In the highlands of Peru

Adventure is when you decide to walk into that old childhood memory and keep the promise to your little self by taking a plane to the other side of the globe to hike in Andean mountains, step on the largest salt flat in the world and cycle in the driest place on Earth. It sounds easier said than done, but once it becomes your motivation to work harder during the year and ultimate vacation goal – nothing is impossible. The moment you book your flight, time will somehow accelerate to your departure date and next thing you know, you are already at the airport waiting to drop off your backpack.

Travelling is quite limited this year due to the pandemic, but I would like to take your mind off the bad things we read everywhere and try to make you walk in my shoes through the incredible places I visited last year. At least through photos and storytelling, we can travel everywhere from the coziness of our homes.

Machu Picchu kissed by the first morning light

Quite some time had to pass until I was able to recollect every bit of this trip in peace by putting my diary entries in order. Remember, always take a chance to write down some notes, otherwise you will forget a lot. I relived all those moments again during the post-processing of couple of thousand of photos (I just picked the best ones for the article, don’t worry). Those were intensive three weeks and when I say intensive, I mean physically too. You will see why.
Just like in the Transmongolian railway trip, where we visited Russia, Mongolia and China, every country has a different story to tell in South America too. It would be impossible and unfair to compress everything in one article. That is why there will be three of them. As you could probably guess by now, the countries in question are Peru, Bolivia and Chile and I will try to bring them to you in that exact order with survival guides at the end of each article.

We flew from Stuttgart to Paris where we met our friends Petra and Nico and boarded together on a flight to Lima. Brace yourselves, it is a twelve-hour flight. For the lucky ones who can sleep, it is a perfect time to relax. For unlucky ones like me, it means staying awake all the time, watching movies, eating ice cream from the snack bar and stretching legs every now and then by walking between the aisles. Anyway, the excitement of the arrival in Peru’s capital made all that boredom disappear. Here is what you need to know about Peru, while I am passing the passport control and picking up my backpack.

Country name: Peru (Spanish: Perú)
Capital (and largest) city: Lima
Population (2020 estimate): 32,824,358
Official language(s): Spanish (Quechua, Aymara and other indigenous languages)
Currency: Sol (PEN)

When to go?
Peru is a big country with many microclimates. Depending which parts you want to visit there are couple of limitations due to the rain season:

June – August:
High season. Dry season in highlands and best time for trekking and highland sports. All the trails are open. Quite crowded due to the holiday time in North America and Europe.
September – November, March – May: Spring/fall weather in highlands, good for rainforest trekking. Less crowded.
December – February: Rainy season in highlands and Amazon basin. Inca trail is closed in February for the cleanup. Summer weather on the coastal area.

We visited Peru beginning of June because we wanted to take the advantage of the best time for trekking to Machu Picchu. It was quite crowded but not as I was expecting it to be. I will come to this point later in the article. You have to take into account that going in the high season means winter in highlands so you should pack accordingly. It is quite a shock when you start your trip in a T-shirt in Europe and you have to put on the jacket and some layers when you land.

Where to stay?
There is variety of hostel/hotel options around the country. We were usually staying in hostels, which were nice and clean. We booked couple of accommodations already from Europe and couple on the go. Wi-Fi is available everywhere and Booking app works without problems. If you need a recommendation, feel free to write me. For Lima, good districts are Miraflores and Baranco.

Andean Condor at Salkantay pass

Fun facts:

  • There are over 3000 different sorts of potato in Peru and that is where potato, as we know it in Europe, comes from. It wasn’t until the 16th century that Europeans got introduced to this very nutritious plant. You can also find more than 55 types of corn in Peru.
  • The lost city of Machu Picchu, Peru’s most famous landmark, was added in 2007 to New Seven Wonders of the World. Machu Picchu in Quechua language means: The Old Mountain.
  • Peru is home to the largest bird of prey in the world – the Andean Condor. Its wingspan can vary between 2.7m and 3.2m. Despite its weight (11-15kg) it can fly for a long time without even moving its wings. The famous composition „El cóndor pasa“ comes from the musical play (Spanish zarzuela) of the same name. Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles is author of the original version, which got more than 4000 versions since it was produced in 1913.
  • The guinea pig or cuy is a traditional dish in Peru. It is specially prepared for the festivities and served as whole. Unfortunately, having had guinea pigs as pets, this was just a no-go for me 🙂
  • Incas were the only culture to define constellations of darkness in addition to the ones of the light. They understood so well the positions of the stars (incl. Sun) that main streets in Cuzco align with stars in certain periods of the year. The most fascinating are the temple and ritual stone in Machu Picchu, which align perfectly with the sun for the corresponding solstices, even from the opposite mountain tops.

Lima

Our arrival to Lima was in afternoon hours and it introduced us immediately to its messy and loud traffic throughout the after work rush. You don’t want to rent a car there for sure. We had in total a day-and-a-half in Lima, which I found enough. Maybe two days would be optimal to add the Baranco district too.
The next morning was foggy and grey. I was quite surprised to see the fog and wet streets outside but Alessandro was already one step ahead and checked it on the internet. Apparently, Lima’s position between Pacific ocean in the west and Andean mountain range in the east, caused its micro climate. High mountains prevent tropical thunderstorms coming to the coast from the Amazon Basin and stop the clouds coming from Humboldt cold current running along the Pacific coast. That is why morning fog is common but it rises up during the day.

The best way to explore the city is to join a walking tour. It is a great opportunity to get to know the city from the locals and meet some fellow travellers. We found a flyer in our hostel and joined „Lima Downtown Walking Tour“. Two girls were our kind guides and took us from Miraflores to the city centre. They also organise tours to Baranco.
Lima is a large city. Getting from one district to another requires a taxi or public transport called metro. Lima‘s metro is not the kind you usually see in Europe. It consists of buses driving on specially built high-speed lanes. Despite the warnings that we should hurry up, squeeze inside and take care of our stuff from the pick-pocketing, buses were surprisingly not crowded. Maybe because it was not a rush hour.

Plaza de Armas: Cathedral of Lima

The tour started in St. Martin’s square, surrounded by the oldest hotel in Lima, theatre and symmetrical public institution buildings. We proceeded from there to the Main Square (Plaza de Armas), where Government Palace, Cathedral of Lima, Archbishop’s Palace of Lima, the Municipal Palace, and the Palace of the Union make the very core of the historical city centre. Each building has beautiful old wooden balconies.

Archbischop’s Palace of Lima

We could observe change of guards in front of the Government Palace. It is a ceremony that takes place every day at noon and lasts approx. 15 minutes with military orchestra giving the musical background to the whole process. It is held every day at noon, except for some public holidays when it lasts even longer.

Street vendor with her son in front of Choco Museum

A real treat on one of the Main Square’s corners was Choco museum where we could learn more about cacao beans, their production and even try some raw ones. Peru is one of the biggest cacao export lands in the world. We used the opportunity to try different types of cacao creams and buy couple of chocolates, one of them being 100% cacao.
After taking us through the historical city centre, the tour led us evenutally to the point where Lima downtown ends. It is the riverbed of the former river Rimak, which is nowadays a park. Just across the street starts poorer city district that looks like favelas from the distance. It is strongly recommended not to go there by night, and by day only accompanied by someone local.

Park in the riverbed with Rimak district in the background

We took the “bus-metro” back to Miraflores to visit another city highlight called Huaca Pucllana, an archeological site hosting a big clay pyramid from pre Inca times. I would recommend a guided tour here because the site will look just plain without some spoken word and it has truly interesting history.
We learned that there were approximately 25 pre-Inca civilisations/cultures. One of them was Lima culture, which was developing in that region between 200 AD and 700 AD. The whole site has been hand-made of adobe and clay, still standing in the middle of Miraflores, probably not believing that it’s not the highest building anymore and that the seaside view is now obstructed with many tall residential buildings. When you look its structure, made of who-knows-how-many thousands of bricks, it is almost impossible to comprehend that they were all made one by one, under the sun, with no big tools but bare hands. It is impressive. Considering that it’s made of adobe and clay, one may wonder how the structure exists until nowadays? The answer is very interesting: there is almost no rain in Lima, only a small drizzle in the worst case. I was completely surprised with this fact because Lima is right next to the ocean. However, the micro climate I mentioned at the beginning prevents the rain.
Interesting facts: How to recognise a city where it rains a bit or not at all?
– Houses have flat roofs. No pointy roofs necessary to drain the water or snow.
– No drainage canals or openings on the streets.
The first one I could imagine, but as soon as the guide pointed to the second fact, we all turned our eyes down to the street passing next to the site. And it was true. Some trees and green parts have to be “manually” watered during the hot months. With climate change probably even more often.
Peru has a very rich history. It would take you a lifetime to visit each archeological site in detail. Maybe even more because some of them are probably still undiscovered.

Huaca Pucllana

In the evening we took a long walk along the coastline, enjoying the smell of the crepes on every corner and the first evening lights in the Love park until we passed again the traffic chaos and reached a bar next to our hostel where we had the famous pisco sour, a typical Peruvian drink. As the name says, the base is pisco – type of brandy made by distilling the fermented grape juice. Sour comes from the lime juice.
When in Lima, do try fish in a typical dish called ceviche. It is a raw fish with vegetables, marinated in olive oil and lemon juice. Delicious.
If you are fan of sweet drinks, you can try chicha morena, a corn beer.

The Lighthouse

Sacred Valley of Inca

From Lima, one can reach highlands either by bus or by plane. The difference is in the elevation change over time. With bus you do it gradually over many hours and with plane you are in Cuzco in an hour but you change from 0m to 3400m above sea level.
We took the second option and for that reason we decided to spend the fist night in Ollantaytambo in order to reduce the altitude from Cuzco’s c.a. 3400m to 2792m and prevent a bit the height sickness.
It was a beautiful ride from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo that took us through various highland parts. First glimpse on Cuzco, small villages that followed and amazing landscapes with traditional music in the background from the car stereo felt like in a movie. It was so calming observing the women in traditional clothes with interesting hats and shiny, long, darker than the coal hair in braids diong their chores; children playing in the streets; small markets with people talking to each other, laughing and without staring at smartphones. All that reminded me on how dependent we are on the technology and how much we miss in the present. I know, it is not easy to change it but I promised myself to do something about it.

Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo is a small town, 72km north-west from Cuzco, surrounded by mountains and keeping the Inca ruins in the valley between the hills. It had an interesting history, especially after the arrival of the Conquistadores (Spaniards) because it was one of the last Inca rebellion fortresses. It is usually a pass-through location for many tourists on the way to Machu Picchu due to the train which drives to Aguas Calientes. I am so happy we decided to spend a night here because it was well worth it. We reached it in the afternoon during the golden hour. First stop before climbing the ruins was the Main Square (guess the name?) – Plaza de Armas.

Ollantaytambo’s cobblestone streets

Avocado sandwich and quinoa beere were enough to give us the energy and motivation to climb the ruins. The whole side of the hill, facing Plaza de Armas consists of agricultural terraces. They were built to a higher standard because they were made of cut stones not field stones like it was the common practice. This type of high-prestige terracing is also found in other Inca royal estates such as Chinchero, Pisaq, and Yucay. I read about these constructions in the family encyclopedia books and it fascinated me since then how people managed to cut and shape those stones with almost laser precision and with just simple tools. Just to give an impression of which precision level we talk about here, you cannot even stick a knife between the stones how perfectly cut they are and how they lean on each other.

Perfectly aligned stones, Ollantaytambo ruins

As I mentioned, we were very motivated to burn some calories after our snack lunch that we completely forgot about the altitude. However, our hearts were there to remind us to slow down by threatening to jump out of our chests once we were ascending the hill. It was that very moment that I realized that I’ve never been in such a high place before. In a bit slower phase we managed to the top of the terraces and proceeded to one of the storehouses (Qullqas) on the hillside. They were probably used for keeping the vegetables harvested from the terraces as fresh as possible. Grain would be poured in from the uphill side windows and emptied from the downhill side ones.

Storehouses (Qullqas)

The view was especially nice the next morning: observing the ruins from the opposite hill under the first morning light.

Inca ruins, Ollantaytambo

Salineras de Maras

Salt terraces are located approx. 4 kilometres north from from the city of Maras. I like to call them terraces although they are salt evaporation ponds, still in use since Inca times. Traditionally, everyone interested in harvesting salt could do so. The only condition is that he’s the member of the town’s community. The new families or people who move in usually get the pond furthest from the town. The ponds are fed with highly salty water emerges from the underground in a form of a small stream and flows through the myriad polygonally-shaped ponds, which follow the hill line and descend in height. Depending on the worker’s skills, the salt colour varies from white to light brown or even pink and it can also be bought in the nearby souvenir shops. The landscape was extraordinary. Salt terraces of various colours with workers carefully harvesting salt in some of them, surrounded by high mountain peaks among which Chicón (5530m) and valley of Urubamba river. Sunglasses are essential because bright ponds reflect so much light that it’s hard to enjoy the landscape without them.

Salineras de Maras
Salt ponds of different colours
Salt harvesting

Moray

Moray is home of circular terraces (3500m) that look like an amphitheater of approximately 30m depth. These terraces were built in a particular way, taking into account sun’s position and the winds. Although their purpose is not clear until nowadays, a widely spread belief is that they served as agricultural laboratory for Incas. The temperature difference between the top and the bottom terrace is 15 degrees Celsius, which is quite a lot for the given depth. Soil samples testing showed that it came from different regions, which contributes even more to the test-plantations-belief. Incas probably experimented with growing crops from different regions at those altitudes and were crossing them to make new sorts. Even from today’s perspective, it looks like it was a quite advanced scientific research centre, which makes it even more amazing. One more interesting fact is that Moray never floods, not even during the rainy season. Therefore, it is believed that terraces have an underground irrigation system. The site is very worth the visit and it can easily be combined with Salineras de Maras in a day trip.

Moray circular terraces
Moray circular terraces

Chinchero

It is a rustic town, believed by Incas to be a birthplace of the rainbow. Considering the people’s colourful clothes, I guess it’s true. The town has many of the agricultural terraces from Inca times, many in the use today. The soil is also the most fertile in the whole Sacred Valley, which is why some of the best potatoes come from this region. However, we didn’t do a sightseeing tour but went for something different. Chinchero is center of weaving and knitting in Peru. That is why we went to see a small local production and get a demonstration about it. We met a llama and two alpacas at the entrance of the small shop where three colourfully-dressed ladies greeted us.

Wool threds and the plants they got the colour from

In a courtyard, framed by different wool products (pullovers, gloves, houshold items, table covers etc.) these kind ladies were about to demonstrate us the wool dying process.
We took our places around the stove and listened carefully. Firstly, the wool is washed until completely white and span into a fine long fibre. Wool usually comes from sheep, llama or alpaca. We could definitely feel the difference under our fingertips, sheep wool being the most coarse one and alpaca’s being the softest. Depending on the age, llama and alpaca’s wool can vary in this softness. The softest (and the most expensive one) is the wool from the first shaving (baby llama, baby alpaca). For us, amateurs, it was hard to tell how young the wool was from already finished sweater. You could only tell if it feels nice and warm and if you like the colours.

Dying the woll by boiling it with different plans
Lady demonstrating the dying proces
Washing the wool until white
Getting the colour red from the cacuts parasite

The wool is dyed by boiling it together with different natural ingredients, each one for a specific colour. We saw various plants, which were used for all kind of colourful shades (corn for purple, different field plants for yellow or blue etc.). The most interesting one was red. There is a parasite insect that lives on the cactus. When squeezed it gives a radiant red. Women used to mix it with a bit of lemon juice and use it as a lipstick that can last for almost a day and tastes nice. Weaving process, especially for the table covers was very interesting. An older women showed us how she’s doing it with a wooden tool and with such a speed and precision. In the end we all bought something, a sweater or a hat, which would come in hand later. Alessandro did his bargaining magic here too so we got some discount.

Weaving
Nico and Alessandro with their new pullovers 🙂

Cuzco

From the Sacred Valley we finally returned to Cuzco. It is a big city with many red brick houses on the surrounding hills. As we got many different information on how many inhabitants the city has (from a million and a half to 500000) I decided to check it on the internet and found an information about 428450 inhabitants (2017). Cuzco was the capital of Inca Empire from 13th century until the Spanish conquest in 16th century. In Peru’s constitution, it is officially declared as the country’s historical capital. Nowadays, Cuzco is an important tourist center because of its proximity to the Sacred Valley, Inca Trail and, the biggest gem – Machu Picchu itself. Cuzco hosts around 2 million tourists per year.

Cuzco Cathedral

During our short stay we managed to see the city center and the Cathedral as well as some festival before we continued our trip. It was the starting point of our expedition to Machu Picchu. It is full of tourist agencies that organise trips to Machu Picchu over Inca trail or Salkantay pass as well as the one taking you to Rainbow mountain or further. It is full of massage services to set your sore legs at ease after these long trekking tours.

We did the briefing for the tour the day before the trekking itself. The tour was booked in advance from Europe and this is one thing I would highly recommend you to do before the trip. You can either book the tour (which I can’t recommend more) or organise a transport by train and bus to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu has limited number of visitors per day. That number being even smaller for mountains Huayna Picchu or Macchu Picchu (200 people a day). Make sure you book your entrance tickets on time and well in advance.

Salkantay trek: 5-day-trekking to Machu Picchu

Despite sounding super interesting, insted of popular Inca Trail we booked a Salkantay trek tour which lasts 5 days, includes almost 100km of trekking to reach Machu Picchu on the altitudes as high as 4600m at one point. It is a longer, (a bit) less touristic, wilder and definitely more interesting way to arrive to the final destination. There are also 3-day-tour variants, in case you don’t have so much time.
You can also skip the tour and organise the bus-train-bus ride to the Citadel but it would take the whole adventure part away.
The price of the tour includes transport from Cuzco and back, duffle bags for your things during the 5 days, storage for big backpacks or luggages, three meals a day, great guide who brought us coca tea every morning in bed, sleeping in sky domes, huts, jungle domes, and most importantly, some new friends. It was definitely a highlight of our stay in Peru! On the other hand, as you can imagine, it is quite physically demanding because of the length of the route per day, altitude that doesn’t make it easier, possible unpredictive weather conditions etc. However, all that aside, when you see those landscapes and are surrounded by incredible people from all over the globe, you don’t feel the sore feet, you just remember the great things and appreciate the destination even more when you reach it.
You can even see the video about it on Alessandro’s youtube channel.

Franz explaining with Humantay in the background

We were a group of ten and we chose the name “Skankantay trek”. So we had a mix of people from: Germany, Italy, UK, USA, New Zealand, Croatia and Montenegro. Skanks were truly amazing people to share this experience with! Our guide Franz was the most patient one who cherished our curiosity with all sorts of information on the way: history, biology, Andean philosophy, geography etc.
I will try to bring you some of the highlights because it would be too much and I don’t find it fair that you read all about it and don’t go explore for yourselves.

Day 1

First day we had 12 km to trek, get to know each other and reach our first camp with sky domes to sleep in. Altitude of the camp – 3869m.
We could see snowy top of the Salkantay in the distance.

Sky domes in the first camp

After lunch we went further up to Humantay lake, which should have been our test hike to see how we cope with the altitude. The camp was at 3869m and lake at 4200m, apparently not so far away. However, with your stomach full and at that altitude (for me the highest so far) it was not easy at all. Moving slow, adjusting the breath, coping with headache but we managed it.

Humantay lake

Humantay lake was definitely a highlight of the day with its blue-green shades of water resting calmly under the glacier. You can especially see how sapphire blue the water is if you hike around it, climb a small cliff rising around the lake’s side and take a look from above. It seems almost completely different from that perspective.

Humantay lake hike around

The stars were already illuminating the night sky and Milky way was shining bright above the mountains as we got out of the restaurant barn after dinner. Franz explained us that Inca didn’t look for the shapes in stars constellations, but they rather observed the darkness between the stars and named constellations according to their shape interpretations. That is how we got familiar with llama constellation. On winter solace (21.06.) the two stars from Alpha Centauri take the positions of the eyes in the llama constellation. In the southern hemisphere, the sky looks a bit different. Positions of to us known constellations are shifted and some others can be seen.

The night sky above the first camp site

Day 2 – D Day

In total 22km to go and approximately 10 hours of walking over a following profile: start (3800m) – Salkantay pass (4600m) – next camp (2900m). Franz woke us up at 4:30 a.m. bringing us the coca tea in bed. We felt taken care of so well, almost spoiled. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea apparently helps against the altitude sickness. To me it was more like a placebo effect but I really liked the tea. There is no effect of cocaine from these things because the concentration of the substance in leaves is very small. If you want to experience the cocaine effect, they say you have to chew the leaves with a bit of ash and maybe a sip of alcohol to activate the substance. We haven’t tried it so I can’t tell how it really feels or if it works at all.

On the way to Salkantay pass
Rocky landscape on the way to Salkantay pass

We took “Seven-snakes path”. It is an uphill serpentine leading to Salkantay pass. It was tough but not as bad as we were expecting. I guess the lake hike the day before was more devastating for everyone. Occasional mule herds carrying our duffle bags, gas and food were passing by, seeming to struggle less than us. And we were not even loaded, apart from the day pack.
Around the noon we reached the Salkantay pass (4600m) and took a well deserved break with a sandwich and coca tea while Franz was explaining us the Andean philosophy principles.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the cloudless blue sky where two condors were circling around. Condor is scavenger bird and is not as beautiful as falcons and eagles. Nevertheless, seeing it gliding through the air, huge wings spread widely, not even clapping but just using the wind currents looked amazing to me. It all seemed almost as a dream, and I don’t mean it because of the lack of the air; being there at Salkantay pass, having managed the highest hike so far, drinking coca tea surrounded by an incredible landscape. Salkantay on the left and condors flying above our heads.

Skanks on Salkantay pass (4600m)

The day wouldn’t last any longer so we had to hit the road and start a descend towards the next camp in Chaullay (2870m). We still had a long way to go before the dark. As soon as we turned our back to the clearing at Salkantay pass and the blue sky above it, we got into a stony cloudy valley.

Moody landscape
Stony valley after Salkantay pass

Step by step stony valley started getting more and more vegetation until we reached the last part, a bit before the camp, where the cloud forest started. It was quite a steep descend through the cloud forest so my knees started complaining despite the usage of hiking sticks that distribute the weight better over the arms and reduce the pressure on the knees. I let them complain while watching my next step and enjoying this new flora around me. Cloud forests are also called water or primas forests and have cloud coverage persistently or seasonally. You can also find a name mossy forests because their vegetation and floor are covered with a layer of moss. This one was no exception. Green, almost jungle-like vegetation thriving on every step; huge red flowers living on tree branches in symbiosis with host trees; lianas stretching their arms and handshaking between the trees; occasional squash fruits hanging above the hiking trail; easy to get lost in observation, fascination and amazement how such a forest exists on this altitude. What a contrast to bold Salkantay pass and that foggy valley.

Cloud forest

Day 3

We trekked through the cloud forest, observing its incredible beauty under the morning sun with every shade of green glistening on its own as if it was competing with the rest who’s going to be greener that day. The trail followed Urubamba River and its tributaries, fluctuating up and down the dusty road. We were taking breaks every now and then to cool down because of the humidity and heat from the sun, which were not making it easier. This is considered a good weather because it can also be rainy and muddy to walk around.

Cloud forest in the morning
Mountain streams on the way

The hiking path continued along the river, revealing on the way some granadilla cultivations, coffee plants, corn fields etc. Peru is one lucky country to have such a climate and soil for a great variety of fruit and vegetables. I am always amazed when I see these kind of cultivations in distant countries. Why? Because you see the plants in their natural habitat. You learn more about their struggles to grow in a certain area and you learn more about the struggle of the farmers to keep the harvest of the season high. It is not just a fruit or vegetable that you buy in a supermarket without even looking at its origin. It has a story behind, good or bad, which influences your next decision whether to buy it or not. It was the first time for me to see the plants of coffee and raw coffee beans. We learned that coffee plant originates from Ethiopia and that coffee beans have two skins. Only the first skin, or the bean’s shell, which is considered the worst part, is used for the instant coffee. The good part from inside, meaning the seed itself and a second skin, is then dried, roasted (longer or shorter) and used for the good coffee.

Coffee beans, before and after the roasting

Our next stop was at one organic coffee production place where we could see the process of the coffee beans roasting in small clay ovens and bought a bag of organic coffee that we were drinking home after the trip. What I enjoyed the most on that hot day, fulfilled with the smell of the coffee in the air was a cold Cusquena beer in a shade, negra of course.

Where blue and green collide

Day 4

26-kilometre-hike to Aguas Calientes was everything but easy. It was quite a hilly path which had a great ascend at the beginning making us take all of our layers off until remaining in T-shirts.

Our way proceeded through the cloud forest, revealing us many agave plants, incredible flowers of all kinds, occasional clearings in the vegetation through which you could sneak peak the mountain tops and glaciers and small mountain streams crossing our way.

We arrived to Hidroelectrica, a power plant on Urubamba River. From here on were flat 12 km to walk until Aguas Calientes city. It was a long but interesting walk in any case. From time to time, a train would pass leaving its steamy trace behind. Trains were blue and with that green surrounding reminded somehow on those photos from Sri Lanka you can often see in social media. We followed the railway on one side and river on the other side observing the mountain range that surrounded our way us until we saw the Machu Picchu mountain. The very one we were about to climb the following day.

Train returning from Aguas Calientes

Day 5 – Machu Picchu

We woke up full of enthusiasm, which is incredible considering that the alarm clock was showing 03:30. Dressed up in 5 minutes and out in the dark towards the bridge for the final hike to the Macchu Picchu gate. One steep hike was waiting for us and we had to move to get our place in front of the bridge that opens at 5:00 a.m. Dressed in layers and with small head lamps we started our night walk to the bridge under a cold starry night with some angry dogs fighting between each other and breaking the silence with their barking. The queue in front of the bridge has already been formed but it was fortunately not too long.

Once over the bridge we started our ascend through the dark, using the Inca stone stairs, 400m uphills. Step by step by step by step. Stairs were quite steep and of different step sizes; narrow, wide, higher, flatter. The path was crossing a bus road at many points as we were pushing forward. With all those layers it became quite hot so we stopped from time to time to catch our breaths and to take some layers off. I ended up only in a T-shirt with steam rising up from my arms. The first shy morning light was creeping on us and we could finally distinguish our surroundings and a landscape that became more visible with each step up. Steep hills covered with vegetation were watching our every step. Did I mention that stairs were steep? I couldn’t look much around because I had to concentrate not to fall and to keep my breath. After 45 minutes we finally saw the light in a form of an entrance gate! There was already quite a queue in front of it so we first went to the toilet to refresh ourselves because we looked as if the flood washed us out (a saying we use in Montenegro). I was in a toilet, trying to make myself look again like a human being instead of walking dead, surrounded by all the pretty women who were brushing their hairs and correcting their make-up for the future instagram photos. They didn’t walk 45 minutes up. They didn’t wake up at 3 a.m. No, no. They all took a bus, which is ok, but I doubt anyone felt more proud than me of what I accomplished. No photo can tell the story of endless steps but sweet, pain in muscles and messy sweaty hair.

Good that llama didn’t escape from this pale face touching her

Franz was very excited of what he was about to show us and while showing us. We climbed the first stairs and entered the Citadel area. First light made it look plain and grey but not less amazing. We were some of the first to get onto the terrace with the best view so we managed to do some nice photos before all the people stormed the terrace.

Machu Picchu at dawn

While Franz was explaining how the Citadel was built, what are the highlights to be seen and what to pay attention to, I was struck by the first sun ray coming from behind the mountain in front of us and starting to bring colours to the site. Minute by minute, starting from Huayna Picchu and lowering down, the Citadel was getting a radiant green colour as if touched by a magic wand. It was an incredible scenery. Houses and remains of the temple, sleeping peacefully as if they were built just like that by magic. It was hard to understand and comprehend life in these abandoned highlands before they were overtaken by vegetation and time. It felt like looking at some fairy tale city from the kingdom Far Far Away. It seemed unreal. And there I was, standing in front of it and still coping to believe my eyes. I was just waiting for the spell to break and see some parallel universe where people do their chores and live simple life right before my eyes. The spell was interrupted by Franz calling us to see llamas before we continue on a short tour through the houses.

Franz explained us the new rules about one way streets and limited number of visitors. We waived goodbye to this amazing man who called us chicos and took great care of us in the past five days. We had to climb the Macchu Picchu mountain 600m above the Citadel. The site itself got name from this mountain because the real name disappeared slowly with Incas. Macchu Picchu means Old Mountain in Quechua language. Huayna Picchu, a small hill you usually see on Machu Picchu postcards, means Young Mountain.

On the way to the top of Machu Picchu mountain

The four of us went towards Macchu Picchu mountain. We were at the gate at 8:00 a.m. Only 200 people are allowed to the mountain a day and we were very lucky to get the tickets. I was very confident about the hike up. Although it looked quite steep, I imagined a mountain path going in a spiral way around the mountain to the top, embracing it from all sides. I was, of course, wrong. While putting our names and passport numbers on the list, I noticed a small information sheet that stated the following information – to the very top of the mountain leads you a path of 2670 steps. Steps. Stairway to heaven, literally. Remembering the hike this morning I could just laugh at myself and the challenge in front of me. This reminded me of a valuable lesson again: never ever think that something is completely done without blood, sweat and tears. Yes, I suffered that morning but if I wanted to enjoy the most beautiful view, I had to suffer a bit more to truly deserve it.

Citadel and Huayna Picchu seen from Machu Picchu mountain
Machu Picchu mountain top, 3061m

After an hour of breaks for the breath, steep stairs, hug-the-mountain moments and amazing views we reached the top. Exactly 3061m above the sea level. The view was splendid. We got a bird’s perspective of the Citadel, way below that we couldn’t distinguish people from that height. All around us the landscape was incredible and it was a perfect clear morning without any mist. We could see all three surrounding glaciers: Salkantay, Humantay and Veronica.

Machu Picchu Citadel, details
Walking around the Citadel

Incredibly protected by the surrounding mountains, Citadel resisted time and vegetation, hidden deeply in the highlands of once most powerful empire of South American continent. After having a snack with the view, we went back down to see the Citadel before the closure time of the morning visits. It was even harder the way down but we managed it quite fast and joined the crowd in the Citadel. Make sure you take your time and take in everything. The visitor number limitations as well as the ones on the site itself (one-way streets, one time pass through the ruins etc.) introduced to protect the site will not leave you so much time and space to admire it properly so make sure to take in everything with your heart. We walked by ordinary people’s houses, made with plain stone work and had a look every now and then at the rooms, positions of the windows. Nothing was there by accident or by mistake. I believe that every house, no matter how big or small, had its own purpose and function in everyday tasks. Public institutions and buildings of religious matters such as temples were made of fine stone work. It was something like the one we saw in Ollantaytambo; perfectly cut stones, as if they were made of butter and not of a hard material. We haven’t seen the Temple of the Sun unfortunately but we saw agricultural terraces with their steep irrigation system and remained once more amazed how good engineers Incas were. One-way street led us slowly back to the entrance gate. We stopped for a moment to take in the beauty of this mysterious place once more to keep such a magical experience vivid in our hearts.

Rainbow Mountain

We booked the tour to the Rainbow mountain a day before. You can organise it easily on the go. It is a one-day-tour from Cuzco but you have to take into account starting very early. Therefrom, after whole 3 or 4 hours of sleep we woke up at 02:30 a.m. to go to the Rainbow mountain, the very night after our return from Machu Picchu. The reason to start so early was its distance. It required 3-hour-drive from Cuzco. Guide picked us up at exactly 03:00 a.m. and we only managed to rapidly drink a cup of coca tea to help us against the altitude. That day we were about to go up to 5000m.

Start of the hiking tour (4800m)

Early in the morning we were at the starting point for the hike. Our guide was not much talkative, although he knew English. He provided us just with plain information like: we stop now for breakfast, group name will be Anka (Quechua word for eagle), we arrived and we will start hiking. Compared to previous experiences, he was not that motivated. The starting point of the hiking was already at 4800m. We were one of the first groups to arrive there at dawn. Without sunlight, the valley looked quite grey and dull. We started ascend to the peak. Cold morning and the altitude made our pace slower than usual. Walking warmed me up and it I felt good while approaching the steep part which reminded me of a test hike to Humantay lake. Fortunately, this time I didn’t eat too much and I was already used to the altitude. Breath was the only thing that was missing sometimes and more stops were necessary to catch it up. After a steep part we already saw colourful mountain side. Stripes of different salts and minerals were stretching across the mountain top. In Peru they call it Montana de Siete Colores or Mountain of the Seven Colours. This mountain was discovered quite recent and it became a tourist attraction approx. 12 years ago.

Rainbow mountain from the observation platform, Winikunka 5035m
Lady with alpacas, Winikunka 5035m

We enjoyed the view from sunny observation platform in front of it. Rainbow mountain cannot be climbed but the one in front of it, Winikunka Mountain, which peak is exactly at 5035m. From the mountain top the view was even better. Rainbow mountain in front, Red Valley in the distance and a curious landscape all around, framed with high mountain tops and glaciers in the distance. It was so nice and sunny at the mountain top, which was not very crowded. We took one more good look at this incredible mountain and descended towards the Red Valley.

Red Valley
Red Valley

We had to walk past the Rainbow mountain and climb a big red hill, pay an entrance to the family in charge and get to the other side of the hill where Red Valley was waiting to charm us. I have to be honest, I was more fascinated with this strange colourful landscape than with Rainbow mountain. It looked like another planet. Red soil with green details here and there. And its surface looked like Mars, or at least like my imagination of Mars. Wow is the correct word for it. This scenery was definitely worth coming. There are probably possibilities for hiking around it but we had to return slowly to the car. Still under impression of how incredible nature can be, I enjoyed the view of llamas and alpacas peacefully eating thin grass from on the surrounding hills.

The sun now warmed the valley properly, and we noticed a lot of other tourists going towards the mountain. Too many. Many were even renting horses to spare themselves the pain of walking up. When I turned around to look at Winikunka Mountain top, I could notice a lot of small black dots representing the crowed that came up. I was so grateful we hat the mountain almost for ourselves that early morning.

Lake Titicaca – The Floating Islands

We planned to visit lake Titicaca on the Bolivian side. However, to reach Bolivia we booked a night bus from Cuzco, which had a stop in Puno and optional excursion to the Floating islands. Otherwise, we would have missed this tourist attraction, which I cannot highly recommend as it didn’t impress me much, but hearing something new about the lake, its biodiversity and history was definitely a plus.

Lake Titicaca at dawn

The lake was so calm as we reached it at the pink but cold dawn. It is the highest navigable lake in the world (3812m). The guide waited for us at the port dock and we boarded a small boat. While navigating to the Floating islands, he used the opportunity to tell us more about this amazing lake, all accompanied by a geographical map. We learned about biodiversity, especially about trouts that were brought to this lake. Salmon trout is the specific type. Unfortunately, trouts eat smaller fish and were affecting the ecosystem that led to formation of trout farms around the lake. They are like separated areas of the lake, divided by cages. Cultural diversity around the lake was also interesting to hear about. Many pre Inca cultures were stationed around the lake, majority being Aymara people who, unlike the Cuzco region, speak Aymara language, not Quechua. It is still amazing how these people keep the tradition of languages otherwise dead without written traces. People of Titicaca Floating islands are called Uru. They had their own language but in long trading tradition with Aymara people, they eventually accepted Aymara language. There are approximately 120 floating islands in Titicaca lake; some big enough for ten families and many smaller ones for two or three families.

Floating islands

The island had colourful boats anchored to its edge and very friendly people who welcomed us in Aymara and wished us a good day. We stepped on an uneven surface that was rustling under our feet on every step. It was so soft. The head/chief of the island, Ricardo, gave us a very interesting presentation with small size models on how the floating islands have been built with bases made of many floating pallets of dry Totora roots which are fixed with sticks and tied to each other.

Ricardo explaining the construction of the island
Women singing at the boat departure

Ricardo also told that population growth stop because many people are moving to live on mainland. No wonder because the life on the island is hard and brings many disadvantages in a form of health issues such as rheumatism. That is why all houses are built on a base a bit higher to prevent the effects of humidity. After the presentation, we were basically forced to check out the souvenirs or take a boat ride. We decided to help the community by buying one souvenir. I don’t like being forced to buy something. If I want to support the community, I will find a way to do it and without paying for overpriced hand-made items that are not really hand-made. That touristic part about the islands I truly didn’t like. In conclusion, if it is just a short stop, you can go for it but I wouldn’t plan a day to spend there.

Peru woke so many emotions in such a short time that even now, while writing this, I cannot really put into words how I felt all the time. I was definitely astonished by the nature, landscapes, great food and friendly people. I pushed my limits there and climbed the highest mountains so far, visited one of the New World Wonders, met some incredible people I stayed in contact with, and continued the journey as a better version of myself. However, this article only tackles the highlands. There is still a great deal of things to be explored such as: coastline, Arequipa, Nazca lines, Amazon basin, many less known Inca sites etc. It would be nice to come back and do a different route.

Survival guide

Here are some useful tips & tricks for the trip, which can be useful:

  • Check the visa requirements for your passport and organise a visa before the trip. For me it was visa free, even with Montenegrin passport.
  • Bring a backpack instead of the luggage. I brought my 55l backpack. Don‘t overpack it because you will need winter clothes if you go in June. You can always let your clothes be washed in hostel for a cheap price. Trust me when I tell you I managed to pack for three weeks in 55l with sleeping bag and walking sticks too.
  • Good hiking shoes, impregnated or already waterproof for some unexpected rain. These are essential! Bring also some comfortable walking shoes for the city.
  • Swimming suit. Believe it or not, you may end up visiting some hot springs too 🙂
  • Good sunglasses and sun protection. Considering the altitude, use blocking factor 50+. You don‘t want sunburns and traces of T-shirts on your body.
  • Rain jacket and rain cover for the backpack. Weather can be unpredictible in highlands.
  • If you go in high season you will need a warm jacked for after the sunset. A down jacket can be light to carry around, occupies less space and will keep you warm.
  • Insect repellent for the hot days in cloud forest or Amazon Basin.
  • For the hiking enthusiasts, consider bringing your own sleeping bag, walking sticks etc. You can rent them in Cuzco too.
  • Book internal flight (e.g., Lima – Cuzco) in advance and print out the ticket if necessary before the trip. It costs an additional fee to get it printed at the airport.
  • Book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu much in advance (with or without the tour) due to the limited number of visitors. That is especially important if you want to visit one of the mountains in addition to the Citadel.
  • Please do respect all the regulations for the visitors in Machu Picchu site. Considering the current trend, I won’t be surprised if they make a cable car above it in several years and forbid tourist visits completely throughout the site.
  • Take care of your documents and personal items, especially in the public transport and get informed about possible unsafe districts.
  • Improvise every now and then. Stay longer in places you like, stay less in the ones that don‘t charm you that much. There are so many incredible places there that you should not miss them out due to the ones you don‘t like or that disappointed you.
More llama, less drama

It becomes a memory trigger as soon as you bite that homemade avocado sandwich and remember that very same bite at 3000m in the middle of Peru’s highlands feeling that it’s well deserved because you hiked a lot. Don’t be afraid to explore more, endure some pain on the go and get rewarded for it.

Stay safe and healthy during these hard times for us all. I hope I managed to take your mind on a nice trip for the complete length of this article (I kept it as short as I could).
The journey continues in Bolivia and it will be just as amazing as this part, I promise.

Author: Milica Ljumovic

Electrical engineer. Undercover bookworm. Animal lover. Passionate traveller. Hobby photographer.

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