One weekend, 13 people, seven destinations, zero sleep, and countless memories. That was the Cusco and Machu Picchu trip in a nutshell.
I'm late, I'm late, I'm late for a very important (blogging) date! My apologies for not writing on here for so long. I suppose I'm beginning to adjust to the "Peruvian time" here. Between school, a social life, and sleep, it has become increasingly difficult to share my stories. But, alas! Don't fear! I will continue writing to everyone (just somewhat more infrequently). Also, please note htat you are able to click any of the photos in order to see a larger version. Now, back to what you came here to read. Several weeks ago marked my group's big viaje (trip) to Cusco and Machu Picchu. It all began at 4 am on a Thursday morning. To most, 4 am on a weekday entails sleeping to ensure one's sanity and well-being. Well, not for us! Dawn meant it was time to lug our bags across Lima's airport in preparation for our Cusco bound flight. With excitement in our eyes and passports in hand we made our way to the gate. After a brief, hour-long flight over a panorama of glacier-crested peaks and marbled desert landscape, we touched down in Cusco. We had been thrown from nearly sea level altitude to a whopping 11,200 feet which, as you would imagine, was quite disorienting. Fighting off illness, exhaustion, and our anticipation for the next few days ahead, we checked into our hotel that was only two blocks away from the historic centre of Cusco known as the Plaza de Armas.
Plaza de Armas
That day we were advised to take it easy and act as though we were 80 year olds to stave off the dreaded soroche (altitude sickness). Only a few of us faced adverse effects from the drastic elevation change and thankfully I escaped its wrath unscathed. That being said, I definitely felt "off" and had a headache throughout the day due to the pressure change. Yet, it was nothing a nice warm cup of coca tea couldn't fix. Other than that, nothing got in the way of exploring what Cusco had to offer that day (other than the pushy street vendors, but that's to be expected). At first glance, it felt as though I had been transplanted into the heart of Tuscany. The European influence was evident in the passing architecture with colonial balconies and elaborate churches scattered about. The Plaza de Armas set in the heart of the city and was a hub for both social and cultural points of interest as well as a hub for all of our exploration in the city. For the majority of the day, we relaxed and enjoyed a break from the foggy skies of Lima's winter with some much needed vitamin D from some good ol' Andean sunshine.
We mustered up to energy to visit a market where I nabbed a multicolored scarf and which also featured a fun, little exchange. While shopping, a lady asked me if I was from Brazil and then, after revealing that I was estadounidense (American), complimented me on my castellano speaking. She may have just wanted me to buy the scarf I was holding, but I will pretend that it was an honest compliment so that I can continue feeling good about myself. Moving on, other highlights of the day included a visit to a little panaderia for some fresh-baked chocolate croissants, my first bite of alpaca meat (a bit too gamey for my liking), and hours of traipsing through the narrow, cobblestone streets of the historic capital of the Incan Empire.
The lobby of our Cusco hotel
Plaza de Armas at night
The next morning, rise and shine, my alarm clock wasn't set to 4 am, but it was still quite an early day. After scarfing down some delicious mini-plátano pancakes and a customized omelette (yum), we were on the bus and off to our next destination: Saqsaywaman. This next stop was only 20 minutes outside of Cusco's city center and yes, when you say its name out loud it does sound like "sexy woman." These Incan ruins were settled on a knoll set high above the metropolis. You could look over the hill to see the entire cityscape settled in a valley met by the mountains and bordered by the turquoise sky.
Cusco from above
I won't bore you with too many historical details of the site, but, in short, it was remarkable. It was fascinating to see, up-close, the unrivaled Incan architectural craftsmanship. All the boulders were stationed perfectly between, on top of, or beneath other boulders. Imagine a life-sized tetris with several ton stones and you've got a picture of Incan construction. It is no wonder how these buildings have withstood centuries and centuries of earthquakes and wear and tear to remain standing for our enjoyment today.
The CIEE group
I even made a new friend!
En route to our next destination, we found ourselves weaving through the mountains of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Everything from snow-capped Andean peaks to verdant valleys below whizzed past my bus window. I think my friends were scared for my well-being when we first arrived to the llama farm, though. I am going to deem it the "llama farm" because I don't remember learning the real name's place and referring to it as the llama/alpaca/vicuña farm would be a little obnoxious. So, llama farm it is. Upon arrival, my hyperventilating could have been attributed to either A) the change in oxygen levels due to altitude, B) my asthma, or C) too much excitement in anticipation of petting some camelids! The latter is more likely.
Driving through Valle Sagrado
Feeding the llamas
Essentially, the next hour was filled with feeding and stroking the backs of various four-legged critters. No fingers or eyes were lost in the making of this experience; however, a group member was spat on by a feisty llama while another friend of mine strayed in the path of an alpaca's sneeze. Hilarious to watch, but, as you could imagine, not too pleasant to experience firsthand. At this site, we also learned about the yarn making, dying, and weaving process of these camelid's coats as well as the different species within the species' family. It was the perfect mix between informative and fun. In fact, I'll refer to it has "infunormative"!
Forging on, we then found our way to Pisaq. This site was situated deeper into the Valle Sagrado (castellano term for the Sacred Valley of the Incas) and happened to be an incredible Incan ruins site situated on rocky mountain thousands of feet above a river valley. We hiked by terraces and even past a mountain filled with hundreds of holes (which we soon learned were actually tombs) all while chewing on some coca leaves to keep the soroche at bay. Then the real adventure began.
The tomb-filled mountain
The picante crew began hiking along small trails that hugged cliffs, through a tunnel carved into the mountain's rocky ledge, and up and down stone staircases. I felt like I had been transplanted into the middle of an Indiana Jones flick and I absolutely loved it! We eventually found our way to the main ruins site which was absolutely breathtaking. I'll let the photos speak for themselves here. On the way back, to my dismay, I found that most of our trip was up-hill meaning that my lungs had to work in overdrive which was especially trying given that the oxygen in the air was already low due to the high altitude. Thankfully, forgetting my albuterol inhaler in my backpack that morning was not a fatal mistake. I survived and was definitely happy to climb back in my cozy bus.
Afterwards, we caught lunch in the modern city of Pisaq in the valley below. I got my first glimpse of cuy, the Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig. Unfortunately, the risk of soroche kept me from trying the fried little fellow at the time. Perhaps some time in the near future? Instead, I enjoyed a freshly-baked espinaca (spinach) empanada. Delicious it was and it made me happy as can be after enduring quite the hike in the ruins. Then, we were off!
As the sun hung low over the horizon, we arrived in the town of Ollantaytambo. Once again, we hiked up ruins, but these ones happened to be constructed into the face of a mountain. As we ascended, we could look down upon the small town's rooftops and multicolored structures from high above. Dusk hung over us and as we reached a temple near the top and I could see the sun setting over an impressive, mountainous skyline. Here's a little history: Ollantaytambo was an important Incan site because, due to its conquest by the Spaniards, it essentially "saved" Machu Picchu. Yes, Ollanytaytambo served as a distraction from the lost city of the Incas. On our descent, it began to rain, but thankfully this didn't bring down our spirits at all. My group tends to make the best of everything which is wonderful when venturing through a foreign country.
Hiking in the ruins
The small town of Ollantaytambo also held the train station to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu. So, with luggage in hand, we rolled toward the train station later that evening. The whole setting made me feel as though I was in Disneyland. Perhaps on the Jungle Cruise, waiting in line for some grand attraction. Anticipation, once again, made me giddy with excitement and, soon enough, we were on the train riding through the darkness. We made it to Aguas Calientes later that night and grabbed some chifa before hitting the hay early in preparation for the big day ahead of us.
When I woke up the next morning, I was able to catch a glimpse of the city I had barely been able to see the evening before due to the night's darkness. What I saw was quite the surprise. We were surrounded by monolithic stone mountains flecked with trees that were hugged by misty clouds in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. On top of that, there was a waterfall and river that cut straight through the town filling the air with the calming sound of rushing water at all times. Was this a dream? Before that morning, I never knew that places such as this existed outside of human imagination and I was happy to learn that they indeed do. So, after a quick breakfast in the rooftop terrace with glass walls to ensure maximum viewing pleasure of the scenery, we were on a bus to our next and arguably most exciting destination: Machu Picchu.
The bus' route consisted of constant switchbacks as we swerved up the steep face of a mountain. I feel strange to admit this, but I was almost moved to tears during this short trip while overlooking a surreal jungle valley where the sunlight's ray peered through clouds and birds glided between the dagger-like, verdure peaks. A dream of mine was in the process of coming true and I suppose I was a little overwhelmed. Soon enough, the recognizable Huayna Picchu (the large mountain one sees behind the typical Machu Picchu shot) came into view. Then ruins hung over the side of a slope as if they were slowly falling off the mountain's side. We were there.
First, there was a small hike that's path was shrouded by the native vegetation. We made our way up the path along with tourists from all reaches of the globe. Then, as we emerged from the brush, Machu Picchu was there. Surreal would be one way to describe it. Then again, no words can really encompass all aspects of the experience. The ruins, mountains, and nearly every last detail mirrored every image I had in my mind beforehand. Yet, it was still somehow incredibly more impressive in person. So, I stood there in awe as my mind mentally wrote a "check" next to my bucket list's top entry as I stood above a place that some people only dream of traveling to see. I don't think I had never felt so fortunate than in that moment.
Greetings from the Lost City of the Incas!
After an obligatory group photo shoot, we were informed of the interesting history of this site by our wonderful guide. I was surprised to learn of the many misconceptions of the site, such as the fact that Hiram Bingham was technically made its scientific discovery but had not truly rediscovered the site. People had been living there for years, even centuries, before he happened upon the city in 1911. So, I suppose the lost city was never quite as "lost" as we had thought. We learned about and witnessed firsthand the unrivaled architectural feats of the Incas as we walked through various stone temples, residences, and more. Machu Picchu felt like an oasis in a jungle which is a strange analogy, but accurate in my mind nonetheless. I felt like any vestige of the world I knew seemed far, far away.
It was no wonder why this place is deemed one of the modern wonders of the world. While leaving, I received my official "Machu Picchu" passport stamp and happily skipped away with both the proof on paper and my smile of the life-changing experience. In a daze, we hopped back onto the bus down to Aguas Calientes and spent the rest of the day in the jungle town shopping, relaxing, and enjoying our time.
Passport stamp - check!
For lunch, I had palta rellena (stuffed avocado) followed by lomo saltado which is a popular beef stir-fry dish in the country. The food here still hasn't become old for me, surprisingly enough. Then, later that afternoon, we were back on the train en route to Cusco.
Venturing through Aguas Calientes
Over the mountain and through the jungle to Cusco we went! This trip was a bit longer at 4 hours, but this time around we were able to see the scenery outside of our train's windows. The train tracks ran parallel to the Urumbamba River for nearly the entire trip which was delightful (I sound like a grandmother when I use that word). It was better than any movie I could've watched during the journey. Soon enough, we were back in Cusco utterly exhausted, but, as always, ready to explore!
With Cusco being the popular tourist destination it is, there happens to be nightlife galore, so we decided to go out and about the city. First stop was an Irish bar where I found America's Cup playing on television. For those who don't know, the Cup is a huge sailing competition which is held in my birthplace of San Francisco, California. It was strange to see my home on television in a place that seemed worlds away from there, but it was nice to watch as we enjoyed our refreshments and reflected on the amazing adventure we had just experienced. Then, naturally, it was discoteca time. We found a popular place and then proceeded dance the night away among Peruvians and tourists alike.
The following morning, we were on our Lima bound flight and back to the swing of things. I had enough adventure to last me a lifetime in a weekend's time, but, for some strange reason, adventure only leaves you craving more adventure. I wish you all would have been there on this trip of mine, so I decided to give you the next best thing: a little video that offers a glimpse into my trip of a lifetime! Please excuse the shaky footage and choppiness of it all. I was (obviously) a bit distracted during the filming portion, but tried my very best to allow you to virtually come along with me as I explored the beautiful country of Peru. Please enjoy!
Until next time.