I won’t lie, the main reason I went to Peru was to hike the Inca Trail (which I didn’t actually complete, but that’s a story for another day). I definitely got a bit more than I expected.
Peru is fucking gorgeous. The natural beauty of the country is beyond words and pictures do a half-assed job of capturing it. I always hate when people say that because I know it’s true – I’ve experienced it too many times for it not to be the case.
If you’re not an outdoorsy type, I’m not sure how you’ll experience or feel about Peru. For me, the landscape in Peru brought with it the centeredness I feel when I’m out in the wild places, the awe of recognising how small you really are and the humility that comes with it. My soul settles and I breathe deeply in the silence at the center of things. I relax into the moment and everything else falls aside. Then I get a text message. (Not really, though sometimes).
I did a tour with G Adventures, so if you want to see exactly what I saw, you absolutely can. I did the ‘Peru Panorama‘ trip. My thought process was I didn’t want to travel to Peru on my own, and the hassle of getting all the permits and everything needed for the Inca Trail was not something I wanted to deal with…so I went with a tour.
And a word to the wise, if you want to hike the Inca Trail a. it is closed for maintenance in the month of February, and b. permits sell out quite quickly – I booked in January and there were a minimal number of permits left for when I went in July. There are only 500 people allowed on the trail on any given day, and 300 of those are for porters and guides (which are required to hike the trail). So plan ahead or be willing to move your travel dates if you aren’t able to get a permit for the initial date range you were planning on.
I lucked out with the people I went with – mostly young Brits, and generally, quite low maintenance people. Hopefully everyone else is as lucky if they book something similar.
We went to:
- Lake Titicaca homestay
- (Inca Trail)
- Aguas Calientes
- Machu Picchu
Of course, on the way to various places we saw a number of different sites – mostly between Cusco and Ollantaytambo – there are a number of different Inca ruins throughout the Sacred Valley leading up to Machu Picchu.
As mentioned, I really didn’t have the highest expectations for the trip outside of the Inca Trail. I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. I would actually say some of my favourite parts of the trip were the parts I had the lowest expectations for – Puno and Lake Titicaca (yes, it makes me giggle like a 5-year-old boy too).
I’ll leave you with one last word to the wise and I’ll tell the rest of my stories another day: altitude sickness is legit. It is hardcore. And it can hit you at any point during your stay, even after you come down from altitude; there’s really not much you can do to prevent it. Drink as much coca tea as you want, but if your equilibrium decides it doesn’t like the change in altitude, you can and will be on the floor with altitude sickness. Yay!
I’ll be honest. I really did not expect much from Lake Titicaca. Other than the name making me giggle like a 5-year-old boy, I expected little from the place.
I’m glad I didn’t have high expectations, because my low expectations made the chill experience I had there all the more valuable. What do they say, the gap between expectation and reality is when you find happiness? Well, that I did.
We were cruising around Lake Titicaca the day after we got up to altitude, so maybe we were all a little high, but the lake was gorgeous. It was around 20C (75ishF) the days we were there, and it was completely clear, bright blue skies with scintillating water that shimmered that bit extra because the air is thinner that high up (really, science. look it up).
We did a couple of different things on and around the lake. Leaving from Puno, first we went to the Uros Islands, which are completely man-made islands made out of reeds. Just reeds. Floating on the water. Where people live. Pretty ingenious, but also…kinda crazy. The reason on why they built out there in the first place is lost on me; there was a legend our guide told us.
The Uros islands were quite developed in terms of tourism…it reminded me a bit of the country sections of Epcot, like everything was amplified and a caricature of the reality. We sat down and had an education session with the leader of the island, and then shown around houses, with various weavings and handmade goods for sale. Some of the most expensive things I saw on the whole trip were sold on the Uros Island island we went to that day.
After the Uros Islands, we continued on to Taquile for lunch – which I kept calling ‘tequila’ in my head.
We learned about Taquile as we were on the way there (I believe it was about 2 hours from the Uros Islands to Taquile). It’s unique in that knitting is the sole province of the men on the island. And their hats mean things. A red beanie (tassels and everything) means the man is married, white – single. As one of the only solo travelers in the group, and also being female, our tour guide teased me about how easy it’d be to find a single man here. Yeah, rightttttt.
Not only was the food amazing where we ate, the view was spectacular. The restaurants are run communally, and each month families take turns cooking. Which was cool. I won’t include pictures of the food, because I didn’t take them that well as I was so excited to just eat – but I will say – eat the fried bread. Simple, yet so amazing. Probably because it’s fried.
While I always jump to the food, we did also have the opportunity to shop in Taquile. I bough a scarf (50ish nuevo sol, I think) and gloves (30ish nuevo sol). These were all handmade goods by men on the island, or so they told us. And if they weren’t, I don’t have enough of an eye to tell, but I like what I bought anyway.
After Taquile, we went on to our homestay, which merits another story for another day.
The approach to Puno from the airplane seemed to be a continual flight up rather than the traditional ‘you go down to land’ expectation. Though the descent did occur, of course, it took a bit of a different way than expected. The result of traveling 12,000 feet (3.8K) in less than 2 hours, I guess.
Puno I liked because it was small, friendly and ‘had character.’ By that I mean it was in many ways what you expect a small town in Peru to be like: cute square with an old church, tile and stone paved one-way roads, lots of pedestrian walkways, and the tourist-trap restaurants where if you want to get pizza you can.
The place we stayed was pretty much right next to a market – where you could get everything from clothing to local cheese to pigs head – yes it was that kind of market. Where you’re reminded that most of the rest of the world uses the entire animal and a lot of the Western world has become rather squeamish about eating meat other than the ‘pretty’ parts, or being reminded their food has a face. So I won’t include one of the pictures I took of a nice little lady butchering an animal. Yup.
For most of us, in Puno we all felt a bit shitty. Headaches or stomachaches or general malease. It was our first city at altitude. I think one night for dinner I had Coke and Oreos. Really healthy of me, but I needed both the sugar and the general kind of plainness of biscuit.
Due to the general crappiness of feels the first few days in Puno, our dinners were generally places with large menus that included more Western fare, like pizza. So while some did opt for more local fare like alpaca (which is actually a rather lean meat and quite good, kind of a cross between beef and lamb) some went for the ‘za.
When we headed off for our overnight to tour Lake Titicaca, we went to the port (which wasn’t that far away) by bike rickshaws. I was with one of the guys on the tour, and our driver was a bit older. We were cheering him on by the end because we were lagging behind the group and he was definitely puffed dragging the two of us along. Felt a bit bad for the guy, to be honest. Couldn’t do much to help though – no way to magically make us lighter or create a motor to help push us along or anything.
Prices in Puno are relatively reasonable, and when it comes to souvenirs, probably less expensive than Cusco, Ollantaytambo, especially for woven goods like hats, scarves, jumpers and other knits.
If you’re wondering whether to put Puno and Lake Titicaca on your itinerary, please do. Peru isn’t just all about the Inca Trail, and the this whole experience reminded me of that.
The Inca Trail
So I’ll start my story of Peru in the middle. Because I’m sure it’s what you all want to hear about: the Inca Trail.
As I mentioned in my intro, I went with a tour group via G Adventures, so in terms of the administrative stuff and things about getting permits for hiking, how much it costs, etc. etc, I really have zero idea. Google it and I’m sure you’ll find a lot of people talking about the logistics.
All I know is this: you need a permit, you must have a guide and porters, and in order to actually hike you need to bring your passport day of. So if you fall off a cliff or something they have record of you existing, I guess.
The town before the hike is Ollantaytambo, which is a quiet little town sitting nearly on top of the ruins and terraces it’s named for. From here, most people either do 1 of 2 hikes – the Inca Trail or the Lares Trail. The Lares Trail is shorter, but actually goes higher in elevation. And unlike the Inca Trail, which has more architectural ruins, the Lares Trek actually takes you through more villages, or so I’ve heard.
The drive from Ollantaytambo to kilometer 82 (the start of the hike) is about 45 minutes – and it’s actually not a well traveled journey, at all. Or if it is, it’s not well maintained. Dirt roads and side streets are at least half your journey to get to the starting checkpoint.
Your porters will meet you at a staging area before the checkpoint, where everyone’s bag is weighed; the porters have quite strict weight regulations to follow. Including sleeping bag and air mattress, you’re only allowed 6kg (about 3 pounds) – for a 4 day hike. So pack light and know that you are going to be quite ripe by the end of the trip. And that’s okay. You’re not there to impress anyone.
On the way to the actual checkpoint to start the hike, there’s a sign. People generally take pictures in front of it.
Here you might run into a bit of a paparazzi, taking photos of you happily on your way to a ridiculous hike. They will find you in Aguas Calientes when you’re done with the hike and try to sell you the picture they took. Really.
And then you wait to show your passport to the nice men and women manning the check point. You cross a bridge, and the hike begins, ‘inca flat.’ Which means not flat at all. Kind of a false flat, but worse.
It was winter while we were here – the dry season. And it still got up to the 20s (C) – the 70s (F) – during the day. And a good chunk of day 1 you’re in the sun. Sunscreen and a hat (ridiculous as you may look) will be your friend.
Stopping frequently to ‘take pictures’ will be your friend as well. As much conditioning as you do – unless you do legitimate altitude training, you will be out of breath a lot more quickly than you expect. Especially when you’re carrying a day pack and hiking ‘inca flat’.
The first day of the hike, generally before lunch, you hit the ruins of a fort with some terraces near it:
I remember it because not long after there’s a steep downhill section…that I later had to climb uphill with altitude sickness. I think it took me an hour to climb back up, and about 10 minutes to hike down.
So yeah, I was one of the lucky few that had to deal with altitude sickness on the actual hike, before Dead Woman’s Pass. Dead Woman’s Pass is generally where everyone gets altitude sickness, and guides expect it – it’s 14,000 feet (about 4,200K), and at the end of the second day.
Me, I was lucky enough to start feeling shitty the evening of the first day, after we got to camp. Though that first night I put it up to nerves – it wasn’t overwhelming, I just kind of had an unsettled stomach. Or at least that’s what it felt like. I probably woke up at about 2am and had some chocolate and biscuits (smart me) to try and settle my still roiling stomach.
I threw that all up not long after the porters quietly came around to wake us up with a ‘Hola Senorita, coca tea?’ at about 5am. Also at 5am, we were for-sure woken up by a group of Brazilians hiking the trail who decided to get themselves psyched up for the day with a shouting chant of awful that echoed throughout the valley. Because 5am.
Then we had breakfast. Bad idea on my part, as that was the point where things got really bad. I got ill again and kept getting ill for a good chunk of time. I started getting a headache. It wasn’t until after we started hiking that the dizziness kicked in.
I maintain it was the dizziness that did me in. I literally couldn’t focus on anything. Not the path in front of me, not the horizon line, nothing. Which meant I couldn’t hike 5 meters let alone 16k.
I made the awful, gut-wrenching choice to not keep going on the hike and turn around, with a strong suggestion from my guide. As much as I wanted to, it wasn’t physically possible for me to keep going – and I knew (and was told by our guide) if I kept going it would only get worse, because day 2 is all about the ascent. Frustrating to say the least. It happens, though.
So at about 9:30 in the morning, we met up with our porters, and one of them re-packed their gear, distributing it to the other porters, and came back down to the trailhead with me. It took me until 2PM to hike back to the beginning of the trail, the less said about it the better.
For probably about half the hike back, my porter was only carrying his stuff and my duffel. Then it just got too difficult. I had zero energy because I couldn’t keep anything down and it was not pretty. So I caved and gave him my day pack to carry as well. Poor guy.
I was so out of it when I got back to the beginning that the guy at the entry checkpoint kept asking me for my ‘nombre’ and rather than hearing ‘name’ I heard ‘number’ (like, passport number) and made a massive fuss of getting out my passport to see the number when I could’ve just written down my damn name.
We got back to Ollantaytambo in a gypsy cab (e.g. just a guy driving a van).
I went to bed at 7PM.