Viewing images of Machu Picchu has always sparked a complexity of emotions for me. The ancient ruins atop a sea of mountains stirs up feelings of curiosity, awe, inspiration, with a hint of jealousy; jealousy for all those who have made the trek ahead of me. It was a destination that felt out of reach for me but one that I always wrestled with in my mind. When I finally ceased on an opportunity to travel to Peru, I knew Machu Picchu would be the driving force behind my trip.
I arrived in Lima, Peru and made it to my hostel, the Flying Dog, just shy of midnight Friday night. The hostel borders John F Kennedy Park and is surrounded by several restaurants teeming with people. I’d selected a good location! The room was comfortable with a small table and chairs, queen sized bed and private bathroom, a must-have for me these days. I dropped my belongings and went in search of bottled water. As I exited my room, I met two fellow travelers, one from Costa Rica and another from Venezuela. We spoke briefly about my love of Costa and they pointed me in the direction of a market. Either because I was too distracted by bustling nightlife outside the hostel walls or the directions I’d received weren’t quite right, I did not find the market but instead popped in to a Subway shop to purchase water. Tempted to grab a snack, I ultimately decided to get some rest in preparation for my full day the next morning.
[DAY ONE] My first stop was Sky Kitchen’s cooking class. The class was filled with mostly Americans and instructed by a German man who moved to Peru 7 years ago to learn Spanish and never left. We prepared and enjoyed four courses, beginning with Causa Rellena. This dish is a layered appetizer comprised of mashed potatoes, avocado and chicken. I tried to be decorative with the mayonnaise on top, attempting to design the P from the national tourism logo. It wasn’t as much of a success as I’d hoped but it was delicious nevertheless. After preparing each course, we ate as a group at a long table while the staff prepped for the next course. Each of the dishes required multiple steps and ingredients, many of which the staff prepared for us ahead of time. We, as participants, didn’t actually have much to do for this cooking class.
Up next, Pisco! The owner blended Pisco, simple syrup and passion fruit pulp to create this drink. It was strong and rather different from the Pisco Sours I’ve come to love. I picked up a bottle of Pisco at the end of my trip to Chile and now have my boyfriend crafting these cocktails for me; what we had today was not the same nor would it be something I would necessarily desire again.
Our second course was a fresh ceviche made with Mahi Mahi. Fish is rarely on the menu for me but I knew I had to try it. We first cured the fish with salt and then added fresh lime juice, condensed milk, cilantro, and fish stock. All the different flavors and the freshness of the fish made this dish refreshing and light. Very enjoyable!
After eating our ceviche, we began preparing our third course, Lomo Saltado. I had never heard the name before but, upon hearing about the ingredients, I realized it was a dish I’ve made at home and really love! The class was separated into three cooking groups, with my group being selected to cook on the open rooftop with the wok. The wok would cook everything quickly and give it an extra smoky flavor. While I’ve watched many Asian dishes being cooked in a wok, I had never used one myself. Shifting the pan to allow it to bring the flames up from the bottom is what gives the dish its smokiness – not as easy as it looks! Peruvians dishes are loaded with carbs and our meal today was no different. This dish alone features meat and veg with sides of fries and rice.
Grateful for the courses being split up, I was able to enjoy each dish and still leave room for our fourth course, Picarones. Much like a donut, we fried the dough in vegetable oil on the stove and poured a sugary syrup on top. The syrup was made of molasses and heated with fig leaves, cloves, anise, and citrus. By this point I was quite full so I only tasted one. It was good but not my favorite. I think I would have preferred powdered sugar on top instead.
After class, I wandered the surrounding streets, making my way to the beach. Miraflores is a well manicured neighborhood, filled with flowers and beautiful buildings, and a quick walk to the ocean. The coast is lined with parks and my first stop was Parque de Amor (Park of Love). This park was quaint, filled with statues and people lounging in the spots of shade cast down from trees.
Shortly after I noticed a series of hang gliders floating across the sky. I watched for several minutes debating whether or not to join in. I listened to the employees repeat the price over and over again in Spanish and, even with my limited language proficiency, it sounded reasonable. However, when I heard someone say it was cash only, I knew I didn’t have what I needed to participate. I could have gone off in search of bank but my feet were tired, my knee was beginning to ache, and I was wearing a dress. All of these reasons pointed me back in the direction of my room.
After resting for a bit, I ventured out again in search of a craft beer bar I’d read about. I was having difficulty finding this specific spot though so I wandered around the neighborhood instead. Several restaurants were either empty or touristy with waiters shouting in Spanish to come inside. I walked around for a while not finding anything of interest and, instead, ended up at the sandwich shop next to my hostel that was always busy; tonight was no different. I ordered a chicken, pineapple and cheese sandwich and a beer and found a table with plenty of space for people watching. I headed back after dinner and called it a night.
[DAY TWO] The next morning I began my travel day, making my way up to Agua Calientes, the town just outside of Machu Picchu. A quick flight up to Cusco and I was soon standing at a rental car counter, price bargaining for a reasonable fare on a two-hour taxi ride to the train station. In the rainy season, the closer train station is closed so I had to put my faith in a man who didn’t speak English to take me to my next destination. The drive through the Sacred Valley was a beautiful one and, if I’d had more time, I would have gladly accepted my drivers many offers to stop and see some of the sights. However, I had a train to catch!
Upon arrival, I checked in, stored my larger luggage at the station, and boarded the Inca Rail. Large luggage is not allowed on the train so I opted to downsize and trust that my luggage would be safely stored in a small wooden shack outside the train station in Ollantaytambo. One of my favorite things about solo traveling is the higher likelihood that you’ll make new friends. My 1.5 hour train ride granted me one of these opportunities as several of the travelers seated around me were close to my age, solo travelers themselves, and open to meeting new people as well. Over the next few days, I spent much of my time in the company of at least one of these new friends.
As the train roared into the station at Agua Calientes, I quickly realized the room I’d booked for the night overlooked the station. Not my best reservation. This small town’s sole purpose is to exist as a landing place for travelers heading to Machu Picchu. It truly is packed with travelers nightly and operates like a well-oiled machine with people knowingly waking up at 4 a.m. to get in line for the bus up the mountain. Yep, including me. I joined the line at 4:30 a.m. to await the 5:30 a.m. buses, about two full bus loads of people were already in line ahead of me. The bus ride lasted about 30 minutes and was in complete darkness – probably for the best given that these roads are narrow and twisty, winding their way up the mountain side to the gates of Machu Picchu.
[DAY THREE] I finally made it to the site just as the sun was rising and anxiously trekked up the steps leading to a better view. It was a foggy morning with several misty clouds covering the site. I had anticipated this though and my first view of the ancient ruins were nothing short of amazing. It was difficult to believe I was actually there, I had actually arrived and was standing at the site of such great mystery and wonder. Rain or not, I was taking it all in and enjoying each moment. It was a true gift to be there.
Just beyond the first vantage point lay several levels of fields with grazing alpaca. I’m not sure where they spend their nights but these furry friends were up as early as we were to take advantage of the freshly laid dew and time to eat before the larger crowds of visitors arrived.
One of the famous vantage points at the site is the Sun Gate which is said to be the best way to see the city from above. The Sun Gate was originally designed to help its citizens determine the time as the large stones at the Gate were cut specifically to allow the sun’s ray to pass through and down to the city center at precise angles depending on the time of day and year.
A hike up the Sun Gate takes about an hour and is a moderately difficult trek up along stone cut steps. The trail is actually the last bit of the Inca Trail and, on the way up, my new friends and I passed several exhausted and exuberant hikers, thrilled to be nearly done with their 4 days of travel. When we reached the top, we perched ourselves on the wet rocks to wait out the clouds, hoping they would eventually clear, allowing us to see down below. Unfortunately, after about an hour’s time and no end in sight to the dense clouds around us, we opted to head back down toward the ancient city again.
As we made the hike back down and the sun rose higher in the sky, the clouds began to dissipate and more of the ancient city was revealed. This time we found a view point filled with newly found sunshine and a few more tourists as it was now about 10 a.m. The site is truly amazing. Surrounded by other majestic mountains, Machu Picchu is the only sign of civilization as far as the eye can see. At nearly 8,000 feet high and in total isolation, it’s a wonder how it came to be.
In an effort to preserve the historical site for generations to come, the Peruvian government has set time limits for visitors with two options, morning and afternoon. I opted for the morning shift which meant my “required” exit time was noon. I can’t say that I ever saw anyone checking tickets or ushering people out at their specified times but the closer it came to noon, the larger the crowds became. Heading toward the exit takes you through the city itself, ancient stone buildings creating what one can imagine was the homes and businesses of the former Incan people who lived here centuries ago.
The town of Agua Calientes lies down below the mountains with two options to reach the ancient site. Travelers can choose between taking the bus or about an hour long hike. I opted for the bus ride up because it was completely dark out at 5 a.m. and I wasn’t sure how long it would actually take me to arrive but, on the way back down, I chose the hike.
The trail back to town is all stone carved steps varying in width and steepness, if that’s a word. I think hiking back down was the better choice because going up all those stairs would have been tough. Stairs are stairs though and no matter the direction, you’re going to feel it later and this trek was no different. It took me about 45 minutes to make it down, passing by several weary hikers struggling up the mountain along the way. I felt great in the moment but for the remainder of my time in Peru, my calves were tight and sore, suffering through every step. Next time, maybe more water and stretching?
Visiting Machu Picchu was easily the highlight of my trip and the true driving force behind my decision to travel to Peru but I was incredibly impressed with all of the beauty, generosity of people, pride, and delicious food this country has to offer. Upon returning to Agua Caliente, I made my way back to the train station to begin the return to Cusco, this time reserving a bus to shuttle me between the train and the town.
[DAY FOUR] Cusco is a lively city filled with a deep history and significant Spanish influence visible throughout. I booked myself a spot on a free walking tour to get the lay of the land, sampling Peruvian cuisine and a Pisco Sour along the way. I also explored the largest local market in town, San Pedro, bargaining with the natives over an alpaca blanket and appreciating the opportunity to practice my Spanish. My day of exploration rolled by quickly and soon I was waking up again for another full day of tours.
[DAY FIVE] Knowing that I had limited time but wanting to experience more of the Incan culture, I joined a tour of the Sacred Valley with Sam Travel Peru with stops in Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo. Just viewing pictures of these destinations made me excited to visit but I was not prepared for how much I would enjoy each one. The tour guide was great, sharing stories of the ancient Incan civilization and how culture has evolved today. I learned a great deal about Peru on this trip and would have loved to spend even more time exploring the Valley; there is much it has to offer.
Unfortunately for me, Cusco sits at just over 11,000 feet up and I was feeling the altitude. Altitude sickness can manifest itself in many ways and thankfully mine was mild compared to other travelers I met but my head was pounding and no amount of slow walking, deep breaths, plenty of water or cocoa tea leaves would soothe it. I was ready to head back down to sea level and soon departed for Lima.
[DAY SIX] My final day in Peru was spent exploring more of Lima, this time the neighborhood of Barranco. I popped in to the Barranco Beer Company for lunch and then joined a free walking tour with Lima by Walking. Barranco is known for its collection of murals throughout the neighborhood, a project commissioned by the local leaders to showcase local artists. I loved the colorful images and messages painted throughout the streets.
After the tour, I settled in to a spot along the seaside cliffs to watch the sunset. My flight was delayed so I found a nearby nail salon for a manicure to kill time and was thrilled to learn the cost was only $8! I asked several times if that was the correct amount, thinking I had just misunderstood but no, $8 it was. From there I returned to the airport, reflecting on not just a great day but a perfect week in Peru. Every trip leaves me longing for more but also brings a feeling of gratefulness to be able to travel and explore more of our world. Until next time, Peru!