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.
Catch up on Day One.
I awoke early Sunday morning thanks to the machine-gun patter of raindrops crash-landing around me. Damn, I thought, I should’ve showered last night. The restrooms were outdoors in a separate area and two of the three showers available were showerheads installed in rectangular grass huts. I fell asleep again with visions of my flip-flops splashing through mud puddles on my way to and from the outdoor showers.
I awoke again a few hours later to an overcast but rainless sky and immediately took advantage of the situation. One cold, refreshing shower later and I was ready for breakfast.
Day two of the tour began with a lesson about some of the local critters, pictured below.
Afterwards, Ricardo informed us of the day’s activities: hiking, hiking, hiking, and hiking ending with a dip at the Aguas Termales (hot springs) of Cocalmayo and dancing at a nightclub or two (assuming one could still walk after a day spent hiking) at Santa Teresa.
Ricardo also gave us a lesson about achiote (bixa orellana), a plant native to tropical regions in America. The plant has a number of food and medical uses including sunblock. Ricardo opened a few seed pods, ground the berries into a paste in a small bowl and painted each of our faces with some Incan (and some not-quite-Incan) designs.
We thanked our hosts and began our hike up the hillside towards our first destination: a recently-discovered path of the Inca Trail not 20 minutes away. The Inca Trail is part of a “two-lane highway” known as the Qhapaq Ñan built by the Incas that traverses the entire Incan Empire (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile). This portion of the trail was discovered a few years ago as opposed to the Classic Inca Trail, which was discovered decades ago and begins in Cusco.
As you can see in the video above, the trail literally appears out of nowhere and continues on the side of the mountain. It disappears eventually as sudden as it appeared.
The steps on the trail were tiny and steep but also provided an incredible view of the mountains and the river below. We stopped for a moment at a lookout peak of sorts to rest and learn about the chasquis. The chasquis were the messengers of the Incan Empire who were trained to run along the steep, miniature steps of the Inca Trail no matter the weather or altitude. What took us days to complete would take a well-trained chasqui no more than an entire day to cover by foot armed with nothing but sandals and a bag filled with coca leaves. I sat near a large stone and left a monument of my visit on its face:
We continued and made another stop at another home/hostel/meeting ground where another tour guide was in the middle of a history lesson with his group near a large, open area. I wandered off for a few seconds to splash some water down my back, on my hair and on my face at a water faucet on the other side of one of the buildings. I returned to the open area and found my entire group had evaporated into thin air. Everyone was gone! Naturally, I did what anyone would do in my situation: panic!
I immediately looked around two other buildings in search of them when the other tour guide interrupted his history lesson to yell “GO DOWNHILL!” in my direction. I looked past some smaller homes and saw were the trail continued. I sprinted away and heard the guide’s last bit of advice fading away into the jungle, “don’t get separated from your group…”
I slowed my descent downhill thinking my group wasn’t too far off and power-walked beneath the shade of trees surrounding the path until I reached a fork in the road and a second path appeared that led to an unknown place up the hill. “Downhill,” I reminded myself of what the guide told me and I continued on the same path. The seconds stretched into hours as a second wave of panic rushed through my head as my group failed to materialize before me. I must have channeled the spirit of an ancient chasqui because I found myself running down the trail with a newfound agility that had me dodging stones with some fancy foot maneuvers like Lionel Messi in the goalie box.
How long did I run for? Five seconds? Five minutes? Only the jungle knows for certain. “How could they have walked this far ahead?” I thought to myself as I brushed past low-hanging branches until, finally, voices! I slid a few feet to a halt to listen again. Yes, voices! I ran ahead and was finally reunited with my group who greeted my return with a casual “oh, there you are” as I chasqui’d right past them.
Our next destination was a restaurant for lunch. The hike left us all famished and nearly crippled with exhaustion. We arrived at the restaurant and we immediately split off into two groups: one that made a beeline for the large sink to cool off and the other that collapsed into one of the half-dozen or so hammocks that hung on the trees.
Lunch came and went and I retreated onto the comfort of a small fence built out of stones and slept for an hour until it was time to leave. We continued hiking and made a brief stop at a nearby river for some more rest and relaxation before we continued on to our next destination: the aguas termales at Cocalmayo.
We crossed the bridge above late in the afternoon. However, about a half-hour later, we had to cross again to the other side on a different type of bridge:
It was then a 10 minute walk to the hot springs…but only after gripping onto the side of a cliff at the river’s edge! One false move and it was a fall into the river…which was only about a foot deep from where we were at.
The hot springs were a wonderful way to end the hike. I topped off a lengthy dip in the warm water with an ice cold Cusqueña. We left after sunset to our hostel in Santa Teresa where we were greeted by a young Peruvian military squad:
Our group also grew as we added two more to the mix. We ended the night with drinks from a seemingly bottomless bottle of rum and dancing at a nearby nightclub, which was quite an accomplishment considering the total amount of hours we’d spent hiking during the day.