Cuzco & the Inca Trail in September (and why you should go)

My first trip to South America was full of firsts for me: first time to sleep in an airport, first time to be threatened with fire and rocks by the locals, first time to sleep in a tent at a train station, first time to eat a guinea pig, first time to go four days without a shower. None of this sounds like a good time, but it added to the experience. After all, you never tell the story about the time everything went right….

 

Getting to Cuzco (Friday & Saturday)

Luckily for me it’s pretty easy to get to Peru from Houston. A mere 6.5 hour direct flight will get me to Lima.  Which would be great if I wanted to hang out in Lima (which by all accounts is a cool place and maybe one day I’ll check it out). But this visit was all about Cuzco. It’s kind of a pain to get to and here’s why: There are no late night flights from Lima to Cuzco. Houston flights arrive after 11PM and flights to Cuzco end well before then and don’t resume until after 3AM.

So that means you’re either spending the night in Lima (which would be a great idea if you have the time) or you’re spending the night in the airport (a significantly less exciting prospect). My husband was short on vacation days because he’s my adventure buddy and I’m constantly dragging him all over the world so we wanted to get to Cuzco as soon as possible to begin the acclimatization process.  We (my husband, brothers, and I) opted to sleep in the airport and take the earliest? second earliest? flight we could get to Cuzco. Some things I learned:

1- Don’t throw away the baggage claim stickers they give you when you check your luggage in the States.  I often use mine to throw away my gum (gross but true). Luckily this time I didn’t.  An airport employee in Lima checks everyone’s tickets as they pull their luggage off the baggage carousel.  You have been warned.

2- There are tons of dining options including Papa John’s, McDonald’s (they even have a quarter pounder despite being in a metric-using country), and various other eateries.  There’s a lot of activity in the Lima airport at midnight.

3- Go ahead and buy that bottle of water. You are allowed to take it through security on domestic flights but you still have to take off your shoes. Go figure.

4- Sleeping in the airport isn’t as bad as I thought it would be and a surprising number of people do it.  My husband and brothers shielded their eyes with baseball caps.  I used my lavender scented zebra striped sleep mask. (Don’t judge). It’s easy to find space to sprawl across a few seats by your gate so use your backpack as a pillow and get comfy until your plane arrives.

The LAN flight to Cuzco was easy peasy. That was my first time on that particular airline and I can’t complain (though I did doze off again so maybe I’m not the best judge). I heard they served a delicious orange cake (because that’s what people want at 4:00AM?), but as mentioned I was sleeping so I missed it.

We arrived in Cuzco just after 5AM. It’s a small airport so no stress. And nobody checks your luggage tag so do what you will with it (at your own risk).  There’s an official taxi stand where you collect the baggage and plenty of independent taxi drivers just outside the door.  We decided to play it safe and grabbed a taxi from the official guy.  Because of our luggage we split into two cabs. A trip from the airport to our hotel (the JW Marriot El Convento) was $40 per cab.  We paid about half of that on our return trip so the lesson here is shop the price.

A short 20? 30? minute drive later we were at the hotel.  Naturally our rooms were not ready, but they did hold our luggage for us so we went out to explore the city before the streets became packed with tourists.  We returned to the hotel sometime after 6AM and hit the breakfast buffet. A nap, a shower, and some coca leaf tea later and we were ready to wander the city on foot. Here are a few pics:

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Plaza de Armas (taken later in the day)

 

 

Lunch was at Paititi at the Plaza de Armas where we all decided to try the lomo saltado.

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It was great and the food was reasonably priced.  In fact, at the conclusion of our trip we discussed the fact that all food and drink we encountered in Peru was very reasonably priced (with the exception of my $20 hamburger at the JW.  But it was soooooo good).

Despite our naps, we crashed pretty early that night. The hotel offers entertainment in the courtyard (including s’mores!) Saturday nights and it can get loud.

 

Tips:

1- Take advantage of your ridiculously early arrival in Cuzco and use that time to explore.  You will never again have the chance to explore and photograph the city without jostling and competing for a shot with hundreds of other visitors.

2- Bring your earplugs. Generally a good idea anyway for a myriad of reasons, but especially useful when your hotel has amazing entertainment that you’re just too tired to enjoy.

Day 3 (Sunday)

Time to explore! We hired a taxi in Cuzco to take us on a tour of the Sacred Valley. We spoke with our concierge who called a taxi service for us. We got Franco in taxi #18 (you can request him by name or car#). He drove us around the Sacred Valley rockin’ out to his collection of 1980s American pop for half a day.  And bonus that he offered to take our photos at every single stop. Franco didn’t speak much English but two of us spoke enough Spanish that we were able to converse and thereby get a little history lesson/tour guide with our ride. If you don’t speak Spanish don’t fret. Just do a little research on the Sacred Valley before hand so you have a clue about what’s going on.

We saw some good things on our way to Pisaq like alpacas and non-bewitched houses. Hmmmm….

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Next stop was Awanacancha where you can learn about llamas, alpacas, & vicuñas in a pretty nice little museum, feed said animals, then purchase items made by local craftspeople with fibers from those same animals. Overall a nice place to spend an hour or so.

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Pisac (Pisaq)

Our first major site was Pisac (or Pisaq if you prefer). There is a large market in the actual town but we opted to skip it even though rumor has it that it’s pretty good.  We learned the hard way that the Pisac ruins are pretty crowded on the weekend, but we were still able to enjoy them.  Purchase your ticket in town (your driver will know where to go). Vendors sell drinks and snacks at the entrance and there a loads of tour guides offering their services for a fee (not sure what it was because we didn’t hire one). Pisac is a good place to spend 1-2 hours.

 

Urubamba

We stopped here for lunch at Inka House.  They offer a wide variety of local foods at their buffet. Lunch cost about $15 with a drink and was all you can eat.  The food was excellent and I discovered banana fritters. Yum. This is a popular place with the tour groups. If you’re lucky like we were you’ll be wrapping up as the tour groups begin to arrive.  For your added enjoyment there’s live musical entertainment.

There’s definitely more to do in Urubamba, we just didn’t do it.

Chinchero

Our final ruin of the day. Not nearly as impressive as Pisac.

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Our final tour stop was at another weaving facility. This time we learned how the fibers are dyed, spun, and woven from a Quechua lady that spoke wonderful English.  It was very interesting and I’m glad we stopped. Naturally there are goods for sale including silver items in the back.

 

You can find them online at http://www.incas.org/center-for-traditional-textiles-of-cusco

Tips:

  1. Take plenty of cash and plan to haggle.  It’s fine and it’s fun.
  2. Get started early. There are other major sites in the valley. We missed them, but you don’t have to.

We finished the day with dinner at the KFC in Cuzco and had to try the local soda (think Big Red meets lemonade)

 

We ended the evening with a visit to our tour outfit to prepare for our trip to the Inca Trail.

Day 4 (Monday)

Monday was spent wandering around the city (again) and checking out the things we skipped before.  Highlights included the San Pedro market (where a mean lady fussed at me for taking a photo of her wares -I asked permission after that). You could probably find just about anything in the market from flowers to souvenirs to animal parts. There’s a collection of stands in the back where you can order food but we declined since we were heading to the Inca Trail that evening and didn’t want any issues. If I had planned things a little better we would’ve hit that on day one to enjoy some of the local street food.

 

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some type of eggs

Somewhat bummed about having to skip the food kiosks at the market we decided we could still enjoy the local food scene at Kusikuy. What is Kusikuy you ask? Well let me tell you.  It is (apparently) the premier place to eat guinea pig. Seriously. And alpaca, too.  We arrived early and were the only patrons. The owner talked with us for a bit and then was kind enough to tell us how to the the little booger. Between the four of us we had chips, 1 guinea pig, and 2 orders of alpaca along with a beer each.  That was plenty.  Mike thinks the cuy tastes like a cross between rabbit and squirrel. I haven’t determined why he knows this. My humble opinion is that the cuy was kind of gross but the alpaca tasted like a really lean beef. I’m glad I tried all of it, but I probably won’t eat any of it again. Incidentally I asked out taxi driver Franco if he ate cuy thinking maybe it was some elaborate hazing that tourists were subjected to.  He said yes so I asked him if it tasted like chicken (which was lost on him because he told me it tasted like rabbit.)

 

That evening we gathered and weighed our trekking gear, packed the other stuff in our suitcases to be kept safe by our hotel until our return, and headed over to the tour outfit to meet up with the rest of the group to travel to the start of the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail (Monday- Friday)

You’ve read the posts, blogs, and articles, but there’s nothing like actually experiencing it for yourself (duh). For example, as I was scouring the internet, never did anyone mention that they had spent the night in a tent in a bus parking lot before beginning their trek (I did). I also did not read about strikes by the local workers (which we encountered including flaming objects blocking the road and angry men threatening our bus with large rocks). And you know what? We survived.

Monday evening. My husband, brothers, and I met at the office of our tour group. Due to planned strikes in the area they determined that we should leave Cuzco at 8PM in the evening as opposed to the originally planned 4AM the following day. Just in case we encountered any issues. Which we did. A quick debriefing and we were sent back to our respective hotels to gather our trail gear and meet back at the office a few hours later.

We returned as arranged and met our fellow hikers- 3 couples from Canada, 2 girlfriends from Malaysia, a mature couple from England, and a solo woman traveler from the Midwest. We hopped on the bus then began our multi hour drive to KM82- the beginning of the trail (and coincidentally a train station). There were some tense moments as we encountered flaming logs blocking one lane streets and men threatening our van with rocks. Luckily our guide was part Quechua and was able to disarm the situations in which we found ourselves (also I’m fairly certain he paid some people off). We arrived very late, the porters pitched our tents, and we were out for the next 5 hours.

Inca Trail Day 1 (Tuesday)

Day one on the Inca Trail in early September is hot. And that’s coming from someone born and raised in Houston. You’ll start the day with sleeves but know that a few hours in you will be stripping and applying sunscreen. Plan accordingly. Day one wasn’t at all how I imagined the Inca Trail. It was a dusty trail through a handful of villages. And really the word village implies that there are more than a handful of buildings. What we encountered were mostly a few houses grouped together around the trail. Enterprising people in the villages had toilets we could use for 1 sol and they even gave us toilet paper. (Yay) You’ll take it for granted but I promise that you will remember these toilets fondly by the end of your trek.

We trekked for about 9 hours before arriving at our campsite for the evening. During that time one of the Canadian men began feeling violently ill. He and his buddy (also starting to have mild discomfort) rented donkeys in the village where we stopped for lunch and rode to the camp. Our guide had them start Cipro which would have been great if they only had traveler’s diarrhea. Turns out they brought a virus along on our trek which managed to infect almost all of us. I mention this because it’s a good reminder with useful information.

  1. Bring lots of hand sanitizer. I had a travel container clipped to my pants at all times. I should have brought 2.
  2. Bring Cipro. Just in case you do get Traveler’s Diarrhea. Tell your doctor you’re traveling to Peru and he/she will likely suggest it before you even have a chance to request it.
  3. If you get ill on day 1, you can rent a donkey. This may  or may not be useful information depending on how your day is going. There are no villages after the first day so you suck it up and do your best if you’re ill at that point.
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obligatory IT sign photo with my favorite adventure buddy

A few interesting photos from Day One:

All in all Day One was fairly unremarkable. The highlight of the day was getting to know our fellow travelers during the trek and in the dining tent that evening.

 

Inca Trail Day 2 (Wednesday)

Day two. Day two was an exceedingly difficult day for some. Our guide started us on the trail just after breakfast and told us to wait for him at the pass. The trail was steadily uphill with a few false summits. Four of us made it to the pass over two hours before our guide showed up so we got to cheer on the trekkers from our group and others who arrived after us. I think our success was due to the fact that we were all distance runners or endurance athletes of some variety. Also I was totally cheating by using Diamox. Dead Woman’s Pass has a good view, but it’s cold so if it’s within your power, try not to hang out here for two hours. There was another pass after Dead Woman’s, but it wasn’t nearly as grueling. There was also a great fort just an hour’s hike before camp.

 

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Dead Woman’s Pass

 

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Sayacmarka

Inca Trail Day 3 (Thursday)

Day three. The most beautiful day in my opinion. This is what I pictured in my head when I thought of the Inca Trail. Large stones created a path through all sorts of gorgeous scenery. We began the day by visiting a cloud forest . It was cold. And cloudy.

After the cloud forest we proceeded along the trail getting closer all the time to the Amazon jungle. All the ascents and descents made trekking poles very useful and I learned that steps are easier to negotiate if you walk side to side.

 

The day ended at Wiñay Wayna.

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Did I mention there were lots of steps?

 

Inca Trail Day 4 (Friday) Machu Picchu!

We woke up eaaaaarly in order to be among the first in line to enter the gate on the path to Machu Picchu. Though the gate doesn’t open until 5AM people begin lining up hours before. Let me just tell you that it is cold in the dark early hours of the morning. It wouldn’t be so bad if we had been moving but we were just keeping our places in line. Some people did jumping jacks and some played cards. Most of us just huddled in misery and waited for the gate to open.

The final trek to Intipunku (the Sun Gate) is short and easy until the final push at the end

Intipunku was more crowded than I expected but still pretty cool.This is where you’ll get the money shot of Machu Picchu if you’re fortunate enough to get a clear morning (which we were).

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The walk down to Machu Picchu was very easy. Around this time we started seeing a few people walking from MP to Intipunku. You could tell they had taken the train because they had makeup and nice clothing. Slackers!

We exited the park then re-entered (something about getting the tickets properly stamped), stowed our backpacks, used a real flushing toilet!, then got a whirlwind tour from our guide.

I was surprised by the number of people at Machu Picchu. It was overcrowded. The number of people and the heat of the day really detracted from my overall enjoyment (boohoo I know). Having said that, there were some amazing views to be had and here are a few for your viewing enjoyment.

 

Once the tour was over we had the option to re-enter and proceed at our own pace or to head over to Huayana Picchu if we had previously purchased the ticket.

There are two groups per day allowed up Huayana Picchu. I went up with my husband and brother (my other brother was stricken with the virus and vomiting violently outside the Unesco world heritage site). Being overachievers we decided to time ourselves (It took 34 minutes from start to summit). There were maybe two dozen people on top and most were good about getting their photos of Machu Picchu then getting out of the way (except for one guy). Huayana Picchu has some awe inspiring views but it is very steep and there are some really exposed areas. If either of these are a problem for you then enjoy the next photos and live vicariously through me.

 

 

The bus ride down the hill was uneventful (as you would hope). Aguas Calientes has a certain charm even though it’s pretty clearly designed for tourists. The train station is easy to find and getting on the correct train is a no brainer. We opted to take the upgraded train when we originally purchased the tickets knowing that we would want a little comfort and that we’d want an earlier departure (the basic train leaves later in the day and leaves you with a 2 hour bus ride after the train stops in Ollytantambo whereas the upgraded train takes you to Poroy which is only a 20 minute ride to Cuzco).

A representative from the tour outfit collected us at the station and then dropped us all at our respective hotels.

 

Final Day (Saturday)

Our final day was spent lazing around with a side visit to the market at San Blas and other miscellaneous souvenir shopping. And I had the most delicious and overpriced burger ever at the JW’s restaurant (it disappeared too fast to take a photo).

The adventure was overall a huge success and while I was happy to head home for a bit I’m already planning my next big adventure.

If you’re interested in the finer points of the hike including gear, clothing, etc. then stay tuned for my in depth what to expect/do/wear/bring article.

Want to hike the Andes? I can hook you up completely free of charge with a turnkey adventure including almost everything except international airfare and a few meals. Want a more tailored experience? For a small fee I can custom design your experience from start to finish. I do hate to charge, but there are a lot of moving parts to piece together (and this girl has to make a living to support her travel habit).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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