Today I brought two very good friends of mine, Alison and Kyle from the U.S.A., back to the Airport here in Cusco. It has been a wonderful visit and an incredible week with them, and I am so happy to have had the opportunity to show them around this beautiful country.
After they had explored the city of Cusco on their first day, we picked the world famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu as the first destination for a trip together. We decided to go there backpacker style, taking public transportation from Cusco early in the morning, with the snow mountains around the Sacred Valley greeting us with a perfect view while leaving the city and going to Chinchero.
Arriving in the Valley and driving through the towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, crossing the high mountain pass called Abra Malaga at an altitude of 4316 m (14160 ft) a.s.l. with an amazing view on Nevado Veronica (5682 m / 18642 ft), one of the most beautiful snow mountains in the area, and then descending about 80 km (50 miles) down the spectacular winding road 28B until the town of Santa Maria in the jungle area around Machu Picchu.
From there, we went on with a taxi for a one and a half hour ride on a rally style dirt road to reach Hidroelectrica, one of the train stops on the way to Machu Picchu. For us it was the starting point of a two and a half hour hike along the train tracks in the afternoon heat and with lots of mosquitos accompanying us, following the river Vilcanota all the way to Aguas Calientes.
After we reached our destination for the day, we found a nice place to stay, an Argentinian couple renting rooms in their house, with a warm shower to freshen up and get ready for dinner. Toto’s House was the choice for tonight, and we enjoyed an awesome dinner, refreshing homemade lemonade, some well-deserved beers at the main plaza and a good rest afterwards.
The next morning, we got up early and met with our wonderful guide Jeremy from Cusco, a knowledgable local whose competence and kindness we got to appreciate throughout this whole day.
And what a day it was: We started by taking the bus up the zigzag dirt road that leads to the lower entrance of Machu Picchu. The officials checked our tickets and passports, and then we took a first look at this incredible site. The weather was simply perfect, the sun rising slowly above the misty hills, constantly changing light and shadow within the ruins. We decided to climb Machu Picchu Mountain first thing, ascending countless age-old Inca steps, sometimes easier, sometimes quite steep, taking a break once in a while in order to catch our breaths and another of the many amazing views from above. It was anything but an easy climb, but absolutely worth it once we got to the top. It was also my first time to be in Machu Picchu although I have been living in Cusco for two years already, and I was so happy to experience this wonderful place with friends I worked with on the cruise ship a few years ago. The sky was so clear that we could even see the peaks of Nevado Salkantay and Nevado Veronica, two of the so-called Apus = sacred mountains for the Incas and considered guardians of the area.
We were sharing the amazing view from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain (3061 m / 10043 ft a.s.l.) with many other people from all over the world, I even met some young German travelers up there and we took turns taking pictures of each other.
Considering that the weather conditions around Machu Picchu can be very different from day to day even during dry season, I guess we were very lucky to catch this beautiful day for our visit. When we finally went back down the mountain, we realized that the light had changed again on Machu Picchu, and probably a hundred pictures couldn’t show the magic of the former most important pilgrimage site of the Incan Empire.
Now we were curious about the history and the different places you find inside Machu Picchu, and Jeremy turned out to be the perfect company for this exploration, providing us with interesting details, stories and myths about Machu Picchu, and explaining the purpose of the different sections and buildings. He even came up with a little insider trick to get the grazing Llamas to come a bit closer to us – a unique opportunity for my friends to take unforgettable pictures.
We learned so much about this place, about the people who built and used it about 600 years ago, the way it was discovered and what it still means to many Peruvians today. It is nothing short of impressive what the Quechua people built here somewhere between the mountains and the jungle, a sacred place that people from all parts of the empire would pilgrimage to, walking the Inca trails and carrying with them presents and things they would offer to the gods in order to ask for fortune, peace, health, a prosperous agricultural year and other important things for themselves and their families.
The sun was reaching its zenith, it got quite hot and Machu Picchu more and more crowded. Time for us to slowly walk back to the entrance, with so much new information and the overwhelming impressions of the site in our minds and hearts. We all got our passports stamped at the exit, a special souvenir and memory from this day. The bus took us back down to Aguas Calientes, where we had a delicious typical lunch in one of the restaurants along the railroad tracks. We listened to Peruvian live music that musicians played outside, and at some point one of the blue trains passed by. After lunch, we went to the hostel to pick up our luggage, bought some water and snacks for the way back in
a nearby shop, said goodbye to Jeremy and started our hike back to Hidroelectrica. Leaving Aguas Calientes, we met two older gentlemen, one from England and one I assumed was from Peru. We started chatting and walking together for a little bit, passing the first of two tunnels on the way. Just when we were half way through this one, we heard a strong dark rolling noise, two big headlights showing up at the other end, and a big blow of the horns that were so familiar from the hike yesterday, only this time they were a lot closer and directed towards us. We had joked about this several times before, remembering the movie “Stand By Me” and wondering how it would feel like if this happened to us, but all of a sudden it turned into plain reality in this moment: RUUUUN!!! The tunnel turned brighter around us, we heard the engine and the horn, kept running and made it back outside, jumped to the left and saw the train passing by, the train driver smiling at us – he seemed to have had a lot of fun seeing us running like rabbits… We were standing together laughing, half in shock and half excited about this adventure, catching our breaths and wondering about the irony that we had just recently thought and talked about this exact scenario – well now we know how that feels 😉 There was a second train passing the tunnel shortly after this, and we decided to make some special souvenirs of this trip by putting a 1-Peruvian-Sol coin each on the tracks and let the train run over it. It worked out perfectly, and I decided to carry this flattened coin in my wallet from then on.
We hurried up to get back on our hike because it was already 3:30 pm by then, and we wanted to make sure to find a taxi in Hidroelectrica that would bring us back to Santa Maria. Passing all the beautiful places on the way, taking in the jungle atmosphere once again, enjoying the relatively easy walk compared to what we had already done climbing Machu Picchu mountain in the morning, we made it back in two hours, found a taxi and arrived in Santa Maria around 7:30 pm. After talking to the drivers of the vans that go back to Cusco and he told us that there is still a bunch of passengers missing in order to fill the car, we decided to get some beers in one of the small shops across the street. A nice surprise was waiting for me inside when I saw my friend Juan from Spain sitting at one of the tables. He’s a cyclist we met through our friend Javi, also from Spain, when they both came through Cusco about a week ago. We spent a nice morning at Wanchaq market and helped Javi fixing his bike before moved on to visit the ruins of Choquequirao and Machu Picchu in a seven day trek. I was very happy to see him, we were catching up on our experiences in Machu Picchu, and after a few beers went back to the other side of the street where the vans were parking. The driver of our van told us that now his van was full and he was
leaving – without us! We couldn’t believe it, I had a heated discussion with him, but he wouldn’t change his mind and we were forced to take the next one, with the perspective of waiting again for more passengers, and nobody knowing how long that would take. We decided to stand by close to the van, and then something very interesting happened: The first van stopped after going about ten meters, and people got off this one and came back to the second one. All of a sudden, the driver of the second car offered to take us for 25 Soles instead of the original 30 Soles per person. I talked to some of the people, and it turned out that the driver of the first van tried to raise the price from 30 to 35 Soles after leaving the parking area, so people opposed and left the car. So things turned around quickly, our car filled up in a minute, and we could finally leave, laughing about this strange case of instant karma.
Our drive back was quite smooth, we were quite tired from these two exciting and eventful days. One more time we saw Nevado Veronica, this time in the bright moonlight, while crossing Abra Malaga. After descending back down into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, we soon passed Ollantaytambo and headed towards Urubamba, our destination for the day being a beautiful hotel run by good friends of ours – La Capilla Lodge. Rhomina and Christophe received us with some cold beers, Maria had arrived from Cusco earlier to join us for the following day after taking care of our friend Chandra on her last day with us. We told them the stories of our adventure and went to sleep in their comfy rooms after a hot shower, looking forward to tomorrow’s tour in the Sacred Valley. Thank you so much everyone!!