Day 1-2: Arriving in Cuzco
One factor that we did not anticipate was the elevation of the city in which we are staying. Cuzco is whopping 3,400 m above sea level, which is currently the 9th highest large city in the world! Cuzco is a Peruvian city nestled in a large valley in the Andes mountain range. It was once the capital of the great Inca Empire, but is now known for its archaeological remains. Cuzco was directly in the center of all the other ancient Inca cities. Every other Inca city was build exactly 30 km away from Cuzco in any direction. Most of the Inca monuments in the city were destroyed for the gold of which they were built. Like most South American countries, Peru was a hard fought colony of Spain for over 300 years up until 1821 when Peru declared its independence. Today the city has maintained its Spanish colonial style architecture throughout the city, giving it the entire city its title of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.The city is very clean and well maintained in comparison to many other South American cities we have visited. It is also centrally located around many of Peru’s biggest tourist attractions, making it a great home base for your trip to Peru. English is also fairly commonly spoken in Cuzco as it is a major hub for tourism. As Cuzco has a very high altitude it is advisable to not plan any activities for your first few days. We hardly did anything at all besides walking around town and Jireh got altitude sickness and felt terrible for the first few days.
Fun Fact: Cuzco is the oldest city in all of the Americas founded in the year 1100 by the Incas.
Day 3: Rainbow Mountain
The Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca, Montaña de Colores) hike was an amazing experience. Climbing to 5,200 m and getting the opportunity to see nature’s most colourful mountain canvass was an awe inspiring experience we will not soon forget.
The tour started very early at 4:30 am. We were picked up by a bus and set off to the mountain. Including a stop for breakfast, it took approximately five hours to get from Cuzco to the mountain. A few years ago, there was another road built to the mountain to reduce the hiking time to reach the summit from 3.5 hrs to only 1.5 hrs. Although I would have to say, it was the most difficult 1.5 hour hike that I’ve ever done, due to the elevation.
Shortly after beginning the trek, it was apparent that Jireh was struggling with the altitude and didn’t look like she was going to make it. Thankfully, there were many locals with horses along the trail for just that reason. The weather also took a turn for the worst and we had to hike through rain/sleet/snow. It was pretty tough, but thanks to a friend we met along the way we had some extra energy in the form of coca tea and candies which helped pull us through.
As we approached the summit, the snow subsided and the clouds cleared giving us an excellent window to get some spectacular photos. At the top, you can really feel the lack of oxygen. But it is also easy to forget about the lack of oxygen because of the incredible panoramic view.
Overall, it was a fantastic journey. The hike is short but difficult and is incredibly rewarding. We had some fun, met some friends, got some great pictures and it hardly cost us anything. The tour package including 2 meals, a guide and transportation only cost $20 USD per person.
Day 4: The Road to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca citadel located on a mountain top within the Peruvian Andes 2,430 m above sea level. It was recently discovered in 1911 by an American historian exploring the Amazon. It is also relatively new in age in comparison to the other world wonders, founded in 1450. It is designated as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu. Depending on your budget, fitness level and/or length of your visit you could get there by hiking, train, bus or a combination. Each different route takes anywhere between 1-4 days with varying prices. Contrary to what you would think, the fastest and most efficient way (by train) takes only one day but costs the most money, even taking into consideration costs of food and accommodations for the extra days.
We, of course, chose the cheapest route which was a 2 day package which involved a 6 hour bus ride to the hydroelectric dam from Cuzco. The ride up was very nice because the road weaves through a very scenic mountain pass. From there we hiked 11km to the small town of Aguas Calientes. Here we stayed the night. On the way, we discovered that the “getting there” portion of our tour wasn’t at all guided, leaving us to fend for ourselves without being prepared for it. Luckily, we met another traveler along the way who kept her brochure which had the map of the town with the location of our hotel. Between the 3 of us, we managed to find our hotel, contact the tour operator and figure out where we were going and how to get there. Emma was traveling on her own and had booked the same tour and experiencing the same difficulties, so she ended up tagging along with us for the rest of our journey. We stayed the night here so we could get an early start for the next the day.
Day 5: 1 of the New 7 Wonders
From Aguas Calientes, it was another 1.5 hour hike up the mountain to Machu Picchu. We began the day very early at 4:30 am so we had more time on the mountain. As it turned out, we used every bit of that extra time. When we arrived the mountain was completely clouded over, so we had to wait until 9:30 am to get a nice clear shot of Machu Picchu. Sometimes getting great pictures takes a lot of patience, in this case about 4 hours worth. But at least we had the llamas to keep us temporarily entertained.
After we got our pictures, we rushed down the mountain and through the valley to meet the van supposedly picking us up at 2:30 pm. We made really good time coming down. So good we had time for a quick lunch which consisted of 3 courses for a price of only 10 PEN or $3.80 CAD, which is pretty cheap even for Peruvian standards.
After arriving right on time, we discovered we had plenty of time thanks to the chaotic lack of organization of vans. It seemed as though one lady was solely in charge of organizing hundreds of people into separate vans ran by separate companies. While the lady did seem quite good at her job, she could only load one van at a time. Needless to say, we left nearly 2 hours behind schedule.
That wasn’t the end of the night’s chaos. One of the other tour vans broke down along the way so our van had to shuttle passengers around to other vans with extra seats, putting us further behind schedule. To add to the issues, we hit some thick fog with zero visibility which was super sketchy on the narrow mountain roads.
We did finally arrive in Cuzco safe and sound, albeit very late. But I guess sometimes you just have to be happy you made it at all. Overall, the tour here was very poorly organized with little to no guidance and little to no English instructions. But despite these facts, we were able to figure everything out and still had a good time.
Day 6: Humantay Lake
The day started very early at 4:00 in the morning. We were picked up buy a van and began our journey into the mountains. Including our stop for breakfast, it took us approximately 4 hours to reach the starting point of the hike, the small mountain village of Soraypampa.
From the village it was about a 2 hour hike to the top. We had to deal with rain and high altitude again as the lake is 4,200 m above sea level. I felt that this hike was a little easier than our last venture to the Rainbow Mountain, probably mostly in part to the fact that I am now acclimatised to Cuzco’s elevation. Jireh was still struggling with the altitude so she had to get a horse again, shortly into the steep portion of the hike (most of it). To be honest, I think that she was just being lazy and the fact that the locals with their horses are spread apart every 20 m from the bottom to the top offering their services make it that much easier for her to give up.
Humantay Lake is famous for its turquoise colour, which was very reminiscent of many of our lakes back home in the Alberta Rockies. The lake is fed by the ever dissipating Humantay glacier and even though the clouds covered most of the the glacier and surrounding mountains, the lake itself is an amazing sight to see. Swimming or throwing anything into the lake is not allowed, because the lake is sacred according to the local mountain people.
We had lost our tour group fairly early into the hike, because they were really slow. When we arrived at the lake, we spent a long time climbing around ridges taking pictures. After spending over an hour at the lake, we decided to head down thinking that the rest of the group had already left. Although when we arrived at the bottom, we had to wait for over an hour for the group to arrive. From what I understood, the other people in our group were having a hard time with the altitude but were too cheap to pay for a horse so they had to do the hike very slowly. One guy in particular looked like he was in pretty bad shape when he got back to the van.
Day 7: Maras Salt Mines
For our last day in Peru, we decided to check out the Maras Salt Mines. It was an interesting place not only because of the dramatic landscape, but it was also cool to learn about the process in which the salt here is mined.
The process begins with a small stream of water which comes from the inside of a mountain. This small stream of water is super saturated with salt. During the wet season, the water slowly trickles down and fills each pool with water and sits there until the dry season comes around. During the end of the dry season, most of the sitting water has evaporated from the pools leaving behind large deposits of salt.
This unique way of mining salt has been used since the time of the Incas and it is still being used by the locals today. The Incas believed that the mountain was a god and that god provided them their salt. Today, the locals believe a far more probable theory that inside the mountain is a large deposit of salt. But there has been no actual research into where the stream originates or how large the underground salt deposit may be.
Overall, it was a great trip with so much to see and do. It was probably our favorite South American travel destination thus far.