We left La Paz on our very last Peru Hop bus (make that all busses!!) at 7 am on March 14th and arrived in Cusco about 22 hours later. It sounds rough but we did make lots of stops to break up the trip. We ferried across Lake Titicaca, we had another long layover in Copacabana, and the final, much easier, border crossing back into Peru. While we were in Copacabana Brett tried to get his hands on a locally made leather hat that he’d seen on our way into Bolivia. Unfortunately, Luckily, the store was closed and he wasn’t able to fulfill his dream of dressing like a llama herder. By the time we got to Casa Saphi B&B, it was half past five AM and definitively closed. Juan showed up about thirty minutes later, and immediately became a little ray of sunshine in my rain-drenched heart. He was the kindest, most welcoming man who went above and beyond to make sure we had a comfortable time during our stay. He helped settle up with our taxis when we didn’t have the right cash, he made us cappuccinos in the morning, he moved our excess luggage in and out of our room while we went trekking. I would give 100 stars to his whole operation if I could, and highly recommend staying at Casa Saphi to anyone heading to Cusco. Only caveat is – he pretty much only speaks Spanish! So if you’re struggling in that department, it might be a bit of a challenge. Brett and I had just enough time to clean up and unwind before my oldest friend Emme arrived from NYC. Even though we were all exhausted from long days of travel, we essentially jumped head-first into two of the most jam-packed, adventure-filled weeks of our entire trip.
That day we checked out Greens Organic (thanks to a very strong recommendation from Sam Wang: “I still dream about it”), and Brett and I gorged on more veggies than we’d eaten in an entire month. We wandered around the town center, which is BEAUTIFUL, and stopped into a boutique cocktail bar for a drink that evening. The bar was called Fallen Angel, and it was about as close to the Castro as I’ve ever seen outside of San Francisco. The tables were made out of bathtubs filled with live gold fish. The chairs were day beds decked out with heart shaped pillows. The walls were covered in neon jaguar portraits and sparkly statues. I ate it up.
The following morning we did our standard free city walking tour and learned about different types of Incan construction you can still find around Cusco today. One of the highlights was learning about the tactics of the juice ladies in San Pedro market – but more on that later. Afterwards we headed to our Peruvian cooking class at Mario Batata, where we learned to make ceviche and lomo saltado. It was just the three of us and another American woman (apparently Americans really like cooking classes), so it was nice to be able to chat with the chef a lot and ask a ton of questions. When he was teaching us to make various pisco drinks, he said he never feels bad indulging because his mother always told him, “one day you’re in diapers, and the next you don’t know.” A trite quote maybe, but a good one all the same. My favorite part was getting to try about 10 different kind of locally grown tropical fruits. All three of us loved the passion fruits best: maracuya and granadilla, which have varying degrees of tartness. We learned the proper way to eat them is to swallow the small seeds whole, since chewing them ruins the flavor.
Dan, Brett’s oldest friend, arrived early the next morning. The first thing we did was head to Llama Path, our tour operator, for the mandatory 2-day prior check in for the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail is highly regulated by the Peruvian government, with only 500 people (200 tourists, 300 porters/guides) permitted to start the walk each day. The trail itself has limited toilet facilities, and everything else must be carried from start to finish. This means that all operators make use of huge teams of porters to carry tents, cooking equipment, food, water, trash, etc.. Emme and I did a ton of research on various operators, and chose Llama Path for their stellar reviews in the mid-range priced companies. They did not let us down. From that very first checkin, they were so professional and friendly and organized. They even let us switch our orientation to that night so we could have the entire day free the next day.
Once we’d finish our registration with Llama Path, we headed to do a different city tour. The guide recognized us and told us that even though online it says they run three different tours, they’re really all the same. So Emme and I decided to head off and do our own thing while the guys carried on touring. We headed up one of Cusco’s many hillsides to a restaurant called Limbus, that claims to have the best view of the city. They might be right – it’s breath-taking, but so is the climb to get there. Even though I had now been operating at 10,000+ feet for a few weeks, I could still feel the altitude. It did not bode well for the Inca Trail.
We reconvened for lunch at Kion, so that Emme and Dan could try out chifa. (Aside: Kion means ginger in Quechua, which is the local language of the Andean population.) Kion was unlike any other chifa place that Brett and I had seen; it was super mod and fancy inside and the dishes included things like gooseberry chicken. We all agreed that everything was super delicious, and also 10x more expensive than the typical chifa…which continued to be a theme throughout our time in Cusco. We didn’t have too much time to spare before we had to make our way back to Llama Path for our mandatory orientation, which felt like overkill. It was essentially a 10 minute video about what a great company they are (true) and another 10 minute spiel reviewing info that we’d all already read online.
Early the next morning we loaded into a small bus with a few other people for an all-day tour of the nearby Sacred Valley. Throughout the day we visited many Inca ruins and other important historical places (Chincheros, Moray, Maras Salt Mines, Pisac, Ollaytantambo) with a short lunch stop at a weird, tropical buffet. It was mostly crap as buffets go, but they did have guinea pig or cui, which was exactly as gross as I expected. Dan, Brett and I just filled up on fried bananas while Emme stared at a plate of rice. The night before she had started to feel stomach sick, and our guide was so sweet and concerned about her. A common herb used in Cusco is called muña. It’s a type of mint known to be good for stomach aches. Christina found some high potency rubbing alcohol made with it, she poured some into her hands and had Emme breathe in deeply. Then she said “shirt up”, and before Emme could even react she had shoved her hands up her shirt and rubbed her stomach aggressively with the left over muña. Despite the fact that it was weird, Emme said it did make her feel a little better.
On March 19, we woke up at 4 AM to catch our bus to the start of the Inca Trail. After a big breakfast, they dumped us in a small hut where we quickly organized our packs with all of our rental gear. We adjusted our straps and headed out to the trailhead, where we took the first of many group photos. Our band for the next four days included four other Americans: two guys who were childhood friends from Bakersfield, two girls who were college friends from the East Coast, THIRTEEN PORTERS, and our guide: Roger (pronounced Royer). Roger was a 30-something Peruvian guy who co-owned a travel business in America. He was super easy to talk to, extremely funny, and liked to point out specific women’s body parts that he saw in various rocks and outline of mountains. The first day on the trail was easy, and even though we were hiking at the tail end of the rainy season, it only really came down while we were in a small shelter during our lunch break. We had heard in advance that the food we got during the trip would be insane, but even knowing that up front, we were blown away. I wish I could remember exactly what was on the menu for even one of the meals, but it usually ran something like 6-8 dishes for lunch and dinner. They told us we’d gain weight during the trip, and they did not lie. That night our group had a private campsite on a hillside with a crazy beautiful view, and when we arrived our tents were set up and there were hot drinks and hot water to wash up set out for us. You could safely call it glamping.
Day two of the trek was the hardest day and our introduction to the 13th century stone path and stairs that make up the majority of the hike. We had to climb over 4,000 feet and through Dead Woman’s pass at nearly 14,000 feet, a notoriously dizzying hike. If you’ve read even one other post from this trip, you know that Brett and I have hiked a ton, and we thought this day was the toughest hike yet. On the final leg through the pass, we had to pause to catch our breath every few minutes. We got super lucky yet again and it only started lightly raining when we made it through the pass and to lunch. We had another 4.5 miles to go until we reached our campsite for the night, which was already swarming with the other operators. Our site was directly on top of grazing fields, so just outside of our tent several llamas were wandering around. We were in the “llama path” for real.
Day three’s hike was miserable. It rained, it poured, and then it rained again. It was all downhill and the stone path was slippery. Emme and I both ate it multiple times, and on one occasion I even ended up with half my body hanging off the trail, with my 20 pound pack flung over my head, weighing me down so I couldn’t lift myself up. Luckily, Dan was close behind and able to pull me back on the trail quickly. As soon as we got to our final camp the sky cleared up, promising us a sunny morning for our arrival to Machu Picchu, and suddenly, being drenched all day felt totally worth it. Roger showed us over to Winay Wayna, and we were one of maybe a dozen people in the entire massive ruin. After exploring a bit we sat together on one of the hundreds of terraces and took it all in. It was a perfect moment: hanging out with people I love, surrounded by the giant, green Andes, sun rays peeking out through the storm clouds.
To slightly digress to a less beautiful topic – we shared the final campsite with all 478 other people – and the bathrooms took a toll. The toilet bowls were inside of the ground, which obviously requires squatting. This is a skill that some people do not possess…because by the morning there wasn’t just poop on the floor, but also on the walls. Fortunately, our group was into poop jokes, so it provided a lot of laughs as we shared our **GORGEOUSLY DECORATED CAKE** that the chef had somehow baked for us in the middle of nowhere. After our last huge dinner, I’m surprised we were even able to put it down. Roger said our goal was to wake up and get out of the campsite before everyone else so we could make it to the Sun Gate first. We had to wake up at 3:30 AM, so we set our alarms and headed to bed.
We all got up and out on time, but somehow when we lined up to leave the next morning there were already almost 50 people in front of us. It didn’t really end up mattering, because part of the the trail had collapsed during the rain storm the day before. Almost the entire group of 200 tourists had to wait in a big line while a couple workers from the National Park figured out how get us across. They ended up stretching a big rope across the 6 ft gap in the trail, and we had to hold on and sort of walk as close to the mountain wall as possible to avoid falling or causing more of the trail to collapse. After I made it across, I mentally added it to my list of “dangerous things that would I would never experience at home.” The sun had already risen by the time we reached the Sun Gate and we had our first look at Machu Picchu below. It was a gorgeous, summery day with nearly cloudless blue skies. We couldn’t have been luckier. We completed our final descent down into the ruins and Roger lead us on a quick 1 hour tour before setting us free until lunch. Brett, Emme, Dan and I had purchased tickets to climb Huyana Picchu, so we set off for the mountain. I think we were all exhausted and wanted to cop out, but since no one said anything, we all did it. The power of peer pressure. My aunt had warned me that it was steep; for several parts of the hike it was almost straight up, as if you were climbing a stone ladder and had to use both your hands and feet. I’m pretty nervous about heights and this definitely activated that fear. Of course the view at the top was great, and we all felt accomplished. We’d officially done everything that we had set out to do.
We hopped on our bus to nearby Aguas Calientes, had a goodbye lunch with our group, and then got on the train back to Ollaytantambo. There, we had to pick up a bus to Cusco where we were finally dropped off to Casa Saphi around 7 PM. We found enough energy to grab some soup from Mr. Soup (appropriately named and delicious), and then crashed.
Our last day together we had nothing planned. We were sore, under-the-weather, and physically exhausted. Since Dan was heading back to the States, we decided to do a few last Peru-specific food rounds. We headed to San Pedro market for another fresh juice. I mentioned the juice ladies before; there’s maybe 40 or 50 of them, all wearing white aprons and hair nets, all in identical stalls (only made distinct by their names in bright red letters) creating several rows. They wave at you and holler things like “ven aquí hermosos!” and “quiero darte un beso”. Their tactic is to woo you over with kindness and flirtation. It feels adorable and harmless because many of the women could be most people’s grandmothers. We visited a juice lady named Margarita three times, and enjoyed the freshly made juices she’d whip up for us for 2 or 3 dollars. The next Peruvian food we picked up were fresh maracuya, and some maracuya juice. For lunch, we sipped on maracuya mojitos. That night we made a repeat stop at an ice cream store called Qucharitas where Dan got his third and final maracuya shake. Dan fell hard and fast for maracuya.
We ate breakfast together on the morning of Saturday, March 23 before Emme, Brett and I headed off to the airport to catch our flight to Puerto Maldonado, Peru for our three day tour of the Amazon. We had such an unforgettable week in Cusco and on the Inca Trail, and sharing it with friends made it even better.