I was working in Paraguay and was due a few weeks of vacation time. I had visited the places of interest within striking distance of Asuncion and was ready for a more extended trip. Since hearing the saying about Incan architecture that the craftsmanship is so precise that it could take a lifetime to carve one perfect block, I was keen to go to Peru and see the ancient Incan cities myself. I jumped at the opportunity to head to Cusco, Peru, to visit Machu Picchu.
Traveling to Cusco – 3 Countries in 2 Days By Bus
My trip took me across three countries in 2 days, I went north to Santa Cruz in Bolivia, then to the Bolivian border with Peru via La Paz, where I changed onto the bus which would take me to Cusco. In retrospect, I should have just shelled out for the 30 min flight to Santa Cruz as 21 plus hours on a bus, was utterly excruciating. Still, I managed to sleep a little on the overnight portion of the journey, and as I was traveling light with a small rucksack, I wasn’t frantically hopping off the bus to check on my luggage every time we stopped.
La Paz stop-over and a lunch with locals
I enjoyed my very brief stop in a sketchy part of La Paz, where I got into conversation with a lovely elderly gentleman who was worried about me being alone. He was first concerned that my (nonexistent) husband was negligent enough about my safety to allow me to travel unaccompanied, then appalled that my parents would allow it.
He insisted that I come back to his house for lunch, I was initially a little worried that his kindness was an elaborate scam to relieve me of my cheap rucksack of worldly goods but decided to cautiously follow him as a was hungry, and there was nothing at the bus station. In a tiny house moments away, his wife cooked me hot dogs while my knight in shining armour summoned all his friends and relations to marvel at me, then impress me with their English language skills.
Organising a trip to Machu Picchu
On arriving in Cusco, I was keen to organise a trip to Machu Picchu as soon as possible but wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to do the whole 4-day trek, or whether to go up on the train for the day. So, I did what any sensible person would do and headed for the local bar where the travellers hung out to get a few first-hand reviews. The consensus seemed to be that the 4-day trek was worth doing to experience the countryside and to get a sense of how isolated the ancient Inca capital is.
I hiked the Inca Trail a few years ago when you could just turn up and book, and it was easy to organise a tour. These days there are only 500 people allowed on the trail each day, and you need to arrange your permit and book your guide months before you arrive in Cusco. The 4-day hike follows a prescribed path and is physically hard walking! Even if you’re fit, be aware that you will experience the effects of altitude and catching your breath can be demanding as you struggle up the hills.
My experience of the Inca trail
The four day Inca Trail hike starts at kilometre 82, and you’ll need to get the bus or train from Cusco. My group met up with our guides and porters there and said our hellos before we got moving. The porters load themselves up with all the essentials, tents, food, and camp equipment and race ahead of you up the trail. They are usually Quechua speaking natives of the region who are used to the conditions and can spring up the hills fully loaded, wearing sandals made out of old tyres.
Dead Woman’s Pass
You should expect early mornings on the trail, the first day you ‘only’ walk around 10km to your first camp but the subsequent days are longer. Day 2 is a long upward climb up steep slopes and ancient steps chiselled from the stone. Your thighs will be burning, and you’ll be damp with sweat, but the views into the valley below of the wild deer and alpacas grazing are unforgettable.
During a 12 hour day of tramping across rocks and through the misty jungle, you’ll achieve a maximum altitude of 13776 feet above sea level and traverse the aptly named Dead Woman’s Pass (I didn’t like to ask). Day 3 is a long 16km, but the views are a beautiful distraction, you pass through meadows full of flowers and admire smaller Inca ruin sites. You make your camp with Machu Picchu glimmering tantalisingly in the distance.
Reaching Machu Picchu
Day 4 is what it’s all about! The hike is short, and the idea of getting up to start before the sun has even risen is to get to the Puerto del Sol, Inti Punku or Sun Gate to see dawn break over the ancient city. You arrive before the rest of the visitors who have come by train and have the privilege of enjoying the ruins at their emptiest and most atmospheric.
What is Inti Raymi?
Quechuan for Festival of the Sun, Inti Raymi happens only once a year at the time of the summer solstice and is performed as a tribute to the Sun God Inti. According to chronicle, the rituals were started by Sapa Inca Patchacuti in 1412 as an Andean New Year’s celebration. Meant to preserve the myths and legends of the Sun God and the Inca kings the festival initially lasted for over a week and consisted of animal sacrifices to honour the gods, wild dancing and processions. The tradition died out with the Inca empire when the Spanish invaded but was resurrected in the 1940s as part of a desire to understand the region’s past.
I travelled up to Saksaywaman, around 2km from Cusco on a minibus packed not only with humans but also with chickens and guinea pigs. To be frank, the ‘SQUEEEEEEEE’ of a guinea pig really goes through you early in the morning, and I wondered why people were bringing their pets along for the ride! I got chatting to a family with teenagers fascinated by my light blue eyes, and they kindly invited me to join them for lunch. At this point, I was still in the dark about what lunch actually was, but all was soon revealed. Our little fluffy friends were going to be sacrificed then slow-baked for our delectation.
The Sun God
I loved seeing the Emperor Sapa Inca being carried in his golden chariot as part of the procession and the colourful costumes of his attendants. There was a lot of gold thread and representations of animals significant to Inca culture such as the puma, snake, and condor. There were speeches in Quechua which I didn’t understand but a lady dressed in a long red robe, blue cloak and flat mauve headdress translated for me as paying homage to Pachamama, the Goddess of the Earth. The Andean flute music was beautiful and genuinely haunting when played in its natural setting, and the families attending the festival were all dancing and having the most fabulous time.
Oh, and guinea pig or ‘cuy’ as it’s known locally was delightful eaten al fresco if a little chewy.
I went when the festivities were mostly attended by people from the local area and facilities (the loos in particular) were non-existent. Now I know why the ladies wear long dresses with a lot of petticoats!
These days it’s easy to book either a seat for the procession and performances or mingle with the locals in the standing area. You must book well in advance, though, as Inti Raymi only happens once a year.
Inca Trail Travel Tips
- If you want to do the trail then you must book with a reputable tour company in advance, they can also help you apply for the permit.
- Get fit! Or at least get a little exercise in before you come to Peru
- Learn a little Spanish or bring a phrasebook; Google translate won’t work in the mountains!
- Bring a few extra Peruvian soles to tip your porters and cook
- Have your passport on hand to get stamped at Machu Picchu and have evidence that you walked to the Lost City of the Gods
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