Current location: Cartagena, Colombia
Current tunes: Man of the Woods, Justin Timberlake
You guys, I think I broke my body. I am basically reptilian with these nasty sunburned peeling shoulders that scream “tourist.” My knees ache like your grandma’s. I’ve got splotchy red bites on my calves…according to Google Images they are flea bites I think? Why did I pet that friggin’ dog? And between the rocky hiking trails and my natural talent of tripping over my oversized footsies I must have rolled each ankle twice. As my British travel bud Callum (who has finally arrived btdubs) would say, “I am completely shattered.” In four consecutive days we walked about 45 miles and over 600 floors (per my pedometer). But was my one week in Cuzco a stunning, wild, challenging week of adventure that I absolutely loved??? YES. The answer is 100% yes. I meant to blog after each day to give detailed accounts of my adventures but we literally were getting up at 4am on the reg and getting home just in time to grub, shower, and do it all again the next day. So here you have my week in Cuzco, Peru all smashed into one long post. And if you can’t make it through my rambling, at least take a peeksy at some of the photos because Peru is GORGEOUS.
One thing that made the trekking adventures even more challenging is the altitude. Cuzco sits at about 11,500ft (think a little more than twice that of Denver for my American friends) and at first the air here feels as thin as Kiera Knightly on a diet. On my first full day of walking about the city I was feeling fatigued and almost asthmatic like. It hit Callum even harder than me and I realized how serious altitude sickness can be when I noticed an oxygen tank in the lobby of our hostel and that some guides even carried emergency supplemental oxygen for the weak lunged tourists like ourselves. To help combat altitude sickness, the Quecha people (Peruvian people group living in this part of the Andes) use a native plant known as coca. Coca leaves are dried and chewed or are steeped into a tea to help remedy the symptoms and supposedly helps with regulating your body’s oxygen needs. I meant to Google the science behind it, but I mean if these people figured out how to build huge ancient civilizations with their own hands on top of gigantic mountains, I figured it must work and drank a cup of coca tea daily or popped a few of these coca toffee candies I found at the airport upon landing.
The heart of the city definitely caters to tourists and is filled with souvenir shops, Peruvian restaurants, and hundreds of tour agency/info centers. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how charming this city is and the first two days were spent exploring through a free walking tour and getting lost among the cobble stoned streets and the various balcony lined plazas and parks. I personally would have never thought to have booked a whole week in this Peruvian city as my travel style generally focuses on short amounts of time, like 2-3 nights, in several cities to maximize my time. But since I bummed onto Callum’s holiday, I rolled with his plan and was pleasantly surprised. There is SO much to do and see around Cuzco and this city serves more as a central hub to come back to after a day long excursion which is what we ended up doing. While the big kahuna of excursions would be a two day adventure to Machu Picchu, we also spent a day exploring the Sacred Valley and another day hiking up to Lake Humantay.
If I am completely honest, I knew little to nothing about Machu Picchu except that it was in Peru and that there is an option to embark on a God forsaken journey to get to it. After years of hating hiking, something in me changed during my college years and now I really enjoy short hikes with stunning views. I hate to admit it but hiking is where my millennial-ness comes shining through…gimmee gimme that instant gratification and picturesque snap to post on the Insta. Nonetheless, I was willing to commit to it for the story. Then we came to find that every year the Inca Trail is closed in February for the rainy season and to spruce it up a bit. I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little stoked that days and days of popping a squat and walking against gravity in high altitudes was no longer an option to experience this Seven World Wonder. However, we definitely got those Fit Bit steps in, let me tell you. Here’s the dealio for those wanting to go to MP at some point in their life, which I highly recommend. If you don’t hike the Inca Trail, several tour agencies will present you with the same two options to reach MP from Cuzco: 1)Take a bus to a train that drops you in Aguas Calientes, the city that sits at the base of MP, or 2) Take a 6 hour car ride to the town of Hidroelctrica and then walk 7 miles to Aguas Calientes. Then once at Aguas Calientes, again you have two options: 1) Hike the 3 miles up to the entrance, or 2) Pay for a 25 minute bus ride. Since we were no longer doing the Inca trail and we still wanted to do some trekking so we opted for the cheaper by foot option (6 hours by car, 7 mile walk through the hills following the train tracks, stay in a hotel overnight at Aguas Calientes, a 4am wake up call for a 25 minute walk to the trailhead, and then a 2.5 practically vertical mile hike up).
Our local but English speaking guide Wilbert advised us that the hike should take 1.5-2 hours or about 50 mins for what he called “sporty people.” Apparently we are sporty by Peruvian standards because although it was no cake walk getting up at 4am to hike in the rain and we did it in 45 minutes and were within the first 20 people to the top…thank you coca leaves! Luckily the rain stopped when we reached the top. After presenting our tickets and passports at the entrance, we went on a two hour tour of this spectacular city on a hill I’ll spare you the long version but here are the main details from our tour guide Wilbert that I found most interesting:
1) Machu Picchu is not the biggest Incan civilization. What makes it special is that 80% of this city is original because it was never found and conquered by the Spaniards like the other Incan civilizations. This is likely because of it’s location high on the hill. Some of the other Incan ruins, such as Pisa that I visited during the Sacred Valley Tour was much larger but is only 30% origina.
2) Today it is a protected UNESCO Heritage site and considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
3) It was only recently discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham III.
4) The stones used to create the structures were hand crafted and often built by commoners who were paying off their taxes through labor. No cement was used in building them and depending on the weight of the stones, it could take weeks to five months to drag a stone up the mountainside (some people pulling and others pushing). The top portions of the buildings are not as neat and are more rugged looking. It is suspected that this is because they switched gears from precision to get ‘errr done mode when they learned the Spaniards were quickly invading neighboring towns.
5) Machu Picchu is also an engineering marvel because its large stones were wedged together in a way that allowed the stones to “dance” instead of crumbling during earth quakes. This is largely important because Machu Picchu sits along two fault lines.
After the tour we hiked another 40 minutes or so up to the Sun Gate to get even more stunning views of Machu Picchu. By the time we finished and hiked back from the Sun Gate and back down to Aguas Calientes we were so wrecked that we caved and bought the train ticket back to Hidroelctrica instead of walking another 7 miles…
And while Machu Picchu was mind boggling, I was surprised to find my most favorite excursion of the week was our hike to Lake Humantay. At 14,000 ft (higher than Machu Picchu) it was literally breathtaking… I think this is one of the most stunning places I have ever seen. Picture an aquamarine lake colored by the different minerals infused in the water from the rocks, gigantic lush Andes Mountains on either side, and a giant glacier nestled in between. While I was “shattered” from the last four days, I made it a point to scramble up to the top as quickly as possible in hopes to get some solo time, free of tourists, and just sit in the quietness. I was able to make it up in about 50 mins (#tokyo2020 ready?) and quietly marvel at God’s creation. This year I have been trying to make it a point to quiet my mind and practice stillness. And for ten sweet minutes I was able to do that here.
Seriously guys, between the tasty eats, the breathtaking landscapes, and the rich history I definitely recommned putting Peru on your travel bucket list. The Machu Picchu guides also mentioned that due to heavy tourist flow to the mountain, Machu Picchu has been sinking by one centimeter each year and to expect stricter regulations on visitation in the future. They have already restricted accessibility by creating a morning and afternoon visiting session so there’s no time like the present, peeps. Oh lastly I want to shoutout to CuscoPackers for a lovely week at one of the best hostels in Cuzco! It’s rated numero uno on TripAdvisor and Dan the manager is sooo incredibly nice and knowledgable. He gave us tips on food, the best ATMs, how to book excursions, where to watch for pickpocketers, etc… He also gave us the nicer room with the discount. Highly recommend. Click here to book or for more info!
Well, a little behind on my posts but I’m officially switched climates and am enjoying mega sunshine in Cartagena, Colombia! Going to a futbol game tonight. More on that later. xoxo!
Cheers and keep on wishin’!