My Travels to Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru — September 2016
Almost seven months post-trip, I’m finally getting around to blogging about my trip to Peru in September 2016! This trip was a major bucket list item for me — I’ve wanted to see Machu Picchu in person for almost a decade, ever since I first saw a picture of it in a high school world history textbook. Traveling to Peru was my first trip out of the country after graduating from college and it took a lot of time planning and saving up vacation days to make it happen.
After years spent dreaming about this trip, it had finally arrived. I was going to see Machu Picchu, the mysterious home of the Incas nestled high in the clouds of the Andes Mountains, all for myself.
So here’s the story of my trip to Cusco, Peru and Machu Picchu:
I was traveling to Peru with my boyfriend, Amit. After starting out our trip with an overnight flight from New York to Bogota, Colombia, we finally moved on to our final flight to Cusco. There was an issue with our hostel arrangements to pick us up from the airport, but after a short cab ride we made it to Loki Hostel where we had booked a two-night stay to explore Cusco before starting our four-day jungle trek. Loki offers great jungle trek packages from Cusco to Machu Picchu, a cheaper and easier alternative to the traditional Inca trail hike, plus it includes a few adventure activities that we were really excited for, so we had decided to stay at Loki until our trek began.
After a few hours of relaxing at the hostel to recover from our overnight flight, we found out about a free tour of Cusco offered by the hostel every afternoon. We joined the tour which started off with a bus ride up into the mountains above Cusco where our tour guide Carlos gave us a short tour of Sacsayhuaman, an Incan ruin site also fondly known as “Sexy Woman.” Next, we headed over to a nearby shop where the owner showed us how to recognize real Alpaca and Llama fur, and showed us some of the materials they use to make natural dyes for the fur. Salt, sulfur, and crushed beetles were just a few of the dye materials they showed us for making a range of beautiful and bright colors. Afterwards we couldn’t resist picking out Alpaca fur scarves to take home with us.
Then it was time to start the walking portion of the tour which started with seeing Cusco’s White Christ statue (a mini version of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer). Standing below the White Christ, we got our first glimpse looking out over Cusco and its adorable red rooftops surrounded by high mountains.
After walking back down the mountain into town, we made our way to the city square where Carlos explained that Cusco is the safest and friendliest city in Peru, and after a rather brutal history when the Spaniards arrived and took over, Cusco is now in a period of peace. Standing in the center of Cusco we could see for ourselves the mix of Spanish and Inca architecture that makes up much of Peru, a sad and beautiful mix of old and new worlds coming together.
Following the tour, we headed back to the city square for our first Peruvian meal. We shared two Peruvian dishes for dinner — Alpaca lomo saltado which we loved, and Aji de Gallina, a yellow sauce and chicken dish which we weren’t particularly fond of and avoided for the remainder of the trip. We headed back to Loki after dinner for a round of pool and drinks at the bar before heading to bed. I quickly learned that night how hard it is to get any sleep in a party hostel, especially when you’re lucky enough to end up in a room right above the bar.
I woke up surprisingly early the next morning (especially considering that I am NOT a morning person), but since I was up I headed downstairs to sit in the sun and have a cup of hot coca tea. Coca is a natural remedy for altitude sickness that was served everywhere in the area and I loved it. Once Amit was up later we had a quick breakfast at the hostel before heading off to the San Pedro market, a popular spot for local food and trinkets. We picked up a few small gifts then made our way over to Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun. Qorikancha was a beautiful building with a temple area, stunning courtyard, and an amazing view looking out over Cusco.
Later in the afternoon, we decided to hike up to the White Christ statue since we weren’t able to get very close on our tour the day before and we wanted to take some better photos. On our way there, we got talked into taking a horseback ride around some Incan ruins near Sacsayhuaman. We ended up making friends with a German girl who was traveling by herself so we invited her to join our horseback ride which took us on an amazing tour through the mountains. Afterwards, we started hiking back down toward White Christ where we found a spot to climb through the fence to see more of the ruins of Sacsayhuaman which we hadn’t done originally because the park fee was so expensive. But we got to see a few of the ruin sites anyway and take some pictures before finally making our way over to White Christ.
Once we made it to the top, it turned out to be a beautiful statue and the perfect lookout point over Cusco. After parting ways with our new German friend, we hiked back down to Loki to relax and check into our jungle trek!
This would also probably be a good time to mention that I had been really feeling the effects of altitude sickness all day. Cusco sits high above sea level at almost 12,000 feet which is actually higher than Machu Picchu by about 4,000 feet. We had been climbing most of the day since Cusco is a very hilly city full of steep steps, and any amount of hiking up was leaving me out of breath and feeling really out of shape. This had me pretty nervous for starting the jungle trek the next morning, especially since we would be carrying our backpacks with us from this point forward, but we were excited to get started on the part that we had really come to Cusco for.
Day 1 of the Jungle Trek
After waking up at 6:00 the next morning to meet up with our group, we hopped in a bus and were driven to the top of a nearby mountain for our first activity — biking down the mountain.
Just as we finally finished getting all of our gear on (jackets, vests, knee pads, helmets), fog rolled in and it started hailing. They let us start our bike ride out anyway so off we went into the fog with hail pounding our faces.
I started out right behind Amit and had another girl directly behind me, but in the dangerous weather conditions I was taking turns too slow and quickly fell behind. Then before I knew it, I couldn’t see Sarah behind me either and I quickly found myself biking down a mountain in Peru by myself in terrifying conditions.
I was so relieved when we finally made it to our halfway point and I had no interest in getting back on my bike back to finish the second half of the ride. But while we were enjoying taking pictures at a lookout point, the weather cleared and it turned into a beautiful, sunny day.
With amazing weather finally setting in, I set off on the second leg of the ride behind another girl who was biking much slower than the guys ahead of me before had been, and it was the perfect pace. The two of us stayed together for the entire ride and with the improved weather I could finally take my turns a little faster and turn my head to look out at the views next to me. We were surrounded by incredible mountains above and valleys below, and I ended up loving mountain biking the second time around, made even sweeter by the contrast of the extreme weather we had started out in.
After biking, we hopped back in the van for a ride to our lodge for the first night. We enjoyed a quick Peruvian lunch before changing into our bathing suits for white water rafting! Most of the group wasn’t interested so we ended up with the perfect group of 7 all sharing one raft with quite the hilarious tour guide.
He got us through the rapids safely but far from dry. It was a great rapid course and every tough rapid we made it through ended with a group high five using our paddles and yelling 1,2,3… Pisco sour! Toward the end of our course, we were able to hop out of the raft and climb a rock for a 12 foot jump into the river below for a little adrenaline rush. Overall, white water rafting was a fantastic addition to the jungle tour and ended up being one of my favorite parts of the whole trip (aside from Machu Picchu itself, of course).
Day 2 of the Jungle Trek
We headed back to the lodge after rafting for another delicious Peruvian meal while getting to know our new travel companions a little better. Then it was off to bed to get ready for our 6:30 wake up call the next morning. After an early breakfast, we headed straight out from the lodge to begin our all day trek. The morning was pretty easy, taking us over relatively flat ground and a few hills. Then right before our first break, we started our ascent to the highest peak…
Our ascent included two breaks at two different monkey houses — and yes, they had real monkeys! The first was a short break to grab water and snacks, and the monkey there was unfriendly and not safe to pet. Good thing we weren’t stopping for long anyway, so a few minutes later we were back to trekking another 20 minutes straight up the mountain before reaching the second monkey house.
As I mentioned before, I had been struggling with the altitude in Cusco before we set off on our jungle trek, and I was still struggling with it on our ascent to the highest peak. Twenty minutes sounds like nothing, but the climbing was so difficult for me. I was running out of breath quickly and having to stop every couple of minutes. I was so relieved to finally make it to the second monkey house where we got a much needed hour long break.
During our break the guide showed us several foods grown in the local area that the Incas also ate in their time. We got to see a variety of potatoes and taste cacao and chocolate. Our samplings also included two different types of rum. The first had fresh herbs and leaves soaking in it which is supposed to be good for digestion and went down smoothly. Then the second bottle of rum had a dead snake in it, which I politely declined to taste. I’m a pretty adventurous eater but I had to draw the line at snake rum after hearing about how they put a live snake in the rum and let it die in there.
The second monkey house had a chatty parrot and a much friendlier monkey that everyone enjoyed feeding snacks to and taking pictures with. Before moving on, our guide painted our faces with the seeds of a plant found nearby which made for a great group photo opportunity.
After spending as much time as possible distracting us with Peruvian foods and plants, it was time to make our final ascent. This part was even harder for me, leaving me gasping for air after just a few steps at a time. I was the last to make it to the top but it was so rewarding when we reached the amazing viewpoint of the highest peak looking out over the Andes.
We got a short break to take pictures and celebrate making it to the top before it was time to start our descent back down — which was considerably easier and so much more enjoyable! Our lunch break came shortly after and turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip (possibly because we were so hungry from climbing the highest peak). We were fed amazing guacamole and finished off lunch with delicious pasta which we were told has become a staple Peruvian food in recent years. A big lunch combined with all of the hiking we had done resulted in everyone passing out in hammocks until the guide woke us up to finish our afternoon of trekking to Santa Theresa and ending with a soak in the natural hot springs there. The hot springs felt amazing on our sore muscles before moving on to our next lodge to eat dinner and prepare for the third day.
Day 3 of the Jungle Trek
This was a shorter day to help us prepare for our very early start to Machu Picchu the next day! After breakfast at the lodge it was time for our next adventure activity — zip lining and crossing a suspension bridge. Zip lining between the mountains in front of our lodge was so much fun. I’m not scared of heights but still expected to get a little nervous at the last second. However, it turned out the guys in our group were the only scared ones! I loved the astounding views and even tried zip lining upside down a few times.
Then it was time to move on to the suspension bridge which wasn’t so fun. All of the guys were jumping up and down to shake the bridge which made it hard to move and took forever to cross, but we finally made it to the other side and moved on to the last part of our day. After a short drive, we were dropped off to spend our afternoon hiking to Aguas Calientes, the small town located at the base of Machu Picchu. Our lunch break on that day turned out to be a three course meal ending with quinoa pudding for dessert (amazing!). Once again we all took hammock naps before starting the next portion of the trek, and we got the wonderful news that our chefs would be following us on to Aguas Calientes to cook us dinner!
On our hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu snuggled high up in the mountains. It was the little bit of excitement we needed to keep us going. And we finally made it to Aguas Calientes where we had a few free hours to buy lunch for the next day and settle into our hostel before an early dinner and early bedtime.
Day 4 — Machu Picchu!
After three days of trekking and adventure activities, it was time to see Machu Picchu. Our guide had left us on our own the night before with directions on how to make the hike up to the top, so our group met up in the hostel lobby at 3:45 AM to get in line at the entrance to start our hike. And as the gates opened right at 5:00, we started our climb! It wasn’t an easy climb but I didn’t struggle as much as I had on our second day. My excitement kept me motivated, and we made it up in just under an hour where we finally got to see the grounds of Machu Picchu.
It was a foggy morning but as we listened to our guide give us some history about the Incas the fog slowly lifted, giving us an amazing look out over the grounds, and showing us just how high up we were. After years of dreaming about Machu Picchu, I had finally made it and it didn’t disappoint.
Part of our jungle trek package included an additional climb up one of the two mountain peaks on each side of Machu Picchu. We had chosen Mt. Machu Picchu which turned out to be the harder of the two and took us much longer to climb than our original climb that morning. It was an hour and a half of misery and gasping for air as we climbed to 12,000 feet. As much as I hated it, we did experience amazing views and photo opportunities on the way up.
After a short break we climbed back down to Machu Picchu to explore the ruins of the Incas and imagine what their lives were like almost 500 years ago. Then it was time to meet up with our group to hike back down to our hostel in Aguas Calientes to pick up our backpacks and take a nap before our late train back to Cusco.
On our final day in Cusco we were too sore for more exploring so we ate the hostel breakfast and relaxed until it was time to head to the airport. And just like that, our time in Peru was over!
Looking back on our trip, I would have chosen to skip the extra hike to Mt. Machu Picchu so that I could spend my energy exploring the grounds more thoroughly. But you live and you learn and I wouldn’t trade my experience at Machu Picchu for anything. Standing amongst the ruins of Machu Picchu left me wonderstruck that something so grand could exist in such a setting. I left Machu Picchu with more questions than ever about the Incan people — how they lived and why they abandoned their home — but I’ll just have to leave it up to my imagination.
Has anyone else hiked to Machu Picchu or experienced seeing it some other way? I would love to hear from you in the comments!
P.S. For any readers out there like me, I highly recommend reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams to learn more about Machu Picchu and its connection to the Incas.
View our GoPro video from the trip here!