We did it.
We made it to Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. It was a four day trek, which included some fantastic adventures along the way.
Our trek was the Inca Jungle Trail, which is one of the alternative treks to the classic Inca Trail (Camino Inca). We trekked with a Peruvian guide (Kenny), and a group of 12 (including the four of us, four Germans, three guys from the UK, and an Aussie). We went with a company called Conde Travel and we followed a route that included biking down from a high mountain pass, whitewater rafting along a sacred river, ziplining thousands of feet over a canyon, hiking through the jungle, and finally climbing up to Machu Picchu.
Overall it was great, although there were a couple of things that didn’t go so well, the biggest of which was not getting the message that we would need to carry our bags the whole time (the tour company told us that there would be a van to carry out bags, but evidently that was just for the biking part of the trip), and the sandfly bites we all got. Here's our story, along with individual commentary.
We had an early start (5:15 wake up with instructions to meet the van at 6:00am), but we should have realized that we were running on “Peru time” (which is about 20-30 minutes later than you think).
- ANNE: Nothing like waiting outside on a freezing Cusco morning for a van you hope is actually coming. We were in the plaza San Blas and kept telling taxis “no, gracias”. I did learn a valuable lesson. If there are dogs around, don’t leave your backpack on the ground. We narrowly averted having one dog use my bag as a fire hydrant.
- NOAH: Lessons learned for next time - ask specific questions about types of baggage, and who is carrying it, and be get specific details on pickup (phone number, van color, etc.). What they told us during orientation the day before did NOT match reality. Not bad, but certainly different.
We loaded into the van with our other trekkers and drove out of Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, passing Urubamba and Ollantaytambo before heading up to the Abra Malaga pass at 4,325m (14,000f) above sea level. Our bike ride will take us down more than 1000 metres over an 80 km trail similar to the one in Coroico (Bolivia), which several of the guys in our group rode a couple of weeks earlier.
The biking piece started out in very cold conditions (but luckily dry weather - rain would have been a whole different story). After getting geared up with helmets, elbow and shin guards, and biking gloves, we got our safety speech from the guides and set off down the mountain.
As expected, Alex zoomed off down the pass straightaway, whereas Leah was a little more cautious (worried). However, she soon got her confidence and was chasing Alex around every corner while Anne and I tried to keep up.
Unfortunately, the tour company gave Leah a smaller bike with only one gear, so she had to work harder to keep up with the bigger mountain bikes that we were all on, but she did a great job.
- LEAH: At biking they gave me a really small bike and that made me frustrated. It was almost all downhill and sometimes I went really fast. At the top of the mountain it was really cold and windy but it was amazing to look at the mountains as we rode by. It was cool to ride through rivers that ran right over the road!
- NOAH: It’s true - on a lot of the hairpin turns, there was water that was running off the mountain and across the road (usually about 1-4 inches of water flowing over the pavement). Fun to ride through, but we all got a bit wet, and it was really important to slow down enough so as not to wipe out!
We made it down to the first stop without any major incidents, although Alex was ran off the road by a rogue bird and hit his knee and cracked his shin guard.
- ALEX: About one fourth of the way down this crazy bird came by and sat right in front of my bike. I swerved to avoid it and ran right into the rain gutter. I was in shock at first then realized my knee really hurt. Mom and Dad were a ways behind me but a nice German girl helped me. I got back on my bike and kept going. At the next stop the guide had to fix my bike.
One of the Germans did not fare as well however; while zooming across one of the many rivers that crossed the roadway, he lost control and crashed off the side of the road. Luckily, his injuries were limited to a sprained thumb and a cut-up elbow, but it reminded us that although this was a lot of fun, we needed to be careful!
As we descended, the weather got warmer as we moved from high alpine terrain into the jungle. The scenery was amazing, and we all kept yelling to each other about the wonderful views that we passed.
- ANNE: At the top of the mountain it was as if we were in the clouds themselves. The wind would catch me coming around a corner and then I’d be surprised again by sunshine. I admit that I spent more time watching Alex and Leah (with a mom’s fear) than soaking up the atmosphere but even half a soaking was incredible!
At the bottom, we had a well-deserved drink and some ice cream, and headed in the van to the restaurant for lunch (included). After refueling ourselves, we headed down to the river for 2 hours of whitewater rafting down the Vilcanota river. It was a lot of fun, although Leah was a bit worried about the rapids (and didn’t like getting splashed by the guide during the safety instructions even before we started). BUT SHE DID IT!
- ALEX: The rafting was amazing because it was my first time (I had wanted to go with Dad in Seattle, but I wasn’t old enough). It was a little frightening at first, but then it was ok. I really hope I get to do it again.
- LEAH: Rafting was fun except for the rapids.
- ANNE: Adrenaline rush!! It has been a while since I have done anything like this. The 5 of us had to work as a team to get through the rapids and it was such instant gratification to still be alive and in the raft! I want more!
- NOAH: This was a great rafting trip. It was Class 3+ and Class 4 rapids, but the scenery was great, and the water was not too cold. We got a chance to swim in the river (on purpose), and it was a blast. At the end, we got to see the process of loading up two large inflatable rafts on top of the rickety old van that we were riding in - not sure we thought we were all going to make it back up the dirt road!
(Note: no photos from rafting, since our camera is not waterproof. However, we realized that we want to invest in a camera that can come along with us for our water adventures!)
When we finally finished with the rafting, wet and tired, it was getting pretty dark, so we loaded up the van and headed to the hostel for the night. What we didn’t realize was that it would require a 45 minute hike uphill in the dark with all of our bags along a narrow mountain trail before we reached our destination. All part of the “ecological” aspect of the tour, but one of those items that got lost in translation during our initial discussions with the tour agency (like the fact that we would need to carry our bags along with us!)
- ALEX: It was very relieving to be able to lie down at the top - I was very tired!
- NOAH: Wish we had brought more flashlights with us, we only had one to share with the four of us... Luckily, we were able to spread out between the rest of the group and see enough of the trail to make it. Reminded me that we need to get some more head-lights!
It was an adventure - we heard the biggest cicadas that we had seen, and when we finally made it to the hostal, it was wonderful. We had a great room (with some very unique wallpaper),
the beds were comfortable, the food was good, and there were all sorts of animals for the kids to play with.
- LEAH: I was really happy at the first place that we stayed at, because they had lots of animals to play with. One puppy, a bunch of ducks, three dogs, lots of chickens, two cats, a ton of guinea pigs running around the kitchen, and a rogue parrot.
- NOAH: Hiking up the mountain in the dark was exciting, but it would have been really nice to have been able to see the views as we went up. The sights in the morning were fantastic!
The next morning we woke up, had breakfast under the open-air structure with a wonderful view from the side of the mountain over the river and the town of Santa Maria.
After playing with the puppy and the ducks and the parrot Federico (who tried to eat Alex’s finger),
we got packed up while watching the daughters of the family finish their homework and head off to school (note: it was a Sunday, and they had an hour-long hike uphill to school - it gave us all another view on dedication to education).
The first section of the hike was pretty much a continuation of the previous nights path, which was a lot nicer now that we could look around and enjoy the view. We were on a section of one of the Inca trails used for royal messenger runners between Machu Picchu and the surrounding towns/cities.
At the top of the trail, on an overlook with the mountains, river, and Salkantay in the distance, we made an offering of some personal items (coca leaves and Soles) and continued on the narrow and amazing cliff trail,
heading down through coca and banana farms, into the jungle level.
There we stopped for lunch and chocolate and a well-deserved bathroom break
before heading out again for our afternoon trek along (and across) the river to the promised reward of a dip in the hot springs at Santa Teresa.
- LEAH: Day 2 was much better. Although we had to walk almost 5 hours it was pretty nice because at the end of the hike, we got to go in the hot springs! That was really amazing.
After an afternoon which included eating oranges from the trees along the trail, taking a dip on the cold but refreshing river,
a river crossing on a cable cart,
all while wishing we had packed differently/lighter, we got to the banos thermales, relishing the idea of relaxing in the hot pools.
- ANNE: The hot springs at Santa Teresa were the perfect reward for my sore walking legs! I expected sulfur-smelling natural pools, but these were more like actual swimming pools with sand and small rocks on the bottom, about 4 ½ feet deep (Alex could stand with water up to his chin). What a luxury to be submerged in hot water! The kids had new-found frolicking energy, and we were all a bit subdued when it was time to leave.
- NOAH: This was a great spot to relax after all of the trekking. Unfortunately, during the 20 minutes that we sat and had a pre-soak cerveza, we got attacked by sandflies (small little gnat-size black bugs). They were merciless! We all got bitten up pretty badly, but I really got hit since I had not recently applied repellent. I ended up with about 50 bites on each leg between knees and tops of socks. The next morning, my legs were covered in small, round, red, and angry welts. Additionally, along with the itching that we all had, my legs were hot and swollen (perhaps from the bites plus the waters from the hot pools).
- LEAH: We stayed in a hostel in Santa Teresa, and it rained REALLY hard at night.
A 30 minute van ride through the jungle brought us to Colo de Mono Zipline headquarters. After getting geared up and receiving our safety lesson (while reassuring a rather unsure Leah) we made another uphill hike to zipline #1 (of 6). This is the first zipline in Peru, and the longest in South America. There are 2500m of cables in six sections. The longest ride or section is 400m long, the highest is 150m high, and the maximum speed on the cables is 60 km/h.
- NOAH: I was feeling very lucky that, although my oft-bitten legs were feeling very uncomfortable, it was not so bad as to keep me from our next adventure - ziplining!
- ALEX: I was really happy that we got to go ziplining - it was super cool! Plus, the other people in our group that chose not to go ziplining had to walk for 2 hours in the sun and dust from Santa Teresa to where we met them for lunch. Score!
- LEAH: At the beginning, I was worried that I was going to fall. Once I saw how I was going to be attached to the cable, I started to feel a little better. Then, once I got a little braver, I did some all by myself.
One by one we got clipped in and were launched across the cable - Leah went tandem with the guide, so she got to go first (and she was awesome!) The adrenaline rush of zooming along the cables (sometimes with no hands, sometimes upside-down) over canyons and rivers and trees - simply amazing. Leah ended up going solo on 2 of the 6 lines (after initially swearing never to go alone), and we all had a fantastic time.
Leah ended up loving it...
Lunch at Hydroelectrica followed,
after which we began our last section of trail along the river and train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Along the way, we saw the ruined terraces of Machu Picchu above us, looking up at Huayna Picchu mountain and being amazed to think that we would be standing at the top the next day.
- LEAH: At lunch, a friendly dog came over and slept on mom’s foot under the table. We called him “Racoon Face”. When we started walking again, he followed us! He stayed with us all the way to our destination! Racoon Face is a very brave and nice dog. I won’t forget him.
After a late afternoon swim in the sacred river (also an unforgettable experience with the rocks, river, and sun)
we made the last push to Aguas Calientes for dinner and a brief sleep in our hostel (Mosoq Inka).
- ANNE: When we finally arrived at our “hotel” in AC, the first thing I wanted was a hot shower. We had about 90 minutes before dinner - plenty of time for both of us to refresh and regroup. Stripping off my stinky clothes I stepped into the hot shower - ahhh.... I washed my hair first, and then lathered up with soap to wash out three days of grime. That was working great, until the water went away. Totally. All at once. Not a drop coming out of the faucet. No advance warning, just...nothing. I turned off the faucet, waited a minute, and turned it back on. Nada. Not even a trickle. So, there I am, standing in the shower, covered with soap, looking up in disbelief at the showerhead. Really? Ok, I’ll just rinse off in the sink...nope...no mas agua. I ended up using a towel to wipe off as much soap as I could, and put back on my old clothes. Well, at least my hair was clean!
- NOAH: Needless to say, there was no shower for me either...
- ALEX: It was wierd to have to go to bed at 8:30, but it felt like I had been asleep for only a couple of minutes before dad was banging on our door at 4:30 in the morning.
Up at 4:30 the next morning for a quick bite and then to the bus station to catch the first bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu. What an exciting feeling to be in the front of the queue waiting for the gates to open, and then walking in and seeing it all laid out in front of us - just like the pictures in the tour books and postcards, but this time we were actually there! A true wonder of the world.
Kenny gave us a great tour through the site, exploring all of the buildings, temples, architecture, and amazing stone masonry work,
including the famous (and mysterious) Intihuatana.
- ALEX: Machu Picchu was much bigger than I thought it would be.
- NOAH: The stone masonry on some of the walls was just amazing - no mortar, just razor-clean joints between the rocks. Our guide told us that, to this day, modern archeologists have only be able to “come close” to that level of skill. Some secrets may never been known...
Then it was time for a quick break for a snack in the shade before our turn to hike up Huayna Picchu.
It was tough to gear up (physically and mentally) for the almost straight uphill hike, since we were all hot and tired from the previous three days plus our morning exploring the city of Machu Picchu, but we waited in line, signed the book, and set off.
Don’t let anyone tell you different - this is a tough climb. It’s pretty much straight up the mountain using stairs and rocks and a cable as a handrail in places. You can really appreciate the vertical when you stand at the bottom and look up!
- ALEX: Huayna Picchu was not as hard of a hike as I expected, but my ankles were soooo sore at the end of the hike because of the huge amount of stairs.
It was great to stand on top together, as a family and as a team. We are very lucky to have the opportunity to do this trip and have these experiences together.
- NOAH: It has been a dream of mine to visit Machu Picchu (and stand on the top of Huayna Picchu) since I first saw a picture of this special place. I am VERY thankful and grateful to be able to experience this, especially together with my family.
- LEAH: I’m really glad that my parents took me on this trek.
When we reached the bottom again (after climbing through a narrow tunnel both ways and seeing a panic-stricken girl with a fear of heights at the top) we were wiped out.
- ALEX: I’m wondering why, if you are afraid of heights, you climb up to the top of a mountain...?
After a final walk through Machu Picchu, avoiding the huge crowds of tour groups that had arrived (glad we got there early), we collapsed into our seats on the bus for the ride back to AC.
A late lunch, a visit to the marked-up market, and an early dinner (killing time before our train), we headed to the train station for our train to Ollantaytambo and the bus back to Cusco. Stumbling into our beds at 11pm, we all agreed that it felt like a month had passed since we had left on this adventure, even though it was just a couple of days. Guess that’s what it feels like when you are having amazing adventures and making great memories constantly (plus the stresses of trekking) - but these are all experiences that we will always remember.