday felt like a nice day, until we started hiking in the sun. It was hot. We saw a lot of small wildlife though, and it was so nice to have a laid back Saturday afternoon – the first one in months! If only we had Labor Day once a week instead of once a year!

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These flowers attracted a lot of bees. (What kind of flower is it?)
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Along the Rush Creek trail. The water was too high to cross and continue the hike.
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Can you spot the frog?
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Baby K taking a breather after being in the hot Ergo carrier.
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Baby K observing a caterpillar. She loves The Hungry Caterpillar book!