Inca Jungle Trek: Hiking to Machu Picchu.
Up in the narrow white-walled streets of San Blas neighbourhood, not too far from the fireplace of their hostel, 3 Europeans are sitting around a wooden table, looking at a dozen or so tourist brochures.
That was Else, Ben and myself, I had met Ben, a tall, relaxed Swiss guy, during a hike in near Arequipa, and we’d decided to take the same overnight bus to head to Cusco. We met Else at our hostel a couple of days later, a really sweet blonde girl from the Netherlands, always with a smile on her face.
Once capital of the Inca empire, Cusco was built in the shape of a puma, in between two rivers that have been channelled for that purpose. The city itself is the body of the puma, while a fortress was in the shape of the head. Up at 3400m above sea level, it used to be the centre of the empire, and a major commercial hub, until the Spanish invaded and burned the city to the ground after robbing it of what they could. It’s now a prosperous city once again, attracting many tourists from all around the world. Despite the tourism, life in Cusco is quaint and quiet, and as often happens with easy-going solo travellers the three of us bonded quickly, lapping up the delights that Cusco has to offer. We had resolved to go from here to Machu Picchu, and so spent an afternoon running around town to get information and compare fees for tours, guides, or ways to get there. That same evening we had it all planned out and were ready to embark upon a 5-day excursion the following morning.
‘The Inca trail was a network of paths that went around the entire Inca Empire for thousands of kilometres.’
We woke early and made our way down to the fountain on the Plaza de Armas where we waited for our adventure to begin. An already half full minivan picked us up, with bikes on the roof and a stack of bags at the back. We hopped in and drove for a good two hours past the village of Ollantaytambo and all the way up to a high pass. The weather up there was not looking so good, as we were surrounded by clouds, some above our heads, some far down below, and it was relatively cold. There, we were dropped off with the bikes and continued on for another couple of hours biking down the other side of the pass. At the beginning the light drizzle was less than welcome on our cold bodies, but by the time we’d made our way back down deep in the valley the temperature had warmed to a 25⋅C wet jungle atmosphere.
After a brief lunch, we made our way down to the Urubamba river for white a water rafting adventure that finished as the sun was going down. We spent the night in the village of Santa Maria, hosted in several local houses in the village. We had dinner with the rest of our multi-worldly group which consisted of a Chilean couple, a Spanish girl, a French couple, a small group of friends from the U.S., and the 3 of us, but all hopped off to bed after a couple of beers, predicting the intensity of the next few days ahead.
The next morning began our 8-hour hike through the Peruvian jungle, along the Inca trail. The Inca trail was a network of paths that went around the entire Inca Empire for thousands of kilometres. The Inca people had a very organised system of runners who sprinted all along these mini-trails in order to relay information throughout the empire. The Spanish never discovered it, and the Inca trails stopped being maintained after the fall of the Inca civilisation. Only small parts of it have been re-discovered recently. In the small villages along the route where we paused to have a break and eat something I met some very interesting inhabitants. Those who live permanently in these villages are basically independent from the rest of the world, producing their own food and clothing, and building their own infrastructures. One old woman shared her expertise of survival tricks in the jungle, for example how to discern edible nuts and berries when foraging. They shared with us too some home-made alcohol, with fermented plants in one bottle, and a snake in another bottle. The ‘snake alcohol’ was particularly potent and burned our throats with a somewhat pleasurable after-taste that stayed for almost an hour after we’d left.
We continued on, met soon by a river crossing which usually had a bridge, but this had been destroyed by a landslide a few months ago. Instead, we used the back-up system the locals had invented: a very dodgy zip-line with a box attached, where up to two people can sit in and glide across.
As we progressed I fell into conversation with our guide about many different things. Namely, his love of women. He also explained to me the Ayahuasca ritual. Ayahuasca is a brew made of a vine that grows in the Peruvian and Brazilian jungle, used for ceremonies and traditional indigenous rituals. It has powerful hallucinogenic virtues, and, done with the right preparation and under the supervision of a shaman, it can open up your mind to great wonders. It’s completely changed the lives of many. Right then I didn’t feel ready to embark on that sort of life changing experience, but I know one day I will come back and do this ceremony.
A little before sunset, near our destination for that evening, Santa Theresa, we stopped at some natural hot springs and swam in the warm water until it went completely dark. Thousands of stars were above us; it was incredible to watch.
The next day started with zip-lining down a valley. It was a lot of fun, a great start to the morning, and felt much safer than the one above the river the day before. Soon after, we hopped in a 4×4 to catch up with the rest of the group who didn’t want to do the zip-lines. Getting closer to Machu Picchu now, the afternoon was another hike down to Aguas Calientes. This tiny village would probably be the very same as the other villages we’d passed through if it wasn’t for the massive tourism industry brought by the wonder that is Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is full of hotels, restaurants, and even has a train station. The place is crowded with tourists who just fly to Cusco, take a train to Aguas Calientes followed by a bus up to Machu Picchu, take the iconic photo and go right back out of the country. It was a strange after almost a month in the country, and just getting out of the jungle, to be back to an extremely touristy place.
We found a hostel in a tiny lane in which to spend a few nights. To make it to Machu Picchu on time for sunrise, we had set a 4am alarm. We set off upon a pitch-black steep climb along the trail, broken up by old stairs made of rocks. Despite the dry-eyed tiredness of the morning, we pushed on and made it amongst the first people to the top, watching the sunrise through mist and clouds as hundreds of tourists arrived by bus.
Incredibly, Machu Picchu’s temple of the sun has been constructed so that the 2 windows align perfectly at the first ray of sunlight of each solstice, one with the Gate of the Sun located about a kilometre away, and the other with some mountains even further away. Each rock used to build the temple was carved specifically based on the previous one and took up to 2 years to sculpt. Everything about this place and its history is magical, and you can see why it’s earned its reputation.
Here, atop a mountain ridge in a famous ancient Inca citadel we basked in the glory of our short but intense trek, full of breathtaking landscapes and stunning experiences, wondering at the strange contrast of indigenous and tourist life in this part of the world.