Four months ago, I booked tickets for a guided trek to Machu Picchu. I figured this is what you do when you become newly single: you chop off your hair and get out of the country. I wish I could say that I chose Peru for a special reason, but truth is, I chose Peru because: 1) my best friend went two years ago 2) I speak some Spanish 3) it was more affordable than Europe. In hindsight, I couldn’t have picked a better place to go for my first trip abroad by myself.
There were many reasons why I made this trip alone. Partly, because I was tired of waiting for friends to find time. But mostly, because I wanted to do something that surprised myself–and my mother, who is a great believer of not doing anything “unsafe,” including but not limited to things, such as, getting home after midnight, biking in San Francisco (this concern might be justified), and traveling to foreign countries alone. I didn’t make this trip because I needed to escape from my insecurities, although that may have been the original intention. I did it because I no longer wanted to hear what I can or can’t do. So this one is for my mom; because sometimes, you need to break out of the bubble you’ve built in order to know that you’re alive.
1. I’ve been told to only hail cabs carrying a visible license, but the two best rides I’ve had during my trip were both in unmarked vehicles. The first was with Felipe who drove me from the airport to my hostel. Why was it memorable? A) I wasn’t robbed/killed. B) I was charged a relatively reasonable price of 20 soles (compared to the 60 soles that one of my trekking friends had to pay) and C) I carried a whole freakin’ conversation in Spanish for 15 minutes. Thank you, Spanish AP. In my excitement, I enthusiastically informed Felipe of how I was traveling alone for the very first time and that I plan on visiting the Sacred Valley and that I’ve booked a guided trek to Machu Picchu and, by the way Mr. Stranger, did I mention I was traveling alone? If only my high school Spanish teachers can see me now!
View of La Catedral from the balcony of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus.
Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus and the Statue of Pachacutec (the name of which I only found out on wikipedia after I got back. You can tell I was totally up to speed on Incan history).
2. If you’ve visited one church, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Domed arches, elaborate altars, golden facades, paintings of the Crucifixion, figurines of Virgin Mary, statues of saints. I wasn’t too keen on lingering, because, frankly, all the frills and ruffles of the Roman Catholic church made me sad. It has to do with the fact that everything about the dazzling decadence of these religious and historical relics has to do with great suffering–the death of Jesus and the conquest of the Incan people.
Statue of Pachacutec in the Plaza
3. Walking through the narrow streets in Cusco is an exercise in caution. Drivers are ruthless, there are no traffic lights, and sidewalks are only a foot wide in some places. Too many times I had to duck into a doorway to avoid being smacked in the face by a rearview mirror. The city is so packed with tourists anyway, who cares if they run over one of them, right?
4. For a better experience of Cusco, walk towards the streets south of San Pedro Market where you can find fewer tourists and more stores selling local wares. I vividly remember standing in the doorway of a pet store, watching a cage full of colorful parakeets(?) squabbling at each other. I remember a woman passing by with a tray of plastic cups, each filled with a sky-high pile of whipped cream. I remember walking past food carts carrying mounds of fried dough. The streets are colorful and loud, a welcome contrast from the stuffy and somber air of the churches.
View from the back of Qorikancha
One of the rooms in Qorikancha
5. Peruvians must love their dogs, because they are everywhere. In Cusco and in the villages I’ve passed through on my Machu Picchu trek. This one’s lethargic pose caught my attention. Much less cute are the Peruvian Hairless Dogs. Nobody should breed those things.
San Blas, one of the neighborhoods in Cusco.
So many doors in Cusco, and even the ones out in the villages, were painted blue.
I bet baby alpacas make for good pets
6. On my second day, I hopped into a combi (local vans) bound for Pisac, one of the villages in the Sacred Valley. The trip took a little over an hour and cost me only 4-5 soles, or slightly over a dollar. Compare that to the$14 Uber ride from my apartment in San Francisco to the UCSF campus on the other side of the city, a 3 mile trip that takes about 20 minutes.
After browsing through the Pisac Market where every stall is basically sold the same merchandise (alpaca sweaters, Andean flutes, and other souvenirs), I took a taxi to to the Incan ruins where I made the mistake of hiring a guide at my driver’s insistence (saying “no” is not a strong suit of mine). I spent the next hour and half being rushed through the sites by an overly enthusiastic guide, who kept remarking at my breathlessness as we climbed up the stone paths, “This is just a warm-up for Machu Picchu!”
Nothing is ever drab in Peru.
Women often wore pleated knee-length skirts, braids underneath rimmed hats, and a large shawl tied around their shoulders which often doubled as a sack to hold a child or merchandise.
Looking over the valley from Pisac
Incan ruins at Pisac
Terraces in Pisac
7. I wandered into a food stall at the local produce market in Pisac and ordered Ceviche for lunch. I’ve had ceviche before, so I knew generally what to expect. So I was thrown when the lady served me a bowl of weird looking nuts with a side of creamy sauce. Did I not just order ceviche? The mother and son sitting at the other end of the table threw me some odd glances as I inspected these alien nuts, which were beige and patterned with black zigzag lines. I pointed to the bowl, made a dipping gesture with the sauce and asked if that was how I was supposed to eat this. They frowned and shook their heads. As I was trying to decide what to do, the lady finally came back with the rest of my order and mercifully ended my very visible confusion. Ah, I thought, as I looked at my plate of trout and sweet potato slices tossed with onions, the nuts are a topping for the ceviche! It was delicious. Before I left, I motioned to the bowl of nuts and asked the lady who served me the ceviche, “Qué es esto? (what is this?)” She gave me an amused smile and said “Maiz.”
8. For my last night in Cusco, I had roasted cuy (guinea pig) for dinner. Served whole, head and limbs intact. In my case, since I made a half order, my cuy was sliced down the middle. It came with a side of stuffed peppers and corn on the cob with the plumpest and largest kernels I’ve ever seen. Since I was given no utensils (“hands only” is the proper way to eat cuy), I grabbed the paws and chomped right in. Not too tender. Definitely a one time experience. Pisco Sours, on the other hand, I could use more of.
9. Two months ago I sprained my ankle while walking up Haight. At least I still have a good two months to let my ankle heal, I said. Because wouldn’t it suck to sprain your ankle right before your trek to Machu Picchu?
I gave myself good sprain on my second night in Cusco. The irony was not lost on me even as I laid writhing on the ground in pain being ignored by all the English-speaking tourists. I was finally helped by a Chilean woman and the Tourist Police, who I managed to convince–once I could speak again–that I did not need to go to the hospital. Back at the hostel, I watched with panic as my ankle swelled and darkened. Some folks who had just returned from the Salkantay Trek, the same one I had booked, urged me to forget about going. Maybe I could take the train to Machu Picchu and fill the rest of my time with a non-intensive trip to the rainforest or Nazca. Conflicted, I texted Vicky, who is my source of wisdom for everything in life (except for the time she convinced me that it would be okay to strap a queen sized mattress to her Prius and drive it across the bay bridge. It was not okay). Her response:
“As a doctor, I’d say don’t do it.
As a friend, I’d say do it.”
That pretty much settles it. I wasn’t going to cancel a trip I had waited for four months. If Fred, my 60 year old roommate at the hostel, could hike Kilimanjaro with a busted knee, then I can certainly hike five days to Machu Picchu, right?
10. This brings me to the best cab ride ever. The morning after my sprain, Fred suggested I go to my travel agency and ask whether they would still let me do the trek with an injury. We flagged down a sketchy looking cab. After we dropped Fred of at San Pedro, I gave the names of the cross streets for the office of the agency to my driver who didn’t seem to recognize them. I was right, because we proceeded to spend the next hour and half circling the city on a quest to find the elusive travel agency. At some point in this whole ordeal, it no longer mattered whether we reached the destination or not (we did not); because I had surprisingly a lot of fun chatting with Noe, my driver. Few things are more conductive to friendship than puzzling over google maps together on an iphone screen. In between my trying to give directions in broken Spanish and him asking several locals for help, we talked about Cusco and San Francisco. It’s funny how the threshold for making connections with people is so much lower in foreign countries than it is with people back home.
I am so grateful for and touched by Noe’s kindness and patience. Thank you for not abandoning me in the middle of nowhere even though I tried to convince you that it was okay. Thank you for insisting that we keep trying even though I was ready to give up half an hour in. And thank you for showing me that you enjoyed our little adventure as well when you flat out refused the 40 soles ($13) I sheepishly offered you at the end (rides only cost 4 soles in the city). “Lo siento por la inconveniencia (I’m sorry for the inconvenience)!”
Day 1: Mollepata to Soraypampa
Woke up at 4 AM on the day of my trek, and with Fred’s help, wrapped my heel and ankle with surgical tape for compression and stability. The tape probably saved my life on Day 2. But the hike on the first day was gentle. We passed through a valley where we can see Salkantay, the snow capped mountain, in the distance. The clouds cast beautiful shadows on the pale yellow slopes and the afternoon sun accentuated every groove and rocky crevice.
Salkantay, the snow capped mountain in the distance
Day 2: Salkantay Pass to Colcapampa
On the second day, we left the sunny Andean mountains behind and made our way towards Salkantay. I was pretty optimistic about the hike until we reached the seven switchbacks, and suddenly, I found myself wheezing and gasping for air. I spent the next three hours trailing behind the group, moving at a glacial pace up the steep, rocky path. Occasionally, lines of mules would pass by carrying trekkers from other groups who couldn’t handle the altitude. Hah! At least I’m not on a mule, I thought. 10 minutes later: Oh God, I wish I were on a mule.
My smiling face hides the actual agony I’m in.
Vicky had urged me not to pack too warmly, because the days are warm and the sleeping bag that the trekking company provides is more than enough to keep you toasty at night. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to her. On the first night, I wore my triclimate jacket, fleece sweater, thermal undershirt, sweat pants, and beanie in my sleeping bag and was still cold. I really should’ve read the trek description a little more closely.
When we reached the top of the pass, Carlos made us take swigs of “glacier water” from his water bottle, which turned out to be filled with vodka. After what I had just went through, I really could have used more.
It didn’t seem like it would be possible, but actually hiking down from the mountain was infinitely worse than the uphill battle. I’m so glad I had spent 10 soles to buy a walking stick, because there was absolutely no way I wouldn’t have slipped and sprained my ankle again on those wet and loose stones. Best $3 purchase I’ve ever made in my life.
Incredibly, just an hour or two after passing through heavy snow fall, I found myself descending into a warm, moist cloud forest. Suddenly, the rocky and barren landscape turned into valleys of lush green with hummingbirds flitting among the trees. We made it to our campsite just as a light drizzle began to set in. I wish I had taken more photos of the rest of the trek, but like I mentioned, I was too busy trying not to die.
Day 3: Colcapampa to La Playa
1) We continued to hike through the forest, passing several villages and farmhouses on the way. At one point, Carlos and I were making our way through a landslide on a very narrow path that someone had cut through the damp earth. Two girls in front of us decided that this was the perfect time to stop and take a selfie. Obviously, they were not aware of the thousand foot drop to their right. To my friends, Becky and Dan, who made me promise to take selfies on my trip, this is another reason why I hate them.
2) I learned to peel and eat passion fruit.
3) Every time I lost my footing, Carlos would say, “Please don’t die here!” Guess who would have had to give me a piggy back ride down the mountain if I sprained my ankle again? I’m sure he was pleased that we didn’t have to go there.
4) After three days of vigorous sweating and no showers, it feels amazing to jump into the hot springs at Santa Teresa. It doesn’t even matter that hundreds of other sweaty, unwashed tourists like myself had been soaking in the very same water.
Day 4: Ziplining, Hidroelectrica and Aguas Calientes
Zip-lining with Cola de Mano over the Andean Valley
This might be my favorite part of the trek. For $30, I went zip-lining across the beautiful Andean mountains and cloud forest. It was so beautiful that I couldn’t afford to be scared. For the last cable run, I strapped the harness on backwards so that I could hang face down as I flew over the tree tops.
When I got back with my trekking group, Carlos pulled me aside and told me that he was glad to see me; because, apparently, the other zip-lining company in the area was known for some grisly accidents. Thanks, Carlos, for telling me after the fact.
We spent the rest of the day hiking along train tracks towards Aguas Calientes. Along the way, the tracks crossed several tens of feet above river rapids. But with no railing or side path, you had to walk very carefully on the wooden planks of the tracks to avoid slipping through the gaps. Because I was so focused on not falling to my death, I failed to notice the train coming from the opposite direction until I heard my group frantically shouting my name. That’s when I bounded the rest of the way and made it to the other side just in time to avoid a horrible death by train. I’m really glad I didn’t become “the-stupid-tourist-that-got-run-over-by-a-train-and-that’s-why-they’ve-installed-hand-rails-on-these-tracks-now.”
Day 5: Machu Picchu
My ankles and knees are done at this point even though I’ve been popping ibuprofen religiously. I walked into Machu Picchu determined not to hike anymore, ever again. Since we were one of the first groups to walk into the ruins, I was able to catch a glimpse of the place before it was swarming with tourists. Mist drifted up the side of the mountain and everything was cast in cold grey blue under the early morning light. It seemed surreal that we had finally reached this point.
As we stood on the terraces, listening to Carlos give his spiel about the discovery of Machu Picchu, warm light began to inundate the rocks as the sun finally rose from behind the surrounding mountain peaks.
Can you see the giant mountain face in the background?
View of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate
Other thoughts from the trek:
1) The food I was served during my trek was the best food I had in Peru. I was so impressed every night by the quantity and quality of food our chef was able to whip up with his tiny stove. My favorites were the lomo saltado and avocado salad.
2) Couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Carlos, who not only made sure I didn’t die, but went out of his way to take care of my swollen ankle. Thank you for bringing me coca tea every morning at 5 AM even when it was pouring rain.
3) All I’ll ever ask for from a rest room is that the ground is not wet. That’s all I’ll ever want ever again.
4) Having no internet access was incredibly freeing. I did not have earphones blasting music into my ears. I did not have gmail constantly open in the background. For the first time in months, I felt fully present in the present.
5) A diet of 80% carbs and 20% meat = constipation.
6) I enjoyed the trek much more than I enjoyed actually being at Machu Picchu. If I had just taken the train in, I would have been so overwhelmingly annoyed by the crowds of tourists. I still was, but I was also incredibly grateful to have experienced the humbling beauty of the Andean mountains that has made the setting of Machu Picchu especially mesmerizing.
After my trek to Machu Picchu, a seven hour bus ride on a comfy tour coach sounded like the best thing in the world. Although, if I had more time, I would definitely have ridden the local bus or some other direct service without the tour portion; it’s really not worth it. The best thing about the bus ride was simply looking out the window and watching the scenery roll by. Every farm house, village, and river was framed by the mountains and clouds in the background. I watched women, in their telltale rimmed hats and pleated skirts, traipse across fields. My eyes were always drawn to their colorful dresses that often stood out against the dry, yellow soil of the land.
People get sad without knowing it. Sometimes there isn’t a good reason, and sometimes it’s a multitude of reasons that’s hard to define. I think I had been sad for awhile before I left for Peru, but it was hard for me to see that until I left and saw something new. These mountains, they made me feel acutely alive. They reminded me, not only how big the world is, but how much there is to feel. What a shame it would be to waste so much time getting lost in one feeling.
Raqchi, Temple of Wiracocha
I spent two days and one night on Lake Titicaca, visiting Uros, Amantani, and Taquile. The lake and the islands were beautiful, but it’s hard to get a good sense of how the locals lived. Mostly because all three communities were so heavily dependent on tourism for their livelihood. Next time I travel to South America, I definitely want to live in a small town somewhere and just get to know people more.
The first thing I noticed was the colorful clothing of the Uros people against the dried, pale yellow reeds used to construct their island home.
View from Amantani at the Temple of Pachapapa
My host on Amantani
I’m so grateful for all the places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. One of the best parts of the trip was just chatting with other backpackers and being inspired by their experiences. In writing this post, I realized that there’s already so much I’ve forgotten, but hopefully the important memories and feelings will stay with me.
My friend, Evelyn, wrote a hilarious blog post on her Salkantay trek experience. Definitely a worthy read!