Part 3: Ancient Capital & the Hike to Machu Picchu
Ancient Capital of the Inca Empire
On our 4th day in Peru, we took the afternoon flight from Lima to Cusco. Cusco is the ancient capital of the Inca Empire in the Andes Mountains. It is a city at an altitude of 3,400 meters (11,152 ft) and is known for its Spanish colonial architecture and archaeological remains. It was my mistake, that I did not do my research on traveling to high altitude cities. Once we landed in Cusco, I felt the air to be a bit thinner to breathe but I was feeling fine. Within a couple of hours, however, I started to feel lightheaded, a headache began, I felt extremely tired and weak. The altitude sickness was kicking in. Dima had a massive headache and vomited several times, although it could have been from food poisoning. I immediately researched how to deal with altitude sickness, and one of the first tips on WebMD was to avoid flying in to high altitude cities like Cusco, Peru, but rather ascending gradually. (Oops!) Clearly that was no help, as we were already in Cusco... The hotel offered complimentary coca leaf tea, which supposedly relieves headaches and helps to cope with the altitude. That evening we were too weak to do anything but stay in bed, relax, sleep, and watch some Netflix.
The next day, on Friday, we were feeling better, so we decided to take it slow and go walk around Cusco. The city was vibrant, filled with people and cars, and just like all the other cities I visited in Peru, it smelled way too much like gasoline from all the car exhausts. (At this point, I couldn't wait for our upcoming hike, and breathe the fresh mountain air!) The city had lots of rock wall ruins, wooden balconies, and red rooftops inspired by the Spanish colonies, who had once conquered and ruled Cusco. We walked around on random streets, peeking into little souvenir and local clothing shops. The locals handmade and sold a lot of sweaters, scarfs and other items made with llama or alpaca wool. Dima bough himself a very hippie looking sweater (which I hope he doesn't actually wear) and I got myself a baby alpaca wool scarf. We also spent some time relaxing in the sun, and people watching at the main square, Plaza De Armas. Although Cusco is an entry point to tourist wanting to explore the Andes Mountains and Machu Picchu, I really liked the unique red look and historically rich city. (No wonder it's listed as one of the top 50 cities to see in your lifetime by the Huffington Post.) How many of the cities have you visited? I've visited 13. Comment at the end of the post!
Hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Where: Andes Mountains, Peru - South America
The following day started extremely early. At 4:30 am, we were picked up by our driver who took us to a small town of Ollantaytambo, about 2 hours away from Cusco. From Ollantaytambo we took a train to the trailhead. We got off on an unofficial train stop for which we had to have 'special permission.' We started our hike on the Inca Trail around 8 am on kilometer marker 104, where our guide was waiting for us.
Inca Empire - "The Incan Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America and possibly the largest empire in the world in the early 16th century. The administrative, political and military center of the empire was located in Cusco in modern-day Peru. The Inca civilization arose from the highlands of Peru sometime in the early 13th century. Its last stronghold was conquered by the Spanish in 1572." (Source: Wikipedia :D)
Machu Picchu - "Is a 15th-century Inca citadel (fortress on high ground) situated on a mountain ridge 2,430 meters (7,970 ft) above sea level. It is located in the Cusco Region, above the Sacred Valley, which is 80 kilometers (50 mi) northwest of Cusco and near the Urubamba River.. Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). The Incas built the estate around 1450 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911."
(Source: Wikipedia is my best friend :)
Inca Trail - The trail was the only path to Machu Picchu for centuries. Kings used to be carried by slaves on the narrow paths, and as a gift each visiting King had to bring a unique large rock to be used in building the walls in Machu Picchu. (Source: our trek guide)
Due to the recent spotlight, tourism has tredemdously increased to Machu Picchu and the trails. Therefore, Peru has limited the amount of visitors and hikers on the trails and has made it mandatory to have a guide on the hike. (Which means you need to book ahead!!) The hike was so peaceful and quiet! We heard parrots chirping in the distance (Amazon jungle wasn't too far away), smelled the fresh mountain air, and purely enjoyed the beautiful nature. The hike was easier and shorter than expected, but the narrow paths and several extremely steep inclines made it a challenge for me. In addition, the reduced oxygen at the high altitude made me feel like I was constantly out of breath, which caused a domino effect for faster muscle fatigue. (Learn more here.) On the hike we took several stops, first one at Chachabamba, which was a gate house guarding the entrance to Machu Picchu. (Picture below.) Another big stop along the trail was at Wiñay Wayna, Incan ruins that were built into a steep hillside overlooking the Urubamba River. What I though was really interesting, was that to be able to grow crops on such a steep hill, they built little terraces (see picture below), and as the terraces got higher in elevation, the temperature changed so they were able to grow a variety of produce. Genius, right?
As we continued hiking, we ran into some alpacas, (similar to a llama), hiked by waterfalls, and climbed hundreds (if not thousands?) of stairs. The last part of the hike was the toughest. In order to get up to the Sun Gate to get our first look of Machu Picchu, we needed to climb the 'monkey stairs.' Correctly named, because you literally had to climb the steep rock staircase like a monkey. As I was climbing it (Dima had naturally raced the whole thing way before me), I could hear a buzz of people. At the Sun Gate people had gathered to mesmerize the stunning and unbelievable view of Machu Picchu in the distance. Of course, not 5 minutes later is started raining. But we didn't mind, it felt refreshing and spread out the crowd. Also, the clouds were epic! Because we were so high up, we saw the clouds abruptly drift in and hide the enormous mountain, and suddenly we were in a fog storm. We found a cover under some trees, and tried to stay as dry as possible. Dima knew this was the perfect time-lapse opportunity, so he set up his tripod and started recording a time-lapse as the clouds slowly continued their way through the mountains, and glimpses of Machu Picchu became visible again. (Video below!)
We made it to Machu Picchu!!
After roughly 5 hours of hiking to the Sun Gate, we made our way down to the actual 'city' of Machu Picchu. Fun fact, no one knows the name of the city of Machu Picchu, because Machu Picchu is the name of the actual mountain. Machu means 'old ancestor' and Picchu means 'mountain' in Quechuan language. This city is the only original Incan city, as the Spaniards never made it here. It was considered a 'modern' Incan city with actual streets, gardens and had a population of about 500-600 people in the mid 1400s. Being so high up in the mountain provided security for the Incas, and water was accessible near the Urubamba River. In mid 1500s, around the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Incan city was abandoned. To this day, we don't know where the entire city of residents disappeared to.
From being up at 3:30 am, to hiking in such high altitude, we were exhausted. Knowing we would be back in the morning, we walked around for a bit and then joined the waiting line to take the bus down to the nearest town of Aguas Calientes. That evening we took it easy, went out to eat and made sure to go to sleep early, as we had another early morning waiting for us.
That night it was my turn for food poisoning. We really didn't have a good experience with food in Peru, nothing tasted fresh and standards for food safety wasn't up to par with the western world. I saw a raw fish laying on the counter at a restaurant for over 30 minutes, just soaking in bacteria. Definitely didn't order fish... That night I puked my guts out, had a small fever and didn't sleep well. And soon enough it was time to get up again. Machu Picchu opens up to tourists at 6 am and the first buses leave at 5:30 am, so of course there was a line forming already at 4:30 am. (This is the part I hate about tourist attractions!) As we had a guided tour starting at 6:30 am, we joined the line at 5 am in the pouring rain and cold morning breeze.
The morning was chilly, and rain was drizzling, but the morning fog was just breathtaking! (And maybe made it all worth it? :) I hadn't eaten breakfast all morning as I had no appetite, and was scared that if I ate I would puke again. But after walking around for several hours with the guided tour, I started to feel extremely weak. I made myself eat some crackers and drink sugary drinks like the Peruvian lemony soda called Inca Cola (delicious!). We continued exploring the Incan ruins and I pushed myself to the limits as we climbed up to the top of the ruins for one last look. At this point, I was pretty much shaking from exhaustion. I ate some more crackers, drank a bit and forgot all about it all as I embraced the beauty around me.
Around 12 pm we made it down to the bus stop, and as we were waiting in line my body gave up on me, both physically and emotionally. I was shaking, and I couldn't hold myself upright anymore, I had to lean on Dima for support. And for whatever reason, a river of tears just started flowing down. (Thank God I was wearing sunglasses!!) This was one of the craziest experiences of my life, but I don't regret a thing. Once we got down to the town of Aguas Calientes, Dima sat me down at the nearest cafe. While I rested, he went to grab our belongings from the hotel. (He's such a sweetheart <3) For the next few hours, I sat at the cafe, ate a bit of soup and tried to regain some strength for the 5 hour train and bus ride back to Cusco.
Exhausted, sick, we made it back to Cusco. Of course that night I had a fever again. Dima was tired, but feeling fine. The trip wouldn't have been as adventurous without a few hiccups and curveballs thrown along the way. Certainly I would have loved to not feel sick and so weak on this part of the trip, but it made it that much more adventurous and memorable. And most of all, I felt brave and strong for pushing through it and pushing myself beyond my limits.
I would LOVE to hear your comments and feedback!! I'm still learning this blogging thing, so if there's something about the trip that you are wondering about, please ask so next time I'll know to include it :)
Wondering about how you can visit Peru and Machu Picchu?
My trip itinerary, budget, and tips will follow on the next post!
Additional Pictures Below
Welcome to my travel & lifestyle blog!
This blog is long overdue! I've wanted to start it years ago, but never got around to it. Traveling is my passion. My dream is to one day visit all continents, countries and states in the U.S. Thankfully I have had the opportunity to visit 39 countries in 4 different continents so far. Keep posted for my adventures and life events on my blog! - Rebecca
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