In the steps of Incas in Machu Picchu and Cusco
Cusco is famous for being the gateway to Machu Picchu but this colonial town offers so much more. This was my third time in Cusco and I came back to hike the Ausangate route – a trek so beautiful that those who have visited Nepal and Patagonia say it rivals any trek they have experienced. In the end, I hiked the Choquequirao and Salkantay routes.
Cusco itself offers great food and weather, archaeological sites (Sacsayhuamán) above the centre, museums, chocolate, great shopping and agencies everywhere offering tours.
As I spoke to people in my hostel to try and convince them to join me on Ausengate, I came across two Peruvians, Chato and Humberto, whom ended up convincing me to join their trek to the archaeological site of Choquequirao.
It was a great four day hike from Cachora to Yanama via the archaeological site. But two days of long steep treks up hill were challenging. Chato received food poisoning just as we started our first ascent and was sick and cramping in the heat of the day. It took two hours to hike a half an hour as we walked from one piece of shade to the next. At times it looked like we would turn back. But going back was just as tough as going forward, so we continued.
Choquequirao is a stunning archaeological site, almost as impressive as Machu Picchu. Only a fraction of it has been excavated and there were only a handful of people on the site.
We met a group of French guys along the way who were carrying all their gear. I don’t know how they got up the mountain but they made it, exhausted. The highest pass was 4750 and was a tough three hour trek from our camp along an Inca road. We passed a second archaeological site of Inca terraces along the way and we learnt our lesson after the first day and stopped hiking between 10am-2pm to avoid the midday heat.
Yanama was the end of our trek and only received a dirt road two years ago. We were “lucky” to have the once a week supplies truck visiting and we caught a ride out (taxis are available for S.250). However, half way there on sunset, they decided to load eight mules, joining the already one cow and expected some of us to sit on the roof. It was freezing so we opted for the very expensive taxi ride out.
The next day we headed to the hot springs in Santa Teresa and had the place to ourselves and million midge type bugs.
Campsites are available at Santa Rosa, Maronpata (1.5 hours walk to Choquaquirao), Choquequireo, Maizon and Yanama. Dinner and breakfast were available at all these locations with the exception of Choquequirao so it is possible to trek with just your lunch food which is what the French guys did.
Mule and handler cost S.80 per day for one horse and S.40 for extra mules and can be arranged from Cachora. There is a lovely new hostel there to stay in as well.
So one trek was not enough. I decided to do a second trek and visit Machu Picchu a third time. So I went on the Salkantay which is a stunning three day trek, past the 6000m glacier covered mountain, absolutely stunning. While the trek was beautiful, it was also very crowded due to the tours hiking and camping together instead of being spaced apart and our guide insisting we had to walk with the group.
The trek was beautiful as we ascended the 4650m pass. We eventually dropped down into dense jungle along the river and ended in Santa Teresa. Food is available at all the camps and the trekking is relatively easy so this trek can be easily done independently.
We passed through Santa Teresa again and visited the hot pools, this time in the evening, and it was packed with locals and tour groups. There, another tour group, a Uruguayan choir, sung in the baths and our terrible group of singers joined in. It was extremely funny.
Both there, and as we walked to Aguas Calientes the next day, we were flighting the most intense plague of midges. They bite without pain and their bites were huge and itchy. I was bitten a few times on the lips which was extremely funny as my lips swelled up to a huge size. A great natural collagen.
We discovered that protestors had blocked the roads and rail line which meant that people couldn’t get into or out of Aguas Calientes. I wrote a story for the ABC News but the protests proved to be a blessing as we had an extremely quiet Machu Picchu site all to ourselves.
After three visits, I discovered the Inca Bridge, an unbelievable path built into a sheer rock face that would provide a challenge to experienced climbers with full gear. Somehow the Incas thought it was the ideal location for one of their roads.
If manufacturing a protest seems too big a challenge in order to have the site to yourself, try visiting in the afternoon. By 2pm most of the exhausted trekkers and organised tours have left the site and tourists seek to catch earlier trains from Aguas Calientes.
Our train ride out proved to be challenging as the Peruvians struggled to accommodate two days worth of passengers. For six hours we were herded like cattle through the station in the most disorganised experience. They could certainly use some training from London’s TFL on crowd management. But we made it onto the last train out.
In between, we grabbed some pizza, wine and beer and listened to the choir sing. It turned a very bad experience into something almost enjoyable.
So, exhausted, we arrived back in Cusco at 3am and I started my birthday showering and listening to a drunk French guy puke up in the toilet next to me. The day got better. I found a cute hotel which was the same price for a private as my hostel bed. Then joined the guys from the tour for dinner, drinks and dancing.
The transport fun continued as I flew back to Lima. A plane “crash” landed a few days earlier at Cusco, blocking the runway and causing flight cancellations. My airline, LCPeru, was crazily disorganised as it tried to accommodate those needing a new flight. Somehow I managed to get onto a plane.
Recommended treks: The Inca Trail needs to be booked more than six months in advance but is a stunning three day trek which I hiked several years ago. Expect to pay $500 plus. The route closes in February for maintenance.
Wayna Picchu is the mountain that features in most of the photos and has archaeology on top. It usually needs to be booked at least three weeks in advance.
Rivalling Machu Picchu is Ollantaytambo ruins in the Sacred Valley which is well worth a visit, along with the market town of Pisac.
Agencies: I am struggling here, because I can’t recommend the agency I used. My advice is to shop around. I paid $230 (including train and Machu Picchu) for the Salkantay trek, was quoted up to $550 and met a girl that paid $130 without the train and with a student discount. Check that your receipt includes everything discussed as I ended up paying for things that I had been advised was included.
Camping rental: Rosely, on Calle Procurators has excellent quality rental gear and great prices. They can also recommend some agencies for tours. Tatoo Adventure sells quality European outdoor brands. I splurged on a birthday present of a new Osprey backpack.
Food: Cicciolina at the corner Palacio and Triunfo has amazing mixed entrées. Don’t leave Cusco without having them. Mains are far less impressive. Jack’s Cafe, at the corner of Choquechaca and San Blas, has amazing breakfast and lunch. La Valeriana has the best pastries and juices to die for in the cutest cafe on Calle Sol, with good internet.
Accommodation: several cute and cheap hotels can be found off Calle Huaynapata. I also stayed in Pariwana Hostel which had dorm beds from a very expensive S.40 but was very clean, had a cute courtyard and was quiet in the rooms despite being a party hostel.
Airlines: Avianca, LAN, LCPeru and Star Peru fly bewteen Cusco and Lima and Star Peru and Amaszonas fly direct to La Paz. I paid US$100 for a flight, booking the day before. LAN and Avianca offer Peruvian residents a discounted price which could leave foreigners out of pocket when they reach check-in.
Watch out for the taxi sharks at the airport trying to charge S.40 for a maximum S.8 fare to the city centre. Generally speaking, have the right change as many taxi drivers are dishonest.