Taking a break (see the mule train?)

Arriving in Peru was a bit chaotic. We were on the clock…our connecting flight was tight and we had to pick up bags and re-check them. Disembarking the plane, there were two different passageways and it wasn’t clear which one we should take. It took 3 airport employees to gather there were different lines (nationals and foreigners) at customs and an entirety different passage way for international connections. Oh, and for whatever reason some people had to complete custom forms, but we didn’t. Funny enough this was a welcome challenge as all the interactions with airport personnel were very pleasant. Peru was a breath of fresh air. If this would have Chile, we would have been ignored us if we didn’t speak perfect Spanish. If we were in Argentina, we would have scolded for not speaking perfect Spanish (this really did happen to me - no kidding). If we were in Panama, people would have been cross to provide any help whatsoever. We were in Peru, the welcoming land of smiles.

When we landed in Cusco, I was on a high from all the friendly locals. At dinner, I held a conversation in Spanish with the cutest little boy at a family owned restaurant. Cusco has the most adorable, happy kids. An artist in Lima was selling 3 dozen portaits of Cusco children, and we snatched one up as a keepsake. Dinner was excellent as Cusco is in the Sacred Valley and produces delicious food from it’s fertile valleys. I couldn’t believe our luck…nice people and fresh, delicious food. This feeling of euphoria lasted until half-way through dinner, when I started to feel weird. I had a suspicion I would get altitude sickness, so I drank a ton of water. Unfortunately, water couldn’t save me at 11,300 feet. The next morning I was only able to get out of bed to sit next to the toilet with intense nausea. Trent had read that hotels keep oxygen at the front desk, thus he kindly summoned the receptionist to our room with an oxygen tank. While I appreciated his consideration, I was shocked by his amusement that I had a tube of air running into my nose. See picture he took below, while telling me he wasn’t taking a picture.

Altitude relief

Shortly after receiving oxygen, I turned it around, which was a huge relief given we had a short window to accumulate before taking off on our Sacred Valley hike. The next couple days we just took it easy; walking around Cusco, getting ready for our hike, and enjoying some much needed fresh foods. While we were enjoying Cusco, there was an air of anxiety. Communication with our guide was inconsistent and concerning. He recommended meeting us at our hotel a couple days before we took off. We took him up on the offer and provided date, time and details of our hotel. An hour and a half past the time we offered, and we started to kind of freak out. To be fair we had received a confirmation from the guide on the date and time to meet; but it was still alarming given the lack of communication from him. We wired half the money to him sometime in February. He came highly recommended from a friend of a friend, so we hadn’t picked a guide off some random site. He finally called us that evening in order to talk through some last minute details….phewwwww, for a little while we were thinking we got bamboozled.

Our guide showed up early Thursday. On our way to the trail, we made a quick stop at a local market where we got a fruit smoothie. The smoothie was really tasty, I noticed a mixture added to the blender from a darker bottle. Asking our guide if it was sugar, he explained it was not, rather it is was beer. Our morning was off to a great start! After a couple hours drive from Cusco, we arrived at our meeting place with the ‘horsemen’. Our guide explained that it took the horseman 2 days to journey to our meeting place - they lived up the valley and over several huge mountain passes. At this point, I was very excited for the hike, yet I was riddled with guilt as I started to add up the resources to make this trip happen: guide (Julio), cook (Edgar), 2 horseman (Juan & Gato), 3 courses and 4 mules….just for Trent and I!

After a 4 hour hike, we crested the top of the mountain overlooking an Inca wall and fortress and an elaborate set-up for lunch (see pics below). As soon as we arrived, a warm water bucket was set up for each of us to wash our hands/ face and the first (yes, first) course of lunch was ready. Again, the guilt arises, but is quickly forgotten once we taste the amazing food. After lunch, we ventured over to the Inca fortress, which wasn’t preserved in any way. You could literally touch the walls and enter the fortress without obstruction. Although we could, it just seemed wrong to tromp all over the ancient structure, so we mostly viewed the from afar. The Incan walls and fortress solidified the fact that the path we were trekking has been used for many years, back to the days of the Incas. That day we hiked about 7 hours and were pleasantly shocked to have passed only locals on the trail - no tourists.

Table for 3
Inca Ruins

Camping at 12,400 feet was no joke. Trent and I hardly got any sleep. I normally sleep on my side, but couldn’t as it restricted air flow. And, Trent got a pounding headache from the altitude and had a stomach bug. We were a sorry pair the first night. We had to get it together as the next day was going to be serious hiking business. Our guide, Julio, warned us day 2 was going to be the most challenging. After many long days of hiking in Patagonia, I was thinking…ain’t no thing….I got this….until I realized the ‘emergency horse’ with oxygen planned on following us the entire day. I am proud to say I was the first to summit the 14,800 ft mountain, and was rewarded with the view all to myself. It was absolutely breathtaking. Trent recommended an excerpt from the Last Days of the Incas, a book we were both reading as we hiked the Andean trails (thanks for the recommendation, Adam). Here is Hiram Bingham’s description of the Scared Valley when he came upon Machu Picchu in 1911:

“Here the river escapes from the cold plateau by tearing its way through gigantic mountains of granite. The road runs through a land of matchless charm… .In the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead; gigantic precipices of many-colored granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is drawn irresistibly onward by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging cliffs of incredible height.”

Start of earth porn
orchids, just chillin

Although we weren’t doing the official Inca trail or even an ‘alternative’ Inca trail, I presume our experience surpassed others doing those trails as we had the experience all to ourselves. We had the pleasure of truly listening to the water flowing in the rivers, rather than hoards of tourists talking. We were able to take in the views and go at our pace, not the pace of the tourists nipping at our ankles. The scenery was incredible and to have it all to ourselves for 2 full days made it all the more spiritual.

On day 2 we hiked from 12,400 to 14,800 and back down to 12,200 to camp. Incredibly ironic (or silly) was the fact that this was our first 14’er was accomplished in Peru, not Colorado where we live near 53 14’ers.

Top of the summit (divide between Vilcabamba and Urubamba mountain ranges)
Packing camp

That night we camped right next to a raging river, which promptly put us to sleep (along with the lack of sleep the pervious night and the 9+ hours of hiking). On day 3, we hiked down a narrow canyon, lined with beautiful vegetation. There were wild orchids, tons of wild flowers, and exotic cacti. It rained for most of the hike down the valley, making it a muddy and wet adventure. Yet, we still throughly enjoyed it. There is something peaceful about a light rain in a tropical ecosystem. For lunch, we camped out on the outskirts of Ollantaytambo, which once served as a stronghold for Manco Inca during the Spanish invasion. Unfortunately, it was time to say goodbye to everyone except our guide, who was going to take us to Machu Picchu the following day. We had an experience of a lifetime and we didn’t want it to end. Before seeing them off, I insisted we do a selfie.

Julio and team. Top notch group.

After lunch, we caught a ride to the town center to catch the train to Aguas Caliente, where we would stay in a hotel. Entering town was a shock to the system. I mean shock, we had hardly seen people for several days and now we were accosted with so many tourists.

The following morning we took a bus to Machu Picchu. We hiked Wayna Picchu mountain which overlooks Machu Picchu. The hike was very steep and challenging, but absolutely worth the views (see pic below). Machu Picchu is spectacular, but it is incredibly crowded, which took away from the experience.

Looks familiar, right?

The 4-day trek in Peru is by far my favorite experience thus far. I couldn’t have imaged how breathtaking the views, the luck we would have with the weather, and the peace that accompanies nature when experienced in solitude.


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