Before we went to the Galapagos, we actually had four days in Quito. We had previously thought that we may stay one night, then head off to the jungle, or a river, or another town somewhere, getting the most out of our Ecuador experience. What actually happened, was that we found a friendly and comfortable hostel in the city and suddenly realised we were exhausted. The two month blast through Central America had really taken it out of us, so we decided to just stay in Quito for a few days and recharge the batteries.
Now, I know it sounds very ‘woe is me’ to be complaining of tiredness on what is effectively a year long holiday, and I should probably avoid writing about it because it doesn’t make for a very good story, but this blog is supposed to be a reflection of our experience, and I would be lying if I told you that this trip has all been plain sailing. I may elaborate on this in a separate post, but for now, let me summarise by saying that we were, after nine months on the road, beginning to feel a keen sense of missing home, of wanting to spend time with people who we actually know, of not having to begin every conversation with our life story, of wanting to follow through on budding friendships, sleep in our own bed, speak our own language, of wanting some freedom to drive ourselves somewhere, to cook, to eat, to go to work even! I never thought I’d write that!
Enough said – we needed some down time, and we took it in Quito, a city that challenges you with altitude, making even the slightest of hills seem mountainous, and there are plenty enough hills to come across. I will confess, the first night we made it as far as the local Chinese restaurant, before coming back to the hostel and digging into the extensive DVD collection, watching Jurassic World followed by The Grand Budapest Hotel. Because that’s what you do when you’re tired, you chill out in front of a movie. Or, well, two movies!
We did explore Quito of course, actually going on two fabulous walking tours run by Community Hostel. We weren’t staying there, but that doesn’t matter because the tours are open to anyone, and we’d highly recommend both. The first was a free city walking tour, taking in the main architectural and historical sights. Our guide Opi introduced himself briefly before saying, ‘How many of you have been on a free walking tour before?’ We raised our hands along with most of the rest of the group (we’d done one in Sydney). Opi then continued, ‘OK, good. So what do all you guys know about free walking tours?’ ‘They’re not free!’ came the reply in chorus from the majority of the group. His point, of course, was that the tours can only run if people give a tip at the end. It was a fair point, he didn’t labour on it, and as it was a really good tour we were happy to oblige.
We visited the main sights in the city, which involved numerous plazas and even more numerous churches, but our favourite bits were the more local touches. Opi showed us to a traditional sweet shop where Helena bought some peanut brittle and some sesame snaps – don’t know if that’s what they’re called, but it sounds good to me! He also took us around the Mercado Central, giving tips for where to find the most authentic breakfasts, lunches and snacks. We tried Morocho, which is a warm corn based drink with cinnamon that tastes a bit like rice pudding; and Mori berry juice which is a sort of blackberry but mixed with a healthy serving of sugar. The Ecuadorians love their sugar!
The second tour was even better – a Friday night stroll around some of the most authentic local food sellers. Now, Helena and I are big foodies, and we love trying loads of different things so we were pretty much in heaven at this point. We ate various dishes including seco de chivo (goat curry), a kind of roasted pork and vegetables dish, and a huge cheese empanada (with sugar on the top).
My favourite were the pinchos though which are basically three different types of sausages on a stick. Perfect!
Setting our sights on Cusco
Our trip to the fabled lost city of the Incas felt like it began in Quito. We’d completed our Galapagos tour and enjoyed a final meal with the Irish ladies and Becky before retiring for one more night of luxury in the Hilton. We had had to do some serious logistical planning prior to leaving Quito because we only had three days before we had to be in Cusco to begin preparing for our trek. ‘I’m sure we can get an overnight bus…’ I’d said nonchalantly when booking the hike (we were in Nicaragua at the time). Once in Quito, we realised a few things: 1 – there is no direct bus from Quito to Cusco; 2 – even if there was, it would take significantly more than one ‘overnight’ as it’s a cool 2928 km (roughly the same distance as our entire Australian road trip); 3 – we could fly, but it would cost almost $1000 each; 4 – we really hadn’t thought this through!
After a huge amount of logistical wrangling, Hels and I both arrived at the same flight + bus + bus combo, with overnights in Guayaquil and Lima that would get us to Cusco just in time to start acclimatising. The first of the two overnight buses produced a rather interesting blog that you can read now if you missed it: 28 hours on a bus. Against the odds, it actually worked out and we made it to Cusco with no problems.
There is a booming industry in massages in Cusco, soothing the legs of all the weary hikers returning from the Inca Trail. We hadn’t done our hike yet but having endured the last 22 hours from Lima, winding our way up nauseatingly into the mountains, I was sorely tempted. The altitude is even more of an issue here too – where Quito sits at a energy-sapping 2850 metres above sea level, Cusco nestles quietly at a lung-busting 3400m. To give you some perspective, Ben Nevis tops out at an earth-shatteringly meagre 1344m…(!)
Managing to avoid the massages, we began preparing for our trek, which effectively meant purchasing more batteries for our head torches and a bag of coca leaves. This natural plant is ubiquitous to both the region and the culture, offering sufferers much needed respite from the effects of altitude sickness. Yes, coca leaf is the main ingredient of South America’s top narcotic export, cocaine, and yes, chewing the leaves may have a similar if somewhat milder effect to snorting it’s illegal counterpart … but it really does work!
The Green Machine
Thanks to a recommendation from our friends Tony and Becky, we were spared the task of wrangling through the hundreds of companies in Cusco offering treks to Machu Picchu. We took their tip to go with Alpaca Expeditions and they were beyond excellent! Clad all in green and known as ‘The Green Machine’, the team led by our guide Julio César, was made up entirely of locals. They spoke very highly of Alpaca as a company; it was started by a Peruvian guy called Raul who used to be a porter on the Inca Trail. He worked his way up, eventually starting his own local company that secures good working conditions for his staff, and ensures all of the money remains in the local economy.
We were not going to be doing the Inca Trail, however. We decided to go for the alternative Salkantay Trek which although not as hard, was longer than the classic Inca and took in the impressive Salkantay pass at 4600m. This would be the highest we had ever been since Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, which stands at 4095m.
Day 1 – all about the altitude
We woke at 04:00 am and were soon going through some bleary eyed greetings on the minibus, before promptly falling back to sleep as we were driven to our start point. Breakfast on the side of the mountain was a hundred times better than the bread and jam offering in the hostel, and with a cup of coffee in one hand, and a coca tea in the other, we had a much more productive round of introductions. We were to be a team of six: Canadian Richard, Brazilian Marcela, Scottish Matt, Aussie Jess, Helena and myself. I can’t remember all the names of the porters, but the most important guy was Casillas – he was the chef!
Pulling no punches, we began the hike. Day one was to be an ‘up and over’, going straight up to our maximum altitude before descending to our campsite on the other side of the mountain.
Julio gave us a very important piece of advice for walking at altitude: ‘Go at your own pace, but don’t stop. Taking it slowly is fine, just keep moving.’ It was advice well worth heeding as our starting altitude at Soraypampa was already 3922m.
Since the porters had to carry all the food and equipment for the whole trek, they had two horse men for the first day and a half while the load was the heaviest. We became quite accustomed to seeing small herds of slim horses, packed up and making seemingly light work of the uneven trail.
The porters are also well accustomed to the altitude though; as we’re taking baby steps, just chipping away at the altitude, they suddenly come hiking past at speed, joking and laughing their way along the trek, overtaking us in order to be ready to give us lunch when we finally managed to drag ourselves up to the first stop.
I must say a little something about the food here. The breakfast experience – abundant fruit, traditional bread, pancakes, eggs, tea, coffee – was only the beginning. When we got hiking, Casillas really got to work. The first lunch stop, we were presented with a beautiful soup accompanied with garlic ciabatta and hot drinks. It was the perfect lunch for that moment (as it was wet and windy outside the tent) and we all commented on how tasty it was. But the soup was just a starter. The table was cleared and we were presented with huge platters of rice, halved avocados stuffed with vegetables and cheese, fried potatoes, fish in some kind of tomato based sauce, corn topped with cheese, and an incredible spicy salsa. We were stunned. He and the team had managed to prepare all of this from fresh at 4500m in a small tent on the side of a windswept mountain. The superb lunch fuelled us for the pass and we all made it down to the camp site safely.
Arriving at the campsite, we were treated to a three course dinner. We reflected on our achievements of the day, and took stock of our condition. Canadian Richard was beginning to suffer from an altitude induced headache and so began drinking coca tea made from fistfuls of leaves. Julio gave us his briefing for the next day which involved what was to become a standard kit list: ‘You will need rain jacket, rain poncho, sunglasses, hat of the cold, hat of the sun, gloves…’ The weather was very changeable, he was saying. Right now, all we were thinking about was the cold, but then, the porters arrived with the best present possible…actual, genuine, hot water bottles. The relief on Helena’s face in particular was tangible!
Day 2 – the longest day
The 18km hike on day two was to be the furthest we’d go in one day. Looking at it, it should have been easy as it was all downhill, but persistently walking down takes its toll on your knees after a while. Descending throughout the day, the humidity increased, the terrain changed from bare mountain to mosquito abundant jungle, and we started our war against the bites; a fight that we were doomed to lose of course!
By the time we neared our end point at the town of Playa, we were all beginning to feel pretty sore. ‘How far to go,’ asked Marcela. ‘Twenty minutes,’ replied Julio, and we trekked on.
Twenty minutes later, the end was not in sight. We kept on walking, and Marcela asked again. ‘Julio!’ she said, pronouncing the ‘J’ in his name for comic effect, ‘I thought you said it was twenty minutes?’
‘Yes,’ he said, with a glint in his eye, ‘A tourist twenty minutes.’ ‘So how far is it now?’ Marcela asked, to which Julio replied, of course, ‘Twenty minutes.’
We did eventually make it and were treated to another exceptional set of meals, and even a cake at the end of the day. I let slip that it was going to be Helena’s birthday on day 3 so she got the pleasure of cutting the cake, although Julio was upset we hadn’t told him before, ‘We could have done something special!’ he said.
Day 3 – Up and over
18th October, Helena’s birthday, and I pulled out a little surprise proposal. I would like to say I made it down onto one knee but I was hampered slightly by the sleeping bag! Despite this, it was a pretty special moment, and Helena protests that she had no idea it was coming. I’d left her for the afternoon in Cusco so that I could go and buy a ring; I thought it was pretty obvious what I was up to. ‘No, honestly,’ she said, ‘I thought I was getting a cardigan!’
As excited as we were, we didn’t tell any of the other people on the trek as we wanted to have a bit of time for it to be just ours. We kept catching snippets of time where we could talk about it together on the hike, ‘It would have made the rest of this hike a bit awkward if I’d have said no!’ joked Helena. ‘Not to mention the rest of the trip around South America…’ I reminded her!
This day was exciting as well because we ended it with an incredible panoramic of the mountains view from our campsite, which included our first glimpse of Machu Picchu across the valley. We sat and watched as the sun went down and I took and re-took the panorama over and over as the clouds shifted and the light changed, constantly repainting the landscape.
Day 4 – Arriving in Aguas Calientes
This day was all about getting to Aguas – after a pretty steep descent into the valley, we followed the train line all the way from Hidroelectrica up to our final pre-Machu Picchu destination. This is the biggest difference between the classic Inca Trail, and any of the alternative treks: only on the Inca Trail do you get to arrive from the famous Sun Gate, viewing Machu Picchu for the first time from above, on the final morning of the trek. Every other trail ends up in Aguas, from where you can catch the bus!
Having been on our feet for so long though, and as tempting as it was to hop on the bus up the steep climb to the city, we made a unanimous decision that we wanted to finish the trek on foot. Over a final dinner and after a few celebratory Cusqueña (which is incidentally the best beer in the whole of South America), we bade farewell to the Casillas and the porters for the final time.
The magical city
So, at 04:30, we met once more in the lobby of our hostel, and began the final hike to Machu Picchu.
It was a pretty steep 1.7 km trail, full of flights of steps and with a healthy scattering of switchbacks. Impressively, we all made it to the top before the first bus arrived, which meant we had the chance to take some relatively crowd-free photos of the city as the sun came up over the mountains.
It was a pretty spectacular sight, and a felt like a reward for all of the effort of the last five days. Julio explained a lot of the history of the city, its architecture and ideas about its original inhabitants, its loss and its rediscovery. He proudly told us that despite the extensive Spanish colonisation of the region, they never found Machu Picchu!
And that was it! We’ll leave you with a few shots from our final day exploring the lost city of the Incas, and another recommendation for Alpaca Expeditions. If you’re thinking of doing the Inca Trail or any of the other treks in the region, you should definitely go with the Green Machine!