If you hadn’t guessed, battling crowds really isn’t my thing, and so it made sense that February would be the perfect time for me to venture to Machu Picchu. It’s the height of low season, the infamous Inca trail is closed for maintenance, and the foggy and rainy weather conditions this time of year generally make actually seeing Machu Picchu a bit of a gamble. My friend Amanda generously looked up the weather for me a week before my arrival in Cusco and informed me of the 14 straight days coming up of >80% of thunderstorms. Perfect.
Walking on a trail where they cap it at 500/hikers per day wouldn’t have really been my thing even if it were open, and so I’d been researching alternatives even before my trip began. Of the alternative treks, Salkantay and Lares were the most popular and I chose the Lares based on both the prospect of getting to interact with locals that live in villages along the way, and available departure dates. The trek itinerary and route depends on which company you book with; with SAS Travel it was 4d/3n including Machu Picchu. We had a fast enough group to cover the hiking portion of 33km/21 miles in two days to give us some extra time at the hot springs at the end of our trek. This would be followed by a four hour drive and a one and a half hour train ride for a nights stay in Aguas Calientes before a day of exploration around Machu Picchu.
After only one short day of altitude acclimation in Cusco I met my fellow trekkers at our pre-departure meeting; three Canadians and then one each from Germany, Sweden, and the U.K. I surprised our guide (and many other South Americans, for that matter) with a name like “Marti” and being a woman. “¡Marti!,” our guide said, “eres una mujera! Ha, well, you share a tent with Viola then and not Johnny.”
The next day, after breakfast and a bumpy car ride to the trailhead, we embarked. Since it wasn’t the Inca trail, mules were allowed and they carried everything except a small day pack for each of us, and some of the chefs equipment. Based on the mules, the altitude medicine we were offered, and the pricetag I knew we’d be pampered but I had no idea how much until we arrived at lunch that first afternoon. We’d had a headstart on the porters, and they’d lost a mule somewhere along the way and had to go back and find him, but they still beat us to the lunch spot and had a full on pop up tent with a table, stools, and hot water for washing hands all set up. Lunch was pumpkin soup followed by chicken, guacamole and rice. Needless to say we were all pleasantly surprised.
After lunch we had what I remember as an easy day of hiking before getting to our beautiful campsite in the valley.
The second day, we dubbed as the race of the snails (or the day of hell, depending on when/who you asked). Between the altitude, the long steep climb, and the mist and fog we were all struggling. Viola was easily the leader of the pack, and even she looked like she was moving at a glacial pace. When we finally reached the pass, our chef surprised us with a hot beverage and some crushed cookies (apparently the mule that went AWOL had a bit of a heyday with his load and had flung most of it against/around the trees before they caught up to him. They were still delicious).
For me, climbing down can be just as tough as going up and so I quickly presumed and held the position of caboose for the rest of the day. Which gave me some nice photos of the group but also meant most everyone was waiting on me. 😬
After our second day of hell, we were rewarded with an evening and morning of lovely hot springs with mountainous views. We had another nice dinner and breakfast before bidding farewell to our chef and porter teams and moving on to Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is just the town at the bottom of Machu Picchu; with the number of tourists coming through its a small but accommodating place. We all enjoyed a night in real beds.
The next day we took the bus up to Machu Picchu (I should comment here on the insane amount of transportation were taking–the Inca trek is the only one where you can walk directly to Machu Picchu through the sun gate. All other treks end before hand and you must travel up from Aguas Calientes, either by bus or by walking up the same road the bus takes.) Machu Picchu was also your typical touristy place, full of heaps of people amongst sleeping stray dogs.
Upon arrival…it was cloudy. Really cloudy. Sometime during our history lesson from our trusty guide though, the clouds lifted and we all got the iconic photos for our Facebook profiles.
Machu Pacchu itself was much larger and more awe-inspiring than I had expected. The architecture was designed to be resistant to earthquakes and the shape and size of the building blocks were truly spectacular. The Incas are known as an advanced ancient civilization and Machu Picchu certainly illustrates this fact. I was most impressed with the terraces for experimental farming to discover the best altitude for various crops and a sophisticated looking aqueduct/water system.
Back in Cusco, almost everyone was sticking around for a day or two before heading to their next destination, so we all got the chance to hang out, check out some markets, and have a sophisticated dinner/drinks before parting ways.