The Road To Machu Picchu: Day One

The Road To Machu Picchu is a four-part series that chronicles my exploits travelling form Cusco, Peru to the mountain of Machu Picchu, an ancient site built by the Incas that is preserved and protected by the government of Peru and UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

My Machu Picchu adventure began in the city of Cusco on the chilly Saturday morning of October 12th. The city is a huge tourist destination thanks to its proximity to Machu Picchu and architectural heritage. Many pre-Colombian streets and buildings are still in use today such as various Incan ruins and a small alleyway known as Loreto where one can touch the foundation of a building laid down by Incans centuries ago.

My friend and I woke up incredibly early, grabbed our bags and were escorted out the door by our Couchsurfing host Willy. Willy helped us set up our trip to M.P. through the Inka Jungle Trail, a four-day, three-night hike from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back. Luckily for us, our host was also an employee of a travel agency and took care of everything we needed for our trip other than the fee.

We met our tour guide Ricardo who introduced us to our group before we hopped in the van and took off to the town of Ollantaytambo.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Our time there was brief as our actual destination was the peak of the Abra De Malaga pass located more than 4300 meters/14k+ feet above sea level. Our purpose: a four-hour bike ride through the road that follows the pass through the mountains ending in the town of Santa Maria.

Nearly 14, 000 feet above sea level close to the peak of Abra De Malaga

We arrived at the top of the pass where we were so high up that we actually watched clouds and fog form inches in front of our faces and above our heads.

It’s hella foggy outside!

Ricardo passed out protective gear to everyone, gave us a crash course on not crashing while riding our mountain bikes (much appreciated!) and then we were off on our three-to-four hour bike ride downhill through the Andes Mountains!

The view down the pass is absolutely gorgeous and changes from lush, mountain greenery at the top to more tropical flora and weather at the bottom. I nearly fell into the drainage ditch on the side of the road a dozen times as I was distracted by the beautiful scenery that surrounded me.

The ride began with cold weather and an overcast sky. We rode for about a half-hour before Ricardo pulled us to the side of the road for photo opportunities as well as a lesson in Incan/pre-Incan folklore. Incans believed that rainstorms are caused by the tears of the the creator god Viracocha.

The calm before the storm of the rain god’s tears

“Esta lloviendo,” said one of the guys from Argentina in our group, “it’s raining.”

“Solo esta chispiando,” said Ricardo, “it’s only sprinkling.”

Apparently, Viracocha’s rainstorms always begin as light drizzle because we were pelted for nearly an hour by raindrops the size of golf balls not two minutes after we took off again down the winding mountain pass. My glasses fogged up inside my helmet, my jeans and legs were soaked, there wasn’t a single part of my body that wasn’t wet save for the part of me covered by my windbreaker. We passed through a portion of the road that reminded me of the Lord of the Rings thanks to the massive walls of jagged rocks that jutted out over both sides of the road.

The rain eventually ceased and the sun mercifully revealed itself through a break in the clouds. We eventually reached the midpoint of our ride and our clothes had (mostly) dried by then.

A marker on the side of the road
Abra De Malaga
Once drenched, now dry, still in a good mood!

Sidenote: I had to leave those boots behind in Peru because I had no room for them in my pack.

The rest of the journey was the complete opposite of the previous journey down. Roads gave way to small pools of water as the rain water trickled down the sides of the mountains and pooled in curves on the road. The sun came out and it soon became unbearably hot thanks to the humid, tropical weather at the base of the pass. I stopped for a moment to remove my windbreaker and coat. My black t-shirt was soaked in sweat.

The pavement also gave way to dirt roads that wore stones like freckles on a child’s face. I almost wiped out after I flew off the pavement and onto the first stone-pocked road on our route. I stood on the pedals and made a desperate attempt to control my bike as I bounced past construction crews working on the road.

We reached the end, left our gear in a van provided by the tour company and hopped in a different van to continue our trek to the small town of Santa Maria.

Rainbow over Santa Maria

Santa Maria was nice but nothing exciting especially compared what we’d just been through. We ate lunch there and most of the group went white water rafting afterwards while I and two other members of our group stuck around and enjoyed the view at the riverside for some time with Ricardo.

Members of our group prepare to go white water rafting
The Upper Vilcanota river

Santa Maria is divided into two parts: Old Santa Maria where the river runs through it and Santa Maria, which sits higher up and next to the river. Below are a few photos from Old Santa Maria. If I remember correctly, Old Santa Maria was largely abandoned after a flood and rock slide destroyed some of the area.

Abandoned building with pro Ollanta Humala (Peru’s current president) grafitti
Crosses at Santa Maria
Old Santa Maria most of which appears to be abandoned
Some of the locals

Night fell and the whitewater rafters reunited with us at the meeting point. We hopped in a van and were on the road for 20 minutes before disembarking in the middle of the road. Ricardo pointed to a small trail on the right-hand side of the road. That was the trail that would lead us to a hostel near the top of a mountain where we would spend the night.

It was around 8 p.m. and the sky glowed with the light of the thousands of stars floating overhead. The ground below, however, was pitch black and impossible to navigate without a flashlight, something I discovered when I slipped towards the wrong side of the hill and almost off the cliff.

The halfway point was a home/store whose owners kept a monkey as a pet.

A monkey with his teddy

Another hellacious, half-hour long climb and we were at our destination. We split up into different rooms, ate dinner afterwards and were treated to some traditional music thanks to our host.

The night ended on a comical point when the hostel owners’ pet ferret snuck into the room I shared with the Argentinian guys. There was a lot of commotion at first and one of the guys dubbed the ferret “el gato salchicha (the sausage cat).” Sausage cat decided to climb on a few beds before it chose the one across from me to nap on but our host swooped in and took sausage cat away before he got too comfortable.

I was far too exhausted at this point to take any more photos or videos (that and my battery was dead, so…) so I don’t have any footage of the hostel at night. I do have some from the morning but that’s for Day 2 of this series.

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