Hike to Machu Picchu – From Cusco Along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, An Incan Tour

A friend of mine recently went on a trip to Manchu Picchu and it made me nostalgic about my own trip there in January 2011. I went to Peru for 2 weeks as part of a 2 month trip to South America to escape the horrible winter in Calgary. It turned out to be the perfect opportunity to hike the Inca trail, also known as the Camino Inca, in the Andes mountains to Manchu Picchu as there were still tickets for the trail available even though I booked my tour on a Thursday and flew to Lima the next Monday, which was surprising as only 500 permits are allowed per day and this limit includes both hikers and the porters. I found out that tickets were available because it was the rainy season and therefore not the most popular time to hike the trail, a reason that became very clear to me by day 2 on the trail. As you need a guide and advanced booking to do the Inca trail and I was booking last minute, I decided to join a tour with Gap Adventures (now G Adventures) for the Peru portion of my trip. This way Gap organized my trail tickets and all of the gear I would need to hike the trail as well as my transportation from place to place in Peru. Since I was traveling for 2 months the last thing I wanted to do was have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, hiking poles etc. for the rest of my trip.

The group flew into Cusco, the old capital of the Incan empire, which is a required stop before hiking the Inca trail to allow everyone to acclimatize to the altitude as the trail itself can be as high as 13,828 feet (4215 metres) at Warmiwañusqa (“dead woman”) pass and the elevation in Cusco is 11,200 feet (3400 metres). We spent 2 days there, touring and relaxing, to try and avoid any altitude sickness on the trail. According to the guides, the best way to acclimatize is to move slowly at first, drink lots of water and eat light. Some also say that drinking coca tea or chewing on the coca leaves helps, and whether it helps or not the tea is tasty.  Cusco is a wonderful city, especially if you are interested in Peruvian history. There are many sights to see both in town and around the area, mostly Incan buildings, some in use and other are ruins, but also Churches, such as the Cathedral in Plaza de Armas (the main square), and other buildings from the Spanish era.

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Although prior to the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 Cusco was relegated to a less important role in Peru than it enjoyed during the Incan empire, with the thousands of tourists heading to Machu Picchu the city has taken on a new significance. On our first day we toured the Incan sights of Cusco. We went through the Qorikancha, an Incan sight at the base of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. During Incan times it was covered in gold, but now all that is left are the Incan walls and the distinctive Incan doorways and windows which are not rectangular but instead narrow in at the top.

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Next we went to Saqsaywaman (also referred to as “Sexy Woman”), an Incan archeological complex in north Cusco. The massive boulders that were used to build the zigzagging walls were put together without mortar and have stood for hundreds of years. Saqsaywaman is a three tiered complex over 3000 meters in area, although today visitors only see a fraction of what was once there as many of the stones were taken away by the Spaniards to build homes. One of the bloodiest battles between the Incans and the Spaniards was fought here, where thousands of dead were scattered around and the Incans defeated. From the top there are great views over the city. We then drove on to Tambomachay, a ceremonial bath which still has springs of water coming from the rocks. The final sight we stopped at was Q’enqo, a sacred area used for ritual sacrifices and other ceremonies.

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Aside from the tourist sights, Cusco has many shops, many geared towards supplying hikers but there is also a market with traditional items such as sweaters, gloves and scarves made from alpaca wool. We also had some great meals out in Cusco, particularly at Fallen Angel, a restaurant and guest house with some of the most interesting room designs I’ve ever seen.

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From Cusco we took a bus to the start of the trail. Don’t we look happy? Ready for anything? It was sunny and beautiful. The start of the trail is a nice flat path with only a gentle incline. How quickly both those things changed!

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Once we crossed the bridge we were officially on the trail. The weather started out lovely but as the day wore on it started to cloud over and eventually rained. The Inca trail includes 3 days of hiking for 43 km over 3 high mountain passes (plus other small ones), which is hard enough without the added delight of rain. And there was lots of rain, almost constant rain. Unfortunately for us that meant the clouds covered some of the best sights on the trail. We still saw some amazing ruins, such as Llactapata, Sayaqmarka, the Inca tunnel and Phuyupatamarka, along with many other smaller or more distant ruins, but views like that of the mountain Nevado Veronica were almost completely covered by clouds.

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The trail is well-preserved and mainly covered with stones, although the stones are a bit slippery with the rain (I took a lovely tumble going down the stairs, cracking my elbow on the rocks and giving myself some huge bruises along my right leg and arm, I was not loving the trail at that moment), and much of it is made up of stairs up and down the mountains. With all those stairs make sure you bring hiking poles, they are invaluable for when you are going down, and also nice to have when going up. The guide ensured there were regular rest breaks, either at ruins or in sight of some amazing views (some of which we saw, others were covered in clouds), where he provided information on the trail, the Incan lifestyle or the ruins encountered along the way. Even with the rain the cloud forest, ruins (made all the more eerie by the mist and clouds) and mountains provided a stunning backdrop to a difficult and exhausting hike. It is a tough hike, even without the rain it would have been a tough hike, and the lack of oxygen at that altitude makes it even tougher whether or not you are in good shape before starting the hike.  Of course if it wasn’t tough it wouldn’t be such an accomplishment to finish it. Since I booked so last minute I did nothing to prepare for the hike and my legs burned most of the way. I recommend bringing icy/hot or some other muscle pain cream to use each night, I’m not sure if I could have walked after the second day without it.

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It is hard to tell since the rain was pouring down, but we are all very happy and feeling we accomplished something great when we reached the Warmiwañusqa pass, the highest peak to climb on the trail and obviously the most grueling with the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of steps up to the top.

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On my tour, the porters were amazing, they would run ahead of us in flip flops carrying all of our gear (making me feel even more pathetic as I huffed and puffed my way up the trail using my walking poles), and had each meal prepared in advance of our arrival and the tents set up for us at the end of the day. The food was surprisingly good, almost gourmet, and there were snacks provided in the morning to have on the trail and each evening when we arrived at the campsite (my favourite being the hot popcorn). Each morning the porters provided warm water to wash our faces and hot tea before we had to head to the breakfast tent. On the trail you wake up early (before sunrise) and go to bed early. After 10 hours of hiking, an early bedtime is welcome. The only downside is the bathrooms, often a hole in the ground, or one night a tent that a single person can barely fit into, they are all unpleasant until you reach the trekkers lodge which is a mild improvement.

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Unfortunately all of that rain had another consequence as well, the campground at the sun gate was washed out and we couldn’t stay there. Instead we had to hike an extra few hours on day three along a different path and then follow the train tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes. Many people would be very disappointed about this, and while I felt a small twinge of sadness over missing the sun gate, my overwhelming feelings were of jubilation at the thought of being warm, staying in a bed in a hotel, and having a hot shower. Most of our group felt the same and when asked if we would be ok with that option it was a quick “yes, yes yes!!” shouted in answer. So after we finished our cake (yes, they baked us a cake out on the trail in honour of our last big day of hiking) we headed out for our final hike into town. At that moment, despite the extra hours of hiking, I stopped feeling the pain in my legs, forgot the bruises and the general unhappiness of being completely soaked by rain and practically skipped the last few hours. It was a pretty walk and once we reached the train tracks it was also nice and flat, a welcome change from all those stairs.

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Because we couldn’t camp our last night, we had to head to Machu Picchu by bus the next morning. Since we had early access we left while it was still dark to board the busses. When we first arrived at Machu Picchu it was still covered in mist, which I actually loved as this gave it an even more mysterious quality. Our guide provided us with a tour to start our visit and the mist stayed, although it rose a little every so often. However, once we finished our tour the sun started to burn off the mist and the views were incredible.  Visiting Machu Picchu is worth the trip to Peru, it has become a major tourist destination for a reason. There are lots of tourists there but you can still find a less crowded corner to soak it all in, taking in the history and the mystical feel of the place. We had hot sun and clear skies for most of our visit and we spent our free time up on the higher tiers looking out over the mountains and ruins. An amazing end to an arduous, challenging and overall exhausting trek through the Andes.

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The Inca trail is a grueling, often frustrating, in my case constantly wet, and draining hike. While I’m glad I did the trek as it was always something I wanted to do and, in retrospect, it was an amazing experience, unless you really feel the great need to make the hike (or are an experienced hiker) I would recommend taking the train to Machu Picchu. It is worth seeing and you get to enjoy it without all that hiking.  Still, hiking the trail is an accomplishment, something rare, and an experience you can always look back on with pride. So, if you do decide you want to hike the trail all I can say is don’t do it in the rainy season and make sure you have some really good hiking poles.

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Spain Extravaganza – Last Stop, Sitges

I am sadly back at home in cold and snowy Calgary. That is right, you read correctly, it is September 9th and already there is snow and lots of it. How I wish I was still in Spain! Looking through my pictures is a mixture of happy and sad, happy I was there and warm, sad I am no longer there and instead stuck in a snowy cold mess. So now I am going to spend a few moments reliving our last stop, Sitges. It is about 30 minutes South of Barcelona along the coast. To get to Sitges from Barcelona, take the R2 train from Passeig de Gracia. We found out that it was a bit trickier from Valencia. If you go on the RENFE (Spanish train) website it will not give you a route from Valencia to Sitges. To get there you must go to Vilanova i la Geltru and then purchase a separate ticket to transfer to the R2 towards Barcelona, it is then only one stop to Sitges. The route between Valencia and Barcelona can be busy so book early if you can. Once in Sitges it is easy and cheap to get to Barcelona and there is even a direct bus to the airport which we used at the end of the trip.

Sitges is known for a few things, one is its gorgeous setting and beautiful beaches. Sitges is also known for is its nightlife (especially the clubs and bars along the so-called “street of sin”) and as a popular gay resort area. The town is right on the sea and is a great mix of old Spain and resort heaven. There are historic sights to see, such as the cathedral Esglesia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla and the gothic residence Cau Ferrat, there is a wonderful walk along the Passeig Maritim which goes from the old town of Sitges to the port along the water and of course there are the beaches. It is a compact area and walkable to most sights and many of the beaches. The town itself is fun to wander as there are many shops and interesting historic sights scattered throughout the town. The main streets through town are lined with restaurants, cafes, shops of all kinds (tourist and non-tourist), fresh fruit and vegetable stores and gelato places. There are as many gelato shops in Sitges as there are in most Italian towns. Most nights we ate along the lovely promenade where you can hear the waves and people watch from the patios set up outside each restaurant and then sometimes head into the main part of Sitges to enjoy the nightlife.

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Aside from the main beach in Sitges beside the seaside promenade, there are actually 17 beaches, all with soft golden sand. The water is warm and you can walk out quite a long ways before it gets deep. Here the waves are much higher than the other places we went in Spain, the beach near our hotel even had surf lessons, although the waves are still very manageable and easy to swim in.  Most have chairs and umbrellas to rent or you can just stretch out in the sand. One word of warning, some of these beaches are nudist beaches. There are still people in swimsuits on the nudist beaches but there are also a lot of naked people. If you aren’t comfortable with that then make sure to check at the hotel to find out which beaches aren’t nudist so you don’t get an unexpected surprise. Another warning for those that don’t know, regardless of what beach you go on, all beaches in Spain have women going topless, not something you see very often in North America but quite common in Europe in general.

We stayed at the Melia Sitges in the port area. The hotel was big and very nice, large comfortable rooms, many with balconies. It was nice and quiet for sleeping or relaxing as the port area is away from the busy central area of Sitges yet is only a short 15 minute walk along Passeig Maritim (which is well lit at night) to get to all of the action. The port area has restaurants and shops too and was just 5 minutes from the hotel. We had a beautiful view of the port from our large balcony. The pool area in the hotel was great, lots of chairs on a big space on the lawn and a large pool plus it was right beside the restaurant and bar. The beach closest to our hotel was smaller and in a lovely cove lined on one side by green hills. It had lots of chairs to rent and a snack place for drinks and food.

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From Sitges we did a day trip to Vilanova I La Geltru and Tarragona. Vilanova is another town along the coast about 10 minutes on the R2 train South of Sitges and therefore has gorgeous beaches as well. We only had about 2 hours there before our train to Tarragona so we wandered the town instead of going to the beach. La Rambla is lined with trees and older buildings, it is a great place to stop for a coffee and watch the world go by. From the train the visitor information centre is a long walk away, it is along the waterfront just past the end of La Rambla, but it is worth the walk.  They have a good map plus a great free pamphlet with 4 walking tours of Vilanova to do on your own. Each one is unique, one for the maritime area, one for La Rambla, one for Geltru (which was formerly a separate town) and one wandering through the rest of the historical area of Vilanova, and they can all be done in sequence or separately depending on your interest. We went all the way along the La Rambla walk and then into Geltru to see Castell de la Geltru.

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We then continued on the train to Tarragona, a UNESCO world heritage site. Definitely worth the trip. It is known for its Roman ruins and of course more beautiful beaches. The Roman Amphitheatre built in the 2nd century A.D. can be seen from almost anywhere along the coast. Walking from the train station you walk uphill on the road and as the road turns the corner you have an amazing view of the amphitheatre and the sea.  It is 3 euros to go into the amphitheatre and you can sit in the seats and walk onto the main arena floor. As you walk through the centre of the city there are ruins all over the place. We also walked over to the old fortress which can be seen further along the coast from the amphitheatre on the other side of the beach on the cliff. To walk to the fort from the amphitheatre is about a 20-25 minute walk. La Rambla leads from a viewpoint on top of the hill on the other side of the amphitheatre (closer to the train station) to a large fountain near more ruins, it is about a 15 minute walk from one end to the other. There is also a long seaside promenade which goes from the beach below the fort back past the amphitheatre and to the other side of the train station.

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We spent the rest of our time enjoying Sitges, wandering through the town, lounging on the beach, walking the seaside promenade and drinking wine on our balcony. It was a nice relaxing end to the trip.

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Unfortunately it had to end eventually. I’m normally one of those people who never want to come home, I would love to travel forever. After watching the snow for the past 2 days I wish more than usual that I hadn’t come home and that I was still in hot, sunny, gorgeous Spain. How I miss it!

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Spain Extravaganza – On To Valencia and Area

As sad as it was to leave Majorca, at least it isn’t time to go home yet. Our next stop was Valencia, a gorgeous Spanish city on the East coast approximately three and a half hours South of Barcelona. Big wide boulevards, a well maintained old town with an 18th century Spanish feel and many sights in close proximity to each other make it the perfect city to tour on foot. Definitely a different feel than the other Spanish cities I have been to, it reminds me a lot of the larger South American cities which have a similar architecture and layout. When wandering the old town you continually come upon large plazas, such as the Plaza de la Virgen which borders the Valencia Cathedral pictured below, and these plazas usually contain the important buildings of Valencia. Staying anywhere in the old town provides easy access to restaurants, the train station and the main sights, plus the buses to the beaches. We stayed at the Vincci Lys close to the arena and train station Valencia Nord. The hotel was central and great value for the price. We even had a small wrought iron balcony to stand outside and enjoy the sun and watch activity on the street below.  The main street running through the old town connects the Cathedral to the bull fighting arena (pictured below) which still has bull fights to this day. All along the streets of the old town are cafés and restaurants with outdoor patios on the street great for people watching. If you eat outside on the patio there is often a surcharge, but it is worth it as you get to enjoy the warm weather and people watch.

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Valencia also has amazing beaches. We went to playa del Cabanyal and playa de la Malvarrosa where the boardwalk goes on for ages and the sand is soft and golden. Multiple buses go to the beaches from the old town throughout the day so they are easy to access. We rented chairs and umbrellas, there were many available along the length of the beach, but if it is ever full just wait until siesta time (starting around 2:00-2:30) and the beach clears out. One minute all I could see was people sunbathing, swimming or playing on the beach, the next time I looked up almost everyone was gone. The sand is nice and soft so it is a good (and free) option too.

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As I have been to Valencia before (back in July 2007) we decided to take day trips to nearby towns to explore new areas. Our first trip was to Denia, about an hour and 45 minutes by bus from Valencia. The town was much bigger than I thought it was. We arrived about 10am and most things were still closed. We managed to find a cafe on the main street running the length of the old town for a coffee and a tostada and tomatoes and then we walked up to the castle area. It is only 2 euros to enter the castle which is worth it. There is a tourist train that will take you up or you can walk. We walked and became sweaty messes as it was over 30 degrees. Great views of the town and harbour was our reward making the long hot walk worth it in the end. Too cool off we headed for the beach and spent the rest of the day on lounge chairs at yet another beautiful Spanish beach with soft golden sand and warm aquamarine Mediterranean water.

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Next was Xativa which I did on my own. It is approximately a 45 minute train ride from Valencia Nord station. Compared to the other towns it is set up very well for tourists. Not that it is necessary to cater to tourists, there is something to be said for a more authentic experience in a non-touristy town, but Xativa is able to maintain its authentic feel while still being tourist friendly. There are signs to the tourist office as soon as you leave the train station, unobtrusive, well-placed signs throughout the old town telling visitors about the historical sights, going from sign to sign is a walking tour as most signs point to the next sight to see, and all historical buildings are well marked. The town is most famous as the birthplace of Pope Alexander VI, one of the Borgia popes (his birthplace is the house pictured below). Another of the Borgia popes also lived there and there is information about both of them in Spanish at the museum inside the cathedral (the museum costs 1 euro). The castle area is best reached by the tourist train (which you can catch near the tourist office and tickets are purchased on the train) or car as it is up a steep hill. From the castle there are spectacular views of Xativa and the surrounding countryside plus the castle itself is in good shape. It is large so if you want to spend time there do not take the tourist train back as it only gives you an hour at the castle, which I found a bit rushed but not terrible. One option is to take the train up and walk down, as the train only costs 4 euros it’s not too expensive for only a one way trip.

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Our final day trip was to Sagunto (the train station is Sagunt), about a 25 minute train ride from Valencia Nord, where everything is free. Well, not food and drink of course, but all of the tourist attractions and we didn’t even get charged for the beach chairs. It also has the most helpful tourist office we encountered, we received more information on more sights than we could possibly have seen in our one day there. One warning though, there are not many restaurants so either bring a picnic, eat in or near the main square where there are a couple of cafés, or ask at the tourist office where to go and what times they are open. Sagunto is known for its Roman ruins and huge castle. The Roman amphitheatre has been renovated and is still used for concerts, as can be seen below. We passed the amphitheatre and old Jewish area on our walk up to the castle. The castle can be seen from most areas of the old town. You will be asked to get a ticket but it is free. It is a massive complex, just when you think you’ve reached the end there is still more to see. Bring good walking shoes and plan to spend some time up there. It is a true ruin for the most part so be careful where you step. We spent a couple hours walking around. The castle area contains the old Roman forum and stores plus newer sections added over the years. There is one small museum of Roman gravestones but otherwise everything is outside, we just walked through the castle ruins into many hidden corners and along the walls on the Roman side. We then took the bus to the beach which of course had more soft sand and refreshing blue water.

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On our final night we went to a Flamenco show. It was a bit outside downtown, we purchased tickets at the Valencia tourist office, and it included dinner (we chose the paella option) and the show. The dancers were amazing and the food decent for the price (32 euros which included a three course meal, sangria and the show). A lovely end to a great stay in Valencia. Time to leave again but at least there is one leg left. On to Sitges for some relaxing time in the sun.