I know it’s only been a few short months since my adventures in Norway, but I have another series of exciting travel stories to share!
In March I had the opportunity to visit South America for the first time with a close friend I grew up with. It was my first time exploring this continent and my first immersing myself in a Spanish-speaking country. I have many things to share about this amazing trip – from our trek to Machu Picchu, the 3 days spent in the Amazon rain forest (complete with a raging tropical storm), and our climb in the Rainbow Mountains to over 17,000 ft in elevation!
This incredible trip mainly took place in Cusco, Peru and Quito, Ecuador. I’m going to start this series off with our journey to Machu Picchu though. It was the first main activity we did after arriving in Cusco, and it’s where the story begins!
Journey to Aguas Calientes
My friend Andrew and I arrived in Cusco, Peru late at night on a Wednesday. We started flying at around 6am that day, and didn’t arrive until around 7-8pm, so it was a long day of flying. We had a series of flights taking us from Atlanta down to Cusco, but surprisingly, our longest flight was only 3-ish hours long. Whenever I travel to a foreign country I’m used to being stuck on a plane for 12+ hours straight, but this time it wasn’t bad! Another unique part of flying to Cusco, for me at least, was changing to a timezone that was only 1 hour off from my home one. Our flights took us straight south, and so it was unusual for me to not have my whole sleep pattern completely thrown off!
After arriving we took a quick cab ride to our hostel (warning: drivers and roads are crazy down there!) and pretty much went right to bed. The next day we were set to be picked up at 4am to be taken to Machu Picchu.
Cusco is probably the best main city to fly into if Machu Picchu is on your itinerary. Note: there are no direct ways to get to the ruins, so you’ll have to take a few different modes of transportation to get there. First, our travel agency picked us up at the hostel along with a few other travelers and we took a scenic ride through the mountains to a little town called Ollantaytambo.
From there, we took a train to another small town called Aguas Calientes. This is the closest town to the ruins, and where most people stay the night before making the trek up the mountain.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes in the afternoon and had a free schedule until dinner time – so we explored! It’s a really cute small town, with lots of narrow alleyways and random shops to go into. You could tell that a lot of the people there were tourists like ourselves, gearing up to visit Machu Picchu. There were still a fair amount of locals though too. Apparently business has been booming for them lately, and so the streets and markets were very lively and busy.
We walked around for a bit, took a nap, went back out for some afternoon tea and papas fritas (we had so much papas fritas on this trip), and then bought some snacks for the following day. I really enjoyed our lazy afternoon just walking and talking. We got to people-watch, see a cool raging river, and rest our feet for awhile. For our to-go snacks we bought some delicious looking bread, apple bananas and trail mix.
Dinner back at the hotel was corn soup, and I had rice and vegetables along with garlic bread. I learned early on in this trip that they really like kalamata olives in their cooking here. Which I thought was interesting, since I usually associate kalamata olives with Mediterranean cuisine. But apparently Peruvians love their olives!
Arriving At Machu Picchu
We got to the bus station at 5am with our group. We thought it would be a perfect time to “beat the crowd” but there was already a pretty sizeable line for the buses even at that hour!
The line went fast though, and soon we were on our way to Machu Picchu. Once we started getting close, the scenery around us became even more incredible.
The mountains on all sides of us were sprawling and rising out of the clouds. The sun was just starting to peak over them, and so the lighting at this time was just so beautiful.
Machu Picchu is a protected historic site, so you need to buy tickets in advance in order to enter the area. Our travel agency Sas Travel took care of the details for us, which made getting through the gates very easy. I would definitely recommend this travel company based on how easy they made things for us, their pricing, and their knowledge of the Machu Picchu history (given on our tour).
After entering and climbing a short distance, we were greeted with the classic Machu Picchu viewpoint. It was just like any postcard I’ve ever seen of the place!
Below us the stone ruins were laid out in a complex pattern. Terraces were carved into the side of the mountain, which we later learned was for growing crops. Behind the city was the rising peak of Huayna Picchu, a mountain we were set to climb later in the day (more on that below!). The morning was still slightly cool, and clouds were obscuring some of the mountain range still. Everything seemed quiet, still, like it hadn’t woken up yet. It was almost eerie in a way, but in a very cool sense.
After taking a BUNCH of photos, we descended a series of stairs with our group to get into the main part of the city and begin the tour.
Our Tour Of Machu Picchu
Something you may not know about me, is that I LOVE history. So I was very much looking forward to our tour and getting to learn everything I could about this ancient Inca city.
Our guide was very knowledgeable, and I really enjoyed all of the anecdotes and stories he had to share. One thing that became obvious to me, was that the Incas were very smart. The level of detail and thought that went into building their city was mind blowing to me. Especially considering the primitive time they lived in, and the limited technology they had. Regardless, I was definitely impressed by their attention to detail, and the level of symbolism that went into their architectural designs. I’ll give some examples below:
Notice above how the entryway is bordered by a double layer of stone. These double-doorways were used as entrances to places there were sacred in the city, such as the royal family living quarters or entrance to their temples. The dual-nature of the construction is meant to represent the duality of life in male vs. female. This pattern was repeated in various design elements throughout the city.
Above you’ll notice a curved building, with a pointed edge. This is the most sacred place in all of Machu Picchu, the Sun Temple. Our guide explained to us how the pointed part of the wall points directly to the peak of the tallest mountain in the range surrounding the area. The Incas had many gods, most of which were natural objects – the sun, rainbows, mountains, lightning, thunder, etc. Once a year on the summer solstice (June 21) the sun apparently rises directly over that peak. It was considered a very holy day for the Incas.
The Incas carved stones by hand so that they fit exactly into spots that they needed them to. Take this stone for example, above, that was carved into such a unique/specific shape. It’s especially impressive again, once you remember that they had no power tools like we have today to do such a thing.
Another reason our guide was legit is because of this image above! He has a friend who is an archeologist apparently, that is able to work on excavations at Machu Picchu. This piece of ancient pottery was taken out of the site, and given to our guide to use on tours. He also showed us a stone ball that was used as a level in construction by the Incas. Both of these things we got to pass around and hold (super illegal), it was awesome! But sshhh, don’t tell!
The above image is really neat to me. You can see clearly how precise they were in their stone-laying. Every piece meets up exactly at right angles, and is perfectly level.
Our guide called this type of stone “pillow-style” stone work by the Incas. You can tell how perfectly square they look, with slightly rounded corners, and a nice smooth surface. This type of stone work was used on buildings with significance in the city, such as the royal chambers and the temples.
In contrast, look how the wall above has stones that are jagged, sort of ‘shoved’ together, and not in straight lines. This type of stone work was done on the buildings of lesser importance, such as for peasant’s and servant’s houses. The difference in the craftsmanship is very interesting to me, that they put that much thought into castes and how to design for them architecturally.
This next picture is of our guide explaining the significance of the piece on the ground in the royal chambers. It is supposed to be a parrot, which was one of the animals the Incas held as sacred.
This next photo below is a bit hard to explain at first. I had to composite two photos together in Photoshop to help illustrate what it is you’re looking at. This is another sacred space inside Machu Picchu. The statue on the ground is meant to represent the head of a condor, while the building behind it rises up at an angle to show the condor as in flight.
The space here was small, so I couldn’t back up any further to get everything in one shot. But I hope you’re able to see it! The condor was a very sacred animal to the Incas, because of how high they soared in the sky close to the sun (their main god). They believed that when you died, your soul rode on the back of a condor up into the sun.
Here are some more beautiful photos of this place. I was almost overwhelmed by how cool everything looked! As you can see by the photos, yes there were llamas there, but we learned from our guide that they were brought in (I assume because the park rangers assumed tourists would want to see llamas there?). The tree in the courtyard was obviously an object of significance to the Incas, but our guide explained that there wasn’t one generally accepted idea yet as to what it meant. He did have a fun folktale about it though. Apparently there is a story of a giant who walked across the mountain ranges with a staff, and when he stopped to rest over Machu Picchu he stuck his staff in the ground, but then kept on walking. That staff grew into the tree in the courtyard.
The image directly above is of an alter that is right next to the sun god’s alter at the top of Machu Picchu. You’ll notice that there are three windows – the number 3, like 2, held significance for the Incas because of the three stars in the constellation of Orion’s belt. There were actually many symbols throughout Machu Picchu that had astrological significance. I thought it was neat! Like I said, I was learning a lot on this tour, and I was loving all of it.
Our final part of the tour took us through the sun god’s alter, where there is a statue on the ground of a sleeping puma (similar to the parrot statue). The puma was another sacred animal to the Incas. Apparently once a year on the summer solstice, the sun lines up with a rock on the alter perfectly to cast a ray of light over the Puma’s “eye” on the sculpture. This is supposed to signify the one time of the year when the puma “wakes up.” I wish I could have gotten a picture of the statue, but alas it was behind a rope barrier that we couldn’t cross and getting a good photo was not possible!
Overall I loved our tour. Andrew and I shared it with a few Brits and two Danish girls. They were friendly companions, and I was thoroughly impressed with the guide’s level of knowledge of this beautiful place.
After our guided tour, we had about an hour to wander on our own, and then begin our climb of Huayna Picchu.
Climbing Huayna Picchu
This was – without a doubt – a pretty tough climb for us! Leading up to this trip I had gone on a few training-hikes in preparation for all of the activities we had planned. What I WASN’T prepared for though, was the altitude! Huayna Picchu’s peak is at 8,924 ft of elevation, and I definitely didn’t have access to a hike like that in Georgia for training. We both carried altitude-sickness pills with us, so I think that helped us from both feeling too sick. But regardless, once we started hiking up we quickly became very short of breath. The air is just so much thinner when you’re that high up.
This climb was basically an hour long workout on a StairMaster. The Incas had carved steps into the mountain all the way up, so we were essentially just climbing steps the whole time. I felt the burn, let me tell you! It was crazy steep at certain parts, making you use your hands and feet to sort of claw your way up. You also had to be careful to make room for other hikers, as people were going both up and down the stairs at the same time.
We had to stop about every minute to catch our breath. I thought I was resting a ton, but apparently Andrew was getting mad because I was “trail blazing” at light speed up the mountain, and he wanted to rest longer lol. Whoops! Sorry Andrew. The views at the top were so worth all the pain and burning in our calves and lungs though!
I think we were both super relieved when we finally made it to the top. We could see in every direction around us, including a great aerial view of Machu Picchu below us!
We had to be extra careful on the way down, again because of how steep it was. We crossed this point where we had to squeeze ourselves through this crack in a rock also, and crawl through a little rock tunnel before getting back on the path. That was really cool.
Return To Cusco
Overall, it was an incredible day. We were lucky too, we had nothing but sunshine and blue skies the whole time we were at Machu Picchu. Then just as we were getting on the busses to head back to Aguas Calientes it started raining! Talk about lucky.
I really enjoyed the tour, and all of the history we got to learn from our guide. He had so many fun facts to share, like about how the Incas all chewed coca leaves (cocaine) while building Machu Picchu, and how they gave the children coca leaves and fermented corn. So apparently, the men were all high at Machu Picchu and the children were drunk AND high! I wonder what the women were?
I also loved our hike up Huayna, even though it was really difficult for us. After returning to Aguas Calientes we got served lunch (a “buffet” of rice, noodles, vegetables, and other yummy Peruvian dishes), and then headed back on the train/bus journey to Cusco. We arrived back in Cusco at dark, and pretty much just went to the hostel and slept.
The next day we were sooooooooo sore! We both walked around Cusco the next day basically limping, lol, that’s how bad it was. My soreness lasted for almost a week too! It was crazy! That mountain hike did a number on me, but I regret nothing! It was a great first adventure for our trip in Cusco.
In my next post I’ll talk about our single “chill in Cusco” day and then our adventure to the Amazon rain forest. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!
That sounds like an incredible beginning to your trip! Another fun fact about the Inca: They didn’t refer to children with gendered pronouns until around a pre-school age! I’m eager to read the next installment.