Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

Trip Start Feb 13, 2012
Trip End Jul 31, 2012

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Monday, May 21, 2012

There are heaps of ways to get to Machu Picchu from many different tour companies. The traditional Inca (or Inka) Trail trip is generally booked out six months in advance, so that was out. We wanted thrills. We wanted adventure. The Inca Jungle Trek seemed to offer it all. Now to find a provider.

We looked at several companies all offering pretty much the same tour for various prices. Then one day, after a brilliant brownie sundae at Jack's Café we decided to take a recommendation from our waiter, and shortly after we booked our trip through Kana Travel.

In the small Kana Travel office, a young woman walked us through the details of the trip. She seemed knowledgeable and answered our questions. From what we gathered we would be going on a 4 day tour, including mountain biking, zip-lining, hiking, Machu Picchu, accommodation, and food. The girl also suggested that we do La Montana trek instead of Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, as it was steep at the start but flattened out toward the top (it’s a mountain, think about that). She also said that there would be less than 10 people per guide and (after asking 3 separate times) said there was no need to bring our passports.

Booking a trip after a delicious dessert turns out to be similar to making important decisions while drunk. Let’s see how the story unfolds…

The trek started two days later. We arrived at the travel agency promptly at 7 am as agreed with the travel agent. The door was shut and the only person around was a very sleepy, Kelten, our travel buddy, sitting on the curb eating a banana. About 30 minutes later, our tour guide, Hydar, showed up to bring us to the spot where the bus and the other people were meant to be. No bus, no people. Just another curb. So, we sat down and waited. "Waiting" would be a theme for this trip as you’ll soon find out. After over an hour, we finally had the bus and most of the people. Next stop was to pick up the remaining 3 passengers and…(wait for it)…load the bikes and do some last minute repairs. Not sure why this hadn’t already been done?

While waiting, we started talking to the other passengers. There was a Canadian couple, a French couple, a Hungarian girl, and 3 Swedish teenagers in addition to Kelten and ourselves. Through conversation, we realized, contrary to what the girl at the travel agency told us, we needed our passports to get into Machu Picchu. The guide confirmed this, then suggested that perhaps it would be OK if we used a credit card as ID. Not willing to risk missing the main attraction, we hopped in a taxi and returned to our home stay to retrieve our passports. We returned to the bus less than 40 minutes later only to find bikes still being loaded and the passengers starting to lose patience. Finally, at just after 9 am, we were (almost) on our way. As we were leaving Cusco, there was one more quick-stop to check out a mechanical issue with the bus. It was ignored and we continued on our way over 2 hours behind schedule. They call this “Peruvian time” in order to save face. Arguably, you could rename it “massively disorganized time” in this case. We digress…

The drive was nice and took us through the lovely country side outside of Cusco. The plan was to head up to a high point and mountain bike down a windy road to the bottom, which was expected to take 3 hours and descend over 1000m. Anticipation for the first activity was building. Then, as we were traveling up to the start the bus broke down. It turned out that there was something wrong with the cooling fan and the fuse kept on going. The driver’s solution was just to change the fuse. He’d now run out of fuses. We rolled backwards down the hill several hundred meters until he found a safe spot to pull over. Hydar and driver proceeded to flag down another minibus and convince them to take the bikes and two newly acquired passengers (an older Swedish guy and his younger American girlfriend) up to the top. Now we had to get to the top. Hydar managed to convince someone else to let us borrow another bus and we were on our way. At this point, we took off our watches and tried to go with the flow.

It was cold at the top and we quickly got our bikes and got ready to go. Sadly, one of the bikes had a flat tire straight off, and, unbelievably, they had no spare bike or a way to fix it. This meant one of the passengers couldn’t even do the bike ride. On the way down we also lost another 3 people due to technical difficulties. However, despite the lack of gears on Nicole’s bike and Kelten’s seat falling off toward the end, our fierce threesome made it to the bottom “safely”. All in all, between the dramatic zigzagging decent and beautiful views, it was a brilliant ride for those who could make it.

On our way to the accommodation, the topic of booking and fees came up. Another lesson in Peruvian tourism – many agencies, very few operators. The brilliant part is that all the agencies can pretty much say and charge what they want, and it’s the guide that deals with fulfilling all the various promises. Surprisingly, the three Swedish people in their late teens had got the best deal for US$200 with white water rafting and zip lining included - nearly a $60 difference. It clearly pays to shop around.

When we got to our accommodation, it was too late for the Swedes to do their white water rafting, so their itinerary was changed so they could do it in the morning. This lead to our first big wait. In the morning of Day 2 (and every subsequent morning), one of the Swedish girls was late to breakfast due to the fact that “she wasn’t a morning person”. So while 'Sleepy Swed’ casually enjoyed her breakfast, the rafting group was off to a late start

The rest of us started our hike and by the time we got to the meeting point there was no sign of the rafting crew. We barely noticed and instead focused our attention on 1) learning about coffee production, and 2) a small and energetic little monkey tied up the a modest-looking mud brick home. Plenty of entertainment to keep us occupied.

The walk eventually continued up through the jungle until we got to another stop, where Hydar told us a bit about the local food that was produced in the jungle, including ‘cacao’ which is used to make chocolate. We also got a chance play “dress up” in some traditional clothes and try our hand at some face painting from the seeds of a local plant.

We carried on through the jungle and onto an incredible path. We’d reached an old Inca trail and like so many Inca trails, it was a very narrow path on the steep mountainside incline. Although the path was quite frightening at times, the views were just stunning. After a few hours of walking, the end was in sight. Only thing standing between us and the thermal pools was a river and a very primitive cable car. Literally a long cable with a metal car/cart attached to it. If you ignore the dangerous part, it was really quite fun.

We felt a sense of victory on the other side, then Hydar broke the news that there was still more walking to be done. Ugh. OK. Other than Kelten falling off the path and cartwheeling into some bushes, we made it to the thermal pools (don't worry, Kelten was OK). Can’t say that the thermal pools we’ve encountered always look all that inviting, but these were some of the best we’d seen in South America thus far.  There were three pools – one with several locals breastfeeding on the edge of the pool, one with almost no people, and one with a bunch of other tourists and more kids. Given her fear of children (particularly in warm pools), Nicole threw on her bikini and made a beeline for the second one. A wonderful reward at the end of a long day of hiking.

On Day 3 we were up early to prepare for zip-lining. The Swedes were late as expected, but this time we were able to head off with another group leaving them with Hydar to sort out a later ride. It was brilliant. We first had a 30 minute walk to the start of the course. There were 6 zip-lines in total of varying length and speed. David was the first to go down and then Nicole and Kelten, followed by dozens of other people. Can’t get enough of zip-lining! We not only had a great time with a fun group of people, but also got to see great views of the valley below.

We stuck with our new group until we reached our meeting point to join up with the remainder of our group who did not zip-line (and the Swedes, but that almost goes without saying). We had another long wait. Apparently, there had been some work on the local hydroelectric plant which meant our hikers had to wait over an hour before they could carry on along the path. After a nap, several games of cards, and an ice cream, we were all together again and ready for lunch.

The rest of the walk was along a long, flat railway line that took us to the base of the mountain that Machu Picchu sat atop. In order to keep the group together, Hydar had us wait at each fork in the road until the Swedes were in sight. Turns out, similar to small children, they would wonder off the path into the woods or just stop for longs breaks any chance they got. The French speed walkers, quick-paced Canadians, and we (not far behind) grew more and more frustrated.

By the time we got to the accommodation, our guide was on the verge of breakdown.  He just couldn’t cope with trying to make everyone happy. He came to our room to tell us that he wasn’t going to be able to walk up to Machu Picchu with us the next morning and instead his friend would give the tour. Hmm? We invited him to sit down and hang out, and then we got the real story. In addition to constant contradictory requests from the group, one of the guests had already rung the tourist office to report all of the issues we’d already had on the tour. This had made things very bad for our guide, who now probably wouldn’t get paid, so he didn’t want to carry on. After he told us this he proceeded to get out his laptop and look through pictures on Facebook of previous tours he had done. He shared photos and stories of all the “amazing trips” he had led and “wonderful people” he had met. Although a bit awkward for us, his trip down memory lane was just enough to boost his spirits. Hydar would once again be joining us tomorrow for Machu Picchu.

That evening, we got our tickets and we were fairly surprised to find out that David was a 25 year old woman and Nicole was a 22 year old woman, both with completely different passport numbers. Despite the travel agent checking our information several time, not only was it still incorrect, but apparently it didn’t even matter. There are some things we just stopped bothering to understand.

On Day 4 we started at 5:30 am to get to the gate for 6 am and start the hike to the top of Machu Picchu. The options to the top were to walk or take a bus. The walkers headed out with Hydar after a quick breakfast. As it turned out, Hydar just came out to wave ‘goodbye’ and decided he preferred to take the bus with the other. Didn’t matter. We were barely awake, but still focused on the goal.

The climb up consisted of what seemed like 1000 steep, large steps. We were running on adrenaline and made it to the top in good time. Only 45 minutes. BOOM. Surprisingly, we reached the top to find a well-established gate and ticket scanning system. This was the most high tech bit of equipment we had seen so far in Peru. We filed through the line just as the sun started to wake up. Luckily, we got through fine. Just next to us, there was an issue with the ticket of one of the Canadians in our group. They wouldn’t let him through. Lucky for him, his Spanish was good enough to eventually sort it out. A few people behind us weren’t so lucky. Their tour company had booked them tickets for the day before, so they couldn’t get in at all. We thanked our lucky stars and headed on to see the main event.

The sun was really starting to creep over the horizon giving us amazing views of Machu Picchu. We took hundreds of pictures from all angles before heading onto a tour of the city. And it really is a city. The size is just incredible and takes you a good 30 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Hydar seemed to pull it together enough to give a really great tour. He explained the history, including assumptions, myths, and local beliefs. Really interesting stuff.

Before we knew it we were almost late for our climb up La Montana to get a better view of Machu Picchu. Despite having already walked a lot already, we assumed this would be a manageable 3 hour hike based on what the travel agent said. Nope. Just another instance of someone trying to sell you something by telling you what you want to hear. Ashamed of our ignorance, we started the climb up more steep steps. We made it about half way and looked back at a brilliant view of the city. The people coming down in the opposite direction looked exhausted and told us the path only got steeper. So, we took a seat right where we were and enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch overlooking Machu Picchu. After all, the further up you go, the smaller the city gets, right?

Feeling slightly guilty on the way down, we decided to walk to the Inca Bridge. David had read about this “unique” bridge used to keep out unwanted guests, and had been talking about it throughout the whole trek. There were only two ways of getting to Machu Picchu, other than the new way that we had come. One was through the sun gate, which is how the Inca trail finishes, and the other was this bridge. We arrived at the site to find almost the whole of our group gathered on a rock ready for nap time. Then we turned to the bridge. Well, after seeing everything at Machu Picchu, the bridge turned out to be a huge disappointment. It was some piled up rocks with a few wooden planks. David was glad he saw it though. Although the bridge wasn’t impressive, the path continued on along a cliff face with a narrow crack along the wall that was actually meant to be an original Inca path. Nobody used it these days, but it would make a brilliant rock climb.

We collected the group and headed to one of the many grass lawns on Machu Picchu for a proper nap. After a full day at the enchanting historical site, we eventually made our way down the steep staircase and back to the hostel.

Our adventure had come to an end and we jokingly pondered what else could go wrong thinking that we were in the clear. We were of the last in the group to return to the hostel to receive our train tickets, and when we walked in there was tension, exhaustion, and bitterness in the air. Oh no. What happened now?! One other member of the group responded to the look of uneasiness on our faces by suggesting we should look at our train tickets. Our hearts sunk, but when we saw that our tickets were for 6 pm as expected and our names were even correct, we breathed a sigh of relief.  Turns out the others were mistakenly booked on the 9 pm train and wouldn’t get back until the early hours of the morning.  Interestingly enough, this moment also coincided with filling out feedback cards. We didn’t stick around long enough to see how the situation would play out, but suffice to say that it was a tough crowd and Hydar almost surely slipped back into a sour depression.

On the train ride back, we got a chance to practice our Spanish with a lovely Swiss woman who had been traveling and volunteering in Peru. At the end of the three hour ride, she took out a small paper bag from her purse with a polished snail fossil inside. The design was meant to indicate continued growth and development within a relationship to strengthen the interpersonal bond. This was a gift initially purchased for her husband, but she insisted we take it as a gift for our engagement to inspire us to grow together throughout our marriage. Her gesture was kindly overwhelming and the perfect good fortune to end our trip on.
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