On March 23rd 2016 I had an awful day at work. I love my job, but this day was one of the more difficult. I work as a psychiatric nurse and I had aggressive patients, intrusive patients, patients attempting to self harm. I was in charge that night and was attempting to control as much as possible. I did not have a break but was able to leave work 15 minutes early due to my plans to pick up a friend from the airport. I had to pull my car over on the way to the airport because I thought I may vomit. I was so looking forward to picking Rachel up, I had not seen her since we graduated nursing school in 2013. All I could think about on the drive over was that I needed a break, I was tired, and I needed food. Rachel and I went straight to In-N-Out from the airport. Feeling refreshed after a meal, I was able to think about the next day and the excitement associated with preparations for Peru. Rachel had called me roughly 1 year prior and asked ‘if I climb to Machu Picchu next year, do you want to come?’. My answer was an emphatic ‘yes’. I had been out of school for almost 3 years and was beginning to feel restless. I had resolved to take advantage of opportunities to travel and experience new things.
Rachel and I were being driven to LAX by my mother for a midnight flight to Peru. I was able to spend all of the 24th showing Rachel a little bit of my home. It is amazing to me how refreshing it is to show someone new around my hometown. Though I take advantage of living in San Diego, I still appreciate it so much more when walking someone around for the first time. That day was a mini vacation before our adventure. We went to Vinaka for coffee, sat by the pool at my parents house, and hiked Torrey Pines. It was so pleasant. It was nice to appreciate the moments with a friend who I had not seen in so long. I didn’t feel the need to rush through the past years events or even rehash the same events of the week that I had talked through with so many others. We could just enjoy the day.
My mom and Opa drove us to LAX that evening and we had to circle around twice because we missed the international terminal. Rachel asked what the elevation was as we turned on the 5N towards LA. We all just waited for her to realize we were feet from the ocean. We made it to our gate plenty early and talked about our excitement for the trip. A bus took us to the boarding site and we settled in for the long flight. On the flight I found it easy to sleep for the majority of the time. I found a soundtrack for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel that I listened to for the full 8 hr flight, sleeping off and on.
We landed in Lima and had to go though customs, step outside the airport for a few hundred feet, and get back in the check in line. I awkwardly was carrying a backpack, small bag, and a laundry bag that had multiple other items in it. I am sure I looked absolutely ridiculous as I shifted weight around every dozen steps. We rechecked our bags and walked to board our plane to Cuzco. Cuzco, we later learned, means ‘Naval of the world’ and was the capital of the Incan world at one time. The flight to Cuzco was absolutely breathtaking. As we began flying over the Andes, I was in awe of the small villages so isolated in the beautiful greenery. There were obvious pathways throughout the mountains that twisted and turned between these villages and through the valleys. Small rivers flowed down from the mountains and between the hills. The structures became more common as we approached our landing site of Cuzco. We landed in a small airport and walked to the airport. We had booked our trip through Valencia Travel Agency, and unsure exactly what to expect, we awaited transportation to our initial hotel. We had booked a package deal through The Clymb and decided to add a couple days to our trip (why not, when traveling so far?).
At the airport terminal a friendly woman held a sign with Rachel’s name on it along with the company name and she let us know she would be our guide for the day. She showed us to a taxi with another driver. It is a weird thing to trust that you are being guided by the right person in a foreign country. You hear so many horror stories about travelers. Rachel and I had done lots of research, we stuck together, and we checked the driver had our information from the company we booked with. And then we had to trust. Driving through the city we first were in the obvious outskirts of town, houses with poorly constructed foundations, thin walls, tiny rooms. There were so many signs that seemed to be shouting at you with bright colors and bold pictures of the items advertised. There was also an incredible number of ragged dogs roaming the streets and eating garbage from the side of the road. We neared the town center and the streets became better cared for, more cobbled stones, and newly constructed buildings. The venders became geared towards tourists and we passed multiple women with Llamas and Alpaca’s on leashes who were charging people to take photos with these animals. I will not lie, taking a picture with a baby alpaca was quite tempting.
We arrived to the hotel Casa Koricancha and were greeted by a wonderful young man who did not stop smiling. He handed us some Coca tea and helped us sign papers before carrying our bags to our room. We were escorted to the most adorably quaint bedroom on the outside of a beautiful courtyard. The breakfast provided the next morning was bread, sliced cheese, eggs, and jam. Nearly every morning these were the options. We had to be intentional about not drinking the water, so were weary of fruits that may have been washed. I did slip up one morning and eat a grape and felt significantly anxious, all was well and no GI issues ensued. Our first day in Cuzco we were on our own to explore. We walked to the main center square after a nap. There were dozens of cars and skirting through the thin streets that widened as we neared the Plaza de Armas. Multiple young men approached asking us to purchase and look at paintings they were selling. There was an elderly gentleman who faithfully stood outside his restaurant inviting people in, we passed him on our way to and from the hotel dozens of times. Several women walked up and down the street selling jewelry and souvenir tokens. There were carts selling tamales, water bottles, and candies. I have traveled to Mexico and walked though the markets, in my experience people selling these things on the street are incredibly persistent. I had intended to avoid eye contact to not invite a bartering session, but found that once I said no thank you I was left alone. The people were pleasant and polite. We wandered to a little cafe and ate a chicken and rice dinner which was delicious. Rachel and I were confused by the menu pricing for the first couple of stops, but got the hang of the conversion by day 2. I think the meal was about 10 US dollars each. We stopped at a chocolate museum which was incredible, they had chocolate liquor and we got a couple chocolate treats to split. I got a hot chocolate that included mix in cayenne and cinnamon with a bottle of melted chocolate and hot milk you stir together yourself.
After we left the restaurant we began to saunter towards our hotel, taking in the sights of the surrounding hills and lighted buildings as we did. On the periphery of the Plaza de Armas there are two cathedrals and we noticed a crowd forming outside one of them. We made our way and noticed a fire lit outside the building and people walking in. We followed the crowd, noticing there were locals as well as tourists respectfully walking into the church. We sat with the crowd and together decided we would watch the service at the back for a few minutes and then sneak out. Then the lights turned off and we heard ‘salida’ over the speakers. People slowly stood and began walking towards the exit, so we followed suit. We were then in a crowd of people surrounding the priest and the fire outside of the entrance, where the priest began to chant and light a large candle. He then took this candle and lit the candles of the crowd, many individuals had purchased candles outside the church prior to entering. People slowly took these lit candles and walked back into the church which was now lit only by the light of the individual candles. People made there way back to seats and a beautiful service began. We san through the entire service and could understand enough of scripture and spanish to be able to follow along and worship along with the others in the church. A choir began to sing from behind us and a man with a resoundingly deep and pure voice began to chant Alleluias and other beautiful worship. I definitely snuck my phone out of my pocket and recorded some for a couple minutes. I was mesmerized and filled with gratitude being surrounded by such worshipful individuals on the night before Easter. Rachel and I walked out in silence when the service ended and couldn’t help but laugh at the incredible nature of this change encounter.
The morning of Easter we were to begin our group tours and walking. We went to the main square initially to meet up with our group at a nearby hotel. We passed a crowd of people surrounding dancers in the street with incredibly colorful clothing. They were holding brightly colored cloths and spinning in circles in a very celebratory fashion. There were individuals in the crown passing out food and drink. There were multiple men in white masks with faces drawn on them, these men usually had brightly colored jackets and furs, and many of them had backpacks which appeared to be dead baby llamas. I still have no idea what they were doing or represented. There were children in bright costumes participating in the dancing, people in suits watching from the middle of the square, and multiple families surrounding the events.
For the next couple of days we met up with people who were also traveling with Valencia. There are three common treks taken around Machu Picchu, the Lares trek (which Rachel and I were about to embark upon), the Inca trail (most popular by far), and the Salkantay trek. We did not meet anyone during the first two days who would be traveling with us on our Trek, but were able to meet some incredibly interesting individuals. There was a gregarious father and daughter obsessed with photography, an adventurous couple who told stories of all their travels and translated Spanish for us on multiple occasions, and a wonderful family from Encinitas that I could easily converse with about home.
We were led by Alex, a wonderful gentleman who obviously loves his home of Peru. He had a kind smile, was patient with us tourists, and made each stop interesting through his stories and obvious passion. He let us on a walking tour one day, during which we stopped in a large cathedral which was so intricately built. We walked about half a mile from the center square to a site which had originally been the Inca’s temple to the sun. There had been a large Spanish building built atop the ancient temple, but the beautifully constructed stones were still utilized as a foundation. The way the Inca’s hand carved each stone and placed them, almost like legos, together so they stood firm was described to us. The precision involved in this task to not only perfectly construct, but to move stones and build tools was impossible acknowledge with out recognizing the obvious work ethic of the Inca people. It was impossible also, not to wonder about the Spanish who came to conquer. How sad that something so beautiful could be destroyed so quickly. The Spanish made a point to destroy all religious symbols of the Incas. It was pointed out to us that when the Spanish did this, they failed to recognize the importance of wide open spaces to the Inca religious. When ceremonies were done to worship the Sun or Mother earth, they did them in areas that the Sun could look upon, so many of the places where ancient artifacts were found were untouched by Spanish because no man made structure stood atop them. Korikancha- the golden place was one of the places we visited which was filled with beautiful ruins. The buildings were trapezoidal with thatch roofs to keep them from falling when earthquakes hit. We visited Sacsayhuaman which means satisfied falcon due to the last bloody battle of the Spanish and Inca where falcon hovered above following the defeat. We learned the three key elements of Inca life were to work hard, to learn, and to love. We learned that the Inca work ethic was based on the values of helping and sharing, of community benefit, and of paying taxes through working for a set amount of time on specific community oriented projects.
On the morning that our Trek across the Lares Valley was to begin, we woke up around 5am to gather on a bus d before heading to Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a small village in the Sacred Valley where both the Inca Trail and the Lares Valley trek begin. We drove to this village, walked around a market and ate breakfast. We all purchased Coca leaves and some cookies to hand out to villagers that we passed on the trail. We were told that the locals enjoy Coca leaves of multiple reasons, primarily medicinal and for tea. Often the shepherds will chew the Coca leaves when they are tending the flock all day and this will suppress their thirst and appetite. (Maybe this is why I couldn’t eat much on the trail?) We then took a bus for another hour up a winding road towards our trail head. We were very eager to exit the bus, as all the travel by bus is on windy roads that feel like a roller coaster. The bus drove us through incredible views but made 90 degree turns after every 30 seconds (or so it seemed).
At the trail head we gathered snacks brought by the Valencia Travel team, adjusted our backpacks, put our tents and some supplies on the mules and horses and started the trek. The first few hundred feet felt incredibly long. We started around 13000 feet elevation that day and I was amazed at the difficulty. I had hiked prior to the trip, as had all the other travelers, and we all struggled. We began climbing and knew that this day was the most intense of all our hiking. I had climbed multiple sets of stairs without much difficulty the days prior, but struggled this day. It may have been the altitude, it may have been the bus ride prior to starting, or something I ate… but it was hard. About a mile in, I had to stop because I felt dizzy and nauseous, Dimas, one of our guides, noticed I was struggling and took out a bottle of what he called ‘Condor Piss’. He rubbed it on his hands and had me inhale it. No idea what it was, but it took away the nausea and helped me to power through a bit more. It was some sort of alcoholic substance. Multiple others on the trip were struggling, a couple of people had GI upset prior to starting so were in rough shape. About another mile in Dimas chose to take my backpack from me and had the horse carry it. Soprisa was the women who led the horse that carried our backpacks when we were unable to carry our own. She was a beautiful woman. She spoke primarily the ancient Inca language but was incredibly kind and patient with us. Along the trail we were able to visit her home.
On this first day March 29th we hiked 10 1/2 miles all together. Part way through the day we came over a bend and saw a lake with tents set up. We had been walking through terrain that included dusty trails, lush green meadows, flowing streams, hills filled with Alpaca, and mossy ground. There were a few portions of the hike that had no specific trail, we just marched through mushy grass and tried to not step where our feet would sink. I think most of us made it out dry. This is where we had a beautiful lunch that I was surprised by. The chef had made a 4 course meal of fish and soup and vegetables. It was delicious but I wasn’t able to eat much. We all drank tea and rested a bit before continuing on. We could see the top peak we were to climb to at this point, but it was obviously all up hill and seemed daunting. We made it to 15000 feet elevation and it looked as if we were walking into a cloud. I prefer hiking alone in general, so was quite content to stay towards the back and walk at my own pace. I was second to last crossing this line and had kept myself going by listening to Glen Hansard for portions of the trail. I would listen to one song and then break. For the last 1/4 mile or so, all I could do was count 30 steps at a time and then break for a minute. It was rough but at the top I was greeted with cheering peers who had all just completed the climb as well. We were all exhausted but so proud of ourselves. It was such an incredible feeling of accomplishment.
We continued from this peak, after a time of rest, to our camp site. We still had over a mile to hike but it was all down hill. We hiked into a clouded marshy hillside, portions of the hike you could only see a few feet in front of you and just trusted the guide was ahead of the train. There were portions where the hill on one side just rolled into a deep valley and all I could think about was The Princess Bride scene ‘aaaaaaassss youuuu wisshhhhhh”…. as he rolls down the hill. I kept to the mountain side. When some clouds lifted it was obvious there was a deep area that looked like a lake bed filled with animal bones. Quite eery. We rounded a hill, receiving much encouragement from our guides, and saw a campsite. I was one of the first to reach this campsite and all I saw was a circle of rocks with our tents set up for us and dozens of alpacas in the surrounding hills. There was a hut in the distance and one family with adorably bright dressed children in the area where our camp was set up. It was a beautiful sight in the middle of the Andes. Such a long day. One of the best days I have ever lived.
Once we settled in for the evening we ate a delicious meal and were all extremely exhausted. One of the guys on the trip had some whiskey with him and made some of us Hot Toddy’s, an amazingly satisfying beverage following an extreme hike. We ended up being in a group with 12 friends from New York who were all around 30 years old. They were an incredibly enjoyable group of people and we couldn’t have been placed with a better group. A few of the group was sick, most of us had some sort of digestive discomfort due to either elevation, exhaustion, or the food. I could barely sleep that night, at one point I had to get up to go to the bathroom. It took me a while to get the courage to step outside the tent into the unknown. I could hear the dogs in the distance, and though I knew there were not many large creatures out there, I still was terrified to go even a few hundred feet in such incredible dark. I eventually couldn’t hold anything in and had to brave it. I realized the rock I had found was not nearly as far as I had thought when I woke the next morning.
This day of hiking was primarily downhill. A huge relief to us all. Throughout the trip I was constantly grateful for the wonderful people I interacted with. The tour guides, the fellow hikers, and the locals were so kind and friendly. I never once felt I was intruding on someone, or asking too many questions, or going too slow. There were moments I felt incredibly weak and moments I felt incredibly strong. But I was never met with discouragement from those around me.
As we hiked downward about 8 miles towards the Lares Hot Springs we encountered incredible views of streams, rivers, mountains, and alpacas. We would encounter random shepherds with their flocks of alpacas and hand out coca leaves. As we neared the village there were many women and children with blankets full of tourist trinkets (keychains, headbands, toys, and coin purses). The wonderful woman Soprisa, whose horse carried our packs when we were unable to, was generous enough to show us her home when we came across the village in the middle of the Andes. All of the individuals in the village were gathered in a town square voting on various community issues. The bright colored clothing (that I had assumed was a tourist attraction) proved to be the normal wear of the Andean people. There were incredible bright orange and reds. We were told that the women would wear different colors depending on their marital status. We were also told that the women were very involved in the town meeting discussions and influential in the communities.
Soprisa’s home was a small hut with a thatched roof with large plants growing in the front yard. Inside there was a kitchen stove, stored food, some layered cot like spaces for beds and in one of the corners- about a dozen guinea pigs. We all knew the guinea pigs were eaten in Peru but had assumed it was a rarity or a delicacy. No, it is a common source of sustenance. In fact, we were told that many of the plants growing in the front were to keep the guinea pigs fed. Soprisa let us try on her bright poncho and other clothing and sold us some of the trinkets for tourists. She let us into her home and let us touch and feel her tools and clothing with a huge smile on her face the entire time. Some of us spoke enough Spanish to get by in Peru, but Soprisa spoke the native Andean language only so there was a large language barrier. I was so touched by her ability to show so much hospitality during our two days in the Andes with so little verbal communication.
We walked along a beautiful river for the last portion of our hike and rounded a bend to see a beautiful hot springs retreat where we were to camp for the night. Many of us sat in the hot spring for a long time and were incredibly grateful for the heat following the long two days of hiking. There were various temperatures of springs which made me extremely happy as a lover of heat. The warmest pool was incredibly soothing. At one point I began speaking with a couple who was visiting the hot springs. The dreadlocked blonde man told me he was in Peru on a spiritual journey and that ‘marijuana is my spirit plant’ after I declined his offer for some. He and his Venezuelan girlfriend spoke of their adventures through Peru before retiring for the evening. I slept incredibly well that night with the rushing river right next door.
The next day we walked about a mile out of town towards the Lares Village. We were to meet the bus there and head to a Inca trail several miles out of town. The bus was to drop us off and then pick us up where the road met the end of the trail. We drove through incredibly windy roads, stopping atop a mountain for a bathroom break many of us needed. We ultimately were told we could not hike the trail we expected to due to a protest in a nearby village. There was a dispute over the land between villages and a very peaceful protest was taking place so the roads were blocked into town. We were escorted out of the bus and the local officers walked us past the protesters (none of whom were aggressive in any way) to their vehicles. They offered to drive our bags to the end of the village where we could meet them. Many of us opted to keep our belongings with us but walked through the village to where the bus could meet us at the end of the road. This happened to be Alex’s home town so we had the privilege to meet his sweet dad and walk through the local markets. On the other side of town we walked past fields of humongous corn and Alex told us stories of his competitive childhood climbing nearby mountains and altitude sickness.
We eventually arrived at a restaurant where there was a monkey chained to a tree outside and a couple of goats hanging out on the lawn. We ate a delicious meal and played a ridiculous game of volleyball. I was on the far less athletic team. Rachel’s team won.
The bus then drove us to Ollantantambo where we were to catch a trail to head towards Agua Callientes. This train ride was incredibly beautiful, following a river and through beautiful landscapes. We were served delicious beverages- mine was a combination of ginger and anise that was delicious. When we arrived to Aguas Callientes we walked to our hotel and were extremely grateful for the showers. We were all exhausted and extremely hungry by the time we sat down for dinner at a nearby restaurant and made plans for the next day at Machu Picchu. We were to wake at 4am to meet at the bus stop which takes you to the top. A few in the group debated hiking the trail leading to the ancient site and meeting us at the gate when it opens at 6am. Four members of the group decided to do this after much deliberation and some hesitation.
In the morning we showered, placed our backpacks in a storage room in the lobby and headed to the bus stop. We were first in line for the first bus. We were warned multiple times that because we were in the ‘cloud forest’ we would most likely not see the typical grand Macho Picchu when we first walk in but that it would pop out at periods as the day went on— or not at all. It could also rain the whole time. We came prepared. When we arrived to the top a huge crowd began to gather, we were to enter together and participate in a tour prior to exploring on our own. We walked through the gates and rounded a bend and watched as the clouds lifted off an incredibly intricate ancient city. It looked far more incredible than the pictures. The more we explored the more the city began to be unveiled before us. We stopped the tour to take pictures when the clouds cleared in full. I am still in awe at the amazing detail and architecture atop a mountain surrounded by other mountains. The amount of green was unreal. The religious significance to the Inca people was explained to us, as well as the genius of a city hid in the mountains of the cloud forest. We learned of the defeat of the Inca people and that all had fled the ancient city prior to the Spanish defeat which is why it was not discovered until hundreds of years later. We learned of the child who showed a curious archeologist his hide and seek playground, leading to one of the greatest discoveries of the ancient world. We learned about the capabilities of humans to create beautiful things and to value every aspect of the world around them.
There are some who walk the more popular Inca Trail leading straight to Macchu Picchu. Those who take this walk first will see Macchu Picchu from a distance at the Sun Gate if the clouds have lifted. There were several of us who wanted to see this view so walked up the side of the mountain towards the Sun Gate observing incredibly colorful views along the way. I wandered around Macchu Picchu alone for a while and took in the incredible details. We had been given our train tickets earlier in the day and had a plan to meet in Agua Calliente sat a restaurant prior to our train leaving at 4. You had the option to walk down the trail or take the bus, I was the only one who opted for the walk down and took my time walking the ancient trails. This was the most difficult walk of the trip for me due to it consisting primarily of stone stairs going downwards. My knees were happy to be sitting once arriving to the restaurant. We sat and ordered food and celebratory drinks as people began to meander in. Someone asked where we were seated in the train and as I looked at the ticket, I realized we were supposed to leave at 1400, it was now about 1320 when we saw this and we only had about half our group.
We frantically began attempting to reach our group by text of phone (which only worked with wifi) with little luck. We debated sending some ahead and the rest waiting for the two guides (neither of whom were with us) to explain what happened and wait for a future train. We had no idea if the train would be full or if we would be stuck there for another day. We decided to have a few people get backpack and go the train. They happened upon Alex and Dimas on their way and those of us in the restaurant saw Dimas flash in yelling to hurry up, he would take care of the food bill (due to the fact most of us had ordered), and run. So we ran. We grabbed our bags from the hotel next door (not caring whose bag we had) and ran. We had about 10 blocks uphill to go. We were about to step across one set of train tacks in the town when we heard a train approaching. We quickly stepped off waiting for the train to pass… but it stopped. We looked both ways deciding how to get around the train and saw one our team members, with Indiana Jones hat and all, waving us to the front of the train to keep running. We ran. By the time the second half of us got to the train they had stopped checking our passports and just let us run. Right as I pulled my ticket out I looked to the side and saw the waitress from the restaurant asking for money for drinks. I still have no idea how she got there but myself and another traveler pulled out some cash, handed it to her, and went into the gate. We made it with barely any time. Dimas had stayed back at the restaurant to wait for a couple that had not made it in time… .or so we thought. The couple walked on to the train just in time. They had happened to see Alex running with multiple backpacks and had just looked at the tickets and realized the time mix up. They decided to trust we had their backpacks and ran with him, making it right after we did. We couldn’t help but laugh and then quickly realized we were starving. I had walked about 13 miles, not easy miles either, and had only had a 2 granola bars for breakfast. We were eagerly awaiting the restaurant food when told to run, so all were ravenously sharing some almonds on the train ride.
We were to part ways after the train stopped, Rachel and I were heading back to Cuzco for two more nights and the rest of the travelers had a tour of the salt mines scheduled. We said goodbye and exchanged contact information for pictures and future visits to New York. Rachel and I had a taxi driver waiting for us to drive us another 2 hours to Cuzco… So we didn’t grab food. I began to feel super sick after driving for 30 minutes so tried to sleep until we got to the hotel. I had another granola bar in my other bag that I grabbed, but I needed much more sustenance at this point. When we finally got the hotel we couldn’t decide whether we wanted a shower or food more. We were at the point that we were so hungry we didn’t want to eat. We showered and ran across the street to grab some empanadas to bring back to our room and then crashed.
Water rafting was our last days scheduled event. Rachel had never been and I was excited to try again. We were bussed to a portion of the river where there was a lodge, changed, grabbed gear and were given an orientation. We went to the start of the rafting river and were put in a boat with a few Canadian friends and a very gregarious guide. We had been incredibly adamant about not swallowing any water during the trip, so continued to keep mouths shut and avoid as much water as possible. Until we flipped and all of us feel out. We had been told at the orientation that when you fall out you stick your feet up and grab the boat, so after pushing whoever had fallen on me off and coming up for air, that is what I did. I soon realized only the guide was left in the boat so the pull in method was going to be difficult alone. I grabbed paddles and threw them into the boat and when we came across a rock tried to assist the guide in getting into the boat. Every time I tried to stand to help get others in, another person fell in on top of me, after the second person I just stayed down. We eventually found everyone though one of the guys ended up in a boat ahead with multiple shoes we had given up on finding. The sauna and delicious roasted chicken was amazing following this. We walked around Cuzco some more in the evening and then slept in the beautiful hotel we had spent the first night in.
We left our bags at the hotel and went to the ‘highest Irish Pub on the planet’. I ordered a Pisco Sour with Passion Fruit as we overlooked the town square. At one point in the travels we had a Chica Morada (fermented purple corn drink). There were pretty good beverages on this trip.
We were tired. We were grateful. We had experienced Peru. I would go back in a heartbeat and would highly recommend Valencia Travel as well. We couldn’t have planned it better. I needed the beautiful views. I needed the friendly people. I needed the quiet.