I’m here to try my best to explain the week I recently spent in Peru, but it’s a difficult thing to try to describe. It was one of those weeks of travel that propelled and sustained itself, out of my hands, for my own benefit, because if I tried to assert any control over those Forces of Travel, I would have found myself lost and confused in a very strange place.
We arrived in Cusco on a Saturday, and I expected to step off the plane and immediately find myself winded and out of breath from the altitude. Thanks to some well-timed Diamox, this wasn’t really the case at all. My dad and I were shuttled off to our hotel, very uphill overlooking the city where I found a little trouble with the stairs, but otherwise altogether and in one piece.
Cusco’s for meandering, man. It’s friendly (and touristy), but with an abundance of winding streets with hidden markets and big ol’ churches. Its recent history is fascinating, and its distinctness from Peru’s capital, Lima, is a source of pride. And its food is unreal, what with the roasted guinea pig and mountain-shipped ceviche. Nice as it is, though, Cusco wasn’t the point — not with a 4-day hike along the Inca Trail on our horizon.
After a couple of days acclimating, we were introduced to our trail guide, Yuri, whose expertise on all things Inca and several-hundred-times-hike experience were well-appreciated. We spent a couple days between various Inca sites around Cusco on our way to Maras y Moray.
Maras y Moray were unbelievable — a great preview of what was to come for the week. Maras is a salt mine that has used the slow trickle of a small saltwater stream to puddle into little manmade squares that fill and dry, leaving the salt behind to harvest. Moray, above, is a peanut-shaped former Inca experimental garden, really — each little step creates its own microclimate that varies by just tenths of degrees of temperature, making a slow yet successful progression when altering plants and their properties.
After Maras y Moray, we were ready to start our hike. We met our climbing team — a cook, three porters, and the dude whose job is to carry the toilet. Porters are amazing. You can’t take animals on the Inca Trail, so instead your company hires porters whose job is to carry your crap (upwards of 50 pounds) and somehow beat you on the Trail. You might be plodding along at 12,000 feet when suddenly a porter much younger (or way, way older) will breeze on by stacked with your gear. Check out some information about porter welfare here. They have tough lives.
Starting the trail was surreal and rainy. For sure, our campsites went from blissfully beautiful to truly unforgetable. After our first full day of hiking, we were exhausted and collapsed into our tents early. Our first campsite was nestled in a little field of the last bit of civilization (that is to say, about 5 little houses tucked between the Andes) — definitely a quiet spot until midnight, when someone decided to give everyone in that semblance of a village 8 million fireworks each. That was our reminder that we were passing the new year thousands of miles from home.
We meandered on, passing our very own Inca ruins along the way — no other tourists; just for us. We camped with snow-capped mountains in view.
On day three we hit 14,000 feet… then back down to 10,000… then back up to 14,000 and camped at almost 12,000 on a peak so that we could see the many mountains that surrounded us. The whole day was spent in the clouds and rain.
On the rainy 4th day, we finally hit Machu Picchu, which we could just make out through the clouds from the Sun Gate. We trotted the final hour in, and spent the entire next day exploring the site. To walk from room to room through carefully carved stone on a jagged peak in a city built and rapidly abandoned was our reward for the challenging hike. The clouds gave Machu Picchu even further mystery.
Our guide was an expert, leading us from one section to the next, explaining everything as though he wasn’t bored from the hundreds of times he had given the same discussion. Though the site teemed with tourists, it wasn’t overwhelming — it wasn’t awful to be around people after several days of seeing almost none.
We took the train and bus back to Cusco that night and hopped a plane back to Lima the next day, and a mere 36 travel-hours later, I was back in my living room in Querétaro. It’s almost difficult to imagine that the trail and Machu Picchu operate daily; so much of the trail seemed absent of people that it’s hard to think of it as a tourist destination. But worry not! It awaits you, too.