We said our goodbyes, threw on our backpacks and left PSF behind on Sunday morning. Leaving from the Pan-American Highway (the world’s longest motorable road (48,000 km) extending through the Americas up to Alaska!) we headed an hour north to Ica. From Ica we caught a overnight bus to Cusco.
The twenty hour bus journey felt long enough, as we arrived into a dreary Cusco feeling very stiff and tired after not a lot of sleep. We had decided to treat ourselves after the dusty and dirty living conditions of Pisco and had booked a mid-range hotel. We stayed for two nights and enjoyed the comparative luxury while slowly exploring Cusco.
Cusco was the historical capital of the Inca Empire which reined from the 13th Century until the Spanish Invasion in 1532 and is the gateway to Machupicchu. The gorgeous city centre reflects these influences with many Spanish colonial buildings mixed with some indigenous Inca architecture. Cusco is tourist-central with 1.5 million visitors per year the streets are lined with tour agencies and gift shops.
Due to the rainy season the Inca Trail - which is a 4 day hike that leads to Machupicchu - is closed for maintenance during the month of February. Still wanting to do some form of hiking and not simply visit by train, we decided on the Inka Jungle tour. This tour provided a combination of biking, rafting and hiking over 4 days and 3 nights, arriving at Machupicchu on the final day.
Early Wednesday morning we were picked up by van and driven several hours through the Sacred Valley where we enjoyed the stunning rural scenery. Our group of 13 (half Spanish and half English speaking) was dropped off at 4300m where we kitted up and proceeded to freewheel down on mountain bikes to 1500m. Conditions were wet and cold but by the time we finished up the sun was shining and we returned to the van to continue our journey to our lunch destination.
This journey was painfully slow due to a number of land-slides covering the road. In typical Peruvian style we waited until the loader made the road barely passable and speed across at full speed dodging the falling rocks where we could. Crazy and not for the faint-hearted but a sampler of what was to come for the remainder of our tour. OSH would have a field day here.
Arriving safely to our late lunch we quickly gobbled a 3 course meal and headed out for some white water rafting. As we were running late from the land-slides, darkness was quickly approaching and we were rushed through the safety precautions. This briefing took all of one minute and because this was my first time rafting I was somewhat nervous as I was quickly jumbled on board. However once I and the other beginners on the raft survived the immediate first rapid (and screamed in delight) the guide continued to manoeuvre us through the biggest of the grade 3+ rapids. It was so much fun! Just as night fell we pulled ashore shivering in the torrential rain but warmed by the adrenalin of the experience.
On the second day we woke to glorious sunshine and began a pleasant trek that followed along the swollen river. We stopped along the way to eat mangos from the trees and have the colourful juice of a berry painted onto our faces-very Inka.
As the track progressively rose we puffed our way to the monkey house where we had a midmorning break. Here we relaxed in hammocks, feed the monkey, heard the history of coca leaves which included taking part in a ceremony (my whole mouth went numb for 20 minutes) and dressed up in traditional Peruvian clothing. It was a lot of fun and very educational.
The next part of our trek took us high into the mountainside. The steep narrow steps wound around the grassy slopes providing unbelievable views of the entire gully.
By the time we had lunch it was after 4pm and we were all ravenous. Here we were also told that due to another major landslide blocking the track we would all have to pay for a bus to pick us up. This was disappointing as we had wished to trek further, but nature had its way.
On our drive to Santa Teresa, where we would be staying the night, we came across another landslide. As the bus pulled up it became apparent that no one would be passing this one with large boulders falling at speed the diggers were not even attempting to clear it and we were basically cut off from the town as nightfall was gathering. Other tour groups were in the same predicament so in an effort to avoid sleeping the night on the road approximately 50 of us began to scale down the steep mountainside and were soon to realise that half way down we could go no further. Some crazy locals decided this was good enough for them and proceeded to bush-bash/roll down the hill directly across the path of flying boulders. We all made the decision at that point that we would rather sleep on the road in the rain than do this. One of the more intelligent guides came up with the obvious solution of trekking toward the river in a less steep direction. So we continued on and just as night fell we reached the bottom of the gully to be greeted by the raging river. Thankfully some of us had torches as we all scrambled along the banks of the river and then directly upwards on a track to the town. By this stage it was pitch black and everyone had run out of water but we pushed through on adrenalin and were absolutely exhausted by the time we reached the road and walked into town. The sense of relief was huge amongst the group that evening. 12 hours of trekking had taken its toll!
Day three we woke to another sunny day. With sore muscles we began our trek to the hydro-electric plant located further along the river. We had a pleasant 3 hour trek in the drizzle to our lunchtime destination.
After lunch Cam convinced the guide to break us off into a fast group and to leave the slower ones behind! We followed the railway lines all the way to Aguas Calientes, the base town for Machupicchu and arrived a full hour before the slow group. Another 7 hour day of walking, we were more than happy to have our first hot shower of the trip and enjoy our own dorm rooms. That evening we had a late dinner and were prepped for the following day. At last we were to see the legendary Machupicchu.
The following morning we left our hotel at 4 am and proceeded to the bottom of the hill before Machupicchu. The walking bridge opens at 5 am where hoards of people race up the rather tortuous hill as dawn begins to break. Alternatively some choose to bus up the hill, it was discouraging to hear the bus pass on the nearby road as we huffed and puffed. We consoled ourselves with the stunning misty views and sense of achievement when we made it to the top.
This early morning effort is about reaching the gate for the 6am opening as the first 400 people to pass through the entrance receive tickets to Huaynapicchu, the nearby mountain that provides a view of Machpicchu itself.
We made it with numbers 70 and 71 through the gate, what a relief! Once inside we did a 2 hour guided tour of this ancient rediscovered city. We heard about the building techniques of the Incas and that their mastery cannot be recreated today. Upon close inspection it is amazing to see the precise cutting of the concrete blocks and the natural cement that has kept them together since the 1500s.
After a much needed refuelling we began the climb of Huaynapicchu, the 45 minute up-hill climb produced the highlight of the tour and perhaps our whole trip. The views were just amazing, we were amongst the clouds and could do no more than sit in silence and appreciate.
With aching muscles and our bags full of wet filthy clothes we headed back to Cusco later that evening via train and then bus. We arrived at our hotel after midnight and could barely crawl out of bed the next day to change our bus to stay another night. Hard going but rewarding all the same.
On Monday we had a day of pampering including massages, hair cut and colour and delicious food to build back our strength.
Monday evening in the torrential rain we farewell wintery Cusco and board our bus for Arequipa.