We arrived in Cusco an hour early at 4am on Saturday. The city was very much asleep (other than one incredibly drunken gringo party-goer with fluorescent pen all over his face who we saw stumbling in a gutter) so we were relieved that we’d decided to book a room in advance. Our hostel was closed when we arrived, but fortunately someone opened the door and agreed to let us sit in the café. Once it got light we hit the streets. We were amazed by Cusco, it is a really beautiful city. It’s the longest inhabited city in South America and is full of narrow cobbled streets and beautiful old buildings. We spent the morning wandering and searching for a company to book to take us on the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. Having read quite a lot about conditions for the porters and quality of camping equipment we were stunned by how cheaply some companies were offering the trek. We contemplated doing it on our own, but decided against the hassle of carrying all our own food and equipment and eventually booked with a reputable eco tourism company.
Having spent most of the weekend trying to sort out the trek and generally just taking the city in, on Monday we decided to take in some of the sights. We took a taxi 8km out of town to the Inca ruins at Tambomachay and spent the morning walking back into town via Pukapukara, Q’enqo and the impressive Sacsaywamán. I’m ashamed to say that by the end of the morning we were a little ‘over’ the ruins. There were so many package tourists around and guides offering their services that we just couldn’t really deal with any more! We were planning on visiting some of the ruins near Machu Picchu after our trek, but having been to these sites near Cusco we changed our mind! We also figured that after Machu Picchu most other sites would pale in comparison.
In Cusco if you want to visit any of the major sites you have to buy a tourist ticket. On the surface it seems like a good idea, but in reality it’s a total rip off. We needed it for our Inca sites outside Cusco, so decided to check out the galleries that it also gained us entry to. The ones we went to were universally crap. We did visit some amazing buildings, but obviously these weren’t covered by the ticket, so we had to buy separate entry. To get into some of the impressive churches that Cusco has to offer you have to buy a different type of ticket. Am I wrong to think that you shouldn’t have to pay to get into a church??? Just so you’re on the same page, these tickets aren’t cheap either, we paid over £100 for them! Despite feeling a little ripped off, we really enjoyed exploring the amazing old buildings in Cusco.
On Wednesday 25th we were up early to start our trek! We had a big breakfast at our hostel and were picked up by minibus at around 8am. We spent the next few hours in the car getting to know our fellow trekkers, Barbara, a teacher from Germany; Lim, a businessman from Singapore; and Naomi and Steve, a couple of crazy Canadians now living in Costa Rica who were travelling with their 7 year old daughter Fumiko. Once we were out of the bus we stopped for lunch and trekked up hill for a few hours to our first camp site. Night 1 was freezing. We were saved by some hot and tasty camp food. Early nights all around.
We were told that day 2 would be the hardest. We had a couple of hours uphill to reach the Salkantay pass in the morning and then it was downhill for 7 hours. When we started out in the morning we were wandering through rocky passes and moraines, by the end of the day we had reached the outskirts of the Amazon Basin and were stunned by the change in scenery.
Day 3 we continued on our tropical trail until we reached our final camping ground La Playa. Barbara, Naomi and Fumiko braved the freezing stream to bathe while the rest of us just accepted that we’d smell for another day. That evening we had to decide on plans for the following day. We basically all wanted to trek up to a site opposite Machu Picchu called Llactapata to see a view of our famous destination. Lim decided against it because it’d be far too tough on his recently operated on knees and Naomi had to stay behind to look after Fumiko as the horse she had been riding had to leave. So these guys were going to take a bus as close to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of Machu Picchu) as possible and walk the three hours along the train tracks to the town.
Day 4 we woke up to rain. Steve, Anthony and I decided not to let it put us off, so after a delayed start we headed on up Llactapata. It was a pretty tough climb, made slightly tougher by the fact that Steve wanted to beat our guide’s fastest time up the mountain. Smithy (our guide) said that he’d done it with a group in 2 hours. Steve and Smithy put Anthony and I to shame, chatting and laughing their way up! I couldn’t believe it!! To be fair, Anthony probably could have kept up, but he kept waiting to check I was still coming around the next bend! So as the time keeper, I got there in 1hr 20 mins. You can take some time off that for Steve and Smithy who were sitting around looking very relaxed by the time I puffed my way to the top!
Unfortunately we couldn’t really see Machu Picchu from Llactapata as there was too much cloud cover. We hung around for a while at the top and checked out the ruins before heading back downhill towards the hydroelectric train station. A few hours later we arrived a bit tired and hungry and ready for lunch! After lunch we made our way along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, spurred on by the prospect of the hot springs at the other end.
The hot springs were vile. There’s no other way to describe them! We thought it was going to be a natural oasis, but instead after buying our tickets (you can’t see the springs from the ticket gate of course) we were greeted with what looked like a pretty disgusting local swimming pool… but with yellow water and literally jam packed with people. Ok, so the water is naturally brownish in colour, but with that many people soaking in them and drinking cocktails, you can’t help but think that maybe it’s been a little tinted by something else. We stayed for a while, and then went back to the hotel for a shower. Our shower was cold which kind of sucked, but it was still nice to get clean! Then we went out for dinner and an unfortunately late night (slow service at the restaurant… but good food and great cocktails so it was worth it!).
Finally the morning arrived when we’d get to see Machu Picchu. Anthony and I had been dead set on climbing Wayna Picchu, but fortunately Smithy told us that the better climb is actually Machu Picchu Mountain (which sits behind the famous ruins) and the view is better because you go higher and still get to see Wayna Picchu too! I say fortunately because they only let 400 people climb Wayna Picchu in a day and to get a ticket you basically have to queue to get on the first bus from about 4am (bus leaves at 5.30). Saved from this fate we all arrived around 7am in time to see the sun rise and beat the Inca Trail trekkers who all arrive around 9am. We had a 2.5hr guided tour of the site with Smithy. Usually we don’t really like guided tours but he knew a hell of a lot and it was really pretty fun. The ruins were amazing, better than we expected them to be, which is always a nice surprise. The climb up Machu Picchu was brilliant, full credit must go to Fumiko… the 7 yr old who managed to get about 3/4 of the way up on her own two feet before being carried by her father who again put us all to shame by fireman lifting her over ground that I was struggling to climb using my two hands to help me!
Anthony and I spent the afternoon at the ruins as we were on a train at 7pm back to Ollantaytambo. We fell asleep on the train and in the car that picked us up and arrived back in Cusco at about 11pm. We ate some dodgy food before the train ride and Anthony ended up driving the porcelain bus for half the night which was a bit of a worry considering we were supposed to be on a very real bus for 20hrs from about 3pm. Fortunately after stuffing him full of anti-nausea pills, antibiotics and rehydration drinks we managed to get on the bus to Lima. Oh… I was feeling fine and had a fantastic hamburger and two strawberry milkshakes before the bus journey.