We spent our first two days in Cusco acclimating to the high altitude. Cusco sits at 3,399 meters above sea level so the adjustment can be a bit much when you first arrive. Both Piet and I experienced headaches for the first two days but lucky for us in nearly every hotel and hostel they will provide you with free Coca Tea to help you adjust as fast as possible. The tea is slightly bitter (the raw leaves were much worse) but boy did it help us. Cusco is a beautiful city with small narrow lanes just wide enough for you to squish up against a wall as cars whip by you. In the main square by the Cathedrals you can find numerous women dressed in traditional garb toting their lamas through the streets asking to take photo’s with you (their income source).
The streets of Cusco were lively and bustling when we arrived as they were celebrating the Inca Festival of the Sun: Inti Raymi. It was a tribute to the sun god and a way for the Incas to plead the sun god not to drift farther into the universe! The Incas would also pray for a bountiful harvest and protection against famine. In the streets of Cusco Peruvians can be seen carrying statues of the King and Queen through the streets, playing music, dancing and setting off fireworks for quite a few days straight! We ended up staying with the Casa Andina Hotel Chain which was amazing as we were able to check out all the live action right from our balcony. The staff members at Casa Andina are truly amazing and really do go above and beyond for their guests. If we ever find ourselves back in Cusco we will definitely be staying back here.
We spent our third day in Cusco on an amazing adrenaline pumping adventure with Natura Vive. We were picked up from our hotel in Cusco and driven about an hour and a half to the Sacred Valley where we were began our adventure of climbing 400 meters straight up the side of a rock face via ferrata and then zip lining back down to where we started. I don’t think Piet knew exactly what he signed up for beforehand because when we arrived he looked straight up the path we were supposed to climb and told me that maybe he should go with the group hiking the mountain instead… I didn't even let him finish the sentence because I knew there was no way I was going to let him miss this opportunity. So the guides strapped each one of us into our harnesses and helmets and explained in detail how the gear worked and all about the safety procedures and then before we knew it it was GO TIME! We had plenty of guides dispersed throughout our group to ensure that everyone felt safe and had the support they needed which was very important to us. We were one of the first people to start climbing and knew that once we started there was no way to go but up. We took our time becoming comfortable with the process of unclipping and clipping our gear to the safety lines and slowly started making our way vertically. Once we became a little more comfortable with everything we began to relax a little bit and look around us and really appreciate the view (instead of staring straight at the rock face). The valley and mountains that surrounded us were truly stunning! Once we became as comfortable as one can be on the ferrata it was time to test our luck on the suspension bridge. Sounds easy right? Well by suspension bridge I mean a piece of wire that you tightrope across. This definitely put both of us way out of our comfort zones and was one of the most challenging experiences we’ve had to date. When we arrived at the top we were able to get a birds eye view of the Skylodges, which is literally a pod on the side of the mountain where you can have dinner and stay the night. I can’t imagine what the view of the night time skyline would look like from here. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay here overnight as they book up far in advance but that’s ok because it was time to zip line our way back down to the base. We did 7 zip lines across a huge gorge in the mountain and every time it gave us the feeling as if we were flying.
The adrenaline rush as you are soaring through the air is an unbelievable feeling. On the second (and longest 700m) zip line you had to go as doubles in order to get across so Piet and I were actually able to enjoy the ride together which was fantastic. By the time we made it down the mountain we were spent and celebrated our hard work with a well deserved beer (and donated to the local community thanks to the very smart woman who made a killing upselling on those beers!) Overall we couldn’t speak more highly about the experience. It challenged and pushed us in new ways, we felt safe and fully prepared and the guides we had were fantastic. They were friendly and chatty and really seemed to enjoy their jobs. This will definitely be a day we wont forget!
Given that Piet and I aren’t huge hikers and 2-3 days hiking up a mountain sounded more painful than pleasant to us we chose to take the quicker and easier route up to Machu Picchu, the train. Our train left at 630am which meant that we had to arrive at the station 30 minutes before and left us for a long day ahead so we chose to stay the night up in Aguas Calientes and go up the next morning. Aguas Calientes is a small town at the base of Machu Picchu where the train stops, after blowing through the center of town that is. With all the trains coming and going during the day the town is fairly noisy. Our hotel was actually located on one of the streets where the train rolls right on past so it makes for an interesting sight when you can see the train rolling in right outside the lobby window. Given that we were waking up very early the next morning we knew that we wouldn’t be getting much sleep anyway.
At 330am our alarms went off to wake up to get in line for the bus up to Machu Picchu. By 4am we were in line, close to the front but nowhere near first. Within 10 minutes the amount of people who started lining up behind us was crazy. The lineup actually started weaving through some of the streets once you couldn’t go any further up the hill! At 530am the buses started rolling in and we made it on the third bus. The drive was a slow 20 minutes going uphill, hairpin turn after hairpin turn, narrowly missing the people who got up at 3am to walk the 2 hours up to the base. Once we arrived we waited a couple of minutes at the gate until 6am when they started letting everyone in. The sunlight hadn’t yet hit so when we got in Machu Picchu was lit up by just the beautiful light of dawn. It was pretty mesmerizing, the extravagance and grandeur of the whole area so we just took it all in. Because we were one of the first ones in there was virtually no people around us. No one exploring the buildings down below, no one fighting for picture space it was just so serene. To think that this was all built by hand around 1450 is pretty unbelievable. And the greatness and enormity of all the structures is stunning. Surrounded by dense jungle and huge mountains, the ancient Incan city truly blew us away.
We chose to hike up to Sun Gate (where all the 3 day hikers arrive) to see a birds eye view of Machu Picchu and we are so glad we did. It really made us appreciate the amount of work and planning that went into this city so long ago. All be it, one of the most expensive activities we have done on our trip we are so happy we did it. It blew both of our minds and pictures really don’t do it justice, you truly have to see it with your own eyes! For anyone thinking of heading to MP, we highly recommend getting up extra early and arriving first thing when it opens. The experience we had that first hour without too many people around really made our experience that much better!
We spent a week in and around Cusco and definitely could have stayed longer as there is so much to see and do here. It has easily become one of our top spots!