Cusco was one of those destinations we had been looking forward to from the very beginning of our trip. Not only was it the gateway to Machu Picchu, but Cusco itself was billed as a beautiful city, full of history. After all, Cusco was the hub of the Inca empire. We ended up spending four nights in Cusco which gave us ample time to explore the majority of the city sights. Even though most of the former Inca city was destroyed by the Spanish, there are still remnants of Inca building throughout Cusco (many of the buildings constructed by the Spanish used the foundation of the former Inca buildings). That said, what the Spanish built upon their conquest of Cusco is gorgeous – the historic centre is teeming with narrow cobble-stoned streets framed by lovely colonial buildings. While the main square could be a little irritating (given that it was full of people trying to sell us tours and massages), the rest of the city was truly charming.
During our stay in Cusco, we spent an afternoon on yet another free walking tour. The highlight of this particular tour was probably a stop in a little store that sold traditional musical instruments where we were treated to several demonstrations by the shop owner. And of course being so popular on the tourist trail, Cusco had some incredible restaurants. We ate Alpaca steaks (so lean and savoury) and we tried Cuy (guinea pig). We also visited the Pisco museum which turned out to be just the name of a bar that served up great cocktails containing Pisco (Peru’s national drink, somewhat similar to Grappa).
From Cusco we, along with three others from our guesthouse, went river rafting on the Urubamba river. The sun was shinning and it was an absolute blast to raft the class three rapids with our new friends. It’s amazing that with all of the rafting opportunities around home that we ended up doing it for the first time together in Peru.
After a great stay in Cusco we were all set to embark on our 5 day / 4 night Salkantay Trail trek that would eventually finish at Machu Picchu. Although the hike can be done on your own, the guided treks that included cooks and porters were too cheap to pass up. On the first day of the trek our pick-up time from our guesthouse in Cusco was at 4:30am – this would enable us to reach the trailhead at about 8am. On our way out of town, however, we hit a roadblock (quite literally actually!). Demonstrators had shut down all of the roads out of town in protest of the rising prices for basic goods. We ended up being delayed until 7pm – we killed the majority of the day in an Irish pub watching some World Cup qualifiers. At 7pm we all met back as we were told, but ended up waiting until 9 pm for the arrival of the bus. Once the bus did arrive, we were all so pleased to see that the seats reclined so that we could get some sleep on the way. Of course we wouldn’t start hiking that night – the idea was that we would drive to and sleep at the trailhead that evening to avoid further protests the following morning.
Once we were about 20 minutes away from the little town that marked the trailhead, our comfortable bus started to stall. The driver was able to keep the bus going for a bit, but eventually it failed to restart and required some real repairs. Thus, the driver opened the hatch inside the bus and started plugging away at the problem. Soon the whole bus began to smell like gasoline, making more than a few of us feel a little queasy. The bus eventually got going again only to breakdown once more right on the footsteps of town. Fortunately, some vans from town taxied us the rest of the way to our accommodation for the evening. It was about 1 am by the time we arrived at our accommodation for the night which ended up being about 25 hikers sprawled on an uncomfortable restaurant floor. After all of the delays, all we could do was laugh at this ridiculous situation. This after all is South America – not everything will go as planned all of the time.
The one day delay had two significant impacts on our trek. First, we now had to do in 4 days what we had planned on doing in 5 days. Since our tickets to Machu Picchu were pre-booked, there was no postponing everything by a day. Ultimately this meant that one section of the trail would need to be driven – this wasn’t that unusual though, in fact many hikers will do the trek in 4 days. As such (and here is the second impact of the delays), we ended up joining the group that had originally signed up for the 4 day trek. This meant that our group which was originally meant to be a maximum of 12 people grew to 18 people. This however ended up working out great – everyone in our group was so much fun and we ended up spacing out along the trail so things never felt too crowded.
On day 1 of the hike (after a terrible sleep on the restaurant floor) we started out on the 18km leg that took us through a beautiful valley. The mountains were completely covered in vegetation and we soon understood why as midway through the hike we got pounded with heavy rain and hail. By the time we made it to camp at about 4pm, we were soaked and numb. Thankfully, all of the tents were setup under a massive tarp which kept everything dry over night. Although dry, it was a cold night – the campsite was 3800m above sea level, in a picturesque location at the foot of several jagged mountains.
Day 2 of the hike was unquestionably the hardest. It was about 20km of hiking, rising from our campsite at 3800m to the Salkantay pass at 4600m and then all the way down to the next camping site at 2900m. To ensure that the whole group had adequate time for the day, we started hiking shortly after 6am. After about an hour of steady climbing, we reached the steepest section of the trek which our guide referred to as the “Gringo Killer” (“gringo” is slang for “tourist” in South America). Although we didn’t die, it was definitely a slow go. It was by no means technically challenging, dealing with the thin air was the real challenge. Of course it was absolute jubilation once we reached the highest point of the pass – it was the highest any of us in the group had ever been. Unfortunately, Salkantay Mountain which still towered over us at 6,271m was mostly hidden behind cloud, with only portions of its peak popping in and out of view. From the Salkantay pass we began our long decent to camp. In a matter of hours, we went from high alpine to lush jungle. Our knees were aching when we reached camp that evening, but we were quickly re-energized once we saw that the camp store was selling cold beer. The celebration after a tough but rewarding day was on!
Compared to the first two days, day 3 was a walk in the park – actually it was a gradual decent through the jungle. After lunch we were driven to a hydroelectric dam where we had the option of catching the train or walking another hour to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu). Despite our sore muscles, we decided to walk it and we were glad that we did. The trail followed the train tracks, but it offered great views of the river and, above us, Machu Picchu. That night we stayed in Aguas Calientes (in a hostel with a hot shower) before making our way to Machu Picchu in the early morning.
After visiting Machu Picchu (which we described in a previous post), we caught the train to Ollantaytambo – a quiet town in the Sacred Valley. After some long and busy days, spending two nights in this laid back town was wonderful. Obviously we still had a bit of energy leftover because on our second day we hiked about four hours round trip to some small Inca ruins located outside of town. The walk itself was beautiful and when we arrived at the ruins we were the only people there – quite a contrast after Machu Picchu!
As you may be able to infer from this relatively lengthy post, we had a fantastic time in this part of Peru. The built and natural landscapes were stunning, the food was delicious and the people were friendly.
Where we stayed: Hostal Wara Wara in Cusco and Hostal Tiki Wasi in Ollantaytambo – both are highly recommended.
Favourite restaurants: PachaPapa and Uchu in Cusco and El Albergue and La Esquina in Ollantaytambo.
Excursions: Rafting with Mayuc was a great experience. We still don’t know which company operated the Salkantay trek, but we paid $215 each at a travel agent.