The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu - Part II: Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu, and Lima
This is my account of the second part of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. For the first part click here! I was also part of a group with FNE International opening medical clinics around Cusco, so for an overview of that part of my trip click here!
Tuesday, December 25, 2018:
Today started with an early morning wake up, and stepping out of my tent I saw the views of Machu Picchu in front of me. It took me a few minutes to realize that it was Christmas morning, and our cooks celebrated by baking us a cake. That was really special because we could all tell they put a lot of work into baking and decorating it over a propane stove at our isolated campsite. The cooks and porters were amazing this whole trip, going above and beyond to accommodate our dietary restrictions and feed us amazing meals. We all appreciated them immensely and the whole experience would have been very different without them.
After breakfast we began our journey to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. We first walked two hours down to Hydroelectrica, a small town at the end of the the train tracks from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Here I turned on my phone, which in retrospect which was probably a bad idea since I had hundreds of missed emails and messages. I didn't have time to read them all so I sent a few short "Merry Christmas/I'm alive and well" texts and then shut it off.
After lunch we started our three hour walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, which ended up being my least favorite part of the trip. Towards the beginning we we saw a sun dial that pointed up to the large one on Machu Picchu. This was interesting, but other than that the railroad walk was pretty miserable. The train tracks were filled in with small ankle breaking rocks that made walking really difficult. I had rolled my left ankle three times at this point, so the unsteady footing made for a painful walk.
It seemed to never end, and we were so exhausted that some people in our group were lagging behind a bit. This is totally understandable, but for me when I'm at the end of my rope (flash back to Lincoln Woods Tr after Owl's Head and the Bonds) I like to walk as fast as possible to get it over with more quickly. I couldn't do this because I couldn't leave the rest of my group behind, so it was a little frustrating for me. It was more of a me problem than anything else, but it made me long for some solo hiking time.
When we finally got to Aguas Calientes after what seemed like many hours of walking, I was very grateful that our trek included the last night in a hotel before heading up to Machu Picchu. As soon as I got there I took a hot shower and sat in bed catching up with my friends and family. After decompressing for a little while I explored Aguas Calientes before dinner. The town reminded me of Epcot at Disney World it was so clean! I walked through the markets and the square enjoying the Christmas decorations until I stumbled upon the family I had been backpacking with, and we all walked to dinner together.
After our cooks made us one last meal, we sadly said goodbye after the week of amazing food and service. Once dinner was over, I went back to my hotel and had a few much needed conversations with friends before going to sleep. I had gone a week with so little contact that I was really happy to talk to them before going to sleep.
Wednesday, December 26, 2018: Machu Picchu!
Today started with a four o'clock wake up (and lots of snoozed alarms) before the bus ride up to Machu Picchu. I was conflicted about taking the bus at first because we had just trekked for four days and it seemed counter intuitive. This being said I'm really glad our trek included bus tickets because after yesterday's walk along the train tracks I was just about done walking on roads.
When we arrived to Machu Picchu at 6:00, Javi and Max immediately took us to the best photo spots. I was really glad we got there early because it was so beautiful in the morning light and there were virtually no crowds. We went right to the guard house to see the iconic view of the ruins. It was breathtaking. The pictures truly don't do it justice.
Javi and Max took us on a tour of the ruins for a few hours to teach us about the history they held. So everyone knows that history is not my strong suit and I'm not good at paying attention on tours, but I did pay attention to a lot of this one. We started near the guard house on the terraces in the agricultural part of the temple. It was crazy to think that the retaining walls were so well built that they're still stable after 500 years.
Then we went down to the urban area and saw the temple of the sun where the sun shines in perfectly on summer solstice, December 21st. I still get a little confused about the whole south of the equator opposite seasons thing but it was really interesting to see this because summer solstice was just a few days ago. We also saw the temple of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the areas where mummies were worshiped. It was also cool to learn that there could still be gold and silver hidden under Machu Picchu.
I didn't realize that Machu Picchu was actually unfinished when it was abandoned as a result of the Spanish conquerors, so we saw areas that were partially constructed. It was crazy to think that so much time went by between when the Incas evacuated and when Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu. There were also lots of friendly llamas across the grounds so I was super excited to get to meet them! That was probably the highlight of Machu Picchu for me.
After the tour I hiked Wyanapicchu Mountain with Christine and Mark from the family I had been backpacking with. The hike was steep but short, and it mostly consisted of large stone steps. As we got higher and higher, the steps got smaller and more shallow so I had to use my hands and feet to get up. At the top there was nothing protecting us from falling off the stairs and plummeting hundreds of feet to our death, so that was a little nerve wracking. It was worth it because the views of Machu Picchu were awesome.
Wayanapicchu was the only mountain during the whole trip that I actually summited, so it was a great way to finish. Although we were all exhausted and sore from all of the hiking this past week, the short hike was worth the accomplishment we felt after.
This was my first experience at one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and Machu Picchu was truly deserving for that determination. The architecture and artistry of the grounds was absolutely mind blowing and I feel like it still hasn't really hit me that I actually got to see it in person.
After we caught the bus back down to Aguas Calientes we had our last lunch as a group at a local restaurant. Here we had to say goodbye to Javi and Max, which was really sad because we had all become really close in the past week. I'm sure we'll all keep in touch though. As we caught our train back to Cusco I was both sad that my time in Peru was quickly coming to an end and happy to start my journey home.
On our way back to Cusco there was a landslide blocking the train tracks abut a half hour outside Ollantaytambo so we were stuck on the tracks for a few hours. I started to worry whether or not I would be able to make my early flight out in the morning, but after over seven hours on the train I finally got to my hostel around 11:00. I showered, packed up my bags, and got a few hours of sleep before my 6am flight the next morning.
The hardest part of today was saying goodbye to the family I had been backpacking with for the past week. I want to take a minute to thank Mark, Kristie, Christine, Alex, and Noelle for welcoming me into their family for the week. They were so kind to take me in especially because of the holiday. This backpacking trip would have been a very different experience without them, and I think that they were a huge part in making it such a positive experience for me. They motivated me to keep going even when I was tired and sore and really made the trip special, so for that I can't thank them enough.
Thursday, December 27, 2018: A Series of Unexpected Events Leading to an Amazing Day in Lima
I woke up this morning groggy after only a few fleeting hours of sleep, but ready to go home. I was a little discombobulated because it was 3am, and on top of that the zipper on my suitcase broke so I was desperately trying to figure out a solution for that before I had to leave for my flight at 4:00. When I finally got my life together and left for the airport, I was happy to be on my way back to Boston. Although I had an amazing time in Peru, I hadn't been home in almost two weeks so I was itching to get back.
When I got on the plane I fell asleep almost immediately, but to my dismay when I woke up an hour later we were still on the ground in Cusco. From what I could decipher from the announcements in Spanish, our plane was having mechanical issues delaying us indefinitely. After my train being delayed seven hours the night before and now my flight being delayed three hours, I was getting very frustrated. The flight finally took off at 10:00am, four hours after we were supposed to. Note to anyone going to Cusco: flights on small airlines from Cusco to Lima are often delayed so leave yourself a LOT of extra time just in case.
When I got to Lima, I collected my bags and stored them in lockers at the airport. I then took an Uber to Miraflores where I went to this paragliding place that I had heard of in the Parque del Amor. They initially said that there wasn't enough wind and to come back in a half hour. This gave me a perfect amount of time to grab lunch and go to the ATM. I went to Punta Sal because I wanted to try ceviche, one of Lima's signature dishes. It was really delicious and unlike any other ceviche I've ever had.
After going to the ATM and coming back to the park, I got all set up to go paragliding. I was super excited because I've always wanted to paragliding and since Lima is on a cliff over the ocean it seemed like the perfect place to try it! Unfortunately by the time I got all of the equipment on the wind had died down again. He said that it usually picks up after a few minutes so I waited. Every half hour or so they said that it was getting better, so I ended up staying there waiting for four hours. Finally they told me that it was too hot outside and I wasn't going to be able to paraglide. It was frustrating because I felt like I had wasted all of my time in Lima waiting to paraglide and I didn't even get to do it.
At this point I was exhausted because the past 24 hours had been filled with obstacles between the super delayed train and sitting on a plane for almost six hours for an hour long flight earlier that morning. I was also running on about three hours of sleep which didn't help. On top of that I had been receiving emails from Spirit saying that my flight to Ft. Lauderdale that night was going to be delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Boston the next morning. Although I called to try to get on another flight to Boston, they said that I couldn't switch it until I actually missed the flight the next day.
So in short, I was sitting in Lima by myself on a cliff overlooking the beach, miserable that I wouldn't be able to make my flight to Boston and disappointed that I didn't get to paraglide. Plus I had just taken out 500 soles (about $150) to pay for paragliding, so now I had a ton of cash that I wasn't going to use and I didn't want to change it back to USD because it would cost me a good portion of the money in fees.
When everything felt like it was going wrong, I realized that I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I decided that I wasn't going to let anything ruin my time there. So I walked down to the beach to explore. I had been watching the surfers all day, and as I was walking by, someone from one of the many surfing schools asked if I wanted a lesson. I didn't have a bathing suit or a towel and I had a flight in a few hours but I said to myself, "fuck it," and took them up on their offer.
Surfing at Playa Makaha was amazing! Let me just preface this by saying I'm terrible at surfing. I've done it probably ten times before on the Cape and in LA, and each time I try I successfully get up on the board maybe once or twice if I'm lucky. This was totally different. I don't know what the deal was with the waves in Lima, but every single time I got a wave I was able to get up. I had probably fifteen good waves, more than doubling the number of times I've stood up on the board collectively in my life. It was so much fun!
Looking back I think the decision to surf really changed the whole trip for me. It was looking like I was going to go out on a bad note, but instead I made an impulsive decision that made my day. I don't often make decisions without thinking them through first, but I just decided to go with it and figure things out later. After surfing, I realized that I was about to get on two five hour flights and I smelled like ocean. I had about an hour before I had to leave for the airport, so I walked to the nearest hostel and paid to use their shower. After that I walked back to the cliff overlooking the beach to watch the sunset before getting an Uber to the airport. It was by far the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. The sky was bright pink, lighting up the cliffs and the ocean.
In that moment, I forgot about all of my anxiety surrounding traveling dilemmas, sleep deprivation, and disappointment about paragliding. I just stood there and took it all in. The day before I had been on top of one of the seven wonders of the world, and now I was watching a gorgeous sunset on the beach. That moment is when I realized how truly magical Peru was and how much I loved it there.
In the end, I just barely made my flight back to Boston, arriving on time which was a huge relief. Although this two week vacation was amazing, I was happy to get home to my dog and sleep in my own bed.
The Salkantay Trek was the highlight of my hiking experiences so far and I'm so lucky that I was able to do it. Alpaca Expeditions was excellent all around between our tour guides, Javier and Max, who were amazing, and the chefs and porters who went above and beyond to make the whole experience the best it could have been.
I never thought that Peru would be a place that I would fall in love with, but after this trip I can't wait to go back. Between learning so much opening medical clinics, making lots of great friends, backpacking, seeing Machu Picchu, and surfing in Lima, this has been one of the best vacations of my life. Although there were many obstacles that I had to overcome throughout this experience, it was an amazing two weeks and I wouldn't change a thing.