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Published: January 20th 2023
(Day 194 on the road)
There are famous places in this world that you read a lot about before you actually visit. Mystical or remote places that capture the imagination, places that are elevated to a higher level in the mind. Places you want to visit for many years, often decades. But once you've arrived, these places sometimes seem rather ordinary and don't quite live up to the high expectations you've set for them.
Not so Machu Picchu. Like most people, I had seen the iconic photographs of this ancient Inca site all my life, so I sort of knew what to expect. But when I finally approached Machu Picchu at the Sun Gate, high above the actual ruins, I was still overwhelmed by its sheer beauty. This is one of those places where pictures just don't do it justice. It was breathtaking and a memory that I hope will stay with me for a long time.
But let's backtrack a little. I had left Ecuador overland via the Huaquillas border crossing and made my way down to Mancora, a small beach town in northern Peru. On one of my walks along the beach, I literally stumbled upon an
amazing hostal, more like a three-storey, windswept wooden labyrinth built right on the beach, about twenty minutes north of the town centre.
My room on the second floor had glass windows on two sides overlooking the sea, and all I could hear was the waves crashing below. It was magical, and I spent almost a week there - sleeping late, jogging on the beach, reading a few books, watching a few films, doing some yoga. It was exactly what I needed, as I had been on the road for a long time without a break.
But soon it was time to head further south to Lima, as I was due to meet up with my two good friends Katja and Bard in Lima on the 23rd of December. They were flying over from Germany for Christmas and New Year and we wanted to explore Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley together. And with that date fast approaching, I hopped on a plane for the two-hour flight to Lima, opting to skip the 24-hour bus journey. Again, not the most environmentally friendly travel choice, but somehow infinitely more comfortable, especially as the flight was only about €10 more expensive
than the bus. As a friend I spoke to on the phone rightly asked: Who takes the bus when the price difference is so small? But I guess there is a market and 10€ can be a lot in a poor country like Peru.
My arrival in Peru in mid-December coincided with an outbreak of demonstrations and violence in the country. It was sparked by the attempted coup and subsequent arrest of (now) ex-president Castillo. This was unfortunate, as Katja and Bard were understandably worried about the news back home in Germany. Due to the political situation in Peru, a family situation Katja had to deal with at the same time, and some last minute requirements from the Peruvian embassy for Katja's visa, their visit was uncertain until literally two days before they were due to fly.
In the end, a member of staff at the Peruvian embassy in Berlin told Katja that he himself would be flying to Peru in two days' time and that a visit to the country would be safe as long as one avoided travelling to the south of the country. Which we weren't planning to do anyway. So that afternoon Bard texted
me that they were going to start packing, and two days later we met at Lima airport after their long 12-hour flight. Amazing - I had personally put the chances of them getting on that flight at no more than 30%, given all the complications and uncertainties.
And it was fantastic to see them after about seven months on the road, and the two weeks that followed were just great. We started with a day and a half exploring Lima, both the hip Miraflores area near the Malecon and the Centro Historico. As it was Christmas time, the city was pretty empty and many shops and restaurants were closed for the holidays.
But we didn't have much time anyway, and soon we were hopping on a plane for the two-hour flight to Cusco, the starting point for Machu Picchu, our main destination. Our plan was to spend a few days in the region, both to explore the area and to acclimatise to the altitude. While Machu Picchu itself is only 2,400 metres above sea level, we were planning to hike the famous Inca Trail. The trek takes four days and follows the ancient Inca trail, reaching 4,2000 metres
at its highest pass. And even with four days to acclimatise, both Bard and I were battling headaches on the day we tackled the pass.
Cusco itself - the tourist Mecca of Peru - was beautiful. The city of 420,000 sits in a narrow valley, with houses on either side of its hilly slopes. From the historic Plaza de Armas, narrow cobbled streets radiate out, full of locals and tourists alike. We had chosen a rented apartment with a spectacular view of the city. Katja took on the role of our local foodie guide and found some amazing restaurants where we sampled lots and lots of good food over the next few days.
One amazing thing that happened in Cusco was meeting Mikka and Mikko from Finland. I had spent a week with them travelling through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. That was in 2008, 14 years ago. We hadn't spoken at all and I had completely forgotten about them. And then I heard two guys calling my name as I was walking back to our rented apartment. They had passed me and somehow - I still don't know how this is possible after all this time -
they recognised me immediately. After 14 years, not knowing what I looked like. I was wearing a hat and walking uphill, so they didn't get a good look at me either. We met them for dinner that night, talking about past times and future plans, all quite amazed at the coincidence. What are the chances, we wondered?
The next day Katja, Bard and I went on to the small Inca town of Ollantaytambo, and it was another highlight of two weeks that were not short of highlights. Ollantaytambo is beautiful in itself (ignoring the dozens of aggressive stray dogs roaming the streets), with its narrow cobbled alleys, many of them too small even for the noisy tuktuks that plough the main streets. But the village is also home to the Inca ruins of the same name, which we spent a few hours exploring, marvelling at the Inca's ability to carve terraces (presumably for farming) into the steep mountain.
Early the next morning it was finally time to start the four-day Inca Trail, probably the most famous trek in South America. We were picked up at 7am by our group of six fellow trekkers (from the UK, Australia and
China). The tour company had originally taken sixteen bookings, but seven people had cancelled due to the unrest in Peru. We felt sorry for them, but from our point of view it made for a much smaller group, which was really nice.
In total, our group consisted of nine paying guests, two guides and a whopping 18 (!) porters and cooks. The porters basically carried everything for us for four days in huge backpacks weighing about 25kg each - our sleeping tents, our sleeping bags and mattresses, a kitchen tent, a dining tent, a toilet tent (!), our equipment, two large gas canisters and all our food. All we had to carry was a small daypack with our rain gear and a warm jacket. It felt really strange and wrong, and it was the first time I had done this. Usually when I go camping the rules are clear: everyone carries their own stuff.
We wondered why they didn't build simple sleeping and eating facilities along the way, instead of carrying all the equipment for every single group on the Inca Trail, every single day. Someone in our group said that (large) buildings are not allowed along the
Inca Trail, someone else speculated that it would destroy the porters' jobs and concentrate the tourists' money in fewer pockets.
It is what it is, and it was certainly nice to arrive at the campsite after a long and wet day's trekking to find the tents already set up and to be greeted by one of the porters with a hot cup of coca tea. And boy, did our cook outdo himself. He managed to prepare the most amazing meal with the most basic equipment. We had three birthdays in our group and the cook even managed to bake two large cakes for us. How he did it (we saw his equipment) was beyond us.
Walking the Inca Trail - as opposed to a day trip - was one of the reasons Machu Picchu was so special to us. It meant that we slowly built up our excitement over four - often long and wet - days. We had started the trek on the 29th of December, which meant that we arrived at Machu Picchu's Sun Gate at sunrise on the 1st of January 2023. Talk about perfect timing.
However, we had had a lot of rain
the day before and were rather doubtful that we would see anything at all. As it turned out, we were extremely lucky - the 1st of January proved to be a beautiful day, with sun, blue skies and just the right amount of speckled clouds to give the whole mountainous landscape some depth. It breathed, and we spent most of the day exploring the vast site of Machu Picchu, from all different levels and angles.
Another thing that makes Machu Picchu special is the site's location, which is hard to capture in pictures (or amateur travel blogs). The Inca site is located at an altitude of 2,400 metres, surrounded by steep mountains and cliffs on all sides. The terraces, which are an essential part of the site, have been carved into the steep jungle mountains; one can only imagine what a challenge it must have been when the site was built around 1450. Located high in the Andean mountains, Machu Picchu was forgotten for centuries when the Incas were almost wiped out by the murderous Spanish conquistadors around 1532, and was only rediscovered (and subsequently opened to tourists) in 1911.
Fun fact: The Quechua don't pronounce it "Machu
Picchu", ignoring the second "c" in "Picchu" as you and I probably do. Instead, the correct pronunciation is similar to how you would say "picture", with a clearly audible, hard second "c" in "Picchu".
After completing the Inca Trail and exploring Machu Picchu, we spent the night in the picturesque village of Aquas Calientes - right at the foot of Machu Picchu - soaking our tired muscles in the town's outdoor hot springs. We had debated heading straight back to Cusco with the rest of the group, but taking it a little slower was the right choice (after four days of hiking in the mountains and three nights of sleeping in tents).
On the way back to Cusco we made another overnight stop, this time in Urubamba. Although not as pretty as places like Ollantaytambo or Cusco, it was free of tourists and had a down-to-earth charm that Bard particularly enjoyed. We were also impressed by the nearby salt mines at Maras.
With the protests due to start again on the 5th of January (a truce between the protesters and the government had ended the day before), we decided to skip our visit to the Rainbow Mountain
near Cusco and instead fly back to Lima a little earlier. Katja and Bard's flight back to Germany was fast approaching and they didn't want to risk anything. And although all was quiet (except for some military and police presence at the airport), it still felt like the right thing to do. We spent two relaxed days in Lima, enjoying the bohemian district of Barranco. Katja and Bard also found some lovely alpaca clothing (I opted for a blanket, which they kindly sent back to Germany for me), and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye. How quickly two weeks can go by.
Being on my own again felt strange, but after a few days I realised that I had gradually slipped back into my travelling-alone-lifestyle. I spent a few quiet days in Lima, pondering my next move. And I managed to find a nice Finnish sauna and I also enjoyed jogging along the Malecon. Somehow I felt like getting off the beaten track, so I spontaneously booked a flight to Iquitos, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. Adventure awaits.
My route in Peru (so far): Tumbes – Mancora – Lima – Cusco –
Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu – Aguas Calientes – Urubamba – Cusco – Lima.
Next stop: Iquitos (Peru). To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com.
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