Seeing Machu Picchu has been a dream of mine for so long that I can’t even remember when it started. Sometime in early high school Spanish, though, so we’re looking at a travel goal I’ve had for a good 16+ years. Dan and I started working jointly to make this daydream into a reality when we got married more than five years ago. To be honest, I’d merely pictured myself at Machu Picchu, overlooking the town from that iconic postcard view with awe and wonder in my heart, but had never actually pictured how I was going to get there.
So it was Dan who added the trekking part to the dream and, I must say, hiking 60 kilometers and summiting somewhere around 2000 meters added to the trip in ways I had never imagined but, after actually doing it, couldn’t picture missing.
Dan and I always learn a lot when we travel, about ourselves, about the people we meet, about the places we visit, about our relationship. But the biggest lesson we learned on this trip is: our siblings rock and we know we can depend on them. Let me explain.
Trek Day -2
After traveling for 24 hours, we arrive in Cuzco, but our bags do not. We were nervous we might lose a bag en route, so we were both carrying one change of hiking clothes, wearing our hiking boots, and had divided our clothes between our two bags. Our thought was, “Well, we might lose one bag, but then we’ll at least have some of our stuff.” We did not anticipate losing both bags, especially after asking both at the San Francisco counter and at the New York counter whether we needed to transfer our bags between Virgin America and LAN Peru airlines and to where our bags were checked through. We were assured they would arrive in Cuzco. Fail.
We filed a report in Lima and I cannot express how glad I am to speak Spanish to be able to ask questions and understand what was happening, and that the chances of getting our bags did not look good since neither airline was willing to take responsibility for the missing bags.
It was a few hours before we could check into our hostel in Cuzco, so we took advantage of the time and lack of luggage to haul around to poke around the town.
As soon as we could get into our hostel in Cuzco, we jumped on the computers that ran at about a 1997 internet pace (which I’d say is remarkably good, given the circumstances!) and began the emailing: to Virgin America, to LAN Peru, and to our siblings, Nick (my older brother) and Laura (Dan’s oldest sister and an extremely experienced traveler). With two missing bags that included our cold weather gear and sleeping bags, we were desperate to do everything we could to get our bags back.
Laura, who had just moved across the US, jumped on the phone and started knocking heads. Nick began following the progress online and searching what he could find for solutions, while emailing us and keeping us updated. We submitted a few more complaints online to the air carriers and Dan tweeted our situation, tagging Virgin America. VA’s immediate response, though cheering, is merely an automatic follow-up with no actual action connected.
In our hostel room, we made a “Machu Picchu shopping list” of the bare minimums we would need to replace to be prepared to go on the hike. Looking back, our list was woefully optimistic and included a few basics such as socks, sunscreen, bug spray, toilet paper, snacks, a warm hat and gloves for me, socks, a wool hat, and maybe jeans for Dan, rain gear for both of us (with a question mark indicating, “We’ll see how much the rest of this costs and then decide whether to buy this.”).
Trek Day -1
No bags and a bit smelly, we headed to United Mice in the morning for our pre-trek orientation, leaving early to ask for their assistance (aka phone) to call the airlines to try to find out what was going on with our bags. Thirty minutes later, there was no update and the customer service rep couldn’t seem to find record of what I was talking about.
The orientation was very thorough, although our poor tour guide would learn over the next three days that even with the good preparation from the staff in Cuzco, we were still filled with questions. “What will tomorrow be like?” “Is it going to rain tomorrow?” “How far are we from lunch?” “What is that bird?” “What is that tree?” “Tell us about the government of Peru?” “What’s your biggest tour group?” (45!) “How old was your oldest hiker?” (85!) “Your youngest?” (7!) On and on. His patience was truly amazing. And this from a group of four. Yes, there were just four of us in our hiking group. We happened to pick a departure date that made our group feel like a private tour. Our companion hikers were both our age, much more experienced than us, and a lot of fun to hike with!
By the time we left our orientation nearly two hours later, Nick had sent an email expressing hope that our bags may be on a flight to Lima that would arrive later that day. But the message was unclear — were our bags actually on that plane or was that just the next flight they could have been on? And were they then going to make the next flight and actually arrive in Cuzco?
Laura messaged us not long later, after spending another few hours on the phone with the airlines, saying it seemed the bags were on their way, but we would need to confirm with the Cuzco airport.
Hope began to creep in.
Back at the hostel we asked for help (aka phone) again. After trying the three numbers listed online for the Cuzco airport, none of which were actually in service, the kind front desk associate used his own cell phone minutes to call the Lima airport to try for more information. It seemed, but could not be confirmed, that our bags were on a flight to Cuzco arriving around 11 am. But it was already after 1 pm…
With little we could do, and in an effort to stall our shopping trip, we paused to eat a lunch of various empanadas and revisit our shopping list. Then I overheard on the phone at the front desk, “…Sprockett? Sí, están muy ocupados…” Yes, we are worried. I dashed up to the front desk and learned, almost beyond belief, that our bags had arrived in Cuzco. But… Yes, there’s always a but. They may or may not be able to deliver the bags until the next day. So my head is thinking, “No. The bags cannot be 30 minutes away and not make it here! We leave tomorrow at 4 am. Either they come today or…” Well, there was no “or.”
With a bit more negotiating/pleading/begging, we were told, oh okay, the bags would be delivered. And at 4 pm, nearly the last possible moment, as we prepared to go out to replace our missing gear:
Trek Day 1: 15 kilometers from Soray Pampa to Huayracmachay (starting and ending elevation 3800 meters/12,467 feet)
Dan woke up at 3 am, an hour before we were set to leave for our trek to Machu Picchu, sick to his stomach. What could we do, though, but push through, get on the bus, and head to the trailhead? For the next day and a half, he couldn’t eat and had very little energy to hike.
Let’s put this in perspective.
We were hiking 15 kilometers, or approximately 9.5 miles, through steep mountains starting at a height of 3800 meters and summiting to a height of 4400 meters before making it our campsite again at 3800 meters. For reference, that means that our highest point at 4400 meters (or 14,435 feet) was nearly 3x the elevation in Denver, Colorado.
We had come so far, so off we went. Each step has to be carefully chosen on often narrow mountain paths layered with rocks that range in size from a grape to a small cantaloupe. It’s amazing I didn’t fall down the mountain as I tried to balance looking around in awe at the beautiful landscape and watching with careful attention where I took each step.
After about three and a half hours of uphill hiking, we arrived at the campsite, heartened by the soft, mossy ground, the comparatively warm temperature, and lunch in preparation by our excellent trekking staff. We were barely behind Dan who had to ride the pack donkey the last bit to the top as his stomach got the better of him.
Toward the end of lunch, as we sipped hot tea, the wind picked up and the snow started. That’s right. The snow started. Now, I was prepared for some cooler weather, but snow had never made it on my radar. I was, once again, thankful to have my own hiking gear that included Under Armour cold weather running tights, warm hat, gloves, scarf, and, yes, rain gear.
Onwards and, literally, upwards.
Around 5 pm we arrived at our campsite for the first night, socked in by fog and shivering in the cold. At this elevation there isn’t enough firewood, so we were reliant on our sleeping bags and an extra layer of socks to stay warm through the night.
I layered on just about everything I had with me, put on my winter hat and tied my scarf around my head, and tried to stay warm enough to sleep. What actually allowed me to sleep that night was Dan’s hot water bottle trick. He asked for a bottle full of boiling water to put in the bottom of his sleeping bag and, about 30 minutes in, claimed to be “too hot” and gave it to me to cuddle. The rain started and, hugging the water bottle, sleep came after this long day.
Trek Day 2: 20 kilometers from Huayracmachay to La Playa (starting elevation 3800 meters/12,467 feet; ending elevation 1900 meters/6234 feet)
And then we work up to this:
Although this would be our longest hiking day, it was all downhill, so how hard could it be? Oh, naive little me.
Our hiking guide, Alecks, assured us the temperature would warm up and we wouldn’t want our layers about 30 minutes into that day’s hike. I was dubious, and, although I dropped a layer, I held tight to my winter hat, scarf, and gloves. A sort of, “Trust, but verify.” I’d give it maybe 45 minutes before the weather warmed and maybe 75 before I was ready to take off my hat, but oh, the sunshine and warming air felt good.
On our second day we moved into the rainforest and jungle, working our way down 6000 feet of elevation over 20 kilometers. Although downhill had sounded good at first, so much downhill without any uphill to break it up becomes quite challenging, especially as you try not to slide down the mountain into the person in front of you.
Trek Day 3: 18 kilometers from La Playa to Aguas Calientes (starting elevation 1900 meters/6234 feet; ending elevation 2040 meters/6693 feet)
They say this day was shorter, but by this time the stabilizer muscles in my legs after a full day of downhill hiking were sore and the arches of my feet, though mightily clad in hiking books, were achy from the rocky paths. Day 3 had more up and down, for which I was thankful. Actually, I take it back. I’d rather do the up. The down was steep and slippery from the early morning rain.
As we started our hike at 6 am, we were amazed to see school children buzzing past us on their way to class. It is serious dedication to cover the several miles of rocky and hilly terrain for school, and I admire these students. (We would later see students in their school uniforms hiking down one of the Inca trails on their way to classes, wearing clean white button downs and green sweater vests on their way to classes as we huffed and puffed our way up the path unshowered, sweaty, creating an interesting juxtaposition of worlds.)
This was the first day we could see Machu Picchu across the way and through the trees. We hiked up from our campsite at La Playa (definitely not a beach) to Llactapata (2650 meters) where Incan ruins frame Machu Picchu away in the distance.
After 6 hours of morning hiking, we arrived at the Hydro-electric plant/town for lunch before following the Peru Rail train tracks for another 3 hours into Aguas Calientes. As we walked along the rails, and even across a few small bridges, I had flashbacks to “Stand by Me,” which we had caught pieces of at our hostel in Cuzco — especially as we had to crowd to the side of the path to get out of the way of the train.
Perhaps not the most exciting part of the trek, we did see the national bird of Peru (the Andean cock-of-the-rock), which is a rare siting in these areas and could spot lower level Incan terraces for farming. We trudged into Aguas Calientes and up (yet another up?) several flights of stairs to our hostel. As soon as our bags arrived on the Peru Rail train, we changed into swimming suits and glorious, glorious feet-freeing flip flops and headed uphill to take advantage of the town’s namesake: the hot spring waters. For approximately $3.50 per person, you could enjoy one of the many pools for as long as you would like. We had only an hour before dinner, but that’s about all I would have wanted.
My first hot springs experience was a calm, built into nature, quite, adult-only experience in New Zealand. This was just about the opposite of that in every way. We arrived with a 4th grader-ish school group. On arrival to the pools, there was clearly one pool that was the “party pool” where you can waive your hand from the comfort of the hot springs water and Carlos (whoever Carlos is at the time) will bring you an adult beverage. This practice and really, this pool, probably contributed to the full body armor cop walking around to “keep order.” The pool was packed, and chances were good you’d be bumped or stepped on in that pool, so we avoided it.
We tried for a quieter pool, but were disappointed by lukewarm water and surprised by a rocky, not paved, bottom. OK. Party pool. It turns out it’s the happening place because it’s also the warmest water. Oh, and the adult beverage service probably also helps. After enjoying an hour in the pool, it was back to our hostel for dinner, showers that alternated from hot to cold water with surprising frequency, and bed.
Trek Day 4: Machu Picchu (elevation: 2430 meters/7972 feet)
Our group decided we’d best opt for the train up to Machu Picchu instead of adding another 6 km uphill hike to our distance so that we could save our legs to explore around the ruins. So a bit before 5:00 am we joined the line to snag a bus up to Machu Picchu to arrive with the sun and to get pictures of the town without swarms of tourists.
The fog rolled in and out, sometimes completely obscuring our view, and other times just adding to the mystery of the city. (The same can be said of the bit of rain we also got.)
Machu Picchu was built by the Incas sometime around 1450 and is now one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Although frequently named as the winter home of the emperor Pachacuti. It was abandoned after only 100 years, but remains a mystery as to why.
Our guide, however, gave us a different view of the Incan city. He told us it may likely have been a university where important astronomical discoveries were made, and not a place where the royalty lived. The city is situated in a valley between Machu Picchu Mountain (the “young mountain”) and Huaynapicchu (the “old mountain”), with Mount Victoria and Mount Pumasillo flanking, each mountain at one of the cardinal points of the compass.
Of the remains found at Machu Picchu, there were not children and no evidence of royalty. (The skulls of royalty were wrapped with ropes to create a taller head.) And the skeletons found indicated that men and women did not live together, pointing again toward a university. It’s unclear why the city was abandoned so suddenly and completely, but a possible explanation includes a quick hitting disease. Whatever caused the evacuation seems to have been quick based on the lack of traditional burial practices, which, for the Incan people usually included mummification and careful burial.
We spent hours exploring around the city in awe. It was truly a dream come true to visit Machu Picchu.