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.

MachuPicchuDay2_002 copy

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!

MachuPicchuDay2_026 copy

MachuPicchuDay2_021 copy

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!

MachuPicchuDay2_049 copy
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.

MachuPicchuDay2_063 copy
Inca Bridge

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

MachuPicchuDay2_071 copy
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.

MachuPicchuDay2_081 copy

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.

MachuPicchuDay2_087 copy

MachuPicchuDay2_094 copy

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?).

MachuPicchuDay2_101 copy

MachuPicchuDay2_103 copy

MachuPicchuDay2_114 copy
Chinchilla

MachuPicchuDay2_117 copy

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.)

MachuPicchuDay2_131 copy
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.

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.

MachuPicchuDay1_017 copy

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.

MachuPicchuDay1_027 copy

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.

MachuPicchuDay1_037 copy
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.

MachuPicchuDay1_073 copy

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.

MachuPicchuDay1_046 copy

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

MachuPicchuDay1_041 copy
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.

MachuPicchuDay1_067 copy
Exploring Winay Wayna

MachuPicchuDay1_055 copy

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!

MachuPicchuDay1_083 copy
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.

MachuPicchuDay1_088 copy
The Sun Gate with Machu Picchu in the distance
MachuPicchuDay1_084 copy
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.

MachuPicchuDay1_105 copy

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.

MachuPicchuDay1_134 copy
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.

Peru Vacation – Sacred Valley

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

Day 7: Monday, May 30

After a hotel breakfast, a walk to the square to go to the ATM and exchange money, and a stop for water at the drugstore, we met Daniel and Juan outside the hotel around 9 to start a tour of the Sacred Valley. We had some confusion about which bags to take with us for the next couple of days (since we were staying in the Sacred Valley and hiking to Machu Picchu) and which bags we needed to leave at the hotel. We ended up bringing along two backpacks and a duffle bag, only to find out the next day we couldn’t leave the duffle bag on the train to be dropped off at our hotel.

Our first stop down the road was a llama farm. I thought it would be a tourist trap, but Daniel gave us a nice tour – showing us several different types of llamas and alpacas.

K_SacredValley_007 copy

The best part, of course, was feeding them!

K_SacredValley_013 copy

He (along with some ladies working on the farm) gave us a demonstration about how the yarn is naturally dyed, woven, and made into clothing and blankets.

K_SacredValley_026 copy

It was interesting to learn the difference between the llama wool, the soft alpaca wool, and ultra-soft and expensive “first cut” of wool. Although there was a fancy shop with expensive items, there was no pressure to buy.

K_SacredValley_031 copy

After that, we traveled on to the Pisaq market, where we were looking forward to exploring and having some time to buy souvenirs. I was disappointed that we were kind of herded around by Daniel. First we were taken to a “personal” demonstration at a jewelry store. After a whole spiel I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but I was really surprised by the inexpensive prices, so I did end up with a pair of pretty silver and mother-of-pearl leaf-shaped earrings for only about $30 USD. Then Daniel took us by an outdoor wood-fired grill and encouraged us to try empanadas. Being an animal lover, I was mortified that they had live guinea pigs in a cage that you could pick out and have roasted on the spot. I was a little leery of eating any meat cooked on the street (we saw and smelled the hot, rotting meat in the market), so we settled on sharing a cheese empanada. After that, he showed us around a bit more and gave us 10-15 minutes to shop on our own. I told Jerod that wasn’t nearly enough time, and I think we ended up taking closer to 20-30 minutes, practically running back to shops we’d seen along the way.

K_SacredValley_037 copy

Next was the Pisaq ruins. We walked along the garden terraces (carved out by slaves) and learned all about Inca farming. I’m amazed by the diversity of fruits and vegetables grown in Peru – about four thousand varieties of potatoes, 55 varieties of corn, and most any other produce you can think of. A lot of the success is due to the elevation changes and different climates.

K_SacredValley_040 copy

Daniel only gave us a few minutes to hike up to the top of the ruins and check out the dwellings. Researchers think that there were about 500 people living in the city, and that stones used to create the homes were covered in stucco, since they weren’t very smooth.

K_SacredValley_051 copy

One other interesting thing to note – all along the mountainsides there were tons of terraces – even up to the very top – which the Incas built to prevent earthquake damage.

As you can imagine, the mountainous road was hilly and curvy – and the driving was pretty wild – which didn’t bode well with Jerod’s motion sickness. By the time we made it to our lunch stop (at 2:30 p.m.), Jerod didn’t feel well at all. We stopped at a touristy buffet, which was so-so, but pretty much empty since we got there so late.

Our final stop for the day was the crowded ruins of Ollantaytambo. The hillside was very windy and a little cooler.

K_SacredValley_085 copy

We climbed the very steep steps, stopping periodically for Daniel to tell us about it. At the bottom was a village, along the middle were the farming terraces, and at the top was the sacred Temple of the Sun, which was never finished due to Spanish takeover. At the bottom of the mountain were beautiful fountains, divided for the middle class and the elite.

K_SacredValley_084 copy

Interestingly, all of the stones (which were huge) came from another mountain with stronger rock, so the Incas had to build paths along the mountains to pull the stones. Once in location, they were carved to lock in place, and there were both inner and outer walls to withstand earthquakes – which they did!

K_SacredValley_064 copy

On the opposite mountain, a face had been carved in the cliff, and there was significance about where the sun rose above the mountain during summer and winter solstice.

K_SacredValley_065 copy

After a quick drive to our hotel situated right on the train tracks to Machu Picchu, we bid farewell to Daniel, and were guided through the beautiful hotel grounds to our room. The hotel’s gardens, the room itself, and the mountain view were all spectacular! We couldn’t help but sit and enjoy it for a bit.

K_SacredValley_101 copy

We walked down to the city center and decided on a restaurant called Helping Hands Café, which was a restaurant raising money for local children with disabilities. For 72 sol ($22.50) we had Pisco sours and water, and Jerod had an alpaca burger, while I ordered the chicken chili burger. Having tried French fries several times in Peru, these were the first good ones we’d found. My burger also came with a delicious salad. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip!

Back at the hotel, we re-arranged our bags for the Machu Picchu hike so we could take everything we needed for the next two days in our backpacks. The next morning someone from our travel company met us at the hotel to take our duffle bag back to our Cusco hotel. He also gave us a briefing – completely in Spanish – so we caught very little of it! We trustingly handed over our bag, which luckily made it back to exactly the right place.