A Two-Week Adventure Through Peru
By: Tom Malone - Summer 2017
After an overnight flight from the United States to Lima, we touched down in the Peruvian capital city at 5:30 a.m. Determined not to waste our 24 hours in the city, we set out to explore Lima.
We dropped our bags off at our hostel in the Miraflores District, strolled through Parque Kennedy (named after the U.S. President), and ventured toward the coastline. Along the beach, surf instructors posted up and beckoned for us to try out Lima’s Pacific surf. We elected to move along to the other side of the cove, where Lima school kids cut class and surfed all day to their heart’s content.
With its proximity to the ocean, Lima is known for its seafood, particularly its ceviche (raw fish soaked in the citrus that cooks it). Naturally, we found a small ceviche restaurant and tried it out; it was phenomenal.
We continued to wander through Lima. We noticed the city’s working focus; most people seemed to walk around with a purpose that involved industry or finance. Lima, the capital city of Peru, also hosted foreign embassies and government buildings.
Back at our hostel, we played cards and discussed international politics on the rooftop with six ex-Israeli military soldiers who were traveling South America for six months after their mandatory service terms expired.
The next morning, we beckoned a taxi from our hostel and drove to the Lima airport for the second leg of our adventure.
Cusco was the capital city of the Inca Empire, and was almost the capital of the Spanish colony of Peru, but the Spaniards couldn’t handle the altitude or the distance from the sea for economic and trading purposes. Now, it’s the cultural capital of Peru.
We landed in Cusco and immediately felt the 11,000 feet of altitude. After trekking up the city sidewalk stairs for 30 seconds, my lungs begged for a break. We opened the gates of IntroHostel Cusco and strolled inside.
The hostel was a Spanish colonial hacienda that had fallen into disrepair after a few hundred years (plus a few earthquakes). It had been restored recently to reflect the layers of history that embody Cusco City.
We asked our hostel host for a dinner recommendation (the most food for the lowest price); he sent us to Quri Sara, where we ordered soup, meat, rice, dessert, and tea for the equivalent of three U.S. dollars. It was here that we discovered how affordable Cusco was going to be.
There seemed to be a lot of commotion happening in Cusco’s main square for a Wednesday night, so we strolled to the Plaza de Armas to find out what was going on. We found hundreds of people, young kids to adults, all practicing the same dances throughout the square. We asked a high school student what was happening, and he told us that this month was Cusco month. During this time, there are parades every day and dances every night leading up to the Winter Solstice, which was the major event on the Inca calendar.
The following day, we set out to explore Cusco. I used my compact Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Daypack to carry my gear, rather than my massive backpacking pack. Wandering into a giant market, we saw stands with colorful Andean cloth, sweaters, bags, and hats. Food and spice stands lined the narrow aisleways. From butcher windows hung everything from pig heads to full guinea pigs.
Eventually, we made it to the back of the market, where we discovered dozens of food stands. We ate steak, chicken, rice, eggs, and plenty of fried potatoes. The food was delicious and so well-priced that we returned for lunch the next three days.
We decided to return to the Plaza de Armas during the daytime. As we walked closer, we noticed the dramatic increase in people, energy, and police activity. Naturally, we became curious and continued our stroll in the center of the city. As it turns out, we walked right into the center of a major parade.
According to a Cusco elementary school teacher, Thursday featured a parade of all the little kids in Cusco. Each elementary school’s class dressed up in traditional Cusco attire that encompassed the deep history and cultural diffusion of the city, from ancient Inca to Spanish colonization. Then, each group performed a dance as they paraded around the square. Friday was reserved for the middle school kids, Saturday for high schoolers, and Sunday for adults.
Throughout the next three days, we explored more and more of the city. We ventured above the city and saw the ancient Inca ruins of Saksaywaman. When the Spanish conquistadors took over the city in 1533, they toppled all of the religious temples at Saksaywaman and used them to build their own Catholic cathedrals throughout the city of Cusco. The ruins are still there, the stonework is unbelievable, and the views are panoramic.
After sufficiently exploring Cusco, we returned to our hostel, ate some grilled alpaca, and sat around the hostel’s open-air fire pit in the center of the hacienda. We spoke with some European travelers and watched the British election results unfold. I forced myself to sleep as early as possible for the next phase of our journey.
At 4:30 a.m., the van pulled up to our hostel and we jumped in with nothing but a backpack. With ten other trekkers, the van drove through the dark alleys of Cusco and climbed some foreboding hills before driving through the shanty towns of Cusco’s outer reaches.
Two hours of driving through the Andes brought us to a small breakfast place situated in a 100-year-old Andean farmhouse. Our server told us that his grandfather and father were porters for people who wanted to trek to Machu Picchu; now, he serves breakfast to those same adventurers on the first stop of their journey.
We drove another hour on a dirt road that edged the cliffs of the Andes Mountains. When were reached the drop-off point, we jumped out of the van and immediately began to hike; twelve trekkers from the U.S., Europe, and Africa joined our two Peruvian guides: Richard and Martin.
The first leg of the Salkantay Trek took us 10 kilometers through moist chaparral paths, along make-shift canals used by Andean villagers for water, and to the base of Salkantay Mountain. After lunch, we hiked to Humantay Lake, situated at the base of a 20,000-foot mountain. That night, we slept in glass-domed igloos that overlooked a panoramic view of multiple snow-capped peaks.
The next day, we conquered 22 kilometers of severe up-and-down trails. The three-hour trek to Salkantay Pass’s 15,200 feet took us up a section of switchbacks colloquially called “The Gringo Killer”. The nickname was warranted, but the reward was beyond description. A full, 360-degree view of the Andes Mountains literally brought me to tears.
As we descended the barren-yet-beautiful mountain pass, we realized that we had crossed the South American Continental Divide. We descended into grasslands where llamas, donkeys, and horses roamed freely. Then, we passed through the Jungle Gate, a section of trail that signifies the beginning of the Amazon Rainforest. Each river that we encountered became a tributary of the Amazon River. Looking backwards from the dense jungle, we saw the same snow-capped 20,000-foot mountains.
After camping in a small village by a river that night, we awoke to complete the next leg of our journey, which took us through the jungle along a few ever-growing rivers. We passed a passion fruit farm and sampled the product. Then, we entered a coffee farm, where we picked our own coffee beans, peeled them, roasted them over open flame, and ground them to make our own farm-to-table cup of espresso.
After lunch, we ventured an hour through the jungle to a collection of hot springs surrounded by dramatic Andean peaks, which provided a much-needed point of relaxation.
On Day Four, we trekked through more jungle and climbed high above the river valleys. We came across some Incan ruins, where three mummies were found just a few years ago, and the last Incan king is rumored to still be buried. We even saw Machu Picchu from far in the distance. After reaching the bottom of our two-hour descent, we walked along the railroad tracks for three hours. The $600, two-hour Hiram Bingham train, named after the Yale professor who rediscovered Machu Picchu, chugged passed us every so often.
Eventually, we reached the ending destination of our journey: Aguas Calientes, the basecamp for the climb to Machu Picchu.
At 3:45 a.m., we woke up and walked to the bridge that serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu. We were some of the first trekkers in line. At 5:00 a.m., the bridge opened and adventurers funneled through it. We hiked for one solid hour up nearly vertical stairs that cut into the mountain. Just before 6:00 a.m., we reached the front gates of Machu Picchu City.
We were one of the first groups that entered the ancient city, so much so that we were able to take plenty of photographs without a single person in our way. We wandered around the massive complex and immersed ourselves in the history of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
About 15 years after the Spanish took over and destroyed Cusco, the royal Inca people who lived in Machu Picchu decided that they needed to live to fight another day. Before the Spanish could discover Machu Picchu, the Inca destroyed the only road into the city and covered the road with jungle. They fled to sanctuary cities deep in the Andes Mountains, never to return to Machu Picchu. After 500 years, the city was swallowed by the jungle and was never discovered by the Spanish.
Sitting high atop the jungle-covered mountains in the isolated regions of the Andes, the city stayed hidden for five centuries. As a result, the city remained completely intact, just as the Inca had left it. Aside from some jungle wear-and-tear and slight earthquake damage, Machu Picchu provided us with a window into Inca life, a possibility that the Spanish conquistadors ruined with every Incan site the found.
When Hiram Bingham found Machu Picchu City in 1911, two Andean families were living on and farming the property. Now, the ancient city has become a symbol of Inca culture and unrivaled adventure.
After exploring Machu Picchu, I climbed further to the overlooking mountain of Huayna Picchu. As I climbed a 500-year-old stone staircase, I began to realize that these Inca were incredibly fit. The staircase continued to elevate into a stone ladder. Occasionally, looking to my side, I saw a sheer 1,000-foot vertical drop-off. Once I reached the top, the bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu City gave me perspective as to how massive and complex the city is. Posted in an ancient Inca house atop Huayna Picchu mountain, I did all I could to intake all that this adventure entailed.
We descended from Machu Picchu and boarded the Peru Rail train (not $600) and eventually made it back to Cusco, where I slept like a rock. The following day, we flew to Lima, and caught a bus that would take us into the desert.
Our five-hour bus ride from Lima took us through the desert of southern Peru. We passed wood-and-tin shacks, beach side food stands, and barren landscapes with the occasional homestead. The sun set, and eventually, we pulled into Huacachina.
Huacachina is an oasis town that centers around a small lake in the middle of miles and miles of desert sand dunes. The town consists of a few hostels, bars, restaurants, and markets. But the focus of the town is sand adventure. In fact, the weekend prior to our arrival, Huacachina hosted the World Cup of Sandboarding.
We entered our hostel around 9:00 p.m. We stayed at EcoCamp Huacachina, which was incredible. The hostel grounds had massive stationary tents, queen-sized beds (a nice change from sleeping on the ground in the mountains), hammocks, and a pool with a swim-up bar.
When I woke up in the morning, I walked into the center of the hostel grounds and looked at the giant sand dunes that towered around me for 360 degrees. I was pleased to find free breakfast by the pool, which consisted of coffee, eggs, biscuits, and fruit.
We hung out by the pool and enjoyed the hot desert sunshine. Eventually, we walked around the town, which took about five minutes. Local school kids were enjoying the start to their weekend by sandboarding and sandsledding down the dunes.
At 4:00 p.m., we jumped in a dune buggy provided by EcoCamp and took off through the expansive desert. We stopped at a few sand dune peaks and sandboarded and sandsledded down them. Around 5:30, the sun began to set, so we summited another massive dune and watched the desert change colors. The temperature dropped immediately.
After enjoying some food and drinks on the boardwalk of Huacachina, we returned to our tents and prepared for the long journey back to the United States, knowing that our adventure through Peru was extremely successful.