Thursday, June 18, 2009
Today’s guest post comes from one of our very dear and most well traveled friends, the amazing Samantha Dark. Sam is a week back from Peru and hasn’t stopped talking about it yet. Here’s what she has to say about her trip:
For as long as I can remember I’ve shuffled around a mental list of all the places I want to visit. And for a while Machu Picchu in Peru, the lost ancient city of the Incas, has been at the top. So with another milestone birthday looming ahead, my girlfriend, Stephanie, and I recruited a handful of others to join us on an adventure to hike the famous road less traveled.
Getting to Peru
The evening of June 3rd we gathered at New York’s JFK airport equipped with new backpacks, hiking boots, hats, fleece sweaters, and other equipment and personal items, mostly purchased at the eco-friendly and socially conscious Patagonia store. Our flight on LAN airways was painless. We obtained our flights using mileage and so reclining in business class and with the welcome influence of Ambien, the 7-hour flight seemed like 10 minutes. We changed flights in Lima.
Arriving in Cusco
We arrived safely at our hotel, The Royal Inca, in the city of Cusco, the sacred capital of the Inca civilization and the official start to any journey to Machu Picchu. Legend has it that the famed Inca Manco Capac found Cusco in the twelfth century and its legacy is appreciated through magnificent stone walls, bustling markets and cobbled streets all nestled at the base of the picturesque south-east Andes mountains.
Because Cusco is one of the highest cities in the world at 3,399m above sea level, we were advised to spend the first day here in order to acclimate. So, the day of our arrival, our group of three guys and three girls strolled leisurely through the narrow paved streets sampling the food and haggling over trinkets of arts and crafts. At night during the off-season in June the temperature dips down to a chilly 40F. Bundled in hats, sweaters and fleece jackets, we dined at a traditional restaurant in the Plaza de Armas, or Main Square, complete with Peruvian music and dancers. It was the perfect end to our first full day. We were all comfortably tired, acclimated, and super psyched for the next day’s adventure towards the magical lost land of Machu Picchu. Yet all the anxiety I had about my upcoming birthday (the next day) felt was swept away by the excitement of the trek ahead, relishing in the joy of old and new friends.
Headed to Machu Picchu!
After my friends gave me the obligatory birthday congratulations at breakfast, we met our friendly Inca guide, Romulo, at 6 a.m. and embarked on the 2-hour train ride to the base of Machu Picchu. There are many options to get here, the most challenging being a 5-day trek from Cusco where hikers camp in tents along the way. But, with a limited amount of time for vacation, our group was content to have Romulo carve out a two-day agenda of sight-seeing and trails that promised to keep us away from the crowded tourist traps, yet still capture the magic of the area.
Because the Peruvian authorities set the limit to 500 tourists per day in order to preserve the ruins from wear and tear, we were required to purchase our passes months before our trip. It’s worth nothing that a trip to Machu Picchu needs to be well planned out, but I’m happy to report that there are many efficient, trusty Peruvian tour operators that speak fluent English and are well equipped in modern technologies.
The early train to the base of the Machu Picchu took about 2 hours and as we got closer, we peeled away layers of outer clothing as the sun started to dart through the windows. The country side rolling by was breathtaking. The tiny villages, rural farming enclaves and dominating mountain range had us clicking our cameras and switching seats in order to take in the best views along the way.
When the train pulled in to the station, a posse of locals descended on us selling water and other items. We politely escaped them to reach the base of the trail and immediately begin the 2.2 mile hike up a zigzag path of ancient stone steps. Romulo explained this was the path archeologists used when the area was initially excavated. There is no knowledge of why Machu Picchu became abandoned. It was introduced to the outside world in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, a Hawaiian explorer, who stumbled upon the ruins while being guided around by locals. Since then many other ruins have been discovered yet the proper function of them remains sketchy.
After a much-needed break for lunch, we began a second trek along a leafy jungle route to the Gate of the Sun, the old stone archway that welcomes the setting sun into the valley of the Inca. This historical gate unveils the first awesome sight of Machu Picchu below, with the familiar rows of terraces and stonewall relics often seen in photos. Among the thickening bustle of tourists we snaked our way towards the ruins and spent the day deciphering the various masonry techniques, living habits and religious beliefs of the lost Inca. It’s true that many people come to this site in search of spiritual nourishment. But our group gravitated towards the physical challenges and historical relevance this place offers. For me, I’m just relieved to get this big birthday over with in such a memorable way. And Machu Picchu has been ticked off the list. But my list is still long and hopeful, and being a single girl in the city, next year I’m thinking maybe Argentina?
Photos courtesy of Trevor Potts