It Ends at Machu Picchu
Days 329-334 (June 22-27, 2017):
It was now time for our last group activity together: our exploration of Cusco and tour of Machu Picchu in Peru. We had booked a tour to Machu Picchu through a company called Loki Travel. We were not able to do the Inca Trail, as the government limits the number of people who can do it each year, and the tickets for it sell out about a year in advance. So instead we opted for the four-day Inca Jungle Trek. We had heard great things about it and were excited about its varying activities. So, we boarded a bus bound for Cusco and headed off. We were staying at the travel company’s attached hostel, Loki Hostel. What we did not really expect, however, is how much of a party hostel it was to be. The morning after our arrival, we went into the bar/restaurant area to get something to eat and were greeted with drinks right away. The bar had amazing drink specials, bartenders and staff who were alcohol enthusiasts, and lots of opportunities for beer games. Although I did not drink because I was still recovering from illness, the other four went at it hard. We spent the entire day before our tour playing beer pong, flip cup, boom cup, and cards, downing beers as we went. The staff kept awarding winning teams free shots and pretty soon, our group was fairly inebriated. The best part about this revelry, however, was that it was a collective effort by the hostel. All the patrons who wandered into the bar appeared to get caught up in it and we ended up making some amazing new friends from all over the world. We even convinced one guy named Alex to join us on our tour departing from the hostel the next day. We simply took him with us to our briefing that evening and he drunkenly threw down the money and was on the tour.
The next morning, after such a late night of partying, we were all a little worse for wear. I, however, was sill the worst one despite having opted out of drinking the night before. I made it about 15 minutes down the road on the tour bus before I had to get out and throw up. Adam and I got a cab back to the hostel, while the others continued on with the tour. The staff at the Loki travel company were extremely accommodating, allowing us to join up with the 3-day Jungle Trek leaving the next day and to meet up with our group again on their third day (our second). So, Adam and I tapped out for the day and rested in the hostel, sleeping as much as possible and hoping to make a quick recovery. The rest of the group continued on through the Sacred Valley and to their first tour activity.
On the first day of both of our tours, the van drove us up narrow winding mountain roads until we reached the top of Abra Malaga. At the top, we took some pictures and took this last opportunity to go to the bathroom. We were all assigned a mountain bicycle and given some serious body armor. At first, as I was strapping on the shin guards, knee protectors, gloves, armored shirt and motorcycle helmet, I thought this all seemed a bit unnecessary. I mean we were only going to be riding a bike down a hill. Oh boy was I wrong. This was a three-hour, 6500 foot, white-knuckling decent down a mountain on winding, cliffside roads while crossing streams and dodging Peruvian traffic. It was not for the faint of heart. Within five minutes of starting, one of the girls in Adam and my group wiped out on the pavement. Half our group took epic spills as we road down, including one chick who hit the inside gutter and slid about thirty feet downhill on her face. I also took a dive when my tire slid out on a sharp turn after a water crossing. For me, the end result was a broken shoulder, but I wouldn’t learn that until we had returned home to the U.S. from our travels. Katie, Justin, and Smo made it down unscathed in their group, although our new friend Alex was somewhat less fortunate. He had a nasty fall that we found out later resulted in a torn MCL. So, as I said, it was not for wussies and the body armor was a definite must-have. We completed the ride, waited for stragglers, and then boarded the van to that night’s lodging, a family owned jungle lodge. We shared an epic lunch buffet and then quickly changed into our bathing suits. Our next activity for the day was whitewater rafting. Yep, the day was not done yet. We were given wetsuit tops, water shoes, and a paddle and then we boarded our rafts. The trip down the river was amazing. We tackled fierce rapids and enjoyed the stunning scenery. We got into the water for some swimmers’ rapids and did some light cliff diving into the rushing water. Both groups counted this among one of the best activities of the trip, and the guides were great. We were sad to return to the lodge when it ended. That first night, Katie, Justin and Smo’s group stayed at the lodge for the evening. Adam and I, however, traveled on to Santa Theresa to meet up with them at the end of their second day.
On day two of the tour, Katie, Justin, and Smo hiked from the lodge to an actual section of ancient Inca trail. The hike up was short, but intense. From there they enjoyed expansive views of the valley below. They stopped for lunch in Quellomayo, and relaxed in the hammocks there. Afterwards, their trek continued on along the Urubamba river, crossing it at one point in a cart and pulley. They all made it safely across. Along the 16 km trek (~10 miles), they stopped and sampled some local chocolate, coffee, and liquor. Their final stop was in the town of Santa Theresa, where they visited the local hot springs. Adam and I also visited the hot springs that evening, although our visit was cut short by the crazy antics of an adorable pitbull puppy who lived at the hostel but decided to follow us all the way there. That night, we all met up together for a terrific buffet dinner before going to sleep, exhausted.
The next day, Katie, Smo and I opted to do the optional zip-lining activity. Justin and Adam decided to sleep in and relax around the lodge some more instead. The girls went out and soared across the canyon on five ziplines, culminating in one almost a kilometer long doing the superman pose. The last part of our optional excursion was a high walk across slim boards where you had to hook and unhook yourself in order to carry on. It was actually kind of scary, and I am not even afraid of heights. We got back to the lodge, uncooked ourselves and rejoined Justin and Adam. We drove in a van to a Hydroelectric system station, where we did a three-hour trek along the train tracks. On the way we got our first glimpses of Machu Picchu from below in the valley and learned a lot about its history and its discovery. We stopped for lunch on route at an open-air jungle café and spent some time admiring the butterflies, picking fresh avocados, hanging out in hammocks, and playing with some puppies before we continued on our way. We walked all the way to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes, which serves as the primary base to visit Machu Picchu. That night, we had our last group dinner out at a nice restaurant (I got trout ceviche which was AMAZING) and gathered supplies for our trip up the mountain.
The next morning, we caught the earliest bus up to Machu Picchu. You could either pay $15 for the bus up, or you could hike. While we opted to walk down to save ourselves the $15 back, after doing that walk I am glad we took the bus up. It was quite the climb. As we followed the throngs of early risers through the gates at 6:00 a.m. we were floored by the views. The architecture of the place was stunning, built so precisely and carefully it had stood the test of time. The dark grey stone provided an amazing contrast to the rich green of the grass throughout the complex. Not only were the buildings incredible, but the views of the mountains from Machu Picchu were breath-taking. I must have snapped 300 pictures as our guide led us around, pointing out the important temples and historical sites. The guided portion of our tour lasted about two hours and gave us a great overview of the ancient ruins. We were then free the3 rest of the day to wander around as we saw fit. When we were there, you were allowed to stay as long as you liked and you could re-enter up to two times (there are no bathrooms or eating facilities in Machu Picchu itself). However, from what I heard, beginning July 1, 2017 they were limiting each visitor to four hours at the site with no chance for reentry, so we had good timing I guess.
We wandered around the site a bit more before making our way to the entry point for the hike up Macchu Picchu Mountain. Although it was well marked and wider, it was still a fairly challenging hike. For about an hour and a half we trudged up the trail to the summit. The difficult part was that it followed the original stone Inca trail to the summit and included a ton of steps of varying heights and depths. Some parts of the trail did get very narrow, and you had to wait for others to pass before continuing on up. It was all worth it though. The trail itself offered incredible overhead views of Machu Picchu. And then, when you reached the summit, you not only got stunning views of the site from above, but an astounding 360-degree view of the mountains. It was a sight I will not soon forget. At around noon, the staff came up and told us all we had to begin our decent. The summit is only open until noon and is limited to 400 guests per day. We begrudgingly took our last photos before making our way back down the mountain, which in my opinion was a bit more treacherous than the way up.
Once back at Machu Picchu, we took a little more time to explore and soak up the views before exiting the historical site. We had lunch outside on the stone walls and then slowly began picking our way down the mountain. Katie and Justin took off a bit earlier, while Smo, Adam, Alex and I lingered up top for a bit longer, relaxing. Once we reached the bottom, we stopped for a couple of beers at a small café near the park entrance to refuel before walking the rest of the way back to Aguas Calientes. We had arranged for our train and then a bus back to Cusco, playing euchre most of the way. That night was to be our last night together. Katie and Justin were quite tired, and opted to go to beg early. Smo, Adam, Alex and I, however, stayed up late, partying and celebrating the end of our journey.
The next morning was quite sad. Katie and Justin were leaving for the airport. It was the official end of JANK’s travels. Only two nomads would remain. We shared tear-filled hugs as we said our goodbyes. It had been an amazing year of travels together. We had visited 37 countries on six continents. We had made friends all over the world, seen countless world heritage sites, overcome fears, tasted new foods, and made memories I will never forget. It was truly the trip of a lifetime and Machu Picchu was the perfect way to end it.