Day 23-26: Cusco, Peru
We touched down in Cusco after 12 hours of taxis, planes and transfers from Rio and Lima and welcomed the cool mountain air.
I’m a tropical climate girl at heart, but we were both ready for a new country and scenery. My flu was now on day 7 without any sign of slowing down, so I was also hoping the change in weather and altitude might improve things.
Our hostel sat at the top of a hill looking over the city, and looked more like a college campus/apartment complex (in a good way). We had splurged $56/night for a private room for my birthday, and were led up several flights of stairs to what we called the penthouse suite, complete with a view of the entire city and mountains beyond.
Hands down, best $56 ever spent (the beds were a dream, too).
I knew something was off when I struggled to make it up just one flight of stairs, and my illness wasn’t to blame. The altitude caught up to me as soon as we settled into our room as my head began to pound and my heart wouldn’t stop racing.
Cusco sits at 11,200 feet above sea level and altitude sickness can start to set in at 8000 feet. Machu Picchu is at 7970, for reference (convenient, right?)
Our symptoms subsided after that first night but for the next week spent in Cusco, my heart rate was always elevated and it was difficult to walk at any incline. High altitude is no joke!
Lucas stocked up on meds from the pharmacy for me and we immediately extended our stay, spending much of the next 3 days and nights huddled in bed, enjoying the hot showers and watching the sky change colors from our window.
We did manage to squeeze in a day tour of the city, stopping at a ruins site and getting up close and personal with llamas.
After the tour we were dropped off nowhere near our hostel in the pouring rain, so we found the nearest local spot to grab dinner and it was every bit as good as we’d been told to expect from Peru—and so much cheaper than Brazil!
The following day we set out in search for warmer clothing, which is a challenge to find in a city full of all tourist shops. We located something labeled “Mall” on our GPS and headed in that direction.
Several streets off the main tourist square, we had clearly entered the locals area with residents selling fruit and vegetables on the sidewalks of narrow roads and alleyways. Eventually we ended up in front of an enclosed building with rows of open storage units where vendors hung and stacked piles of their wares for sale.
We roamed the aisles, looking for normal clothes until we both found a pair of knockoff brand sweatpants—not nearly the bargain we expected them to be and you can’t haggle on the prices either—but we got them anyway.
The real gem of this outing was the row of “restaurants” on the other end, aka a couple people in a cubby cooking food. We ordered something we had never heard of for 5 soles each (less than $2) and were handed a big bowl of some sort of delicious rice, chicken and potato concoction.
A mug of freshly squeezed papaya/strawberry and mango juice from the cubicle next door and we had ourselves the best lunch in town for around $7. And this town is very touristy, so we’re hoping to really save money once we head to the lesser traveled towns.
Day 27-28: Machu Picchu
By day 4 in Cusco my hearing still hadn’t fully returned and the congestion and nightly coughing fits weren’t going away, but we were anxious to get to Machu Picchu and I felt well enough to take the trip, so we booked it that day (ps: anyone have recommendations on how to clear stubborn head/ear congestion?!)
There are several ways to get there, and we had originally planned on doing a jungle trek which is 4 days of mountain biking, ziplining, water rafting and hiking but with my current condition that was no longer an option. Instead we decided to do the bus/train/bus route, which ended up being four hours of perhaps the most scenic drive I’ve ever witnessed.
The bus led us through open fields and small Peruvian villages with clay homes built onto the side of a cliff opposite steep forested mountains and rivers below.
The staggering size and presence of the Andes mountains as you near Machu Picchu can only be truly appreciated in person. They rise from the earth abruptly, like a wall of granite and jungle straight to the sky with their peaks permanently shrouded by clouds. Our train had windows in the ceiling just so you could see the top of them.
On Friday afternoon we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the small town just outside of Machu Picchu. A hot springs nearby had been recommended, so we figured we’d give the cities’ namesake a visit.
It rained as we walked through the village with no cars, past souvenir shops and a football field, over bridges and up muddy hills.
The view from the top was beautiful, even in the rain and foggy mountains.
We stayed in the pool for over two hours, drinking pisco sours and making friends with Canadians, and coincidentally meeting two different people from my small hometown. The steady downpour continued as we soaked in the steamy sulphuric water, and it was one of our simplest yet best memories of Peru.
At 5:23am on Saturday the alarm rang and off we went, eager to witness this wonder of the world. The 25 minute bus ride to the entrance felt as if we were stepping back into the Jurassic period—I was half expecting to see a dinosaur pop out from behind a mountain.
The early morning fog was thick, but that didn’t take away from the majestic beauty just steps from the entrance.
We followed a tour guide for the first two hours, who led us through the ruins, teaching of Incan history. It rained off and on with a steady inflow of clouds and fog, enveloping the surrounding mountains.
This has to be the most photogenic place on earth… half of these images are from my iphone. Can you tell which ones? (I can’t).
Just as the Incas did, we prayed to the Sun God and within a couple hours, the skies began to clear.
For seven hours we explored Machu Picchu—discovering hiding spots in the ruins, finding the best vantage points and taking selfies with llamas, naturally.
While a trek would have been amazing, it wasn’t in the cards for us but I wouldn’t trade our experience for anything. We both agreed it was the best day of our trip so far, and we were able to relax and take our time (and witness the scenery in a range of weather).
As I write this now on the bus back to Cusco, images of Machu Picchu are all I can see when I close my eyes—they’ve been forever burned into my mind, and I hope I never forget the feeling of this day.
On our last day in Cusco, the sky put on a farewell display in the form of a double rainbow:
Best way to end an unforgettable birthday week. Last night we left the city for a week long (potentially longer) bus trip around the south of Peru where we’ll eventually end up in Lima. Machu Picchu may be the most breathtaking sight, but we’re ready for a new adventure (and lower altitude!)
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