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The Long Road to Cusco (and home)

by gabrielle

all seasons in one day

Cusco is an absolutely beautiful city! Everyone add it to their travel wish lists... right now! While walking around the city I felt like Cusco was what old, colonial South American cities should look like really comes to life in the colors, buildings, churches, balconies and of course, cobble stone streets. See??


Cusco also had a fantastic local market (San Pedro Market) with just about everything you could possibly want! I went for lunch and had a few tasty meals for quite a steal... $1.05


Besides wandering around a bit and admiring the architecture I spent most of my first two days in Cusco trying to adjust the the altitude before my big trek to Machu Picchu. Cusco sits at 11,500 feet above sea level and my crazy ear popping woke up many times over the course of my long, cold, 24 hour bus ride from Lima. Which was gorgeous by the way, j just uncomfortable.
Upon arriving in Cusco I felt a bit light headed, not very hungry and had some stomach issues and after consulting the internet, determined I indeed was feeling some altitude sickness. A girl I met told me she felt the same but was fine after drinking two liters of water in one day so I lugged around a dainty 2.5 liter bottle and hoped I would be ready enough to start the trek the next morning at 4:30 am.

We were told to meet our guide by the reception area of our hotel at 4:30 am to start our trek. I should have taken the fact that my wakeup call came about 15 minutes late as a sign that we were not expected to be ready at exactly 4:30... that damn "latin time" got me again! At 5:10 our guide showed up and walked us to the bus that we would be taking for 2 hours to start the actual walking part of the trek. We had breakfast, received a run down of what the day would look like then started walking. Day 1 we walked 20 km or 12.4 miles and it took us about 8 hours. The incline was gradual, some parts were flat, some shorter parts exhausting steep! By the time we reached camp we had climbed to an elevation of 12,470 feet above sea level. I spent most of day one getting to know Carlos, an older Peruvian fellow and the three Germans on the trek.

Our trek was called the Salkantay Trek because it heads towards then around this beautiful mountain (Salkantay) in order to get to Machu Picchu. We were walking with excellent views right towards Salkantay the whole 4 hours after lunch on our first day.

And then finally, arrived at camp! It was FREEZING by this point!
As in about 35 degrees and I slept in absolutely everything I had packed and was still shivering cold. And I looked like this:
To make matters worse I must have had a bad breakfast because I had to get out of the tent many times and race to the outhouse hoping not to grab the attention of all of the wild dogs I saw silhouetted in the moonlight to throw up! I seriously slept 2 hours tops and was pretty worried about how I would fair on day two.

The first night and the morning of day two we were told would be our coldest days and I was pretty darn freezing. Mind over matter took effect however and I ended up being near the front of the pack (of 17) most of the day. We ended up walking a total of 22 km or 13.67 miles on day two and it took us about 10 hours.

We hiked about 4 hours to the highest point hikers were allowed to go near Salkantay with blue skies and majestic views of the mountain but once we reached the prime photo taking spot the clouds had already decided to settle in. Boo. But here is what was supposed to be a killer view:
At this point we had reached 15,187 feet above sea level!

Now just two hours to go until our lunch break! It was downhill and seemed to be getting warmer with every step! During this portion of the journey I chatted with the young Canadian guy and the two Spanish speaking French girls and got caught in a mule parade!

After lunch I felt quite energized and was in the front of the pack with the two speedy Spainards, Angel and Jesus. Angel and Jesus (yes those are their real names) were the only two consistently faster than me all week. But that makes sense, right? I mean no one can compete with an Angel and Jesus! Here is our night #2 camp:

The guy from Argentina was celebrating his birthday that night and somehow our guides got their hand on a cake. We sang him "Happy Birthday" in Spanish, French, English, German and Quechua (a Peruvian indigenous language).

Day three was our rainforest day and the guides told us to be prepared. The most it rained was a sprinkle however but we sure looked cool!
Sometimes along the trail if we happen to be sticking together pretty well our guide would point out things and show us certain plants. This really cool bamboo looking stem is a wind instrument that people actually play. We all had fun taking pieces and testing them out along the trail. I happened to get a serious bass note!

Sometimes "pachamama" or mother nature was our toilet but other times we'd come across an outhouse with a snack shack nearby where you can buy "snigkers" or even see a couple of turkeys!

Lunch on day three was in a little town and one of the German girls and I happened to make it there first! Two meals out of the week we ate "family style" and this was one of them. The cooks were fantastic about having a lot of meat free options which rarely happens so I was pretty stoked!

Day three we walked 16 km or 9.9 miles and it took us about 5.5 hours. We settled into camp in an actual town called Santa Teresa where we got to enjoy the nearby natural hot springs. What a treat! Our blistered feet and sore bodies really needed it!

Night three was our "party night" because we were allowed to sleep in until 7am the next morning (as opposed to 5 am like the others). We celebrated with another huge "family style" meal and a campfire accompanied by blaring reggaeton, salsa and other upbeat latin music.

Day four was a short day. We walked just 14 km or 8.6 miles and it was only 5 of us with one guide because the rest of the group had opted to pay for the additional zipline activity and would meet us in Hydroelectica for lunch by way of a bus. I chose to walk because I had zip lined before, was trying to save the money and I was determined to walk as much as the trek allowed! Day four was hot! Talk about weather extremes!
He is our first glimpse of Machu Picchu Mountain (the pointy one in the middle).

After stopping for lunch we were very close. All we had to do was follow the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes (at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain) where we would stay in an actual hostel for the night. Woo hoo! This day I walked and got to know the outgoing fella from Mexico.
Carlos (as seen crossing the tracks above) turned out to be pretty funny! When I walked behind him he was always arguing with the guide about how far we had walked that day or the previous days claiming it was farther than we were told. He told me he had a girlfriend back in Lima and we decided that he just wanted to beef up his numbers for bragging rights!

We had our final dinner together in Aguas Calientes and made a plan to meet at 4:20 am the next morning for the 1 hour (straight up) hike to Machu Picchu and hit the sack around 9 am. The Mexican guy had the idea to take a picture of all of our passports together. The only one not represented is from the couple from Argentina.
In case you're curious, the Swiss passport is by far the coolest!

Here we are at 4:20 am the next morning ready to start our day! Can't you tell??

The group separates easily based on breaks and fitness level etc but I was told by previous trekkers that it was important to get up as fast as you can so you can be one of the first in when it opens at 6am and have a tourist free view for a few minutes. I am proud to say I was the 14th person up overall (Jesus was 3rd I think!).

Ta-dah! Machu Picchu!!! I made it!

We had about a 2 hour tour and then the rest of the day to wander around on our own and explore this crazy old city on top of a mountain. I just wish I could go back in time and see it functioning like it once did. Incredible! I got most of what the tour guide said but my most interesting tidbits came from the employee picking up garbage along the trail on the way back to town. Of course her rambled about lots of things and had very strong opinions about the Spanish but he did say that American tourists are his favorites because they respect the land and never litter. Go us!

Here is an overview of Machu Picchu from the UNESCO web site:
"Macchu Picchu is an outstanding example of man's interaction with his natural environment.

Standing 2,430 m above sea level, in the midst of a tropical mountain forest in an extraordinarily beautiful setting, Machu Picchu was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height. Its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Machu Picchu covers 32,500 ha in some of the scenically most attractive mountainous territory of the Peruvian Andes. As the last stronghold of the Incas and of superb architectural and archaeological importance, Machu Picchu is one of the most important cultural sites in Latin America; the stonework of the site remains as one of the world's great examples of the use of a natural raw material to provide outstanding architecture which is totally appropriate to the surroundings. The surrounding valleys have been cultivated continuously for well over 1,000 years, providing one of the world's greatest examples of a productive man-land relationship; the people living around Machu Picchu continue a way of life which closely resembles that of their Inca ancestors, being based on potatoes, maize and llamas. Machu Picchu also provides a secure habitat for several endangered species, notably the spectacled bear, one of the most interesting species in the area. Others animals include: dwarf brocket, the otter, long-tailed weasel, pampas cat and the vulnerable ocelot, boa, the Andean cock of the rock, and the Andean condor."

A maximum of 2,500 people are allowed on Machu Picchu each day. There was also an option to buy a ticket (in advance for $10) to climb the neighboring Huayana Picchu as well which offers an aerial view of Macchu Picchu and some more cool rock structures. We were pretty darn high up there but the views were breathtaking!
After a few more hours of exploration we hiked back down to Aguas Calientes, took a 1.5 hour train ride followed by a 2 hour bus ride and arrived back in Cusco around 11 pm. All in all we walked 72 Km or 44.7 miles plus whatever our Machu Picchu day added up to over the 5 day trek. Wooo-eee!

I took a couple of days to re-cooperate in Cusco before taking the dreaded bus ride back to Lima. All I really did in those couple of days was visit the Inca museum. It was cool to see the pictures and models of Machu Picchu when it was first discovered and before Hiram Bingham initiated the restoration process.
I found this picture helpful showing (on a map of Europe as a reference) the size and reach of the Inca Empire.

So that was Cusco! A great place. One I would definitely go back to. I sprung the 17 dollars extra to take the nicer bus back to Lima and am so glad I did! It was almost 4 hours shorter of a ride, showed decent movies, had ample leg room and even wifi!

In Lima I stayed with my mom's friend's daughter and her husband for two nights both before and after my Cusco trip. I cannot tell you how nice it is for a traveler to be in a "home" especially with a welcome set like this:
Cookies, fruit, a body AND a hair towel?? The royal treatment by my standards!

It has hard not to just want to hang around their apartment and enjoy being so comfortable during my few days in Lima which I did a lot of but did manage to get out and look around a little. The couple took me to the fountain park one night and I wandered on my own while they were at work the other times.



After Lima I felt I was done with Peru but knew the trip to my next destination (Cuenca back in Ecuador) would be too far to go all in one shot so I stopped at the beach in Mancora for a couple of days to relax and soak up some sun.
My first day eating lunch there the fellas were haggling over the "before" version of the meals. I don't even eat meat but the up close view from the tables didn't really do much for the appetite if you ask me!

The trip from Mancora across the border and onto Cuenca in Ecuador was a pretty tough one and reminded me again that I am not a fan of traveling alone (especially as a young, foreign female). Once I had finally made it across and took the bus 5 hours more to Cuenca, I decided that I was done traveling and ready to go back home to the US. It wasn't one particular event that guided me towards this decision but rather a series of small events combined with significant change of heart that helped me determine now was the right time. I have been at if for about two years now and I have thoroughly loved my gypsy lifestyle and all the excitement, adventure, freedom and even the challenges that is had it offer but I have hit my "saturation point" and my dad so appropriately calls it. It started to make me sad and embarrassed that I wasn't as excited about seeing these new places and doing new things. And it's not at all that the places in South America were not as worthy as other places, heck no the problem was definitely me; now is not the right time for me to explore these incredible places and I acknowledged that. I will always be a traveler but I need and want a long break. I want to be nearer to all of the people I love that I haven't been able to see much of in the past two years. I want to live in a place long enough to put my own address on documents instead of using my parents, I want to tailgate at football games and enjoy all the other fantastic "only in America" things I love. I want to be a regular at a coffee shop and get this... I even want a real job! I have been really craving all of these things as well as stability these past 7 weeks so I feel very comfortable with my decision. And if I needed a reinforcement I got one at the airport in Guayaquil when I took a later flight in exchange for a HUGE travel voucher, a room at the Marriott for 12 hours and 3 meals where I got to use the fitness center on the 16th floor with city views, watch movies, relax on one of my TWO big comfy beds and take the longest, hottest, cleanest shower in the history of all backpacking! Jackpot!

Thank you so much for reading my blogs over the years. I hope you have enjoyed them and your travel wish list is longer for it! :)

I'll leave you with the few pics I took in Cuenca before heading to the airport:

Posted by 3ifBySEA 15:04 Archived in Peru

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