We took our first international trip together last month after Boyfriend graduated vet school! Boyfriend’s lab partner’s wife had wanted to see Machu Picchu since she was a little girl, and we trekked about 55 miles over 4 days to Machu Picchu. We also spent some time in the cities of Cusco and Aguas Calientes, and did another hike to the Rainbow Mountains after our main trek (protip: maybe don’t hike to nearly Everest base camp elevation after a super physically demanding 4 day trek). Read on to learn about our crazy adventures in South America!
May 9 – Travel Day
We flew out of Chicago rather than Detroit to save some money, which in theory was an awesome strategy. In practice, when you factor in traffic and navigation trouble… let’s just say, as the person who normally gets to the airport about two hours in advance, getting to the gate just as our group was boarding was a little stressful. I am so jealous of how chill Boyfriend is in situations like this, because I was 99% sure I was going to have a coronary while rushing through O’Hare. We made a quick stop in Dallas (did you know their airport is the first carbon-neutral airport in the Americas??) where I had some really good lo mien and then got on our way to Lima!
I had almost forgotten how much I hate long international flights – but the 8 or so hours we spent on this plane (which felt super small and cramped compared to the luxury setup we had from Chicago to Dallas) were a quick reminder.
May 10 – Arrival in Peru!
We landed in Lima early the next morning and then had a quick final flight to Cusco, and I was definitely ready for a shower. I expected to feel really sick after all the horror stories I’d heard about altitude sickness, but surprisingly we felt okay. It was also nice to only have a one hour time difference (just like visiting Boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin!) so while we were exhausted from flying, we weren’t disoriented from jet lag. Today we explored Cusco a little, but mostly rested after a full day of travel the day before. We did try a pisco sour (one of the traditional cocktails of the region) and they were pretty tasty!
May 11 – Sacred Valley
Our first excursion! We spent the day with Alpaca Expeditions (the same company we worked with for our trek to Machu Picchu). They picked us up at our hotel around 8am for a full day tour of the Sacred Valley. We started by driving up some crazy winding roads because our site visits were even higher than Cusco, and I did feel the altitude a bit when we got out at our first lookout point. We overlooked the whole Sacred Valley and got to see some beautiful wild quinoa on the side of the road (did you know quinoa is a member of the spinach family?). Also, we got our first glimpse of alpacas and llamas…me more than everyone else because I got spit on by one!
After the lookout point we visited the ruins of Pisaq and learned more about Incan culture and the Sacred Valley. Note to self: bring a notebook on future trips! I wish I would have journaled after each of our trips while everything was still fresh so it was easier to remember everything we learned. One cool thing I remember is that when the Incas came and conquered the area, they adopted the native language of kitchwa instead of making the people they conquered learn the Incan language.
A lot of the site visits we went on during our trip were nestled in valleys between huge mountains, so the cities were well-protected from outside invaders and inclement weather. The ruins themselves were incredible (seriously, some of those stones were bigger than I am and it just makes you realize that all the Incas were probable ripped), but Boyfriend’s favorite part was the farming terraces. These were used for growing Incan dietary staples like corn and quinoa.
We had an incredible buffet lunch at the Inka House. A lot of the food we had revolved around potatoes, quinoa, legumes cheese, and corn – so basically I had no problem fitting in. Honestly, it’s a good thing we were so active because otherwise I would have spent the whole trip eating tequeños, guacamole, and fried yucca. The Andean highland region has over 4,000 varieties of potato!
After Pisaq we headed to Ollantaytambo and did some shopping. Boyfriend and I got an awesome cat tapestry for our new place and the boys tried on some llama hats with our guide Jaime. We visited the ruins at Ollantaytambo also and got to tour their temple of the sun – more stairs! In retrospect I like to think of it as training for our big hike in the days to come (haha). From the temple we were able to look out at the rest of the ruins and the surrounding city.
To finish off the day we visiting a textile facility and got to see the process for turning alpaca wool into thread and dyeing it. We watched them start with the dirty wool, clean it, then spin it into thread (they made it look so easy!). They also showed us the variety of natural substances that are used to create the vibrant colors in the textiles we saw throughout the trip – it’s amazing how colorful nature is!
We also got to visit a beautiful church (but unfortunately no pictures allowed). We got to see how Christian missionaries merged local spirituality when delivering their message – most of the church’s displays focused on the virgin Mary and sentiments of motherhood to echo the Peruvian focus on Mother Earth (or Pacha Mama). I don’t consider myself a supremely religious person, but I definitely got emotional during this part of the tour. There’s just something about old church architecture that gets me.
We returned home after visiting the church for a much needed sleep. The days in Peru were almost exactly 12 hours, so we’d have sun from around 6am to 6pm – it’s amazing how tired you suddenly feel when the sun goes down!
May 12 – Saqsayhuaman and Trek Orientation!
On our final day before the trek, we took one more trip to some ruins just outside of Cusco. Saqsayhuaman (not “sexy woman” as our guide reminded us) gave us a chance to explore more ruins and overlooked Cusco for some of my favorite views of the city. Luckily this trip didn’t involve much stair climbing or hiking, so we had a chance to rest our bodies before the difficult trek beginning the next day!
We also had trek orientation that evening. We met the three other women who would be hiking with us – two recent college grads from the east coast and someone from Indonesia! Our guide, Julio Cesar, talked us through what to expect and reviewed everything so we would be prepared for our first day of hiking the next morning. After orientation we had a fantastic dinner and got to experience some traditional Peruvian dancing and music! Boyfriend bought one of their CDs so we could enjoy the music from home.
After dinner, we headed home to prepare for the first day of the Salkantay trek.
May 13 – Day One: Soraypampa to Wayracmachay
We trekked with Alpaca Expeditions for our Salkantay experience as well. Trekking with Alpaca made the experience all the better because of their expertise, compassion, and just general fun! Our day started bright and early as we were picked up at our hotel for a couple hours’ drive up to our trailhead in the mountains. We introduced ourselves to the rest of our group as well as the porters and cooks who would be joining us, then sat down for breakfast.
As a vegetarian (and reformed hyper-picky eater), food is generally what makes me the most nervous about new places and experiences. Alpaca is great about accommodating dietary requests (and they double-checked during orientation)…but being the anxious dweeb I am I was still apprehensive going into our first meal.
Let me tell you, I had absolutely no reason to be. It’s a good thing we were hiking as much as we were with the amount of food I was about to consume over the next five days. Everything was amazing, and a lot of times I got a whole extra plate so I wouldn’t be left out when the rest of the group was eating lomo saltado. Talk about star treatment guys, they treat you right at Alpaca Expeditions.
After breakfast, the hard work began – luckily they provided porters to carry the lion’s share of our gear, because hiking up the face of a mountain at a high altitude when I’m from Michigan is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I consider myself to be in pretty decent shape and was still taking breaks to catch my breath at what felt like 30-second intervals. Boyfriend, naturally, excelled thanks to his rigorous training program of Age of Empires, IPAs, and tots from Crunchy’s. Note to self: less cardio and resistance training, more beer and fried potatoes! But in all seriousness, I think a lot of it came down to two things: the altitude just seemed to affect me a little more, and Boyfriend’s body has experienced more hiking-variety intensity than mine. Now let’s see him try to run 13.1 miles…..
We breaked for lunch at the base of the Salkantay peak. I remember seeing the bright green lunch tent in the distance and almost weeping with joy. They aren’t kidding when they tell you the Seven Snakes switchback is the hardest part of the entire trek – over an hour of back, and forth, and back, and forth straight up the face of a freakin’ mountain. But it’s pretty cool when you make it to the top and check out the view. After lunch we continued on to Salkantaypampa, the highest point of the trek. We heard several avalanches on Salkantay peak along the way (and yes, I may have worried to Boyfriend about whether or not the ice could come bury us – keeping in mind that there was a literal valley separating us from the peak). Julio Cesar (or JC as we called him) told us that trekkers aren’t allowed to scale Salkantay mountain because it’s too steep and the glaciers are too unstable. I can definitely understand that – we heard at least three or four avalanches just in the few hours we were in vicinity of the mountain!
After summiting at Salkantaypampa, we took a detour to see Lake Salkantay. It took about an hour each way into the rocks and even though the lake was beautiful, it made for a very long end to our first day. Our final stretch was through a valley that reminded Boyfriend of Legend of Zelda, finally leading us through what seemed to be some kind of pasture to our first campsite. After dinner we were all more than ready to crash and begin the whole thing again the next day!
May 14 – Day Two: Wayracmachay to Collpapampa Loreta
One of the best things about camping in the valley was waking up to the incredible mountainside sunrise. Our trekking team woke us with hot coca tea and warm water to wash up before breakfast. We set out for our longest hike of the entire trek (one of our companions measured about 20 miles on her fitbit!) and what would become over 12 hours of hiking. Today began in the mountains along gravel, then slowly transitioned to cloud forest.
The cloud forest was one of my favorite parts of the trip because of the variety of plants we got to see! There were so many colorful flowers and varieties of greenery, and I know my green thumb parents would have been going nuts. Two of the plants we saw most were purple lupine and cornflower – basically goldish flowers that grow in conical bunches. You know, like corn cobs!
Another thing that was special about today’s hike was the number of waterfalls we saw. There were so many! We were hiking along the Salkantay River for the most part, and there were little streaming falls and giant cacophonous ones feeding into the river below us. This one was the very first one we saw on our hike, and it seemed like a trickle compared to some of the ones we saw later on. We got to cross several wooden bridges which I was very excited about. Don’t ask – I just have a very romantic view on wooden bridges spanning exotic waterways, okay?
After breaking for lunch we had to pick up our pace a little bit to make it to the campsite before sundown. Our second tour guide, Filio, met us partway through today’s hike which was helpful because some of us moved really fast and others (like me) moved a bit slower. With two guides, we were able to move in a couple of “groups” without worrying about losing our way or missing out on information about our surroundings and Incan culture.
Trekking 20 miles in a day is hard work! Initially I was grateful for the largely downhill route for the day because it was easier to breathe, but going downhill was definitely a lot harder on our joints and feet. The last stretch of our hike was through some local villages. We felt a little bit on display as we dragged our tired, sweaty bodies through the streets in our pursuit of breathable shoes, a hot meal, and a comfortable
bed sleeping bag.
While it was good to get the two most difficult days out of the way first, I was a little nervous for how my body would hold up for the remainder of the trek as we made it to our night’s campsite. This site was just over the Salkantay River so we had the sound of the rapids to fall asleep to. We were also able to shower! The water didn’t even pretend to be hot, but after two days of hard trekking, bug spray, sunscreen, and sweat… any clean water is good water. There was also a small convenience shop where I bought a Twix bar and the rest of our group bought Cusqueña (pretty much the only kind of beer we could find in Peru). As we settled into bed, one thing that gave me hope was that I felt significantly less sore than I did the night before – maybe the cardio and strength training did help a bit!
May 15 – Day Three: Collpapampa Loreta to Llactapata
I could get used to being woken up with warm tea every morning! The third day of our trek was the shortest but most eventful. We began by hiking through more cloud forest and got to hike part of the Inca Trail! Again let me reiterate how ripped the Incas must have been, because those stairs mean business. The first two days of our trek prepared us for this stretch of the trail, but there was a lot more uphill again like the first day – and some wicked steep stairs.
We visited a coffee farm and got to see how they roast, grind, and brew coffee – we even got to help! Even though neither Boyfriend nor I drink coffee, we still sampled some to have the full Incan experience. We also had a chance to sample fresh avocados and jungle tomatoes – have I mentioned lately how spoiled I was with the food on this trip? I can still taste those fresh avocado slices….
We even got to pick our own avocados to keep. Unfortunately ours didn’t ripen in time to bring it back with us so rather than risk being detained at customs for bringing a fresh snack along, we left it at the hotel where I like to believe someone was able to enjoy it.
After the coffee farm, we spent a couple of hours trekking upward again. Today was easier than our first day but uphill hiking at a high altitude was still not friends with my respiratory system. We had a chance to slow down a bit because the overall distance was shorter, which helped a lot. Boyfriend and I took an (accidental) detour to a lookout point where we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
Because it was our shortest day, even taking it a bit more slowly still got us to our final campsite in time for a late lunch. JC and Filio gave us a tour of some ruins before our final 30 minutes of hiking down to our site. JC talked to us about the history of the Inca who lived along the trail and told us about the “runners” who would travel from village to village delivering messages. Villages were closer together at higher altitudes to compensate for how much harder the body has to work to travel (which we had new appreciation for), and spaced out more the lower you went. It’s really incredible how well thought out every aspect of their civilization seemed to be – from farming to city placement to architecture to language. Do you see how the doorways are trapezoidal shapes instead of rectangles? That’s because the Incas figured out trapezoids were more resilient in earthquakes.
A short hiking day meant we had the rest of the afternoon to relax and enjoy the view a bit. Today’s campsite is exclusive to Alpaca and overlooked the valley between our mountain and Machu Picchu mountain – with a good pair of binoculars, we got our first close-up looks of the city we would be visiting in a couple of days. This site also had Cusqueña and a lookout point where our group spent most of the evening relaxing, drinking, and enjoying the view. We could even see the Salkantay peak in the distance which gave us an appreciation for how far we had come since our first day. It was hard to believe that the next day we would be in Aguas Calientes at the feet of Machu Picchu.
May 16 – Day Four: Llactapata to Aguas Calientes
Our last night of camping was accompanied by torrential rain that continued into the morning. I didn’t sleep much that evening because I was too busy worrying (and annoying Boyfriend) about landslides. Our chef made an incredible cake for breakfast to welcome us to Machu Picchu (again, can I have this food every day?) before we started our last day of hiking. The rain made several hours of hiking downhill muddy and difficult, but it helped to know that we would be sleeping in actual beds that night after a real, hot shower. The first couple hours were almost straight downhill and by some miracle no major slips occurred!
After we made it out of the forest, the rest of our trek was mostly flat along the river and then railroad tracks. We got to cross another cool wooden bridge! This part of the trek was exciting as we started to see more signs for Machu Picchu, but also exhausting because it was the very end. Most of our group sustained some form of injury (I didn’t learn about my bruised ribs and ganglion cyst until after returning home…) so we were all ready to rest our bodies after working so hard. We stopped at the main train station to Aguas Calientes and picked up our sack lunches for the remainder of the day’s hike.
Hiking along the train tracks was the most difficult part of the day for me because we were hiking along uneven gravel and stones – and we were just starting to get tired in general. There were a few points where we saw parts of the ancient city and both Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. It was hard to imagine we were already so close! We saw a lot of other hikers heading to and from the city as we continued on, and we stopped at a little oasis with some benches and snacks to eat our lunch – I think we all spent a little time mourning the fact that tonight’s dinner would be our last meal with Alpaca.
Arriving in Aguas Calientes seemed surreal – could we really be here? It was overwhelming to be in a city again after several days largely on our own with nature – there were so many busy markets, sidewalks, and car-filled streets! Luckily our hotel wasn’t a far walk from the entrance to the city and we finally got to get settled into real rooms with real beds and real showers. Unfortunately our shower wasn’t hot the first day, but honestly at that point I just appreciated having access to indoor plumbing so I didn’t mind the chilly water so much. Boyfriend and I went to the market just outside our hotel so I could buy a clean shirt and the first pair of leggings I could find (I’m 99% sure they were children’s because the size was listed as “XXL”). Note to self: bring cute non-trek shoes so you don’t have to walk around the city in your mother’s ill-fitting purple Crocs.
For our final dinner, Alpaca did not hold back. It was a feast. There was chicken lo mien, about three kinds of pizza, rice, vegetables, potatoes, soup, and I got my special veggie plate piled with pesto pasta and more veggies. It’s like the could sense all of the things we craved from back home and put them all together into one meal. We ate in an actual restaurant, so we were able to order all the Cusqueña, pisco sours, and sangria our hearts desired. This meal was our “goodbye” meal so we had a short ceremony with our remaining porters and cooks to thank them for how awesome they made our trip. After dinner we spent a little time exploring the city, but mostly I just remember feeling exhausted and ready for a long sleep in a cozy bed.
May 17 -Day 5: MACHU PICCHU!
We had another early morning to line up for the buses to Machu Picchu. Our hotel was just across a footbridge to the area where the line formed and even getting there shortly after five left us at the back of a long line. Luckily to buses moved quickly – once they started loading people it didn’t take long for us to be on our way. The entrance to the city was packed by the time we arrived, but things were well streamlined and before we knew it we were in! The walkway as you enter is against a big wall, so you don’t actually see the ruins until you round the corner (I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it was definitely a good suspense-building technique).
Machu Picchu is huge. I don’t know what I was expecting when I rounded the corner, but it was so much more massive than I pictured in my head. I think I was so used to seeing the “postcard picture” encapsulating the entire city in one shot that I didn’t think about how big all the terraces, buildings, and temples below would be. JC guided us through a large portion of the city, which helped because there was so much to look at! We saw the Condor Temple and the Sun Temple, as well as the house that the Inca king lived in. Incan society was based around three pillars of life: Inca (the Inca king), nobles, farmers; condor, puma, snake; sun, moon, stars. This aspect of their life was reflected in the organization of the city and the appreciation of the life around us during the trek (seriously, if you remember nothing else from your Salkantay trek you will remember the Incan hierarchy because of how pervasive it is in everything).
After our guided tour with JC and Filio, we were able to explore the rest of the ruins on our own. We decided not to hike Huayna Picchu to have more time within the city itself. We climbed to the lookout point for our own “postcard pictures” – I’m sure Boyfriend wanted to throw me off the edge if I would have said “but wait just one more!” one more time…but we’ve accepted that I’m the partner who likes to document things in the relationship, and this view was definitely worth documenting in excess.
Leaving the ruins was a bit confusing because of all the one-way paths, but we eventually made it out and back to Aguas Calientes. The girls went to get massages while the boys found a place to hunker down and drink more Cusqueña. I have never appreciated a massage quite like I appreciated one after four days of intense hiking.
After our massages we met the boys for drinks and tequeños before moving on to another bar for more drinks and tequeños. We had an incredible dinner with Derek’s lab partner, his wife, and his parents. It was a little strange to be eating on white table cloths instead of on plastic tables with camp tablewear! I even used the Cusqueña to my advantage and got Boyfriend to dance with me for about half a Michael Bublé song.
May 18 – Aguas Calientes
We spent an extra day in Aguas Calientes and it was nice to have some time to slow down and enjoy the city before taking the train back to Cusco. We spent the morning at a hotel famous for its birdwatching and saw some really beautiful birds. I will have to invest in a nicer camera for future adventures because it’s kind of hard to do fast-moving, colorful birds justice on an iPhone 7.
After wandering the main grounds for a bit we found some nature paths and did some more exploring. We enjoyed being able to take it more slowly since we didn’t have a set amount of miles to hike in a day, and had more time to appreciate the scenery around us. We even saw a Cock on the Rock and some Andean Motmots! There were also a few small waterfalls, and lots of exotic plants. Note to self: invest in wilderness guides for the places we go to in the future so we can actually identify what we’re looking at more effectively than “pretty plant number 506.”
For lunch we ventured into the heart of the city and ate on the main square. I had a quinoa risotto which is definitely something I will be duplicating at home! Although the star of the show for this meal wasn’t the meal itself – it was the bathroom, with its puma sculpture overlooking visitors on the toilet (like I said, the Incan hierarchy is everywhere…). I remember walking my parents through my pictures after we returned, totally forgetting about this gem sandwiched between two pictures of normal scenery and wildlife. We weren’t complaining though – the toilet had a seat!
After lunch we did a final round of exploring Aguas Calientes and finished up any shopping we wanted to do. Our train left around dinner time and got us back to Cusco well past my Peruvian bedtime (I think we got home around 10pm or so). We paid extra for the vistadome train, which had windows along the roof to give us an even better view of the scenery as we traveled through. We saw so many motmots perched along the trees as we left the city! The train staff did a great job of keeping us entertained, putting on a fashion show of alpaca textiles and featuring some more traditional Peruvian dance. After returning home and checking back into our hotel, we settled down for a few hours sleep before getting up at 3am to hike Rainbow Mountain.
May 19 – Rainbow Mountain
3am comes very early when you don’t get to bed until close to midnight. We went through a different trekking company this time and were under the impression that today’s excursion would be much easier than the days of intense hiking we had just endured on the Salkantay trek. The reality proved a little different.
After being picked up at our hotel we stopped in a village along the way for our breakfast before continuing to the trailhead. It was here that we learned we wouldn’t be riding horses the entire way like we thought – instead, it was a couple miles’ hike to the stable area that had horses available for rental. This day was when altitude sickness hit me worst (of course, the day before we leave…) so my day started with feeling incredibly nauseated and mentally foggy. Fortunately the beginning of our hike was relatively flat, which made the physicality of hiking easier and compensated somewhat for me feeling so much weaker.
We experienced our second unexpected complication when we reached the stable, as there were no horses. Our guide explained that there was some kind of accident in a nearby town that needed many of them, and that we could wait there for horses returning down the mountain. Our entire group was incredibly frustrated at this point, both because we were working our bodies a lot harder than planned and because getting what we paid for (an easier ride up on horseback) meant waiting around. The boys decided to trek on and, because I’m stubborn and a bit of an idiot, I continued on with them. Protip: altitude sickness doesn’t get better as the altitude increases.
The path began to incline as we left the rest of the ladies back at the stables, and I began to wish we’d brought trekking poles. As horses descended the mountain with their horsemen, we sent them back to the stables so the rest of our group could get on their way. Eventually we had sent enough back and Boyfriend encouraged me to get on the next one to pass us. Again, being stubborn and an idiot, I tried to fight him on it because “I can do whatever you boys can do.” Used to dealing with me, he consoled my bullheaded ego and said “I know, love, but get on the horse. I’m getting on the next one that comes our way, too.” A combination of Boyfriends “logical reasoning” and a massive headache got me on the horse (for what was actually my first horse ride ever!).
The final 20 minutes or so of the trek were too steep for our horses, so we said goodbye and continued up on foot. As we summited the peak (which was close to Everest base camp elevation!), it got cold and windy fast. We didn’t spend long at the top, and to be honest I was a little concerned about getting blown off the peak! Once we reached the top we had a great view of the mountains around us and the valley below. Everything was striped due to different mineral deposits and it felt like we had made a quick trip to another planet instead of another country. It was absolutely worth all the drama and physical strain to get there.
We forwent the horses on our return and began to trek back for an (extremely late) lunch. I hoped a good meal would settle my stomach and calm my headache a bit, and the return trip felt so much longer because we both had food and rest on our minds. We agreed that this hike was incredible and worth it, but that maybe next time we wouldn’t jump into another physically strenuous day before fully recovering from a big trek like Salkantay.
Lunch helped calm my stomach for a little bit, but unfortunately the combination of altitude sickness and me pushing myself too hard out of stubbornness meant I was pretty much confined to bed when we returned. Boyfriend went out and bought me some crackers and water while assuring me I’d feel better for our last day in the city. Note to self: listening to your body is at least 17 times more important than proving a point.
May 20 – Last Day in Cusco and Return Home
We met for breakfast at a cafe in the square on our last day. I’m not a huge orange juice person in the States, but if our orange juice tasted like it did in Peru I would likely drink it every morning. After breakfast, we finished up the last of our shopping and said goodbye to two of our trekmates on an earlier flight. It’s always a little sad to leave after such a cool trip, but I was also ready to be home to scarf
a helping three helpings of my mom’s homemade mac and cheese. Plus two slices of chocolate mousse pie.
Boyfriend and I had lunch at a restaurant in the square near our hotel for one last Peruvian meal before heading to the airport. The restaurant had a sculpture up front that looked like several decades’ worth of candlewax that pretty much every tourist (myself included) snapped a picture of. Again, I am the documenter in the relationship and I made sure to document pretty much everything.
Once we got to the airport (with a couple of additional bags in tow thanks to all the souvenirs and gifts we bought) and made it through check in, we started the long wait to board. Luckily there was a little bar for one final Cusqueña (and a dessert for me). After we landed in Lima we boarded the plane to Miami for our long flight back to the US.
We landed in Miami somewhere around 5am. As much as I appreciated the new automated kiosks that made clearing customs easier, I did not appreciate having my picture taken at 5am after flying all night. I promise, I am me. It was a quick dash to the gate for our flight into Chicago, but we got delayed for a while because of fluid leaking on the wings. Of course this did wonders for my flight anxiety but the ever-logical Boyfriend pointed out that “it’s better for them to find that out now than when we’re in the air!”
After what seemed like five days of travel but was really one and a half, we made it home! And, just like with my first half marathon, we started by saying “let’s take a break from insane hiking adventures” and are already planning the next one…..