I arrived in Cusco a few days ahead of time, still nursing a cold, to try and acclimatize to the altitude (Cusco sits at 3400 meters). I booked the tour through Wonderland Tours travel agency (and later learned that while there are over 1000 travel agencies, there are only a couple hundred tour operators, so I was farmed out to KB Tours) and was set to leave early Saturday morning.
The Trek Begins
Packed with the pharmacist’s best medicine, I boarded the bus at 4:30 AM and we drove 3 hours by minibus to our breakfast spot/launching point. We were allotted 5 kilos to be carried by mules along our trek, and my mule bag was about 7.5. A little trick from the pro: if you take an annoyingly long time to try and reduce the weight of your bag, they’ll take it as is because they’re tired of waiting #lifehack.
We circled up and got the awkward team intros out of the way – a group of 8 in total (the perfect size range IMO). Vera and Susie from Austria, Kristina and Iris from Germany, Marcela and Guilherme from Brazil, and Sanna from Sweden. For those counting at home, that’s two guys and 6 girls. Shucks. Guilherme and Susie are both biologists, and I found it very interesting to get in on their conversations and learn a little about what we were seeing. And Marcela, a yoga instructor, informed us she was planning on practicing silence during the trek, a first for me. We had to choose a team name and humbly went with the Wirakochas, the Incan god/creator of all things. It matched our skillsets well.
The first morning hike wasn’t too bad – 3 hours of “Andean flat” (which just means it’s not completely uphill) to arrive at our day 1 camp. Camp consisted of tents, which were conveniently set up for you before you arrived underneath a metal roof. Maybe that counts as half-camping, not sure…but the roof was immensely important as it rained almost every night. After our lunch (which, again, were massive portions), we did an hour hike uphill to the glacial lagoon. It was tough, and it was then I saw probably the most impressive athletic feat of our trip. 7 of us were going slow, taking breaks, etc., and Sanna power marches up the hill without stopping. She was beating the guide. Oh, to be 20 again. But the hike paid off in the end as we arrived at a gorgeous blue lagoon at the foot of snowcapped mountains. It reminded me of my time in Patagonia three months prior. After spending an hour or so up there, soaking my feet in the ice bath and taking the first of many group photos, we headed back to camp to close the day. And this when we saw the first benefit of having a yoga teacher in the group – the first of several of our own private classes. We were all in need of a good stretch and she delivered. I also found it impressive to be able to teach yoga in your 2nd language (she would suspend the silence practice to teach). Every day before dinner we’d have a tea time, to take in some coca tea and snacks to help with the altitude, and our guide Edgar would go over the plan for the next day. Edgar, or Chavito as his friends called him, was just a legend. He pronounced mountain like “meow-ntain”, which always made me smile, without fail. And he has this laugh, maybe more of a giggle, that would light up the damn room. I wanted to record it and set it as my alarm clock but never could catch him at the right time. Such a Peruvian treasure. So, after tea time and another massive calorie-replenishing dinner, we all crashed before 8 to mark the end to a long first day.
Another early wake up to start day 2 – 5:00 this time. But they woke you up with a quiet “Buenos Dias” and coca tea delivered to your tent, about as effective of an alarm as one can have. Day 2 was known to be the hardest day of the trek, and it started with a 7-kilometer, steep uphill climb, to the highest peak of the trip, at 4630 meters. I stayed near the back of the group and took my sweet time. Not like I’ve ever been in stellar aerobic shape, but with the cold still sitting in my lungs and the air getting thinner by the step, I wasn’t winning any race to the top. That said, this wasn’t a hike you wanted to rush through either. The scenery was gorgeous. We started hiking through lush green valleys and ended at snow covered mountains. And there were plenty of stops to take a picture (another pro tip: anytime you get tired, just stop and take a picture of something…No, I’m not tired, just inspired). 4 hours or so later, we reached the peak and earned a well-deserved break. And this is when Edgar taught us more about the Incan culture. He led us through a proper Incan ritual, giving thanks to the mountains, the glaciers, and Mother Earth. Normally so jovial and laughing, he got very quiet and serious for the dedication. It was cool to see his other side for something that was obviously so important to him. At the end, he thanked us for joining him in the ceremony and respecting his culture, but it was him who deserved the gratitude, for opening his heart and welcoming us all into his world. From there, we had 17 kilometers more downhill to our next camp, and of course, the last 3 hours or so was through pouring rain. At least I had proper footwear…Sanna and her tennis shoes were in bad shape by the end of it. As day two finished, I thought the team had truly come together and gotten close.
With the most challenging part behind us, we set off on a leisurely walk on day 3 morning. Relatively flat and in lower altitude, we hiked through the rainforest (or tropical forest, or cloud forest…I don’t remember the right term, the biologists can correct me) and learned a bit more about local plants and wildlife. Lesson 1: the cochineal insect which is sold and crushed to make dye for fabrics (or in our case, face paint). Lesson 2: the Angel’s trumpet flower, which can be boiled and made into a hallucinogenic tea for ritual ceremonies [not to be taken lightly…Edgar told us the story of the tourist who bribed the cook to make him some of this tea, drank too much, went completely crazy (swimming through grass, fighting with massive rocks), had to be sedated by the cops and then rushed to the hospital in Cusco to save his life]. At lunchtime, our hiking was done for the day, well, for most of us. Sadly, this was where we said goodbye to Guilherme and Sanna (who both booked the 4-day tour instead of 5). And as they marched on, the 5 remaining girls and I had to settle for 2 hours in the natural hot springs. Anytime anyone asks you to soak in a natural hot spring, the answer should always be yes. Two hours got us healed up and relaxed, and I could’ve easily done about two more. That night, we all had a few beers around the bonfire, and I believe it was at that time I became Marcela’s official translator (somehow, we were on the same wavelength and I could understand her hand signals better than most…I need to try my hand at charades again and put these skills to use). I was surprised that despite the fact she wasn’t talking, we were still able to get to know her pretty well. The key is lots of yes/no questions.
Day 4 started easy as well. It came with options for the morning – hike three hours to Hidroelectrica, or get a van to take you ziplining and then drive you to town. I actually would’ve done the hike as I’ve been ziplining before and it’s never blown my mind, but everybody else in the team was pro-ziplining and hiking solo didn’t sound fun (plus, you can’t split up the family, right?). Alas, I ended up being happy I went; the guys at Vertikal Ziplining had a cool course set up and sent you down in all different positions, finishing with the super condor. After ziplining, we arrive in Hidroelectrica for lunch and then start our walk along the railroad tracks towards Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. It wasn’t the most exciting hike, so I tossed in the headphones and took some Ryan time. We got to our hostel (yes, an actual hostel with a shower and a bed and everything) early in the afternoon so we all squeezed in a nap before we met for our final Wirakocha family dinner. It was there that Marcela finally broke her silence; it was an impressive 4-day run and quite the display of self-control, but I was happy to be able to have a normal conversation with her again.
The final day arrived bright and early, as we left the hostel at 4 AM to hike up to Machu Picchu, with the idea being we get there right as the park opens, and right at sunrise. For one final test, we climbed stairs for 45 minutes straight (a good time, with Vera’s #slowandsteady leadership setting the pace) and got to the opening gate in plenty of time ahead of the 6:30 opening. We entered and straight away I was in awe. It was even bigger than I imagined, and at that time, peacefully quiet. As the sun came over the mountains, with the fog looming, it felt truly magical. Edgar started giving us some history of the site, but I found myself distracted, looking around in wonder and imagining what it would’ve been like to live there 700 years ago, how unfathomably difficult it would’ve been to build it with the tools they had at the time, and how satisfying it must’ve been when American Hiram Bingham “discovered” it again in 1911, when he was led to the lost city by a young boy as his tour guide. After Edgar led us around for a 2-hour tour, we had a few more hours of to explore the nooks and crannies and take some classic tourist pictures before starting the almost 12-hour journey by foot/bus back to Cusco.
Overall, a brilliant five days and one of the highlights of my travel career. The tour company and our guide took great care of us, natural beauty surrounded us for 5 days, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group to share it with. If you ever get the chance to come to Peru, or if Machu Picchu has been a bucket list item for you, make it happen. And I would highly suggest going on one of the treks instead of just taking the train there. Much better value and a much more complete Incan experience.