Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cusco - Machu Picchu Peru

I did go from Huanchaco to Lima before heading to Cusco however I am being lazy, I am returning to Lima before I head home so I am going to combine the 2 visits into 1 blog post.

Currency Soles $1 US = $2.83 Soles
Taxi: Central Lima to Bus Depot (Cruz Del Sur) - $10 Soles
Bus Lima to Cusco: $140 Soles - 22 hours
Taxi Cusco Bus Depot to Hostel in San Blas $6 Soles
Hostel Cusco: $30 Soles
4 day Jungle Trek To Machu Picchu: $538 Soles included: meals, accommodations, park entrance & transportation (van/train)

I decided to splurge on the bus to Cusco, I figured a 22 hour bus ride was not the time to go cheap and it was a good decision. Comfy seats, blankets, pillow, 3 meals and good movies. I got a seat on the 2nd floor right at the very front which is great for viewing the sights. The scenery once we hit the mountains was spectacular but it is a little freaky from that seat. cliff, cliff, cliff, rock wall, rock wall, no road quite the rush in some places. The ride took 24 hours, we hit some contruction along the way so we got delayed a bit. I ended up getting sick all night on the bus, pretty sure it was bad street meat that I had on the way to the bus depot. Good thing I spent the big bucks on the delux bus 2 bathrooms to choose from.

We got into Cusco around noon and I grabbed a cab to the hostel I had found on called Casa Del Gringo II, it is located in the San Blas area which is just up the hill from the main square. I got a private room with a bathroom for $30 Soles which included breakfast. I really liked this hostel, the staff were great the breakfast was a real breakfast and they have some very nice common areas. I met some really great people staying here.

Cusco is at 3395m above sea level and altitude sickness is pretty common, I seemed to luck out and I was fine but if you go give yourself a few days in Cusco before you head out on a trek just in case. I did meet a lot of people who did get sick their 1st few days in town.  Cusco was the capital of the Inca emprire and then taken over by the Spanish so it has some great architecture and most of the streets in the central area are narrow cobblestoned twisty things. The town has tons of shops, tour operators, restaurants, museums, bars and hostels/hotels, everything a tourist would ever need. As Cusco is the place to gather before heading to Machu Picchu there is an eclectic mix of folks everything from backpackers to elderly Japanese tourists. It is a very hilly city, where I was staying was up a pretty steep hill, doing that every day 5 times a day for 3 days was pretty good training for the trek to Machu Picchu.

In January there was a flood/mudslide and Machu Picchu was shut down for a few month, it re-opened about a month before I got there in May. Due to this there was no way to get a permit to do the Inca Trail, they had a backlog of people to get through. At this time there are no permits available until October at a cost of $465.00 US, they recommend booking at least 3 months in advance. I ran into a woman in Colombia who had done 3 different treks up including the original Inca trail and she told me that she liked the jungle trek the best. I visited a few different tour operators in town and got itineraries and pricing and decided to do the 4 day jungle trek: biking, rafting & hiking. These tours leave every day so you can book it and go within 2 days so no need to pre-book online before you go. I booked my trip for 2 days later at a cost of $190.00 US. Since this leg of the trip I have run into people who have done the Salkantay hike which is 5 days and they all loved it. It is a more challenging hike and at higher altitudes so it is colder which means more gear to carry, it is camping not hostels and it costs a couple of hundred dollars more than the jungle trek.

Day 1
Put big pack in storage at hostel - pack day pack
7am - Mini Van pick up

There were 12 of us on the tour, 7 of us Canadians, 3 Americans and 2 Isralies, a few people knew each other and 5 of us were solo travelers. After the van picked me up we did a couple of more stops to pick up more people and then stopped to pick up the bicycles and put them on the roof. We then had an 1 1/2 drive to the top of a mountain where we unloaded the bikes and got a safety talk before they pointed us downhill and let us go. The ride is 50km and takes about 3 hours, the road is paved and twisty for about 2 hours of it and then it is dirt and twisty, some awesome views. The van follows along behind and a guide came with us on a bike, it is a fun ride you just have to remember to never never never use the front brakes. We did have one of our group take a tumble, hit a rut the wrong way. She gouged her knee up a bit but was fine, she is a trooper and got back on and finished after a little first aid. At the end of the ride the van picked us up and took us to the town of Santa Maria, we checked into the hostel and then went rafting for a few hours. The rafting was fun the river is a class 3 so not very challenging but again nice scenery and there were 3 other rafts going out the same time we went so a little rivalry going on. I would suggest lots of bug spray before you go, it was getting close to sunset towards the end and we all got some pretty good bites. Back to the hostel for diner which was great and a few beers and bonding. The group was great, no personality conflicts and everyone had been to different places so much sharing of travel knowledge. 4 of us were from Vancouver, 1 worked in Vancouver now and then and 1 of the Americans had been up with the US paralympics team so many discussions about the Olympics.

Day 2
7am Breakfast

This is a 9 hour hike day, we start our walk out of town at 8am. The 1st 30 minutes of the hike is on the road, we went through a section of town that is no longer used. The river in the area tends to overflow a lot so the low section of town that used to be populated got flooded out, kind of eerie some of the buildings are still there including the bank but they are definitely the worse for wear. We cut off from the road and headed into the jungle and uphill for a couple of hours. Along the trail every now and then we ran into local women selling drinks, strange going around a corner in the middle of nowhere and finding a lady sitting on a rock with a bucket of beverages. They are some tough people, 1 woman was walking up the trail with a kid strapped to her and carring 2 buckets full of drinks. I have no idea how she did it, there were parts along the trail when I was praying for death.

Thank god for Coca leaves, I brought a big bag of them with me to munch on and I am pretty sure they are the only thing that kept me going at some points. Coca leaves are legal in Peru and Bolivia, hostels with kitchens supply them for tea (mate de coca) and they are used for altitude sickness and to give a little extra stamina on hikes, you don't get as tired or hungry. But a word of warning, you will test positive for drugs for up to 28 hours after you ingest them so you may want to lay off them a few days before you head home especially if your work has drug testing.

After a few hours of uphill we got to a place called the monkey house, named after their pet monkey Marco one of those cute white faced/black ones. They also had a huge rodent looking thing, I can't remember what it was now but it was mean, they warned us not to touch it. The monkey house is along the path in the jungle, they sell drinks, snacks and they grow, roast and sell coffee. Best of all they had hammocks and an outhouse, we got to spend a leisurely 1/2 hour before heading out.

Just my luck more uphill, I really hate uphill, way too much like work. An hour of that and then downhill yippeeee.. But my happiness was short lived, it was downhill but on a very narrow path and some really small uneven stairs carved into the side of the mountain with a shear cliff drop off to the valley below. I have an issue with heights, they freak me out and in this case because the wall of the mountain was uneven there really wasn't any way to plaster myself to the wall. One of the guys had a worse problem than me, he ended up going down a lot of the stairs on his butt. If you have an issue with heights this may not be the tour for you. I made it and on my feet but I was pretty terrified for a good part of it. Makes it worse when your legs won't stop shaking. Once down the killer stairs we got a 15 minute rest and then off again, more uphill for an hour and then a stop for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, more comfy hammocks. Another couple of hours in the jungle and then we were on a dirt road. After a few hours of eating dust everytime a car went by which happened every 5 minutes our guide gave us the option of taking a van the rest of the way. We took it. Checked into the hostel in Santa Theresa, long shower and off for diner.

At diner there was a little debate going on. When I booked my trip I was told the 3rd day was a 6 hour fairly easy hike. Some people were told they could choose between the 6 hour hike and a 9 hour hike that was 3 hours up a mountain. Our guide was under the impression it was a 6 hour hike and had a bit of a hissy fit, in the end he called his company and they told him to let us vote on it. The 9 hour hike won by 1 vote.

Day 3
5:30 am breakfast

One of our trekkers got sick the previous day and had skipped diner to try to sleep it off. She wasn't sure what was wrong with her, she isn't the kind of person that would say anything unless she was really ill. A total hiking health girl who has had dengue fever and malaria and lived to tell about it. She was feeling even worse in the morning and let the guide know that there was no way she could do the hike.

I wasn't into doing the 9 hour hike and neither were 2 others so we volunteered to go with her and just get a bus to Agua Caliente. Our guide told us there is no road, a casualty of the flood that had not been repaired yet, the only way out was to hike. Another group with the same tour company was doing the 6 hour hike so he told us to go with them. There was no way sick girl was going to be able to do the 6 hours, our guide seemed to have a problem grasping this. Finally he arranged for the van to take us up the river to where the road ended which took an hour off the walk. We would have to hike a couple of hour from there to the train station then we could put sick girl on a train and the 2 of us could join the short hike group and do the rest of the hike to Agua Caliente. Our original guide and the rest of our group headed out for the 9 hour hike.

The route we had to hike to get out was in the same area as the folks in the other group doing the 6 hour hike so we arranged to meet them at the end of the road where there was a "tram" over the river. I use the term  loosely, a piece of plywood suspended on a rope with a guy on each end to pull it back and forth. 2 of us went with sick girl in the van, me and the girl who gouged her knee on the bike ride and 1 went with the short hike folks. The 1st part of the short hike was up the road the van took so we didn't miss anything by taking the van. We met the short hike folks at the tram. It was an awesome ride across the river, the tram holds 3 people, it takes about 5 minutes to get pulled across, a pretty good rush. A tip for the guys pulling it across the ravine is expected once you reach the other side alive.

At this point the 3 of us parted company from the short hike folks, the guide gave us directions on how to get to the Machu Picchu park gate and told us to meet them there. We were on our own without a guide for the next couple of hours. Sick girl was a total trooper we didn't go very fast but she kept plugging along, said she was afraid if she stopped she wouldn't be able to get moving again. We did run into people going the other way every now and then so we could confirm we were going the right way, bit of a relief. We made it to the park gate, there was a bench so she got to lay down for a bit until the short hike folks arrived about 30 minutes later. Another 10 minute walk and we got to the train station and the restaurant that we were going to have lunch at. The train was not going to come for another 4 hours, there was a hostel there so the guide for the short hike group arranged to get sick girl a room so she could get some rest. The plan was to leave her there, our original group doing the 9 hour hike would be coming through in 3 hours, they could pick her up and someone could ride the train with her to Agua Caliente. We felt a little weird just leaving  her there but everyone that worked at the restaurant, hostel and store agreed to let our group know she was there when they came by so we were pretty sure they wouldn't miss picking her up.

After lunch we were off, the rest of the hike was on a trail by the railway tracks, an easy and beautiful walk. Some tricky "bridges" and by that I mean just the tracks with no side rails over the river so we had to walk on the spaced out ties, don't look down, don't look down. At one point there is a spot where we could look up and see Machu Picchu way up hanging off the side of the mountain, a magical sight. The hike took about 2 hours.

Agua Caliente is named after the thermal baths in town. The towns sole purpose is to cater to the tourist heading up to Machu Picchu. It is a cute town with restaurants and accommodations to suit ever budget, lots of uphill and since the only way in or out of town is via train or hiking there is no traffic other than the buses that run up to Machu Picchu. I was very much looking forward to the thermal baths so we checked into the hostel, suited up and headed out to the thermals. It was pretty crowded but the water was warm and a cabana boy brought beers around so we didn't have to get out of the pool. Paradise. I met some really great people in the pee pool, a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.
When we got back to the hostel the rest of our original group was arriving and they had picked up sick girl from the hostel, the family was together again. Sick girl went to bed, the rest of us went out for diner to compare notes on our days adventures. They said their hike was good, the reason they wanted to do the extra 3 hours was because once you are up the mountain you can look across and see Machu Picchu. I am a very lazy person so I don't see why anyone would want to drag their ass up a mountain for that when they would be going there the next day but to each their own. In my world dragging my ass up a mountain or sitting in a thermal bath is a total no brainer choice.

Day 4
3:30am Up and hunting for coffee

The gate at the bottom of the trail up to Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) opens at 4:30am and the running of the backpackers begins. Why the race? There is a mountain in the citidel called Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), only 400 people a day are allowed to climb it so the 1st 400 to make it to the gate at the top get the passes. They allow 200 up at 7am and 200 up at 10am, you let them know which one you want when the guy comes down the line to hand out the passes. The folks on the 1st bus at 5:30am are usually shit out of luck  A totally hilarious game, it is pitch black on the trail so a flashlight is required although there was 1 person using their cell phone to light the way which was darn funny to see. Okay the whole thing was funny, just a bunch of bobbing lights in the jungle and people scrambling around, a lovely bonding experience. The trail is really steep, it is made up of a ton of stairs, every now and then you come out of the bush and find yourself on the road, cross it then back into the bush and up more stairs.The average time to get to the top 1 1/2 hours, I was #249. Here is a link to a picture of the climb, the road zig zags, the trail goes straight up the middle, you come out at the top to the left of the building beside the ruins. And good news, sick girl although still not feeling very good did the hike up too.

Machu Picchu  is 2430 m above see level, it is a pre-Colombian ruins that was discovered by the outside world in 1911. No one is really sure why it was built but the leading theory seems to be that it was built as an estate for an Inca Emperor and as an astronomical observatory. Most people think the inhabitants were wiped out by small pox before the Spanish came to the area. Machu Picchu was never looted and destroyed by the Spanish so all of the artifacts and bones remained intact making it an important cultural site. It is a magical place, totally awe inspiring especially early in the morning before the crowds arrive. On that note, Machu Picchu is in danger, tourism and developement in the area is taking it's toll on the site and the surrounding areas, it is on the watch list of the worlds most endanged historical sites. In 1992 there were 9000 visitors for the year, in 2007 it was close to 5000 visitors a day. I couldn't find any info on it but I would bet the increase coincides with the building of the road and the bus service. Sometimes it is a very bad thing indeed to give in to tourist demands and the lure of $'s. I hope the Peruvian Government puts the brakes on new developement and starts limiting the number of tourists they let in each day. It would be a shame to loose this treasure because of our own stupidity.

Our guide was pretty annoying, I did the hike so I could peacefully watch the sunrise, same with most of the folks in our group. Our guide wanted to give us his spiel on the ruins complete with a picture book, a few of them escaped but he caught the rest of us trying to sneak off. It's a good thing I am very good at tuning people out, not as peaceful as I would have liked but a beautiful sight to behold.After a couple of hours he left us alone and we were free to run amok on our own.

I had decided not to do Huayna Picchu, it is a 45 minute trek straight up and I had heard there was a killer set of stairs on the way down, just couldn't face another scary ass stair heights thing. A tip; folks that do the Inca trail get in too late to get climbing passes for Huayna, there are lots of people like me that decide not to do the climb so... At 10am go and hang out at the entrance of Huayna, at 10:30am if they have not reached the 200 people they start letting in people on a 1st come 1st served basis.

I did hike over to the Inca bridge which was pretty cool, those Inca's were engineering geniouses. They managed to carve out a trail, be it a very narrow one along the side of the mountains. I also did a hike up to the Sun Gate which is where the origional Inca Trail comes into the site. By noon Machu Picchu is packed with people, it is really hard to go down the paths and through the ruins in the main part. The buses run up from Agua Caliente every 20 minutes and they are full. After about 7 hours of exploring I decided to head back to town. The bus down is $7.00US but I decided to walk down the trail, I wanted to see it in the daylight. It was much easier going down than it was coming up, it was a beautiful walk and I made many stops on the way down just to soak up the ambiance. Not many people on the trail which was very nice.

My train ticket back to Cusco was included with the tour, our guide (who had already gone back to Cusco) was suppose to leave them for us at the hostel reception. A few of the others from the group were there when I got back. Our guide had not purchased tickets for 2 people and we had a ticket for someone who did not exist. Luckily the same guide that helped us out with sick girl fixed it and got tickets for them, not sure how it happend but they got the 6:30pm train, the rest of us got the 9:45pm one. If you take the tour insist that you get a ticket out by 7pm, we didn't get back to Cusco until 2:30am, it made for a very long day.

Peru Rail is the only game in town, we were booked on the backpacker train, I was expecting a chicken bus on rails but was pleasently surprised. Comfy seats grouped in 4's around tables, free snacks and drinks, a very nice ride. I was sitting with a Peruvian family, Mom, Dad and Daughter who was about 10. Cute bossy kid, she is learning English so everytime I tried to speak in Spanish she would give me shit and tell me to use English, she wanted to translate for her parents. They travel a lot and have been everywhere in Peru, more good travel tips and their family owns Inca Cola a very popular soda pop in Latin America. I love talking to locals that is what travel is all about. The train does not go all the way to Cusco, they are still repairing a lot of the track that got damaged from the mudslide/flood so part of the way is by train then it is a mini van ride and then a bus. I ran into a guy from our group who was on the 6:30pm train a few weeks later in La Paz and he told me their mini van went off the road. They were very lucky there are some huge drop offs on that road, luckily no injuries.

The bus dropped me off at the main square in Cusco at around 2:30am. Cusco at night is very cool when there is no one around. Steep dark twisty cobblestone streets, old buildings, toss in a vampire and wolf and you have the makings of a great horror movie. I didn't run into anyone on my walk up the hill to the hostel it was very peaceful, I took the long way back. I did have to wake up the night person at the hostel, I felt kind of bad. To get in you have to hit a buzzer so I am pretty sure I woke up everyone in the place cause I spent 1/2 an hour hitting it before the person that worked there woke up and answered. Not bad enough that I was willing to sleep in the doorway however.

The next day I was heading out to Bolivia, I had purchased my bus ticket before I left on the trek. My bus didn't leave until 8pm so I slept in, stored my packs at the hostel and spent my last day wandering around town.

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