We arrived in Cusco early in the morning after a 10 hour bus ride from Arequipa. We were pleasantly surprised by the comfort of our accommodations. For $6 per night we had our own room in a large house with a kitchen, multiple bathrooms with deliciously hot water. It was owned by an American woman who runs a trekking company and also offers yoga and crossfit classes on-site. Her house is only 10 minutes away from the main square, 1 block from an addicting bakery (stay away from the croissants), and 2 blocks away from a large market selling fresh fruits and vegetables.
We immediately met a young German, Chris, with whom we began coordinating plans our to Maachu Picchu do to his previous extremely in-depth research. Our host was trying to encourage us to do treks and mountain climbing tours, but really we just wanted to relax, recharge, and experience Machu Picchu. We went on a free walking tour of Cusco with a few travelers also staying at our place. It lasted about three hours and included visits to the chocolate museum, three different restaurants for tastings, San Blas, and the San Pedro area.
After the tour we had plans to meet up with Lisa’s friend, Elisabeth, who is a local and also works for a tour agency. We explained how we were trying to plan a trip to Machu Picchu soon and after less than 20 minutes of talking, we decided to buy our transportation through her company for the next day. Since we were leaving early in the morning we had to buy food for our trip and Elisabeth and her friend were nice enough to take us to the local markets and help us pick out items we would need such as coca leaves, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. We decided to pack vegetable sandwiches, bananas, peanuts, dried apricots, and Lisa made chocolate truffles (aka mud balls) to give us energy.
There were very serious strikes beginning due to numerous complaints by locals (such high taxes for people from Cusco and high prices for locals to visit Machu Picchu), so we were told to be ready to be picked up by 2am in order to avoid delays. Even after numerous encounters with the South American time standard, we still sat outside ready to go at 1:45. After a few phone calls we were finally picked up an hour later. We then proceeded to pickup other passengers scattered throughout the city. Finally around 4am, once they had managed to squeeze 16 people into a van, we were able to get on the road.
The 7 hour bus ride (which turned into 9 hours) was horribly uncomfortable and delayed–the driver stopped 3 or 4 times to eat, take pictures, etc. We arrived at Hydroelectrica around noon and had to walk 2.5 hours along railroad tracks to the closest town, Aguas Calientes. We walked through town in search of a cheap hostal for the three of us for the night and found one for $5 pp which was perfect for us (it even had hot water!). After showering we went to the market and had a filling dinner of soup and lomo saltado (stir-fryed beef and onions on top of french fries with a side of rice). After dinner we bought more water, bread, and of course, rum. We were exhausted and passed out by 8pm.
Our alarm woke us at 3:30am and allowed us just enough time to change clothes, and brush our teeth, before we walked through town in the dark (only seeing a few steps in front of us by the light of our headlamps). We were excited to get to the top of Machu Picchu before sunrise, but when we arrived to the bridge at the base of the mountain, we were informed that we could not pass until 5am. We waited 30 minutes as more and more people lined up at the gate, and at exactly 5am we were allowed to enter and began the hour hike up the mountain.
Surprisingly, the trail was perfectly manicured with signs pointing us in the right direction. We made it to the top just as they were beginning to let people (who took the bus up) into the ruins. It was very foggy early in the morning so there was no rush to see sunrise. The clouds would roll in and out throughout our time in Machu Picchu, but we had plenty of sunshine and ample time to take photos.
Witnessing the ruins of a civilization built on the peak of this massive mountain was spectacular. It is said that over 2,000 incans lived in Machu Picchu. They built many homes, agriculture terraces, ceremonial sites, temples, and even a bridge to connect a route from the surrounding mountains to the river below. We spent 5 hours atop Machu Picchu exploring all of these areas. The hike back down the mountain was welcoming and we had another 2.5 hours to the bus waiting for us at Hydroelectrica.
When we returned from Machu Picchu we got wonderful news. Our Minneapolis friends, Rob and Alyssa were in Lima visiting Alyssa’s biological family and they decided to fly to Cusco for the weekend to hang out with us. They missed their flight on Friday but ended up arriving early Saturday morning. We took them to check out the black market in San Pedro where you could find anything from soccer cleats to cow heads to old glass jars. They bought a few souvenirs in a nearby market and we headed back home to grab lunch at another market that is only open on Saturdays.
Tiffany informed us that she was hosting a barbecue that evening with friends and we were welcome to join. Rob and Ryan went to play soccer with some local kids at the park while Lisa took a nap. It was dark when they returned and we decided to go to the supermarket to get things to make for the BBQ and drinks but we ended up eating at a chifa (Chinese restaurant) instead. When we got back to the house beers were flowing and the grill was full of alpaca steaks. We made passion fruit pisco sours that we had learned how to make from a bar-tending class we attended earlier that week and partook in the revelry of the evening.
Sunday was the height of carnival celebrations in Peru and kids were everywhere spraying foam and dumping water on anyone in their sight. We made it to the main square only stumble upon an all out water fight. There was no possible way of getting by unscathed so we made the executive decision to turn back and stock up on supplies. We were told that the carnival was more traditional in Pisac, a small town in the sacred valley which could be reached in 45 minutes by bus. We bought several cans of foam spray, loaded grocery bags with water balloons, made cocktails to bring with us, and put on our ponchos (shout out to Kim for the extras) to help keep us somewhat dry from the onslaught.
The town was calm when we arrived and we were joking because we thought we got extremely prepared for nothing. We spoke far too soon. We walked a few blocks further and we reached the main square where all the locals were gathered watching the traditional dances. Before we could get our bearings, we found ourselves cornered by a group of little kids and the war commenced. The foot soldiers were anywhere from 3 or 4 to 12 or 14 years old. Behind them were lines of teenagers, too cool to engage in hand to hand combat, but who found it quite enjoyable to launch water balloons, and even buckets of water at us, from behind their younger compatriots. In no time we were all covered head to toe in foam and water.
It was to the point that we couldn’t see and often had to spit mouthfuls of foam blindly into the air just to so we could breath. After what seemed like an hour we came to a truce (sparked by Ryan and Rob snatching water guns and cans of foam from the youth), and we befriended our enemies. We gathered the opposition and took pictures with them, before pointing out a few other gringos (who had enjoyed the festivities without any water or foam heading in their direction) for our friends to attack. It was an unforgettable experience, but one we don’t care to repeat.