Finding the Machu Picchu magic

Hiking the Short (2 day) Inca Trail Trek with Llama Path.

This is Machu Picchu! Apparently…

OK, so our group could afford to take a light hearted attitude to the morning mist shrouding Machu Picchu. Unlike most of the many, many people waiting hopefully for the cloud to rise, we’d already had our first views of this official wonder of the world.

The conversation that morning was all about how lucky we were to have arrived at Machu Picchu, via an ancient Incan path, to find it almost deserted and glowing like the lost city in the brochures…

After our experience of trekking 10kms up the old Inca path from the valley, climbing through other Incan ruins, past waterfalls and through cloud forest to the Sun Gate, it was quite a shock to return the next morning via a convoy of buses carrying literally thousands of people.

But let me get back to the beginning. You may think that a 4 day trek up muddy mountain paths in the rainy season, camping in basic tents and using smelly squat toilets, is not attractive. We agree. On the other hand, arriving at Machu Picchu via a bus and missing out altogether on the beauty and challenges of the Inca trail was not attractive either. The 2-day trek is a happy alternative for those who don’t have the funds, time or commitment for the real deal.

We joined four other travelers and our guide Will at 5.00am in Cusco and drove around 1 1/2 hours through the Sacred Valley to the train station at Ollantaytambo. The train winds it way along the valley floor to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly known as Aguas Calientes). It is a spectacular trip past snow-capped peaks and through a gradually changing landscape that becomes more and more jungle-like. Machu Picchu is essentially located at the start of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. But we didn’t travel that far – we got off the train early at stop no.104 to begin our hike.

Bye-bye train, hello Inca trail

For the most part the trail winds gradually up, but with sections of more challenging stairs. Along the way Will guided us through two partially reconstructed Incan sites, including the impressive Winay Wayna.

Looking back down at the valley floor from the trail
This set of stairs is so steep the safest way to climb them is using hands as well as feet
Taking a break at the bottom of Winay Wayna, before tackling the 300 stairs to the top
The Incans managed to cut these stone blocks so that they could fit them together using no mortar – and without leaving gaps!
Winay Wayna from above
Past the Sun Gate and the goal is in sight!

The 2-day Inca trail trek is a bit of a misnomer. It actually involves one long day of trekking – either 10km to Machu Picchu, from where you can take a bus the rest of the way – or 16km all the way to Machu Picchu Pueblo. The last 6km includes almost 5kms of steps – all going down. This trek was a new challenge for Eliane and Maille: the longest trek they have done in one day. 10kms was quite enough for Maille, on arrival at Machu Picchu she was keen to take the bus. But Eliane was equally keen to continue for the full 16kms. She achieved this with no problems whatsoever – even giving up her hiking pole on the way down to a fellow trekker whose legs were giving way beneath him.

Bridge to Machu Picchu Pueblo

After a delicious celebratory dinner with our friendly group, which included some other novice trekkers relieved to have made it all the way, and a great night’s sleep in our very comfortable hotel, it was another early start.

The second day of the tour/trek involves a 3 hour guided tour of Machu Picchu. We learnt so much from Will about not just the site and its history, but the beliefs and culture of the Quechua people. For instance, the word Inca refers to the Quechuan rulers – the King and Queen – although it’s now commonly used to refer to the pre-colonial Quechuan empire and its people. Will was passionate and very knowledgeable on his subject, having studied the history of his country at University. He identified strongly with the Quechuan spiritual beliefs and world view and I was impressed – again – by how intact the Quechuan indigenous culture appears to be.

Will lecturing in front of a slowly emerging view of Machu Picchu
Finally revealed in all its glory, Machu Picchu is truly impressive

These pictures don’t show it, but there are hordes of people visiting Machu Picchu at any one time and it’s easy to get stuck in a slowly moving conga line of people, snaking its way around the site, before being spat out at the exit.

In our view the 2-day Inca Trail Trek was well worth the money. It enabled us to experience the magic of discovering Machu Picchu through our own efforts, following in the footsteps of the Incas.

Isla Amantani

Isla Amantani was one of the most relaxing islands I’ve ever been to. It is very quiet and peaceful because it is not modernised and there are no cars. It is a small island, less than 10km around but still has lots of things to see and do since it is on Lake Titicaca.

front of house
chasing the sheep through the plaza

I love the people there because they were very friendly. The people we stayed with (Maryluz and Henry) are exceptionally nice.They even dressed us up!

Maryluz taught me how to knit. She knits headbands, bags, beanies and more! She is an excellent teacher so if you’re interested in going there I recommend them. Henry was also very helpful and always happy to go out of his way to show us around.

The first day we went swimming in Lake Titicaca the highest navigable lake in the world, of 4063metres above sea level. The temperature of the water was 14 degrees so it took us a little while before we put our heads under. It was freezing, but I bet Maille found it fun watching me hallucinate.  

sunset from the terrace

We went on a hike up to Pachamama, an old pre-Incan temple on the highest point. It is used to worship Pachamama, Mother Earth.

I would love to go back to Isla Amantani. It is definitely a place for me.


We Conquered the Canyon!

Triumphant at the top of the Colca Canyon

Everybody please meet the Colca Canyon. The deepest canyon in the world – approximately twice as deep as the Grand Canyon – it rises to 3,287m at the town of Cabanaconde. The canyon is home to giant Andean condors and indigenous inhabitants speaking Quechua and Aymara languages and living (mostly) traditional lifestyles in a handful of small villages.

When I was planning this trip a tour of the canyon seemed like it would only be scratching the surface. There are no roads in to the more remote villages and anyway, if you visit the deepest canyon in the world, surely you want to experience just how deep that is? The other option was a more immersive 3-day 18km looping trek down from the top, following the canyon floor and visiting some of the villages, and finishing with a relentlessly uphill 5km race to the top – to beat the sun before the heat made walking uphill unendurable.

But was this high altitude and challenging trek biting off slightly more than we could chew? A one hour stroll was about the limit of our kids prior experience. Well – nothing ventured, nothing gained..

We chose to book a private trek with Carlitos Tours, an ethical company owned and run by the super nice Carlitos who came and saw us off at our 5.30am start from Arequipa and did everything in his power to ensure we had a great time. Our guide Nestor was a very experienced and knowledgeable local from Cabanaconde, who imparted a wealth of information to us about the canyon, its wildlife and people. Nestor was a pillar of strength throughout the trek, encouraging and supporting and enabling us to succeed.

The fun began soon after leaving Arequipa as we traveled over the Andean altiplano, passing a number of volcanoes and reaching a high of 4,900m. To put that into perspective, Mt Kosciuszko in Australia reaches a lousy 2,228m. At 4,900m not only is it freezing cold but altitude-induced instant headaches are the norm, in our experience. There was so much wildlife to see on the altiplano though: vicunas, llamas and alpacas, chinchillas, flamingos and other birds and we stopped to look whenever something interesting came along.

The descent

And then it began: a 3.5 hour trek down to the bottom, followed by another 1.5 hours to our homestay in Cosinhura. This was not easy walking – the ground is uneven, with big rocks and steps and lots of loose scree making it slippery. We were very grateful that Nestor had provided us with walking sticks, which saved many a fall.

More than half-way down and still looking fairly fresh!

We soon settled into a routine that was to become familiar: Eliane charging at the front, followed by James trying to keep up and slow her down, with a big gap to Maille and myself. Maille was inevitably slower – her legs being that much shorter she couldn’t take the big steps in her stride. Being so light she was particularly prone to sliding and slipping (quite a worry on those narrow paths!) and had to pick her way very carefully. But she demonstrated an amazing attitude and mental strength; from the start she set herself the goal of completing the trek without whinging and although she needed a lot of support and encouragement she stuck to it!

Our first night was spent at Elmer’s place, which is perched on a cliff on the edge of the valley. Elmer caters to hikers with a few rooms, drinks and meals and also raises guinea pigs for sale. Elmer cooked us an absolutely delicious dinner: the chicken was so tender and tasty it got me wondering if it was something slightly smaller – but apparently not! The next day we helped out in caring for the guinea pigs – harvesting alfalfa with wicked-looking sickles and distributing it to the 300+ animals for breakfast.

Traditional-style transport
Can you imagine the squeals from 300 guinea pigs anticipating breakfast?

The second day was an easy one – only a 2.5 hour walk through a couple of villages and ending at the Oasis. On the way Nestor took us to meet some more locals running a very tiny but informative museum showing many fascinating aspects of traditional daily life. This still includes making offerings to Pachamama (including baby llama fetuses), traditional medicine (no-one ever goes to hospital as it’s too expensive), wearing traditional dress (very much the norm in indigenous communities throughout Peru so far as we can see) and even grinding maize using a stone mortar and pestle. According to Nestor the old ways are still followed about 50% of the time, with younger people tending to adopt modern methods.

This lovely couple is using a combination of modern and traditional technology in their kitchen
Trying on the traditional head gear. I know who gets my vote for funniest looking!
400 year old church

After a hot midday trek in the sun we were ready for a swim at Sangalle – known as The Oasis.

This spring-fed pool is emptied each night and refilled in the morning ready for the next batch of backpackers

What a strange place The Oasis is. There used to be a village there, using the abundant springs for agriculture. But around 50 years ago a bad earthquake destroyed most of the village and killed numerous people and the remaining people moved up to Cabanaconde, perched above the canyon. Some years later someone identified the potential for tourism and this tourist ‘oasis’ was born.

Incredible contrast between the lush greenery and – steps away – the arid hillside

The final stretch began next morning at 4.15am when we left The Oasis guided by our torches. Although we were first off the mark, through the next few hours we were overtaken by many other hikers – everyone eager to reach the top before it got hot.

We somehow got down this. And now we had to get back up.
Picking our way up
The path down to The Oasis
Not much farther

Getting up to the top took virtually every ounce of physical and emotional energy Maille had and only her steely determination saw her through. The last 500m or so were punctuated by frequent ‘cuddle stops’ and chocolate hand-outs. Nestor’s offers of a piggyback were rejected though, by a girl determined to do it on ‘her own two feet’.

In the final 20m we were cheered in by the group of backpackers sitting at the top waiting for their slower companions. Virtually everyone who passed us on the way was sitting there and James and I received many complimentary comments on the girls’ achievement. Our eyes were full of proud tears and we’re both so happy that the girls have had the opportunity to prove to themselves that they can overcome significant physical challenges to reach their goals. The motto for the rest of the trip has been set: ‘it can’t be as tough as the Colca Canyon’.

Two nights in Nazca

What was I thinking?! Putting all my eggs into one tiny little tinny aeroplane basket (so to speak). I have always been quite nervous of small planes and it felt like a ridiculous risk to fly in one with my nearest and dearest. However, this perspective wasn’t shared by the rest of the family – who were keen to see the Nazca Lines from the air – so I put a brave face on and crossed all my fingers and toes…

Maille’s part

The Nazca lines were cool and looked amazing. But I didn’t have a good time because I felt sick. The flight was 30 mins, but I felt sick before half way. I saw the monkey, a part of the tree and the spiral.

The Condor
Viewing tower and 3 geoglyphs

For those wondering what the story behind the lines is: they were constructed by the Nazca people between 2,000-1,200 years ago and are thought to have formed a key part of religious ceremonies. Contrary to popular opinion they can be seen from the ground (in some places). They are very cleverly constructed so that you can walk along the lines from one end to the other without having to double back and it’s thought that the Nazca people walked along the lines during their ceremonies.

The Nazca culture was an important one in southern Peru. They farmed the fertile river valleys – in the middle of one of the driest places on earth – and built aqueducts to access the ground water that are still working today.

There is water at the bottom of this spiral aqueduct. Behind the mountains is the world’s tallest sand dune: Cerro Blanco

But it wasn’t all fun and games. One of the less attractive habits of the Nazca was their propensity to behead their enemies and drill holes through their skulls so that they could hang them by a rope around their belts. I noticed that most of the victims in the museum were women. Don’t know if there were women warriors or if they were just easier to catch than the men!

We were lucky to find our own oasis in the Nazca desert: El Jardin (The Garden). Being able to retreat from the heat, dust and dirt and relax in a beautiful, cool space was amazing.