We arrived in Cusco on March 7th and chose a hostel called Atawakama. Once we got rid of our bags and briefly settling in we headed for some food. We had been recommended a place called Jacks Cafe and it didn’t disappoint – it had an amazing breakfast and sandwich menu and had a queue of both locals and travellers waiting for tables.
Cusco was the biggest surprise of the trip so far for me. I guess I didn’t really have time to think about it before our arrival and the main agenda for stopping there was to see the infamous Machu Picchu but after arriving without expectation, it totally blew us both away. A stunning plaza is located in the centre of the bustle and while it is certainly the most tourist filled spot we’ve visited so far, and there are vendors everywhere trying to sell you trips to Machu Picchu, any item you think you may need for the trip, and post trip massages, it was really really beautiful!
The architecture is old and every facade in the square looks similar with pretty balconies looking out over the action. It was strange to see KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks hidden behind these old structures!
We spent our first day visiting many of the tour companies to get our trip to Machu Picchu booked. It was low season and rainy season during our visit so we weren’t worried about finding tickets last minute (and had multiple warnings from other travellers that it would be cheaper this way!). We quickly figured out that there is a difference between all of the agencies offering trips, and the actual operators offering the same. The operators are the ones who actually run the trips and if you book through an agency you just join a bigger group being run by an operator, but you pay more money! Anyways we decided on the jungle inca trek, it was a 4day 3night trip and involved more than just walking each day, differentiating it from any of the other numerous options available.
We were due to leave two days later and spent the time in between acclimatising and relaxing in the numerous cute cafes overlooking the main square. Cusco is at an altitude of 3,400m above sea level, while Machu Picchu itself sits about 1,000 metres lower than this. We visited “Paddy’s Irish Bar”, which as the picture shoes is apparently the highest Irish owned pub in the world. Funnily, the only Guinness available was a small can, costing an extortionate amount because they can’t operate with barrels due to the altitude! It was a really nice change to enjoy Shepard’s pie for dinner there-it wasn’t as good as my mums but it was a definite lovely break from local South American food!
Our bus collected us to begin the jungle trek at 7am. Our first day involved a three hour drive into the mountains where we were left off the bus to begin an 80km cycle to our lunch stop! It was mainly downhill so not much leg work involved even though our dress code was like something to transport us to outer space! To say we got soaked is the understatement of the century..if it was pouring from the sky alone it would have been bad enough, but we had to cycle though about 6 waterfalls and there was literally nothing to do only grin and bear it!!!
We finally arrived to Santa Maria where we were staying for the night after being fed. There was an option to include rafting in the tour this afternoon but due to high water levels from rainfall many of the operators were not running it. We used the afternoon instead to locate some newspapers from a local lady and attempted to dry our hiking boots before the full day of hiking ahead the following day. We were fighting a losing battle after the amount of water we had been through that afternoon so we gave up and enjoyed a beer in the park with the local kids playing football until dinner time! The food so far consisted of a vegetable and quinoa soup followed by either chicken or beef with rice, and a cup of coco tea to help with altitude- everything tastes better when you’re hungry!! Our accommodation was in a hostel which was very basic but it was indoors and we had electricity so definite bonuses when compared to our hut in the Colca Canyon a week previously!
The following day we had a 5,30am start for breakfast before setting off on a 21km hike to get to Santa Teresa, our second nights stop. Our guide, Pablo, was amazing and we had plenty of stops with locals along the way to learn about their traditions. We stopped by some locals who provided a taste of their local homemade beer, made from purple corn!
We picked local fruits and ate them from the trees and took a stop for about half hour at a local house called ‘monkey house’. Here we watched the pet monkeys and parrots providing entertainment to all the tourists, tasted the homemade chocolate which was made with 90% cocoa from their trees and 10% honey. We also bumped into a group of Irish guys here, they were easily spotted by us even if the accents didn’t give it away. It turned out they were all fellow westies and it didn’t take us all long to make connections of mutual people we knew from home (much to the astonishment of the Americans beside us-we explained a few times how small Ireland is!!).
Part of our hike on day two took us through the original inca trail which was amazing to see and the scenery was just amazing any direction we looked. Pablo explained to us that there are over 40,000km in inca paths constructed.
We were also happy to learn at this point that our hills were over for the day and we would descend for lunch and continue on flat or downwards to reach Santa Teresa! Our lunch spot had about 20 hammocks and it was welcomed news to learn we had an hour to rest after an amazing feed of guacamole and pasta!
Before reaching our accommodation in Santa Teresa we visited the thermal baths outside the town. There was a lot of very happy faces in the group to learn this news as we knew we had no hot water until our final night so we spent two hours in the baths relaxing the muscles after the prior two days. In advance of finally reaching the baths it was necessary to cross the river via a manual cable car which was lots of fun, followed by a bat filled tunnel just to keep us on our toes!!
That night in Santa Teresa our guides took us to a local campfire site after dinner. We were having a “sleep in” until 7 the following morning so were allowed to let the hair down a bit!
Day three involved a lot of hungover group members regretting the fun at the campfire the night before, especially when we remembered that we would spend three hours that morning ziplining through the jungle! I have done zip lining before but these were absolutely massive and definitely not for the faint hearted- especially with options of going upside down or in superman position!!
Our final stint before the ziplining ended was a petrifying journey over a rope bridge at height with missing planks! We were clipped on “incase we fell off the side”!! I ended up counting the steps out loud to take my mind on what was actually going on…I got to over 200 – deep breaths!
We had lunch after the ziplining in Hidro Electrica, a town which took us one step closer to Machu Picchu! From there we walked 3 final hours to Aguas Calientes or “Machu Picchu publeto” as it’s known locally. There is no road to this area so our walk was along the train tracks, jumping off the lines every time we heard the trains coming!
There is a luxury train called the Hiram Bingham (we later learned this is the name of the guy who actually discovered Machu Picchu), and it runs a return service from Cusco to Machu Picchu and costs about €1,000 I understand. In addition it is possible to take a regular train from Aguas Calientes back to Hidro electrica and the buses run from there back to Cusco. We were quoted $80 one way for this service though which is over half the cost of our four day all inclusive tour to put it into perspective – we settled for the bus!