High Altitude, Mountain Climbing & The Wonder Of Machu Picchu In Peru
Our flights descends into Cusco airport after seventy minutes of flying. We’ve come from Lima, having spent just one afternoon in the bland and ordinary city. As we depart the plane and head to collect our backpacks from the arrivals belt in the small airport, it’s obvious we’ve arrived in a very different climate to the type we’re used to. Cusco sits at 3,800 metres above sea level, which means it’s at high altitude. As a result, the air feels noticeably thinner and it’s very important to stay thoroughly hydrated to avoid soroche, or altitude sickness, as it’s commonly known.
Prevention is better than cure
Following the advice of online travel guides, bloggers and other backpackers, Dave and I have already stocked up on tablets to take if soroche strikes, and plan to do nothing for our first day in the city so that we can acclimatise.
We’re staying at Pariwana Hostel, one of a chain of backpacker haunts in the country that we find to be comfortable, clean and very sociable. The dorm rooms are centred around an old courtyard, so for the remainder of our afternoon we relax and chat with others in the cool air, drinking plenty of water and eating small, sugary snacks. Aside from a mild headache, an inability to sleep properly, and becoming completely out of breath after climbing ten steps, neither of us have any severe altitude problems, which is a relief.
Touring the streets of Cusco
The next morning, we take part in a free walking tour. The city is full of impressive architecture, containing plenty of churches and cathedrals on the edges of squares and plazas. It very much retains its traditional charm. Street vendors line the cobbles to sell popcorn, fresh juices and corn from rackety wooden stalls, and indigenous women in authentic brightly-coloured skirts walk the pavements. All the women dressed this way wear their hair in long black plaits, many with woollen pom-poms attached to the ends. They’re weighed down by various items to sell, wrapped inside striped blankets that they wear like a shawl on their backs. Some even have lambs with them that you can take a photo with, in exchange for a few Peruvian Soles, of course.
The tour is good, albeit exhausting due to Cusco being made of up predominantly hills, along with the altitude, but we finish it with a Pisco Sour and 3-course lunch deal in a small and inexpensive, but stylish restaurant.
All aboard the glam packer train
Our two-day tour to Machu Picchu begins the following morning, with a pickup from our hostel. We’ve decided not to do a trek due to our money and time restrictions, instead we’ll take the train and climb Machu Picchu mountain as an additional activity. The first day of the tour mainly consists of travelling three hours by bus to Ollantaytambo, where we board the very nice train to Aguas Calientes; the nearest town to Machu Picchu itself.
Despite the amount of travel needed, the journey is hugely enjoyable, as the train weaves through nothing but valleys and mountainside, running alongside a fast-moving river the entire time. We also have on-board waiter service bringing us tea and snacks, so we’re definitely enjoying a rare moment of luxury!
On arrival at Aguas Calientes we’re amused to see that there are no roads, only the train track cutting right through as the centre point of the town. It’s lined with hostels, restaurants and shops either side, so as you enjoy lunch or dinner a train can just rumble by, right next to your table. Along with another guy on our tour we’re collected by a lady who leads us to our hostel for the night. Our dorm literally overlooks the train track making it incredibly loud when one chugs through, but we’re told the last train is at 11pm, so at least our sleep won’t be disturbed.
The late afternoon is spent wandering the local market, which is filled with colourful textiles, ornaments, Alpaca jumpers, and house furnishings in assortments of pinks, greens, purples, oranges, blues and many other colours. I buy a striped drawstring backpack that will easily roll away into my larger backpack when not in use, although I could have bought lots more if we’d have been travelling home afterwards!
In the evening, we dine in an Italian restaurant overlooking a small square that’s set back off of the street, before meeting our tour guide for the next day’s Machu Picchu adventure. The welcome meeting is at our hostel and there’s six of us in total. We’ll be getting a bus up to the entrance, but we’re advised that these buses are incredibly busy and therefore we need to be in the queue before the first leaves. It means we need to be out of the door at 5am – ouch. So, after purchasing our bus tickets in advance at the ticket counter, we head to bed early, in the hope of getting at least five hours of sleep.
Seeing one of the seven wonders
Actually, I wake at 4am feeling very refreshed and excited for the day ahead. Dave and I have breakfast in the rooftop bar, ordering omelettes to ensure we have a heavy meal. Then we all head down to the bus station, where a mile long queue has already formed. It gets light as we wait for the buses to begin service but it feels like no time before we’re trundling up the winding hillside, overtaking red-faced trekkers who have opted to walk the hour hike to the entrance.
It’s currently low season in Peru as it rains often in November, so the day starts quite cloudy and overcast, with a chill in the air. Despite this, the entrance to Machu Picchu is completely rammed with people and I marvel at how busy it must be in peak season! Once we’re inside, the crowds ease as most are led by tour leaders to different areas of the site. Prior to visiting Machu Picchu I had concerns that perhaps the hype would be better than the real thing. Expectations were high and I couldn’t wait to see how one of the seven manmade wonders of the world looked in real life. Well, upon entering, I’m glad to report that Machu Picchu completely exceeds expectations!
Even with the slight grey mist hanging around, the old Inca city is unique, interesting and sort of magical. It’s smaller than I originally thought it would be, but there are so many nooks and crannies to wander between and explore. Our guide takes us around, stopping to explain how and why the city came to exist and the ways in which people lived here. After an hour of touring, the sun breaks through the cloud and we’re soon sweltering in blazing heat. For me, what makes the site so stunning is the fact that it is completely remote, surrounded only by tree-covered mountains, and combined with the glorious weather the view is breathtaking.
There are particular mountains close by that you can pay an additional fee to climb; Huana Pichu and Montaña Machu Picchu. As I mentioned, we’ve signed up to climb Machu Picchu mountain, so when our tour finishes we pop outside of the main entrance to eat snacks and use the bathroom, before embarking on our hike.
Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain
At the beginning of the upwards trail we’re made to sign our names and time of entry in a huge book, I’m guessing this is so the management can ensure everybody who climbs the mountain returns safely. The ascent is fairly steep and made up mainly of half-worn stone steps, along a path no more than a metre wide and surrounded only by nature – no handrails or fences.
Within ten minutes of climbing both Dave and I are huffing and puffing. It is very tough due to the altitude and the hot sun shining down on us. There are a handful of people climbing in front of and behind us, all of which look to be struggling too as everyone walks twenty steps, then stops to breathe. It’s comforting to know that we’re not the only ones who find this a challenge, and we continue in the rhythm of walking for a few minutes and stopping for a minute, until we reach what we think is the halfway point. Amongst concentrating on breathing, we are also eagerly gazing out at the insanely beautiful views below us, astounded by how small Machu Picchu is becoming as we ascend higher and higher.
When reaching the halfway point we stop for a longer rest, sitting on the stone walls that are built into the mountainside. This rest may be a mistake though because as soon as I sit down a wave of altitude sickness combined with asthma sweeps over me. I suddenly feel nauseous, dizzy and extremely breathless. Dave gives me some sugary sweets we’re carrying and I take a couple of puffs of my inhaler, then sit trying to regain normality for ten minutes. I feel awful and protest to Dave that I won’t be able to go on to the top, but he gives me a pep talk and assures me we’ll take it slow until we get there. As I’m starting to feel better again I agree to carry on and the rest of the climb is over within around thirty minutes – to my extreme relief!
Of course, once reaching the peak of Montaña Machu Picchu the effort it took to get there is completely forgotten due to the incredible three-hundred and sixty degree views. The only sounds are the murmur of other climbers voices as they sit and look out over a now miniscule Machu Picchu, enveloped in greenery and mountains. It’s the perfect spot to sit and take in our current way of life, feeling thankful for having the ability to be in such a surreal place.
After taking lots of photographs, Dave and I have lunch on top of the mountain, before making our descent, which is so much easier and faster than the climb up, if not a little hard on the knee joints. After signing our names again to say that we’ve left the mountain, we jump on a bus back down to Aguas Calientes and sit down in the nearest restaurant for more food, both feeling completely shattered.
The journey back to Cusco is a long one, filled with another train and bus, delivering us to our destination at around 10pm. Everybody on our tour is exhausted and heads straight for bed, but Dave and I grab a McDonald’s meal each before doing so, as we know we’ll be hungry otherwise. Unfortunately, the day has taken its toll on one young, blonde backpacker in the McDonald’s restaurant and she faints suddenly while waiting for her food. Dave springs to help her while I watch our bags and we’re relieved to see that she’s feeling OK after regaining consciousness – it’s a dramatic end to the day though!
We have just one more day in Cusco, which is spent relaxing and chatting with friends in our hostel, as it pretty much pours with rain the entire time. Our next stop in Peru is the southern city of Arequipa, where we’ll visit the highly recommended Colca Canyon. We’ll be leaving by bus late in the evening for the twelve hour journey. For tips and recommendations on backpacking in South America, just subscribe by entering your email below!