After the Argentina mish, I had some unfinished business in Peru – Machu Picchu! I’d always been fascinated by this ancient city – no journey to South America is complete without seeing it.
I’m a bit restless after flying back to Lima and decide to try and find a local kickboxing club – after a bit of internet research I find out about Barranko Muay Thai – located in a slightly rough area of Lima. I catch a bus to the general area and after walking up and down the street it’s supposedly on I still can’t find the place. I’m a bit uneasy about being the lost looking gringo in a dodgy area with no other tourists. Fortunately I bump into a couple of English speaking locals who are heading to the same place – the first thing they say is “You shouldn’t be here – it’s very dangerous for you”. Right, so I wasn’t just being paranoid. Anyway, the entrance to the gym is through what is essentially a small hole in a wall – no wonder I couldn’t find it! The gym is pretty cool – everyone is friendly and it’s reasonably well-equipped – it feels great to be doing some pad work again.
Cusco, at 3,400m above sea level is the capital of the Cusco Region and the main tourist hub near Machu Picchu. To get there, option one is to fly directly from Lima, the other is to catch a bus. Flying is a quick, but slightly more expensive method (check out Peruvian Air and StarPerú - a tip is to look for return flights which are often cheaper than one-way). If you take the bus, it’s well over twenty hours but the good thing is that you get some time to acclimatise to the change of altitude and the option of taking a detour to check out the Nazca lines – ancient makings in the ground that can only be seen from the air. Token pic courtesy of Google below:
Why would they do this? Some believe that they were communicating with gods/aliens or perhaps they’d just been having way too much marching powder? Anyway, it does sound amazing but this bus trip is one of the most commonly robbed in South America. These bandidos are highly organised – they’re heavily armed and have been known to set up clandestine roadblocks on the most isolated parts of the road. It’s a brilliant plan – rob a whole busload of cashed up gringos and earn the equivalent of several lifetimes of wages in one night! Of course you still need to be on an unlucky bus for this to happen, but the risk/reward ratio just doesn’t stack up for me so I take to the sky.
I won’t be getting much use out of my surfboards on this leg of the trip, so leave them in the hands of Kokopelli hostel in Lima… and pray they’ll be here when I return! The flight into Cuzco is nucking futs – the runway is located in a valley flanked by towering mountains. I damn near shit myself as the plane lands at breakneck speed – along the edge of the runway the brick buildings become a blur and I’m freaking that we’re going to overshoot it! I guess they have to go faster due to the thin air at such a high altitude runway. Or they just enjoy scaring the shit out of tourists.
I evade the ubiquitous airport tourist scammers and take a short taxi ride to the Kokopelli hostel in central Cuzco. I’m warmly greeted and offered copious amounts of Coca tea to ward off the altitude sickness (made from leaves of the Coca plant – yep, the same stuff they use to make cocaine). It doesn’t really do much – a bit like a mild coffee hit. They also have fresh chamomile leaves to make tea for relaxation. I find this a little ironic - if some of the hippies in this hostel relaxed any more they’d probably slip into a coma. A minority of people in the hostel aren’t of the hippie persuasion; my favourites are a travelling couple - Tim (a Kiwi from Wellys) and Liz (from the UK). Turns out they plan to move to Perth when they’re done travelling too so we have a heap to talk about.
Cuzco is by far the coolest and prettiest city I’ve been to in South America. It has a rich history, with original structures in the area built by the Kilke culture around 1100AD, the Incans occupied it and expanded it from the 13th century before the Spanish invaded and took over, building massive churches and buildings on the site where modern-day Cuzco stands (thanks for the history lesson Wikipedia). The Spanish did retain a lot of the old Incan walls; it’s pretty cool walking through the alleyways knowing the very walls you’re surrounded by were made by actual Incans. If you have the desire to touch these walls (everyone does), expect to get scolded by the nearest tour guide (everyone does) as they don’t appreciate it. Not actually sure why as they seem pretty solid to me. The streets are also paved with stone, and stone buildings are everywhere you look. It looks even better at night under the streetlights.
Peruvian food is amazing and there’s no shortage of it here – from the amazing fresh and ridiculously cheap smoothies and juices at the local markets to the quaint little restaurants (there are some awesome restaurants tucked up in the various nooks and crannies of Cuzco – go and explore!!). One of the highlights is the discovery of Jack’s Café – owned by a lovely Aussie lady who saw the opportunity to offer up homesick Kiwis and Aussies a flat white fix. My little slice of Latin American coffee heaven – I’m so stoked to find our beloved flat white over 10,000kms from its home.
My favourite juice lady at the local markets
The traditional and most well-known route to get to Machu Picchu is via the Inca Trail; this requires booking months ahead. This is really not my style. Fortunately, there are a number of alternative Incan trails available at short notice for impulsive bastards like me. After a bit of research I settle on the Salkantay trek. This is the most extreme trek on offer and it sounds pretty awesome – five days long and the highest point is a mountain pass at 4600m ASL just below the glacier laden 6271m Mt Salkantay (the local Quechuan translation is ‘Savage Mountain’). I stock up on supplies and hired gear from Cuzco (you can hire everything you need there from boots to bags to hiking poles for a reasonable price). One of the most important supplies is a bag of dried coca leaves and a lump of ash – the idea is to wrap a small piece of the ash with a handful of leaves and chew the leaves into a macerated salivary ball and hold it in the side of your mouth while you walk – basically just pretend to be a human hamster. Apparently the alkalinity of the ash helps draw out the alkaloids (the good shit) of the coca leaves. You know you’re doing it right when your mouth goes numb and you feel like you’ve just beer bonged five red bulls.
The trek itself is amazing. Highlights for me: good crew, good food, bloody cold, having the guides bring hot tea to your sleeping bag for the frigid early morning starts, amazing views, reaching the summit, buying beers at the most unlikely place half way down the mountain (they’d been carried for hours up a trail by donkeys just to sell to thirsty tourists!). Here are few photos from the trek that can explain things better than I can:
Alpaca my bags
The night before the push to the mountain pass - freezing!
Coca leaves - traditional offering for good luck
Annie living up to the blonde stereotype
After the trek, our hiking crew catches a train with to the small town of Aguas Calientes, located at the base of Machu Picchu, where we meet up for our evening pre-Machu Picchu tour briefing. Bea (one of the girls on the trek) and I are both into our photography and we’re absolutely spewing to hear that we’ve been booked in for a train that leaves in the early arvo; this means we’ll have to leave the temples at lunchtime, missing out on the late afternoon golden hour photo session! We’re gutted but the trains are supposedly fully booked and we have to suck it up. Time will be tight as we’re also both booked to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the mountain seen in the background of the stereotypical postcard Machu Picchu photos.
At around 4am we all walk the twenty minutes down to the main gates beside the bridge across the Urubamba River at the base of Machu Picchu. From here there are two options to get up to the main entrance to Machu Picchu – you can walk up the approx. 1600 steps, or you can do it the lazy way and catch a bus. The thing is, the gates open early for the walkers, which gives them the opportunity to reach the main gates at the top before the first bus gets up there. If you’re at the front of the line at the top gates you get the special opportunity to see and take photos of empty Machu Picchu before the hordes of tourists flood it. If you’re fit and fast you can bolt up the steps and beat the buses by up to half an hour. By 5am there are couple of hundred people queuing up at the bridge all champing at the bit to get to the top in as little time as possible. Being a competitive bastard I end up third in line at the main gate (I was in contention for first until some dodgy food caught up with me half way up!!). The altitude is a lot lower here than in Cuzco or during the Salkantay trek; it’s also quite humid and after the mission uphill I am completely drenched in sweat; definitely recommend taking a spare shirt if you do the walk up.
As soon as the main gates open I bolt up the hill armed with my tripod and camera – I find a good viewpoint, quickly set up and snap off a couple of shots of completely human-free Machu Picchu. Within ten minutes the whole area is crawling with hundreds of people and I’m really glad that I made the effort earlier to get those empty shots. Unfortunately the light is a little flat, but hey, at least it’s not a complete fog white-out. I even bump into Tim and Liz up the hill!
Tim and Liz
Included in the Salkantay trek package is a guided tour of Machu Picchu. I meet up with my group but our guide reeks of booze and isn’t really making much sense so I decide to ditch the tour and do my own thing. This includes heading up to Huayna Picchu (everyone who opts to do it seems to rate it highly). You have to book in advance to access Huayna Picchu (they limit it to 400 people per day). If you’re not afraid of heights I seriously recommend this. The steps are incredibly steep and in many places they have steel cables to hold on to, but in other places you're free to roam to there’s nothing to stop you tumbling the few hundred metres below. I love the fact that it is so dangerous and raw! I’m really glad that it’s not located in a western country as there’d be handrails galore and a loss of that intimidation factor. I was simply amazed that these huge carved boulders had been not only carried hundreds of metres up the mountain, but then perfectly carved and placed in the most precarious positions. There are places with narrow sets of stairs with a sheer vertical drop hundreds of metres below. You don’t have to walk on these ones if you don’t want to, but I can’t help myself. My heart is in my mouth as I carefully edge my way along these, hugging the walls. It’s so dangerous just walking these steps –there must have been countless deaths making it. These Incan builders had serious sets of gonads. Check the video below to give you an idea of what it’s like:
On the 2,720m ASL peak of Huayna Picchu I take a couple of hours to just chill and look out over the expanse of Machu Picchu below. No photos, other tourists or distractions. Just me sitting there taking it all in and trying to gain some appreciation of the amazing feat it was to build this joint. It’s so easy to get caught up trying to just take photos that you forget to enjoy the experience for what it is, and I’m really glad I did this.
Due to my early train ride I decide to walk back down to Aguas Calientes around lunchtime, I’m a bit bummed I won’t get those evening photos but drown my sorrows with a Pisco sour at the bar. After this, I see my guide who gives me my train ticket. I can’t believe my eyes - my train actually leaves tonight, meaning I could’ve stayed up the mountain after all!! By now there’s only 45 minutes until Machu Picchu closes. I’m already physically wrecked but I’m determined to get those late arvo photos when the light is good and the llamas come down to feed on the grassed areas. I make the call and grab my gear and start jogging back down to the bridge. All the buses up the hill have finished for the day so the only option is facing that set of killer steps again. My legs are burning and I’m getting confused looks from the descending tourists who’re probably wondering why the hell this sweating gringo is heading the wrong way. I’m so physically wrecked from all the recent walking but I’m determined to get those pics and push through the pain. Sweating and sore I make it up to the top just as the place is closing and the workers are ushering people off the mountain. They begrudgingly allow me to snap off a few shots – including some with the llamas! I’m wishing I have more time but I’m stoked to get a few decent shots and go back down the hill exhausted but satisfied.
From Cusco, you can take a day trip out to the Saksaywaman and the Sacred Valley to check out other old ruins – I book mine through the hostel and have a great day out. Really informative and one of the highlights is visiting the village at the end where they give a demonstration of how they spin and dye alpaca wool and make clothing. They are super friendly and I obviously make a good impression as the women in the village keep asking me if I have a wife and will I marry one of their daughters!!!!