Investigating the Incas

The Salkantay trek which snaked me through the Andes up to the ancient city was a fantastic experience! I wanted to start off with my favorite picture and give you the abridged version should you want only that; here it is Machu Picchu is magical!

Ok so starting back at square one, my adventures started high up in the Andes Mountains with an arrival into Cusco, Peru. For those not familiar that is the jumping off point where people find their treks towards Machu Picchu. I had heard outstanding things regarding this city and was eager to check out this new place. I would spend a few days in Cusco getting acclimated to the high altitude in preparation for my hike up to the ancient Incan ruins.

I liked the city but found it very difficult to rest as Cusco is also a bit of a party place, at least in the hostels! This makes it very challenging to sleep at night as fellow hostel dwellers who are out partying return late and wake people up. Then extremely early in the morning alarms go off for other travelers who are departing for their treks. The result was that I did not get a ton of sleep the first two nights, but I could not complain as I became one of those early risers (4:30am alarm!) who was making a ruckus (although I would argue I was quiet as a mouse) in the room grabbing my pack as I got ready to hit the trail.

After a few hours drive we started our trek on the trail. Arriving along a beautiful canyon side to kick off our several day hike to go find the Incan city. We were greeted with a bit of fog and a tiny bit of mist. No intense rain but the forecast suggested we might run into some of that over the course of our trek.

Our trail snaked along the high edge of a valley for several hours
Trail Tips: Follow the running water and don’t fall down the side of the mountain!

It was breathtaking scenery for our first day, with very minimal rain on the trail which made it enjoyable and not much of a struggle. It was more of a warm up day as we tackled 12km of trail to setup for the longest trekking portion which would be day number two. We setup our camp at the base of the peak which we would look to summit tomorrow morning at the start of our 18km day.

Since we had time to enjoy the area in the afternoon most of my trekking group did a loop up to a lake in the area to take in another excellent view and enjoy the raw natural beauty of the Andes.

Fording Rivers, something I am a pro at…
Sun is starting to come out
Looking back down the valley we hiked through earlier in the day

After a nice warm meal we found our tents and tried to fall asleep early. Everyone had woken up at 4:30am and we were preparing for another early and long day to come so rest/sleep was going to be important!

Next morning we rose early, enjoyed a little breakfast our guide prepared and then departed to tackle the summit of the Salkantay pass. This would be a long slow walk up as it would be the highest elevation we would encounter on the trek. It was not a long distance but took a while as we had to take our time in the thinner air where people quickly needed breaks to catch their breath.

Early morning starting off on day 2

Eventually we made it and were able to enjoy a bit of rest and snack atop the summit while soaking up the view. It would be another 16km, but the good news was that it would mostly be downhill after conquering the uphill battle in the morning.

At the top of the Salkantay pass
My trekking group

We had been fortunate to avoid the rain on the way up, the rest of the day we would not be so lucky. Starting our decent down I had to pull out the rain gear, we could tell a storm was brewing…

Overlooking the valley we would spend the new several hours hiking through

The next few hours were a bit chilly at times. I pulled out my rain poncho which was crucial in trying to help keep my backpack dry during the hours of trekking in the rain. Sadly my pants were not waterproof nor were my hiking boots. Quickly my legs and feet were soaked. I guess it was part of the experience but definitely would have been nice to either avoid the rain or have had better gear to make it through the day a bit drier!

Still all smiles even with soaked pants & shoes

After spending the day hiking (with a fair portion of it wet) I was happy to eventually spot camp. It was my version of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! The scenery was great, but I was anxious to get my wet clothes off and hope that they would dry overnight.

I spotted CAMP!

After getting an OK nights sleep I was happy to report the next morning I rose to sunny skies and clothes which had dried. It made for a nice start to the day and it was going to be an action packed morning. The options were either to spend 3 hours hiking along a main road with cars zooming by, or you could pay to do a bit of zip-lining. After zipping you would link back up with the group and hike several hours in the afternoon to Aguas Calientes. If I recall correctly it was about $40 to add in the zip-line and compared to walking along the side of a freeway was well worth it.

In fact the majority of our group went with this plan and spent the morning zipping around like kids.

Zip-Liners

We cut our way through the trees enjoying our morning as it was perfect weather and a lot of fun! In the middle of the course we hit a bit of line waiting for those ahead of us to go so me and a friend doubled back to play around on the suspension bridge cutting across the ravine behind us. It felt like it belonged in an Indiana Jones movie. We decided to see who could sprint across it as quickly as possible. The first time some of the other people in the group were freaking out and were yelling at us to stop shaking the bridge and to slow down so we definitely had more fun the second time playing around on our own.

Playing around while unsupervised

In the afternoon we hiked along the river and meandered our way up to Aguas Calientes, which would be our overnight base camp before an early morning dash up the mountain to Machu Picchu!

Spotting Aguas Calientes on our hike

It was another early evening as alarms were set to go off well before the crack of dawn. The gates to begin the hike up the mountain open at 5am. Then the upper gates open at 6am allowing you into the Machu Picchu ruins. We all rose early, but a few folks were straggling a bit. Our guide would not let us leave our hotel until all members were assembled and this was driving me crazy since I could hear other hikers making their way towards the first set of gates. I had wanted to be there at the front of the line as to ensure I could make up as quickly as possible, sadly we were at the middle/back of the first gate queue. This was not to my liking but I figured I could do my best to make up ground heading up the mountain.

The first gates opened promptly at 5am, it was not until after 5:10 that I passed the first gate entrance and could begin my fast paced climb up the mountain. It was slow going to start as everyone ahead of me was unwilling to allow any easy pass, as they were trying to keep their place in line. As the climb continued there were openings here and there and I was able to maneuver like a thoroughbred race horse, cutting through gaps when they were spotted. At one part I had to break into a run to ensure I was able to make a key pass in the middle section where there were stone steps carved in the hill which would have created a bottle neck from an old lady had I not kicked it into top gear at the right time to make my move! I think she might have been upset, but I had a sunrise atop the mountain to catch and needed to keep moving. As the upper section of the hike many folks were stopping to catch their breath so they were openly stepping to the side and allowing me to pass. This allowed me to make up ample time and I was feeling great! Every person I passed was a little win and this kept me going. It was 40ish minutes straight up and I was able to pass dozens and dozens of people who were ahead of me, while no trekkers passed me. By the time we got to the top gate I was near the front of the line, a big improvement for me compared to my experience at gate number 1.

Those who beat me up to gate 2, all had gotten to the first gate ahead of me

I arrived in time to beat the buses by a few minutes which actually seemed to beat most of the hikers up the hill. That had been my first goal of the day and had been a success.

Next up was to get into Machu Picchu and get a look around before it was overrun by everyone behind me in line. We got in and were able to enjoy seeing it while it was still empty. Once through however our guide insisted we wait for all members to arrive before we could embark on our tour. We waited and waited, which seemed like an eternity and I was growing restless. Feeling that I had wasted this great opportunity to explore the area while it was unoccupied by other tourists and now having to wait for others was not sitting well with me.

Free of tourists for a moment
Sweaty but happy!

Eventually I had had enough and I decided I would go off on my own and explore. The sacrifice was that I might have missed out on some of the Inca historical facts but what I wanted was the experience of being there and by going off on my own I was able to soak in the atmosphere in peace and quite free of distraction. I was happy to have made the choice and if given the opportunity again would do the same thing (only I would arrive at that conclusion quicker!).

It was a great time exploring the ruins all day. It was a fantastic trek and a very rewarding experience to take in Machu Picchu!

Here are a hand full of my favorite photos taken atop Machu Picchu:

Got to hang out with some llamas!
Starting to spot tourists in the photos
Sun comes out!
Favorite pic from the cool vantage point overlooking Machu Picchu