12.05.2016 - 22.05.2016 20 °C
Ryan and I flew to Cuzco to meet with our friends Meera, Nikita and Nira who had just arrived from London that day. It was nice to hang out with them as we got to explore this beautiful city. It was nice and sunny during the day but got quite cold in the evenings though, as it is pretty high (3,400m).
We spent our first day exploring the historic part of town. Cuzco used to be the capital of the entire Inca Empire, which is why it is so full of history, and it feels like there is something to look at in every corner. I like the idea that the Incas considered it the belly button of the world... The main plaza is very impressive as it has the Cathedral and the San Francisco Church on 2 sides, colonial traditional houses on the others, and you can clearly see that the city is surrounded by hills which make a beautiful setting! We visited the amazing Quricancha, which used to be the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. The Spanish colonists built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Walls of the different temples (of the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Rainbow) were covered in gold sheets which were all sadly taken away by the Spanish.
One day we went out to explore some of the Inca ruins scattered outside of town. There are 16 archeological sites all around Cusco so we chose 4 of them. You can just walk there from the city centre, but the first ruin is located on a steep hill that overlooks the city so we all got tired and out of breath quickly as we went up because of the high altitude. Sacsahuayman (which means 'Satisfied Condor' but we kept calling it Sexy woman haha) is thought to have been a fortress and a place used for rituals. The stonework was very impressive especially when you see the huge size of the stones and the precision with which they have been carved: some of them are curved, but all of them are so precisely assembled that you wouldn't even be able to fit a single piece of paper! This could also explain how these resisted so well to the numerous earthquakes that have devastated the country over the years. Next stop was Q'enqo grande, another ruin that used to be an amphitheatre as well as an astronomical observatory, and Q'enqo chico, with its cave used for sacrifices and sacred rock. By the time we reached the top of the next hill and enjoyed the beautiful views, Nira, Nikita and Ryan were tired and ready to head back to Cusco. So Meera and I continued and to avoid getting back after dark we gained some time by taking a bus to Pukapukara, which is thought to have been a hunting lodge, a guard post and a stopping point for travelers. Our final stop was in Tambomachay, a beautiful and very well-preserved site with several running fountains still in use. It is popularly known as El Baño del Inca (The Bath of the Inca), and theories connect the site to an Inca water cult. How the space was used is still unsure but Meera and I liked to imagine that this was a luxury retreat for rich Incas with a spa haha!
Our next big challenge and my last prep before the Inca trail was to climb up Rainbow Mountain, from 4000m to 5000m. We got picked up at 3.30am and had about 3h to sleep in the bus then after a good breakfast it was time to go. Nira abandonned after a bit as she suffered from the altitude too much and didn't want to force on her knee too much before the trail. But Meera and Nikita powered through even though the altitude made it very difficult for them as they weren't as acclimatised as Ryan and I were. After about 3h of walking along beautiful mountain views and even a snowy peak, we had one last very steep ascent and then we finally made it to the top! I was exhausted and out of breath but the panoramic view was absolutely incredible and made the whole trip worthwhile. The Rainbow mountain takes all its colours from different layers of minerals which create those beautiful natural colourful stripes which look unreal...
We then had one last resting day before the trail. We had yet another delicious and filling Peruvian lunch in a picanteria, Nikita tried the traditional cuy (guinea pig!) but I just had lechon (suckling pig). The portions were so big I had to ask for a doggy bag haha... There was also a lively and colourful party going on in the streets with traditional costumes and dancing, which was nice to see.
DAY 1: CUSCO TO WAYLLABAMBA - 12km
Finally D-day had come... the first day of our 4-day Inca trail!! Trekking the Inca trail is a traveler's rite of passage and an adventure of a lifetime. I was half excited half terrified about it! The Inca trail is not just one long hike all the way to the top as I initially thought, but a series of ascents and descents through several passes and Inca ruins along the way.
We got picked up at about 4.30am and had a few hours in the car to get to Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast. We were 16 in our group, mainly Americans, but also a lovely Italian couple, Federico and Aurea. We had 21 porters to carry all our food, tent and cooking equipment for the trip, plus one cook, Milton, one amazing guide, Percy, and his assistant guide, Pepe. We realized too late that we were the only ones who hadn't paid for an extra half porter so we had to carry our own sleeping bag and mattress on top of our clothes, water, and snacks for the trip (we tried to pack as light as possible and left most of our things in Cusco)... So my bag was about 8-10kg!
The first day of the trail is relatively easy and is a good way to prepare for the next few days. The porters set off before us with 20 to 25kg each, it was so impressive to see them sometimes run with their ridiculously massive backpacks... As we started walking we got to enjoy beautiful views of the Urubamba Cordillera and the snow capped Veronica peak (5,860m). We then got to a viewpoint where we saw the Inca ruins of Llactapata, primarily an agricultural station used to supply Machu Picchu with maize, and including over 100 buildings, houses for the workers and the soldiers, and five baths. After our first delicious and very copious lunch we continued walking all the way to Wayllabamba (3,000m) for a few more hours where we set camp and had a relaxing evening. There were no showers and no electricity apart from at the dinner table, so we all had an early night.
DAY 2: WAYLLABAMBA TO PACAMAYO - 12km
Day 2 is meant to be the hardest day as this is where you face some seriously steep hikes... It is also a very scenic day as you walk along the Llulluchayoc river and go through a beautiful cloud forest. After 3h trekking through steepening woods and a break in the Llulluchapampa meadow (3,680m), we faced our biggest challenge yet: the 1.5h climb to the first and highest pass of the trail called 'Dead Woman's Pass' at 4,200m! This was definitely the hardest part of the trail for me, with an extremely steep ascent that left me out of breath and forced me to stop a lot. The weather kept changing throughout the day so it was either boiling hot or cold and windy. Thank god we had lots of snacks to keep us going, a cereal bar or some nuts gave us some energy, and some coca leaves kept our spirits up... Then it was all the way down a steep hill to our campsite at Pacamayo (3,600m), which I was really happy with as I much prefer going down hill, but it is still quite painful for the knees, joints and calves... I was really pleased to see that I had arrived first (that was the only time haha)!
DAY 3: PACAMAYO TO WIÑAY WAYNA - 15km
The third day was the longest but it was worth it as we got to see a lot of interesting Inca sites along the way. The first one was Runkuracay, small circular ruins occupying a commanding position overlooking the Pacamayo valley below. We then had another tough hike to the second pass, Abra de Runkuracay at 4,000m, where we had a really nice moment - Percy shared with us a traditional Inca ritual where you have to select 3 stones and 3 coca leaves, 1 for you, 1 for the partner in your life and 1 for your community/family. You make a little prayer and let go of all the bad energy in your life, wishing the best for you and your relatives. It was quite an emotional moment as we felt a bit more connected to the nature around us and the powerful meaning that this trail had for the Incas long before us. This is also when we started walking on the actual Inca trail with original paving. Throughout the trail there were so many stairs that I just starting hating stairs and freaking out whenever I saw yet another steep flight of stairs... The next site, Sayacmarca, which means 'Inaccessible town', is a good way to describe the position of those beautiful ruins ruins protected on three sides by sheer cliffs. Shortly after climbing up to the 3rd pass at 3,700m, we visited Phuyupatamarca, the most impressive Inca ruin so far. The name means 'Town in the clouds' as it is almost always cloudy there, which is typical of the cloud forests, and we could see agricultural terraces as well as an intricate series of ceremonial baths. The last Inca site was Wiñay Wayna, whose name means 'Forever young' in Quechua. The ruins comprise magnificent agricultural terraces set in an impressive location with breathtaking views over the mountains. Several baths suggest that the site was probably a religious centre associated with the worship of water and ritual cleansing may have taken place for pilgrims on the final leg of the trail to Machu Picchu.
DAY 4: WIÑAY WAYNA TO MACHU PICCHU - 5km
The last day started early: we woke up at 3.30am and after breakfast we started queuing up at the checkpoint, waiting for it to open at 5.30am to start the trek. Then it was pretty much a race to Intipunku (the Sun Gate), with groups competing to get there first! After all the walking of the last few days, that last bit was easy (even if our thighs and calves were aching) and we couldn't contain our excitement as we finally reached the top and saw the Machu Picchu city spread out before us... This was one of the most amazing moments of my trip and I felt immensely proud to have made it and grateful to be able to witness such an incredible sight. Having completed the Inca trail made it even more special to me. This awe-inspiring ancient city was never found by the Spanish which is why it is still so beautifully preserved today. Found in 1911 by Hiram Bingham by accident, it is thought to have been an important political, administrative and religious centre. Several temples were used for ceremonies and it looks like a lot of nobles and priests used the inca trail to do a pilgrimage all the way to Machu Picchu.
We were exhausted and tiring by late morning so after our tour of the site we took the bus back to Aguas Calientes and had a well-deserved lunch and beer with our group. We then enjoyed a bath in the local hot springs to relax our tired muscles. After a short night in our hostel (in a bed, luxury!), it was time for our last day...
DAY 5: CLIMBING HUAYNA PICCHU
Yes the Inca trail is only 4 days but when we booked it last November, we also thought it would be nice to add one more day of hiking (haha...) to climb Wayna Picchu, the 'Young Peak' that you can see on most pictures of Machu Picchu. We got up early to get to our slot at 7am and start the trail up. It looks very steep but the ascent isn't that hard as it is only 2,720m high, although we were all truly hating steps by the end of the day... The most rewarding was the view at the top of course, which gives you a unique viewpoint of the site, and where you can see its Condor shape. Up there, we once again felt very grateful to be there and privileged to have been a part of this incredible adventure. We chose the longest but also the most scenic route and visited the temple of the Moon which is hidden somewhere up the mountain. We were then lucky to enjoy the beauty and majesty of the Machu Picchu site one last time, and got to see it from every possible angle before heading back to Cuzco by train.
We had promised ourselves that our last 2 days in Cuzco should be devoted purely to eating, drinking and relaxing, as a reward for all our efforts, and that's exactly what we did! We had some amazing chicharrones (fried pork) and found our new favourite ice cream place where you can make your own: I chose white chocolate base with added coconut, plus nutella and m&ms topping! We enjoyed some more traditional dancing in the streets, and of course we got our well-deserved 'I survived the Inca trail' matching tshirts hehe...
So this is the story of my amazing time in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, all the way to the ancient city of Machu Picchu. The Inca trail was definitely the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the most incredible experience: it was totally worth it!
Coming next, how I continued my adventure and got into Ecuador to start exploring yet another amazing South American country...