In early June we flew to Cusco, Peru for some mountain adventures south of the equator. Our first hike was the famous Salkantay to Macchu Picchu trek. Of course Macchu Picchu is the #1 tourist destination in all of Peru and perhaps all of South America for that matter. The most famous way to walk to Macchu Picchu is the Inca Trail, which is extremely popular and requires reservations months in advance - something that we hadn't planned for. A popular alternative for trekkers is the Salkantay trek, which passes over a high alpine pass below the glaciated peak of Nevado Salkantay, then traverses around several jungle valleys until reaching Macchu Picchu. There are several possible itineraries for this trek; we opted for a guided 5-day version.
Salkantay Trek to Macchu Picchu
In the aerial photo above you have a nice view of the south face of Nevado Salkantay and the high pass that we hiked over just in front and to the left of it on the second day of our trek.
Due to the popularity of this trek, it's not exactly a "wild" experience; in fact the guided tours are a well-oiled tourist machine. Which, by the way, has its perks - including fantastic meals by professional chefs (seriously, check out these food pics) and unique "camping" lodging like these domes on our first night, which were actually pretty sweet to sleep in with a view of the moonlit peaks around!
On a guided trek like this mules carried all our stuff (except what we carried in our day packs).
During the second day of hiking we hiked past the left side of this giant glacial moraine, up and over a 4600m / 15,092 ft. pass on the looker's left side of Nevado Salkantay above.
After the crossing over the pass below Salkantay, it's down, down, down all the way into the jungle valley far below. The remaining days were spent in the more humid jungle areas - not full-on rainforest-type jungle but more of a higher elevation cloud forest. The rivers here eventually drain into the Amazon!
We were fortunate to have clear weather up by Salkantay; once we arrived at the "jungle camp" it started pouring rain. We took a side bus trip to some fantastic hot springs at Santa Teresa, which were great for soaking our tired legs.
On the fourth day due to the pouring rain the previous night we had to skip the final steep pass of the trip; instead we rode a bus around to the Urubamba valley then walked up along the railroad next to the Rio Urubamba.
The Urubamba valley, called "The Grand Canyon of the Urubamba" by early explorers, is totally awesome. I didn't really expect it to be so amazing, but was blown away by the vertical granite walls and impossibly steep jungle-laden mountainsides rocketing up above the gorge.
Our fourth and final night of the trek was spent in a hotel in Aguas Calientes, the base town for Macchu Picchu. In the morning we woke up at 3:30am in order to get in line for the hike up to Macchu Picchu. Dozens of people queue up in the morning to be there for the 5:00am opening of the lower gate, then it's a mad dash up a 1000-foot staircase up to the entrance to Macchu Picchu, which opens at 6:00am. Claudia set a punishing pace up the stairs for almost the entire group, and we got up there before the first busses. I guess the reason why people rush up there so early is for a chance to catch sunrise, or at least take some photos of the ruins before they are filled with fellow tourists.
Macchu Picchu is of course one of the most iconic photographic destinations in the entire world. But like at the similarly iconic and photogenic Matterhorn in Switzerland, you simply cannot resist being swept up in photo fever when you're there!
Needless to say, Macchu Picchu is utterly amazing - easily one of the most mysterious and awe-inspiring places on the planet. And it's not just the fascinating Incan ruins; what surprised me was how jaw-droppingly spectacular the entire setting is, with the near-vertical walls of the Urubamba gorge and the ragged high peaks beyond. The total effect is nearly overwhelming to witness.
It is believed that Macchu Picchu was built in the mid-1400s during the rule of Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, as a royal estate for himself. The site was only used for approximately 80 years before being abandoned - possibly due to the general collapse of the Inca empire during the Spanish conquests, and/or from the spread of smallpox in advance of the conquistadors. Either way, even though Macchu Picchu is only 80km/50miles from the capitol city of Cusco, the Spanish never found it due to its almost complete geographic ruggedness and isolation. Prior to the construction of a modern road, the Urubamba canyon was almost completely inaccessible due to the raging river and sheer vertical granite walls. The only way to access the valley was over a tall and easily defended mountain pass. After Cusco was conquered by the Spanish, the last Incan emporers retreated to Ollantaytambo (upstream from Macchu Picchu) then to Vilcabamba (the "Lost City of the Incas") which was east of Macchu Picchu towards the Amazon.
Abandoned by the Incas and unknown to the Spaniards, for over 300 years Macchu Picchu lay forgotten and covered with jungle vegetation. Though the ruins were known by locals and visited sporadically by adventurous foreign explorers in search of treasure, it wasn't until 1911 that American explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered them, led scientific excavations, and published photos that captured the imagination of the world. Bingham (the "original Indian Jones") published a famous book "The Lost City of the Incas" which describes his journeys through Peru and his discoveries of Macchu Picchu and other lost Incan cities. I enjoyed reading the book after our travels here, as I now knew many of the places he wrote about.
The more important royal and ceremonial buildings in the central city have the classic Incan architectural style of huge polished perfectly-interlocking mortar-free stone walls, while many of the outer structures were built more quickly with smaller stones. When the city was inhabited, there would have been thatched roofs over all the buildings. It is estimated that up to 750 people lived here.
After spending the morning photographing and wandering around the ruins, we then hiked up Cerro Macchu Picchu, the tall peak directly behind the city. A grueling hike up a relentlessly steep ancient stone staircase was rewarded with an awesome bird's eye view over Macchu Picchu and the Urubamba gorge. On the opposite side we could see the snow-capped peak of Salkantay which we had passed several days before.
In the afternoon we headed back down to Aguas Calientes, where we caught a train and shuttle back to Cusco, concluding our journey.
Snapshots of Cusco
All travelers going to Macchu Picchu will inevitably pass through Cusco, the former capitol of the Incas and now the capitol of tourism in Peru! This charming city is literally built upon the ancient Incan foundations and still has narrow cobblestoned streets and alleyways.
The Inca rockwork is so mysteriously precise that some people speculate that it was built by aliens. More likely it involved a whole lot of muscle and patience, as each stone was dragged to the site by ropes and hundreds of men, then propped up on ramps with wood beams while the rocks were sanded down, and repeated until the perfect fit was achieved. Even that is hard to comprehend, given that some of the bigger blocks are the size of trucks and weigh up to about 150 tons!
Unfortunately, the Spaniard conquerors demolished much of the Incan buildings, using the stones as material for new Spanish buildings and cathedrals. Walking around Cusco, one can't help but notice the obvious inferiority of Spanish rockwork compared to the Incan.