Trekking in the Andes (Part 3): Machu Picchu

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Shortly before my trip to Machu Picchu, the folks at Momondo contacted me with a challenge to push my comfort zone for an ultimate Momondo experience. As you’ll read here, this trek was both exhilarating and challenging for me, and they agreed to partially support my trip. Thank you!

This post was originally published in 2014. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

When I met Miguel of Allpamama Journeys, I was nervous of my inability to do any serious mountain treks given my injuries from last year’s head-on collision. Thus, he put together a custom five day itinerary for me and two other people that involved hiking the Inca trail to a beautiful campsite on ancient ruins, a canyon descent to Huchuy Qosqo and a home stay with a Quechua woman we called Mama, and an ultimate trip to Machu Picchu.

Waking up at Mama’s early on the third day, we were well-rested and invigorated by the mountain air. Little did I realize that one of the more challenging parts of the trip (for me) was imminent. The two hour hike down from Huchuy Qosqo to the riverside town of Lamay was incredibly difficult given my injuries. It was steep and unforgiving, making my calves ache and my legs shake uncontrollably every time I stopped. I wasn’t nervous of the heights – I can’t get enough of precarious ledges – rather, the jarring motions of going down the mountain confirmed in my mind that going up is actually much easier than going down.

While feeling sorry for myself and my physical limitations, I passed one after another after another Quechua man, woman, and child climbing up the mountain, with large loads in their k’eperinas (large cloths knotted in the front and used to carry things on their backs). I realized these people hike up – and back down – this mountain in their yanques – sandals made of recycled tires – each and every day, possibly more than once, and regardless of the weather.

With that, I picked up my padded ergonomic day pack, dusted off my fancy shoes, and continued hiking downwards.

Taking the Train to Aguas Calientes

The Peru Rail train to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo Peru

From Lamay we drove along the Urubamba river weaving through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo, a town built atop and amidst a massive sprawl of Incan ruins. But exploration of Ollantaytambo would have to wait for another trip, as we had a train to catch to Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.

Aguas Calientes is a small (kitschy and almost charmingly touristy) town with a main street that is a railway, and has two claims to fame: it lies at the base of Machu Picchu, and it has hot springs. We arrived late in the day, enjoyed a light dinner, and settled into our hospedaje (something between a hostel and hotel, at $10/night).

Machu Picchu – The Climb

Rising with the sun (or lack thereof, given the light rain), I also rose to my own challenge that hiking up is easier than hiking down. With that, instead of taking the bus up the steep switchbacks to Machu Picchu, we hiked up.

hiking trail up the side of Machu Picchu
The steep climb up to Machu Picchu

Despite being at a lower altitude than Peru’s Sacred Valley by well over 1,000 metres, the climb to Machu Picchu tested me on all levels. The steep steps made my heart pound, my injured knees ache, and my head swim. I was already exhausted from the previous few days of trekking, with high altitudes and mind-blowing experiences like birthing llamas and being adopted by a Quechua Mama.

But this is part of the journey (literally and figuratively) when trekking in the mountains. At some point, you’re sure to say “what was I thinking?” or “why did I think this would be fun?” and ultimately, “I don’t think I can make it”. But there’s little choice on the side of a mountain, except to draw strength from the mountain’s beauty and energy, and to persevere.

Machu Picchu citadel
First glimpse of the impressive Machu Picchu citadel

With my heart in my throat and feeling dizzy, I was rewarded with my first glimpse of Machu Picchu two hours after leaving Aguas Calientes on foot. Machu Picchu: a sight that I patiently waited over 12 years (and a few lifetimes) to see.

The rain only served to add magic to the scenery, with banks of clouds rising up to meet us from the humid cloudy forest below.

Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, at Machu Picchu Peru

But we weren’t done yet. “See that valley up there?” Miguel said, pointing to a faint break in the distant mountains high above where we were, with a structure of sorts in the middle. “That’s where we’re going.”

Oh god.

The sprawling citadel of Machu Picchu seemed expansive enough that I wasn’t sure I could cover much territory before collapsing. More climbing seemed impossible. Miguel must have sensed my trepidation, because a short way into our onward hike we stopped by a massive sacred rock for a rest and another sacred ceremony.

Machu Picchu’s Magic

Machu Picchu is a very special place with a tangible energy to it. There are many theories as to how this city in the sky was built – a feat that defies modern physics, much less ancient physics. Everything is intentional, directional, and built using sacred geometry principles drawing energy from the four surrounding mountains, directly to the east, west, north, and south.

Among other things, it is said that if you bring crystals to Machu Picchu, you can charge them with a healing energy that comes from these surrounding mountains, which each hold a different property of crystals – solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.

charging up my crystal rings at Machu Picchu
Charging my crystals with the deep liquid crystal energy

For those of you who might consider all this a bit “woo-woo”, I can tell you this much: after a short time on Machu Picchu, I felt infinitely more connected to everybody on the mountain. It was as if this sacred place adjusted everybody’s vibrations so we could relate to one another with kindness and understanding, and an aura of calm reverence enveloped us all.

Onwards and Upwards

After this rest and recharge, we had more climbing to do, to reach the Sun Gate. It was a difficult 30-45 minutes beyond the entrance to Machu Picchu, but I’ll admit it was also well worth the effort.

the hike up to the Sun Gate from Machu Picchu citadel, off in the distance
At the Sun Gate, with lovely views of the citadel, and the twisting road up to Machu Picchu

A Day on Machu Picchu

iconic picture of Machu Picchu
The iconic picture of Machu Picchu

“Most official tours of Machu Picchu last three hours,” Miguel said as we approached the two-hour mark and hadn’t even entered the main citadel yet. “People ask me how long my tours last, and I say ‘I don’t know – as long as it takes’!”

This is one of the many reasons I was thrilled to be in Miguel’s hands for this five-day trip, which culminated at Machu Picchu. There was no rush, there were lots of chances to rest and simply take in the scenery for as long as we wished, and everything was flexible. Other tourists to Machu Picchu that day envied our group; some of them even lurked around us to eavesdrop while Miguel talked about sacred geometry, possible uses for the intricately carved granite rocks, the prowess of the Incas in astronomy, and more.

a view of Machu Picchu from the trail to the Inca bridge
Another view of the citadel, enroute to the Inca bridge
The Inca Bridge, an ancient footbridge across a sheer cliff
The (unused) Inca bridge, a feat of ancient engineering across a sheer rock face

Machu Picchu Citadel

A tree in the middle of the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu
The citadel and surrounding ruins sprawl. Most tours of Machu Picchu last a mere three hours. We were there for over seven hours (plus time to hike up and back down).

The main citadel of Machu Picchu could take a day alone to explore, much less the Sun Gate, Inca Bridge, and Huyana Picchu (further ruins another 200 metres higher looking down on Machu Picchu, requiring another fee with limited access), and so much more.

After hiking to the Sun Gate (and back down, taking over 1.5 hours in total), and over to the Inca Bridge (a 40-minute return trip), only then – did we start to explore the citadel, where we spent the rest of the day.

The rooms and passages were dizzying, ongoing, and sprawling. We marvelled at the normal things tourists marvel at (which are no less impressive despite the hype): the perfectly carved granite bricks fitting together impeccably and incorporating the shapes of chakanas (the Inca Cross, a stepped cross symbolizing the tree of life) throughout.

Incredible geometry and precision of Inca walls and stones fitting together
The Incas didn’t take the easy route when constructing these granite walls and structures

We ruminated on the use of stone tablets mirroring the silhouettes of the mountains behind them, and staircases carved into massive granite rocks, that lead to nowhere. Were the stairs unfinished, or was it a stairway to a portal of some sort? What sort of magic existed here in Machu Picchu in its heyday? And what sort of magic continues to exist here?

lone tree in Machu Picchu
I found this one lone tree fascinating

Back Down to Reality…or Not

At the beginning of the day, I had committed to hiking up to Machu Picchu, but was unprepared to hike back down, given how difficult I found the hike down from Huchuy Qosqo given my injuries. But after a whole day of wandering around the expansive and unbelievably green Machu Picchu, herding onto a bus and fighting motion sickness as it rocketed down the steep switchbacks seemed almost irreverent.

Thus, I strapped on some extra courage, and joined Miguel and the rest of our group in hiking back down to Aguas Calientes from Machu Picchu, an exhausting 1.5 hours of Incan steps.

Descending into the cloudy forest full of humidity, bird song, and colourful flowers, was the perfect way to finish off the Machu Picchu experience. Yes, my knees and feet ached, and yes, my legs shook every time I stopped for a rest.

But sometimes, a thing worth doing is not an easy thing. The valley descents help us appreciate life’s summits all the more.

beautiful white flowers in the Peruvian cloud forest

Floating along with this energy and mentality, we languished over a special birthday dinner (as it was also Miguel’s birthday), and went to sleep with dreams of crystals, Incas, chakanas, and the power of all things past, present, and invisible to our eyes.

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19 thoughts on “Trekking in the Andes (Part 3): Machu Picchu”

  1. Oh my, it looks so incredible. It doesn’t even really look real in the photos, just like some magical place from a fairytale. The trek sounds pretty strenuous, but I can tell it must’ve been completely worth it. One day….

    • Charlie – Oh yes – it was completely worth it! And if you’re not up for the hike up and down from Aguas Calientes, you an always take a bus….

  2. I’ve missed the first 2 installments of this Nora and really shouldn’t have read the last before heading off to find them but your images captivated me an I had to read! What an achievement! Congrats.

    • Thanks, Charli! Hopefully you found the other two instalments…I did link to them in this piece but didn’t label them as such. 🙂

  3. Question: how are you charging your electronics and where have you found internet connection in such a remote area in order to keep us updated?


    • Hi John,
      For this 5-day trip, I left my computer behind and only brought my Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone/camera. I also had the camera grip accessory (which allows me to use the camera with a tripod and also has an extra battery pack), and a small battery charger (the size of your middle finger) that charges USB devices. Did the trick!

    • Hi Bridget,
      It’s worth the effort to visit, and yet also the wait until the time is right. Hope you get there soon!

  4. Looks awesome from these photos. Well done on battling ahead with the hike – it was absolutely worth it!

    Just folllowed you on Twitter so I can see more great snaps!

    • Thanks, Torsten! I’m loving my new camera (it’s actually a smartphone – the Nokia Lumia 1020) – it inspires me to take more pics, and is so easy to get candid shots because I always have my phone with me!

  5. Wow, am I envious of your guided experience! Like you, I had a nasty intestinal “bug” when we visited Peru 15 years ago. We spent 3 days on the Inca trail en route to Machu Picchu (carrying our camping gear, as this was before the mandatory porter service was instituted). When we arrived at Machu Picchu in the late afternoon on the 3rd day, we knew there wasn’t sufficient time to explore the ruins, and our permit allowed us only one day to view them. So we spent the night in Aguas Calientes, and saved our permit for the next day, returning up the same track you did to the entrance. Then we hiked up to Templo de la Luna and Mt. Machu Picchu. I was feeling light-headed and shaky the entire way, and kept having spells of hot flashes alternating with chills. Yet it was stunning and so worth it! The sad part of the tale is that by the time we hiked back to the main citadel, I had used all my energy and could barely stand; it was clear I had the highest fever of my life. I laid down beneath one of the 2 trees left within the main ruins and stared at the sky, cursing myself for not being able to explore this place I had dreamed of all my life (your included “failure” blog rang true for me after this experience–I too had been a mountaineer, and another phase of our Peru travels took us high into the Cordillera Blanca with an attempt of Mt. Pisco–a blizzard turned us back; it’s still there waiting for us). From the minute I left the ruins, I have told myself, I must come back and tour Machu Picchu properly. And if I get a chance, I’m really keen to make the longer trek to the ruins of Vilcabamba/Espiritu Pampa, where the Inca supposedly retreated to after the Spanish came, another impressive ruin, though still enshrouded by the jungle. Looking back across the years, I so fondly remember the warm smiles and glowing light in the eyes of the Quechua people. They’re forever in my heart! So glad you’re taking it all in. Grateful to be reading your experiences, Nora! I always look forward to what comes next!

    • Thank you so much Wynne! What a story. Looks like it might be time for you to return to Peru… 🙂

  6. Great info and love these photos. We spent – believe it or not – two months in Cusco and neither my son Blake or I did Machu Picchu! Serious! I have CFS and a mix of health stuff, was enjoying daily treks around, visiting Pisac, the town itself that I loved… but skipped the trip and did a short volunteer stint instead. Blake decided to spend the cash for his trip partying with his musician rasta friends… great bunch of guys.

    So reading this (and seeing all the great photos) makes me a just a TAD jealous… and I do need to go back some day 🙂

    • Hi Molly,
      Although it was too bad you didn’t catch Machu Picchu around the first time, these things happen. There is so much to discover in and around Cusco as it is – as you found out. Machu Picchu will be there next time around. 😉

  7. I am absolutely in awe of your photo’s! You have captured the essence of what Machu Picchu has to offer so beautifully. This takes me back to my Machu Picchu expedition, the Classic Inca Trail, and what a magical journey it was. Exploring the many passageways and stone structures, the hike itself…such an epic experience!

    • Thanks, Mia! I was just talking about Machu Picchu with a friend earlier today…and remembering just how special and other-worldly it is.

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