Wandering around a wonder of the world: Machu Picchu


Often times, too much knowledge of a travel destination has the potential to attenuate the ‘wow’ factor upon actual visit. Of all the things we were going to visit during our 3 month sojourn, I was most prepared for what awaited us at Machu Picchu – one of the New 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I just hope I’m not disappointed,” I kept telling Marina and Killian the night before the visit.

Luckily, Machu Picchu is one of those places that can never be truly appreciated via photograph or even video.

“This place is absolutely beautiful,” I say faintly to myself, looking down from one of the grass terraces at the Lost City of the Incas, just as the sun begins to rise past the mountains, illuminating the complex stone architecture of the site.

“It really is, isn’t it?” responds Killian after a long pause. All three of us are transfixed by visual feast we are currently dining on.

Machu Picchu, literally meaning ‘old mountain’ in Quechua is one of the most renowned archeological remains of the Inca civilization that at one point controlled much of western South America.

Due to the invasion by Spanish conquistadors, the entire Inca civilization was wiped out, and almost all of their cities destroyed. For example, in Cusco, many of the buildings constructed by the Spaniards used the original foundations laid down by the Incas. However, rather than being captured, the Incas originally living on what is now Machu Picchu, decided to gather all their most important possessions and flee.

The Spaniards never made it to Machu Picchu, and the site wasn’t officially discovered internationally until 1911 by an American historian, Hiram Bingham. He was led to the site by a child from a local village, when Bingham was exploring the area and inquired the locals about any interesting Inca remains. When Bingham originally saw the site, it was heavily grown over by vegetation.

Since then, Machu Picchu has become the most popular symbol of the highly advanced Inca civilization – not to mention a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Wonders of the Ancient World.

In addition to the site itself, the surrounding mountain terrain is absolutely spectacular. As is the bus ride up the mountains from Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the historical site.

After exploring the grounds, climbing up to the sun gate, and enjoying a brunch on one of the cliff-side terraces with a view 400m below to the nearby river, the hot midday sun forced us to seek some shade back at Aguas Calientes before departing via train back to Cusco.

This is one day none of us will soon forget.


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“You know how I know the Inca trail sucks?”


I ask jokingly a la comedic style inspired by the 40-year Old Virgin film.

“I think it’s because everyone gets explosive diarrhea on the Inca Trail trek”, retorts Essam.

All of us burst out in a boisterous laughter.

All of us, with the exception with our trek guide, Gladice, who sits in front of her bowl of quinoa soup confused by our idiotic behavior.

I am in stitches, wiping the tears that run down my cheeks.

The eight of us are sitting down for dinner around a makeshift table in the middle of a thatch roofed, stone constructed house belonging to a local farmer.

Today we completed the second and most strenuous day of our Lares Trek through the old Inca trails leading through the Andes between Cusco and the magical Machu Picchu. We walked a total of 12 km today, the first 7 of which were all uphill.

While 12km may not seem like much, keep in mind we were performing said trek at an altitude ranging from 3900 to 4600m.

For both Killian and me, this three day trek represented the most challenging part of our travels, and the one component of our summer’s adventure we were most apprehensive about.

Before we even started today’s trek, some of us were already tired from yesterday’s effort, not to mention the previous night’s broken sleep in a chilly tent, at a dizzying 3800m, in the middle of the Peruvian mountain range.

Needless to say we were exhausted, and after a few spoonfuls of delicious soup, we became giddy.

And that’s when the jokes about the supposed inferiority of the other popular trek in the area, the Inca trail, began. (As a sidenote, the name “Inca Trail” is a bit of a misnomer, since all these trails were previously used by the Inca civilization).

When people come to visit Machu Picchu, many simply fly into Cusco, then take a train to Machu Picchu in the morning, snap a few photos and head back to Cusco, then back home.

For a more active experience, some tourists opt for 1 of 2 main treks through the area, both leading to a finish in Machu Picchu: the Inca trail or the Lares trail.

Both treks take a few days, and require at least a couple of nights camping out in the mountains.

Both treks are led by an experienced guide, and include surprisingly delicious meals prepared by a cook who travels with the group through the mountains (during each meal we were stunned by the variety and quality of food prepared for us using one portable gas stove – soups were my favourite).

Both treks provide absolutely stunning views of mountains, glaciers, lagoons, and various animals.

The major difference between the two options is popularity with tourists; the Inca trail is by far the most popular trek. Most of the people we’ve met weren’t even aware of alternatives to the uber-popular Inca trail.

Due to this popularity, the number of tourists on the Inca trail can get quite high, resulting in a recently instated capping off at a maximum of 500 people.

This popularity results in crowded paths, huge campsites where sleep is difficult (think hundreds of tents), lineups for many sights, a less authentic experience, and, of course, countless other gringos ruining your Kodak moments.

On the other hand, the Lares trek remains off the beaten path, and allows for a more tourist-free experience.

Our group consisted of 7 travelers: Marina, Killian and I from our original group, plus three young chaps from England, and a kiwi girl who is transplanted to Canada’s west coast. Additionally, we had our guide, cook, 3 herdsmen (who took care of the set up of tents, and herding the horses which carried our sleeping gear), and one of the herdsmen’s daughters, Elizabeth, who herded a pack of llamas which came along for the trek.

Aside from these 12 people, we basically saw no other tourists during the 3 days we spent in the mountains. Hence, our photos look so remote and isolated.

During our trek we passed by many small villages and got to interact with some of the locals – mostly children on their way to school, all dressed in traditional clothing.

Marina, in particular, seemed to revel in this interaction, shooting easily over 100 photos of local children.

We even got to play a game of soccer with local kids at school during their phys-ed class. Given the high altitude, and my paranoia about altitude sickness I took it very easy – reaching a running pace only a couple of times. After each brief jog, I was out of breath for a good while – the altitude certainly kicks your butt. As per usual, Marina was running around as though we were at sea level – I am envious of her Russian heartiness.

We also came across countless llamas and alpacas along our trek, resulting in even more excessive photography by Marina, who has taken a serious liking to these beautiful camelids.

The scenery was absolutely stunning, and we took frequent breaks to appreciate the beauty surrounding us – not to mention catch our breath.

The stars at nighttime were particularly memorable.

Despite being relatively pampered with food and wonderful views, the 3 days of hiking were pretty tough – at the end of the journey, all of us were quite sore. Quads, buttocks, and calves were the most common sources of discomfort.

For me, my hip joints felt stiff as hell.

“Who needs squats?” I joked with Killian, as we ascended towards the highest point of our walk – a pass at over 4500m.

Another challenge during the hike was hygiene: due to our remote location, we could only wash our hands and face with the bit of hot water we were given in a bowl each morning. On the last day, our collective body odor became rather pungent – we all repeatedly apologized for our respective smells, and sat as far away as possible from each other while consuming our final lunch.

The shower that night was fantastic.

The cold nights in tents were also a challenge for some – the temperature dipped below zero on two of our nights.

Marina, for example, used two sleeping bags during the night – the second of which was donated from Luciano when he departed our trek before it began due to head injury.

Waking up to a frost covered tent was a first for me, personally.

During our last, and coldest night, I wore the following:

  • Thermal long underwear
  • Dry-fit t-shirt
  • Thermal long-sleeved shirt
  • Wind/water resistant pants
  • Fleece sweater
  • Soft-shell jacket
  • Water-proof jacket
  • 2 pairs of wool socks
  • Toque
  • Gloves
  • Shoes

And keep in mind I was engulfed in a heavy duty sleeping bag.

Getting out of our tents in the morning was made possible only by the hot coca tea provided at our tent by one of the herdsmen.

In the end, both Killian and I admitted to each other that the trek wasn’t as tough as we thought it would be.

Nevertheless, the sense of accomplishment among the members of our group was sealed with a round of high fives, before we all sank in our chairs and waited for our final lunch, back in Ollantaytambo.

“We actually did it!” Killian says to me, as he sits across the long wooden dining table.

“It’s all downhill from here” I respond.


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