4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Machu Picchu”

Much Ado About Machu Picchu – Part 3 (by Nathan)

There is so much hype about Machu Picchu.  Of all the tourist activities to do in South America, this one set of ruins seemed to be on the top of everyone’s list. The archeological site is very accessible with a short tram ride from Aguas Calientes. Carmen and I wanted to expand upon a one day visit to Machu Picchu, and thus we embarked on a six day journey that traversed the hillsides of Peru covering a distance of over sixty miles and four high altitude passes two of which exceeded 14,000ft.  Our lungs and our minds were functioning at top shape after five weeks of traveling through the highlands of Bolivia and Peru.  We were ready to see the famous, the majestic, and the spectacular Machu Picchu.

Tilt-shift shot of Machu Picchu (photo credit: BDix)

Our first glimpse of the ruins was from the sun gate atop a saddle of the east mountain range.  The first five days of the trek were challenging, but included luscious scenery and multiple historic ruins.  On the sixth day we woke up in the depth of the night to begin our hike to the sun gate.  Four of our friends from San Francisco joined us on this trek and with bounding skips and strides we hiked the last stone steps in the dawn light.

Five hundred year old Inca buildings

The sun gate was a magical place for the Incas.  On the winter solstice the sun shines through the stone pillars at sunrise and casts light through the aligned window in the sun temple.  This would cause for a celebration because this day marked the shortest day of the year and that the sun would continue return bringing summer and harvests in the coming year.

Looking over Machu Picchu

We finally made it to Machu Picchu!We sat on the sun gate wall with our legs dangling over the cliff edge completely awestruck over the beauty of this city.  When the Spanish arrived to Peru they went to work destroying the biggest South American empire, the Incas.  Once a city was conquered, the Spanish would force the people to disassemble their most sacred temples and buildings. Then the Spanish would build cathedrals and monasteries on top of the ruins.  We saw this all over Cusco where a very standard looking catholic church sat on beautifully carved Incan masonry walls.  At other ruins only the biggest unmovable stones remained from the temples that once stood so prominently.  With great fortune  Machu Picchu survived!

Panoramic (photo credit: BDix)

The city of Machu Picchu is perched in the saddle between two mountains.  The sacred river wraps around these mountains creating steep cliffs all around.  Machu Picchu is extremely well disguised; The city cannot be seen from the river below or any of the trails that traveled the hillsides.  The people never disclosed the location to the Spanish, and thus the whole city remained in tact for five hundred of years.  Several Peruvian families lived in the city into the early 1900’s.  The city became internationally recognized when Hiram Bringham made his formal discovery in 1911.

Masonry beautifully integrated with natural rock outcropping

Since this discovery this archeological site has been the most intact set of Incan ruins and the best representation of how the Incas lived and survived.  The Incas were a resourceful civilization that utilized the knowledge of all the tribes they conquered.  They built for earthquakes and carved grooves into the stones to lock them together. Enormous corner stones rock with the building and support it during shaking.

Tightly cut stones

The masonry was by far the most magical and seemingly impossible aspect of Incan building construction.  The stones of Incan buildings and walls were precision cut with stone tools. Individual blocks were cut from boulders using a technique of filling small hammered holes with wood pegs.  The pegs were soaked in water and as they swelled the blocks were cut from the granite.  Final finishing of the blocks was done with stone hammers.

Various masonry buildings with sun temple

The finest precision cut blocks were saved for the most important structures. In Machu Picchu the sun temple is built from the highest quality stone work.  Huge boulders carefully fit together without mortar and the joints are so tight that not even a piece of paper can fit.

Llama passings on a terrace

We enjoyed wondering around the complex.  There were hundreds of buildings, each room, wall or terrace held a special charm that I experienced nowhere else in South America.  Llamas shufffled around us on the ancient stone steps and green forested moutains soured in every direction.

Six hiking friends enjoying the view

At the far end of the city the only place to go was up. We bought an additional permit to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the famous mountain peak behind every Machu Picchu photo.  The pathway was steep, but the clouds began to gloom overhead.  In a rush of weather changes our clear sky transitions to a rumbling thick cloud plump with water that began dumping on us during our climb.  Quickly our enjoyable climb became a slippery, uncomfortable scramble up the hillside.  Carmen and I hugged at the rock outcropping that perched on the summit.  Unfortunately the rain and the wind came at us from all directions and immediately we were thankful that we had those few hours in the morning to roam around the city.  Soggy and wet, we climbed down the steps and walked back into Machu Picchu.

Incan bridge clinging to the cliff

Just as sudden as the rain came, it stopped.  We continued to stroll our way through the city.  Brenda and I decided to go on a little side hike to a place that hung carefully on the cliffs.  On the backside of Machu Picchu mountain the residents carved a trail on the cliff side of the mountain.  The cliffs fall thousands of feet to the Sacred River.  One of the most spectacular constructions on this cliff was the Incan Bridge that carefully placed wood logs over precarious block walls.  The bridge is small, but strategically placed to protect Machu Picchu from all directions

Machu Picchu!

Our six day trek had finally come to an end.  Alongside our friends we conquered the mountains in a way that the Spanish never could, we made it to Machu Picchu.  The city imprinted beautiful memories into our minds.  During the train ride home I had that phantom feeling that I was still hiking, still exploring the mountains of Peru and still laughing and joking with my friends.  In Cusco our group separated, but none of us would forget the epic hike of a lifetime.


Walk Like an Ancient Incan – Part 2 (by Nathan)

Wayllabamba ruins in the morning light

We woke up refreshed on our third day of the trek. We camped at the junction of the Salkantay trail and the tradionally hiked stone Inca trail in Wuayllabamba. The village was originally an important strategic settlement of the Inca due to the junction of three valleys. The sun began to crest over the mountains and we explored the first set of ruins on the Inca trail. At 9,900ft (3,000m) the climate was still very humid and warm. The trail was engulfed within a jungle of vines, trees and grasses.

Apus Peru porters setting up our camp

Once on the Inca trail our mules and handlers returned to the start of the Salkantay trail in Soraypampa. Our gear was to be carried by a group of porters that all came from one of the small villages along the Inca trail. This group of guys was more or less a small army. Nine men joined our two chefs and together the eleven of them carried all of our tents and dining materials. They could climb the steep inclines with amazing power then run down the hills with surprising agility.

Brightly colored catapillar

View from Warmihuñusca pass, valley and Inca trail

Our hike that third day was delayed for some permitting issues as our guide worked to get us a better camping location along the trail. It was then that a bee decided to sting me. I am allergic, so for the rest of the week my hand and arm were not pretty as they resembled a balloon more than an hand. I soaked my hand in the creek, but as the afternoon approached I needed to slip it through the strap of my hiking poles and start moving.

Bromiliads clinging to the trees

The jungles were fantastic. Bromiliads clung onto trees in every nook and crevice. Wild flowers surrounded us with pinks, purples and reds. My favorite was the bright yellow lady’s slipper flowers that abundantly filled the tall bushes along our walk. Our guide informed us of the traditional uses of the plants; the people of this area have been able to create medicines for headaches, sleeping, nausea, contraception and muscle pain for thousands of years.

Beautiful forest along Inca trail

Snack time with friends

The stone path continued through forests of vines and trees. The thick canopy blocked out much of the sun. I was in constant admiration of the Inca who constructed this road 500 years ago that is still in such great condition. The frequent steps were carefully chiseled from local stone allowing us to walk through the rough terrain.

A delicious lunch of chicken, rice, potatoes, cucumbers and beet salad

Dinner of mashed beans, stir fried meat, salads and rice

We would walk for several hours at a time with breaks along the way. The porters would pack up the camp while we were hiking then later we would step aside as they ran passed us. Each lunch and dinner was taken at a separate beautiful location. We would sleep with our tents nestled into beautiful green valleys with llamas pushing their way by our tents. Our lunch locations held the promise of nearby ruins and with every meal we were satisfied with plentiful amounts of delicious Peruvian favorites.

Ruins at Sayacmarca

Hole cut out of stone so that entrances could be roped closed

The Inca trail is filled with historic ruins. One of my favorites was Sayacmarca. This complex of rooms and small buildings clung onto the ridgeline and served as another checkpoint for people traveling between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Immediately we are reminded of the remarkable construction and engineering knowledge that the Inca utilized. The carving and placement of the stones is precise and exact. Carefully carved channels direct and deliver spring water into basins for bathing. Fifteen-foot stone walls terrace the hillside with flying steps that allow for maximum agricultural production.

Llama passing

The trail was not just for tourists.  Several llamas had also been using the pathway to transition to the higher elevations and cooler temperatures.  They were pushy, but we were able to pass by them without incident.

Descending the mountain after Warmihuñusca pass

Lago Negra from Runkurukay pass

We crossed two mountain passes on our Inca trail hike: Warmihuñusca (13,900ft) and Runkurukay (13,800ft). It was a challenge to climb over these crests, but after five days of hiking we were ready as we’re ever going to be. Breathing hard with sweat dripping off my forehead it was easy to look back and admire the view. At the top of Runkurukay a natural lake, lago negra, sits gloomily on the cliffs edge.

Dropping into the valley and seeing Phuyupatamarca

Carmen and I at Phuyupatamarca ruins

The fifth day included five more hours of hiking with the addition of exploring two Inca archeological sites.  The first was Phuyupatamarca that overlooked the beautiful Urubampa river valley.

Fading hills from Phuyupatamarca

The second ruins of the day were at Wiñaywayna.  The complex mostly consisted of nearly a hundred terraces etched into the steep hillside.  There were several small buildings and I was even able to find some gooseberries growing along the steps.  We found llamas here too, but one in particular entertained us because it appeared deep in thought or meditation while viewing the scenery.

Llama meditation (Photo credit BDix)

Machu Picchu was near and the buzz all around the camp that evening emphasized everyone’s excitement.  After months of traveling in South America we were finally going to reach one of the most famous historical sights.   I was exhausted from the day’s hikes, but I was anxious and excited which made it difficult to sleep.  We all did our best to get some rest, but the 3am wake-up call was difficult.  Still groggy, we made our way to the hiker’s entrance gate into Machu Picchu.  Just one more hour of hiking and we were going to see the sun rise through the sun gate over Machu Picchu…

Epic Hike to Machu Picchu – Part 1 (by Carmen)

The last city with roads: Mollepata

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous.  Did I really sign up to spend 6 days hiking to Machu Picchu in extremely high altitudes and cold nights and potentially pouring rain?  Should I have signed up for the train instead?  But there I was, hiking with poles in hand and hours and hours of walking ahead of me.  This was the capstone to our South American adventure.  Throughout the past 4 months it had loomed as an exciting yet anxiety inducing event.  As we had our orientation in Cusco, I couldn’t believe it had finally come.


The most popular trail to Machu Picchu is the 4 day Inca Trail.  So many people wanted to hike it that they started to regulate it, requiring pricy permits and guided groups.  Its popularity is maintained, however, because it is the only walking route that leads directly to Machu Picchu.  We were interested in the Inca Trail, but it wasn’t badass enough.  No, we had to add an extra few days to walk past Salkantay Mountain, later joining up with the Inca Trail.  It seemed like a good idea when we booked it with our tour operator, Apus Peru.

Hiking team at start of hike

Grassy valley and our lunch spot below

What made the idea more enticing was that I was doing it with five awesome people: Nathan, Brenda, Drew, Dan and Randy.  On the first morning, we awoke early, met our guide Julio and drove a few hours outside of town to the trailhead.  Our packs were loaded on to some mules and we promptly set off.  From the beginning the views were spectacular.  We were in a wide grassy valley called Soraypampa with beautiful skies overhead a no one else but our group.  After a few hours we were already at our lunch spot.

A delicious lunch: spanish tortilla, quinoa, dehydrated potatoes and more…

The mules and 4 support staff had already arrived and set up the dining tent.  It was here that we learned how well our investment into a good tour company paid off.  The food was wonderful.  There were five or six courses, local peruvian favorites and flavors that were new, exciting and filling. Each meal we waddled from the tent in another failed attempt to finish all the food.  We were well fed throughout the tour thanks to our personal chef, Rutherford.

Nathan on top of the ridge

Salkantay from our tents

A few more hours of hiking and we made it to our campsite.  The tents were already set up and we were free to absorb the view.  And what a view it was.  We camped right below the gorgeously snow-covered Salkantay Mountain.  We watched until the sun went down and it got too cold to stand outside.  This was our coldest campsite – it dropped below freezing that night and we woke up to tents stiff with ice.

Campsite on night one

Mountain lake that Nathan and Drew jumped in

The next day we got even closer to the mountain.  It was going to be our highest climb, reaching 5,000 m (16,400 ft).  We started off strong but had to take a fair number of breaks to catch our breath.  It was in one of these breaks that Nathan and Drew had the brilliant idea of jumping into the small lake that had formed at the base of Salkantay.  They ran down while we climbed up.  I don’t know how they did it but they jumped in, and immediately jumped out of the icy water. Now they’ve got some good bragging rights.

Celebrations at the pass

A brief clearing in the clouds reveals…Salkantay

Pushing ourselves hard, we kept trudging to the top of the pass. And slowly but surely, we all made it. We all stood on the ridge, looking up at Salkantay.  It felt so rugged and powerful, living up to its name which means Savage Mountain.  I had never been so close to a mountain that reaches 6271m (20,575ft) into the air.  It was breathtaking.

Hiking through the valley

Colorful fauna

And then it was time to descend.  For the rest of the day we passed through more valleys, some with small settlements scratching out a living with farms or llama herds.  We found the hike to be incredibly peaceful.  We never really saw any other hikers.  Just locals using the paths for everyday use.

Canal built by the Incas

Flowing creeks cut through the valley.  The Incas restrained these waters and created canals that still contain and manage the waterways five hundred years later.

Group hiking continued

Towards the end of day 2, we made it to our intersection with the Inca Trail.  We settled in and ate a delicious dinner.  These always started with soup, then a meat entree, always accompanied with potatoes of some sort, and perhaps a veggie or two.  We all finished it off with coca tea. It was the poshest camping I’ll ever experience.

Nathan standing on a huge rock

With day 3 we ventured on to the Inca Trail and all was about to change…

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