Quarry Trail and Machu Picchu

I visited Machu Picchu, a longstanding bucket list item, over this thanksgiving break. November has been a very busy month for me, because I also relocated from my longtime home city of Washington DC to New York city on Nov 11. I had been toying with the idea of going somewhere over Thanksgiving (which ends up being a lonely week for me, since I don’t have close family in the US). Doing a cruise on the Nile river in Egypt and traveling to Machu Picchu were the top contenders for potential trips.

There were several permutations with each of those trips with different number of days, sites visited etc. Ultimately, I decided to go to Peru to visit Machu Picchu, because it was cheaper (about $3500, including flight tickets), and didn’t involve a time change. There were several choices to be made, such as:

  1. Choice of tour group. There are several that offer fully organized trips to Machu Picchu, such as Intrepid, Alpaca expeditions, IncaExpert, and many, many others. I went with Intrepid, because I had communicated with them last year when I went to the Galapagos islands and they were quite responsive in answering my questions
  2. How to get to Machu Picchu. Again, there are several options. Three of the most popular ones are:
    1. The classic Inca trail: This is probably the most common, but quite challenging way to arrive at Machu Picchu. You start near the town of Ollantaytambo and trek about 42 km over 4 days along the trail laid down by the Incas

    2. The Quarry trail: This trail doesn’t go directly to Machu Picchu, instead you hike along the Andean peaks around the town of Ollantaytambo. It involves trekking about 31 Km over 3 days. Although it doesn’t travel directly to Machu Picchu, the highest point on this trail is at a higher elevation than that on the Inca trail. It is also challenging, but a bit less so than the Inca trail.
    3. No hiking: If you aren’t the hiker type, you can take the train to Aguas Calientes (a town on the base of the mountain on which Machu Picchu is located) and then take the bus to Machu Picchu. Alternatively, you can hike about 2 hours from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, rather than taking the bus.
    4. The Salkantay trail: Interestingly, I learnt about this option on a girl’s Hinge profile 🙂 This one covers a distance of 60 Km over 5 days and would be interesting to consider at some point.

  3. Which circuit to follow at Machu Picchu, and add-on activities. Before I went to Machu Picchu, I thought one simply walked through the ruins, accompanied by a guide. However, things aren’t quite as simple as that. To better preserve the ruins, the Peruvian government has created circuits (4 at the time of this writing), which are predetermined paths a visitor must follow. Each circuit visits overlapping but somewhat different parts of the ruins. For example, circuit 3 doesn’t include the “Intihuatana” (the stone associated with Inca calendar and astronomy). Once you are on a circuit, you can’t turn back or switch to another circuit. Circuit 2 is the most popular and covers the largest area, including the spot overlooking Machu Picchu popular with photographers, and most of the important archaeological sites. In addition, there are three sites near Machu Picchu–the Inca bridge, Huchuy Picchu (small mountain) and Huyana Picchu (big mountain). The Inca bridge is a small drawbridge about 20 min hike from Machu Picchu (more on it later in this blog). Huchuy Picchu is a small mountain near Macchu Picchu that takes 15-20 min to climb, Huyana Picchu (260 metres higher than Machu Picchu) is a taller mountain that requires climbing a steep and exposed ascent that can take 2-3 hours to climb. This mountain also features “the temple of the moon“, an arbitrarily named Inca ceremonial temple. The tickets for these must be purchased separately. This is a good resource to learn more about these options. I recommend discussing with your tour group which circuit your tour covers, and ask about including the add-ons. Tickets are usually sold out, so it is good to pick the right circuit ahead of time.
  4. What to do after the Machu Picchu hike. A trek to Machu Picchu will usually take at least 6 days. This includes 2 days in Cusco and Ollantaytambo to get used to the higher elevation, 3-4 days of trekking and a day to get back to Cusco to catch your flight back. If you have more time, there are several options for follow-on activities, such as visiting the Amazon, the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia etc. Several people in my group were traveling to the Amazon after our Machu Picchu trek.

I love the outdoors, but I’m not a big camping person, mostly because I’m a light sleeper and generally find it difficult to sleep well in a tent. For that reason, I chose to do the Quarry trail, that involved two nights of camping, rather than three. I had also heard horror stories about the toilet facilities on the Inca trail–those were borne out my the people in my group who did the Inca trail. The toilets on the Inca trail are filthy squat toilets. I also didn’t have time to pursue any follow-on activities after Machu Picchu, so I flew straight back home after the trek.

What to bring

Intrepid has a detailed list of items to bring for the Machu Picchu trek and it was pretty spot-on. I chose to rent the sleeping bag and trekking poles from Intrepid. It CAN get very chilly at night, so make sure to bring a warm vest and socks. I found the air mattress provided by Intrepid barely sufficient (very thin and narrow), so you may want to bring a more comfortable air mattress or inquire about getting an upgrade. If you are traveling during the rainy season (Nov – Mar), bring water proof hiking shoes. I just brought my regular hiking shoes but was lucky that it only rained during the night and not while we were hiking. There were no mosquito or flies on the Quarry trail, but there were lots of flies in Machu Picchu, whose bites left red dots all over my legs that itched badly for more than 2 weeks! So bring mosquito repellent/bug spray.

I’ll now provide an account of the main activities of each day, with lots of pictures and interesting information.

Day 1

I flew LATAM airlines to Cusco. I took the subway from my apartment to JFK, which took about an hour and half, but it is so nice to be able to take public transport to the airport! When I lived in the DC area, lack of a train connection to Dulles International Airport was quite annoying (although the silver line extension to Dulles finally opened on Nov 15th, 4 days after I moved to NYC!). I had an overnight flight from JFK to Lima, an hour and half layover in Lima, and then an hour flight to Cusco. There was a 3 hour flight delay in Lima, so I arrived in Cusco around 12:30 pm (no time change, yay).
While in Lima, I realized that the Intrepid tour started the following day, so I didn’t have a place to stay that night. I emailed Intrepid from the airport, and they were able to book a night in the same hotel we were meeting next day for the start of our tour. Kudos to them for responsiveness and timely action.
Cusco is located at an altitude of 11,152 ft (higher than Machu Picchu!) and I felt the thin air and lower oxygen level right away. It was easy to find a taxi outside the airport. It cost about 30 Soles (~8$) and 20 min to drive from the airport to the hotel. The taxi fares are very negotiable in Peru, so make sure to negotiate the fare down. The urban infrastructure in Cusco looks like what you may expect in a middle income country–lots of low-lying brick buildings, moderately chaotic traffic, generally clean streets, with occasional small piles of unsecured rubbish near street corners..
In Cusco and many other cities in S. America, you see a lot of unfinished buildings—sheer brick walls lacking whitewash or paint, incomplete top floor etc. I learnt the reason a bit later in the tour. In Peru, housing finance is not well developed, and people save for years to pay cash for land and construction. They often run out of money before construction plans are fully implemented, and that’s why there are so many buildings in a partially finished state.
I checked into my hotel and then walked over to Plaza de Armas, the main square. I took some pictures in front of the Cusco cathedral and the church of the society of Jesus, and took in some amazing views of the town square with the Andes in the background. I had lunch and then walked over to Qorikancha, one of the most important Inca temples. After the Spanish conquest, the Spanish colonists built the Convent of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing most of the top part of the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. You see this pattern repeated in many buildings in Cusco.
In front of the Cusco Cathedral, built in the 1540’s on the site previously occupied by the palace of the Inca god Viracocha.
View of the Cusco main square with the Andes in the background
The Incas were incredible stone masons. They expertly carved large stone blocks so the blocks fit perfectly, without space for even a sheet of paper. Several other buildings in Cusco rest on Inca foundations, which can be identified at a glance from the way the stone blocks fit perfectly with the neighboring blocks and from the lack of concrete. It is still not clear how the Incas managed to cut with such precision stones such as Granite, which is significantly harder than the materials available to them.
In front of the Quricancha, one of the biggest Inca temples, dedicated to Inti (Sun). Most of the temple was destroyed after the Spanish conquest, as settlers took it apart to build their own churches and residences. Much of its stonework was used as the foundation for the seventeenth-century Santo Domingo Convent (now a museum)
From the Quricancha, I slowly ambled back to the hotel (feeling the altitude every time I had to walk uphill) to get some sleep. After napping for a couple of hours, I hiked up to Saqsaywaman, an Inca citadel on the northern outskirts of Cusco, built by the Incas in the 15th century. From my hotel, it is roughly a 1.5 km uphill walk to the citadel and I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath. It was almost dark by the time I got to the top, and the citadel was closed. I took a few pictures of the exterior, marveling at the expertly carved blocks of stone constituting the walls of the fortress.
In front of the walls of the Qoricancha
On the way down, I ducked into a private museum of pre-Columbia art. The museum features artifacts (pottery, masks, wooden objects, gold and silver pots etc.) from several pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Incas, Nazca, Mochica,  Huari,  Chimú, Wari etc., ranging from 1250 BC to 1532 AD. The museum costs 20 sols (~$5) and is worth a visit.
Some artifacts from the museum of pre-columbian art in Cusco. The museum costs 20 sols (~$5) and is worth a visit
It is easy to forget that the Incas were only ascendant for around 250 years (compare with the Mayas, who flourished from 750 BC to around 900 AD, before suddenly disappearing) before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Most of their achievements (eg., terraced agriculture, water canals) were built upon those of the civilizations that preceded them.
Downtown Cusco is full of narrow alleys teeming with restaurants, hotels and stores. After the museum, I walked around some more and got dinner at restaurant Ethnika (decent, though not great food). I was already starting to feel more comfortable with the altitude, and I planned to hike up to the Saqsaywaman citadel again next tomorrow morning.

Day 2

After a rather fitful night’s sleep, thanks to the poor noise insulation in my hotel and random road noises, I woke up around 7 am and hiked up to the Inca citadel Saqsaywayman on the northern part of the city. Altitude sickness was almost gone and I bounded up the steps that had me out of breath just the day before. On the way up, I listened to a very informative podcast about the fall of the Incas, which I highly recommend.

A few things of note from the podcast:
1. The Incas borrowed many of their agricultural (eg., terraced farming to prevent soil erosion), masonry techniques and religious and cultural practices such as pilgrimages, from the civilizations such as the Tiwanku and the Wari who preceded them. The Incas perfected these techniques and scaled them up by colonizing large swathes of north-eastern South America and organizing and applying the labor of hundreds of thousands of people
2. The Incas were religiously quite tolerant and allowed the tribes they conquered to continue practicing their religious beliefs, and even incorporated some new gods into their religious pantheon
3. Most civilizations spread laterally, because people like to stick to the climate they are accustomed to. However the Inca empire stretched longitudinally, because the highlands of the Andes provided a roughly consistent climate (cool and dry). The Incas never made serious attempts to expand westward into the Amazon, whose hot and wet climate they didn’t like
4. The life story of Francisco Pizzaro, and the confluence of events, eg., the split in the Inca empire between rival factions during the civil war between Atahulpa and Huascar, the sons of Inca emperor Huayna Capac who died a few years before the arrival of the Spanish, that conspired to make his highly unlikely conquest of the Incas a success, is super interesting. Here’s a good summary of what happened.
After the execution of Atahualpa by the Spanish, the Incas set up a rump empire first in the city of Vitcos and later in the remote jungles of Vilcabamba. This Neo-Inca State lasted until 1572, when the last Inca stronghold was conquered, and the last ruler, Tupac Amaru, was captured and executed. For hardcore Inca history buffs and rugged trekkers, several off-the-beaten-path options exist for visiting Vitcos and Vilcabamba. Here’s one.
The podcast has episodes about the fall of the Mayas and Aztecs as well, and I highly recommend listening to both. Interesting fact: The Aztecs and Incas were based in different parts of North and South America, but their downfall was caused by two Spaniards Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizzaro, who were related to each other, and came from the same region (Extremadura) of Spain. In fact, Pizzaro drew inspiration from Cortes and adopted some of his methods–eg., abducting the ruler and taking advantage of the divisions between native Indian kingdoms.
As I mentioned before, the Saqsaywayman citadel features many of the expertly carved interlocking stone blocks that are characteristic of Inca architecture. According to the Spanish chronicles, the walls were so stable that during an earthquake, the stone blocks would dance and jiggle in place and then settle back in their original positions. Unfortunately, the Spanish used most of the blocks to build their houses and churches so all that remains are sections of the lower walls that consisted of stones too heavy for the Spanish to move. The heaviest blocks are 100 times heavier than those used to build the pyramids of Giza!
It costs ~12$ to visit the citadel, but there are no info display or description of how the citadel may have looked like.. Alas. I would have loved to learn more about how the Incas planned for projects such as building the Saqsaywayman citadel, how did they organize their labor, planned for contingencies etc. The podcast mentioned that all able-bodied male citizens of the empire were required to contribute labor to the empire’s building projects, as a form of indirect taxation. While the Incas lacked a written language, they used a complex system of knots on colored threads called Quipus for record keeping. Lots of Quipus have been found, but haven’t been deciphered yet.
You get amazing views of Cusco from a mirador atop the citadel, and it’s worth visiting the citadel for that reason alone.

After the citadel, I visited a museum about Inca and pre-Inca civilizations. They had several pottery pieces, textiles, mummies, tools etc from 1000 BC to the end of the Inca civilization. The exhibits were similar to those in the museum I had visited the night before. I was impressed by the quality and craftsmanship of some of the pottery and ceramic pieces. The museum is worth a visit, specially if you are interested in learning more about pre-Colombian civilizations.
For lunch, I had a chicken + egg sandwich at Cicciolina cafe, which was quite good.
The plan for the day was to meet with the guide and tour group at 2 pm and do some guided sightseeing in Cusco.  We were scheduled to depart for the town of Ollantaytambo the next day. However, our guide informed us that because of an agricultural workers strike, the roads may be closed off, and we must leave for Ollantaytambo the same day. I was glad to have done a good bit of sightseeing in Cusco already on my own.
As an aside, I found it interesting that the strikers pre-announced the duration of the strike (2 days). I’d think it removes some of the leverage if you announce in advance how long you’d be striking for! It does seem to have had some effect, because recently I saw the news that the president of Peru was ousted by the congress!
On the way to Ollantaytambo, we stopped by a lookout point to take pictures of a beautiful sunset amidst snow-capped Andean peaks. We also stopped by a small family run textile factory and got a demo of yarn being made out of Alpaca wool, being soaked in natural dyes and woven into fabric. I ended up buying a blanket and gloves. I bought an alpaca blanket from a market near Quito last year and use it a lot, so figured I’ll get another one

According to this woman (who gave the demo), this piece of fabric takes 4 hrs of labor for a month to make!!

We arrived in Ollantaytambo around 7 PM and checked into our hotel which was nicer than the one in Cusco. After a bit of rest, we walked over to a nearby restaurant for dinner, where we got to know the other people in the group. Most of the people in the group were from England and Australia. There were 3 people from America. Four older Australians and me were doing the Quarry trail, while the rest of the group was doing the Inca trail. I was tempted to switch to doing the Inca trail, and even asked the guide if that was possible, but he told me no.

Day 3

Ollantaytambo is a small town in the Sacred Valley of south Peru, set on the Urubamba River amid soaring Andean peaks. It’s known for the Ollantaytambo ruins, a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside.
After breakfast, we set out to do a hike around Ollantaytambo. We passed by remains of some Inca houses and local farms. Most farming in the area is subsistence farming because plot sizes are too small to leave much produce for sale. According to our guide, the Incas cultivated hundreds of varieties of staples such as potatoes, corn, quinoa and other crops adapted to different altitudes, differing pest resistance, water requirements etc., providing diversity and resilience to their food supply. Many of these varieties continue to be cultivated today. I also learnt a few other interesting facts such as the ancestor of the horse originated in the Americas but went extinct (perhaps due to being hunted to extinction by the ancestors of the native Indians). The ancestor of the Eucalyptus tree also originated in South America, before the modern Eucalyptus tree was introduced from Australia.
We hiked up to one of the Inca granaries (called Pinkuylluna granaries) located on the hillside about 100 m above the town. These granaries were built in the 15th century by Inca emperor Pachacuti to store grain produced in the surrounding agricultural terraces.
On the way to the Inca granaries. Nice views of Urubamba river in the background

These granaries (also called Qullqas in Quechua, the local language) were a common type of Inca architecture. The Incas stored food and other commodities such as dried potatoes, maize and meat, which could be distributed to their armies, officials, conscripted laborers, and, in times of need, to the populace. These storage facilities were necessary because of the uncertainty of agriculture at high altitudes and because the Incas did not have navigable rivers, wheeled vehicles, or large draft animals. Thousands of such Qullqas have been found. They were built on the windward hill sides and had windows and a channel on the ground to facilitate air movement. Imagine building these relatively large structures without the use of wheeled vehicles or tools made of hard metals such as iron!

The Pinkuylluna granaries
The hike is steep, but you are rewarded with very nice views of Ollantaytambo and neighboring valley.

After the hike, we split up into two groups–people doing the Inca trail and the quarry trail, and our guides briefed us on what to expect on the trek, what to bring, the distance covered and elevation change for each day etc. Our original plan was for each group to leave for their treks early morning the next day, but because of the uncertainty created by the agricultural workers strike, our trip leader decided we should leave that evening instead and camp near the trail head.
So we packed up everything we needed for the 3 day trek in duffel bags (provided by the tour organizer) and our backpacks and boarded a bus to the campsite, about a 45 min drive from Ollantaytambo. We left the rest of our belongings in our suitcases at the hotel, to be picked up on the way back.
Our group consisted of 5 trekkers (me and the four Australians), Juan Manuel, our trip leader, 4 mules and 1 horse and 5 help staff (mule drivers and a cook). The campsite was located near a farm. The staff set up the tents for us and we promptly went to bed in our tents (around 9 pm). We slept in our sleeping bags (you could bring your own sleeping bag or rent one from the tour) on a thin, narrow air mattress (provided by the tour). It got fairly cold at night and I didn’t sleep too well. In addition to the cold, the dogs and roosters on the farms nearby were raising quite a racket.

Day 4

We got up around 6 in the morning and were served tea with coco leaves (a popular drink in Peru, that also helps with altitude sickness) and breakfast (crackers, omelette, pancakes, coffee etc). Before starting out on our trek, our trip leader gave us a tutorial on how to use trekking poles—using the opposite arm-leg motion, shortening/lengthening the poles while going uphill/downhill etc. I had never used trekking poles and took me some practice getting used to them, but they are very helpful to lower impact on the knees, specially while going downhill. I’m never going hiking without them!
We set out on our trek around 7:30 AM. We followed a dirt path that slowly but relentlessly wove its way up the mountain. We passed by a beautiful waterfall, an Inca rest stop, and a small trout farm along the way.

Inca rest stop. The Incas built an impressive system of roads (~20,000 miles) many of which remained in use for centuries after the Incas were gone. Because the Incas didn’t have horses or other pack animals, they built facilities such as rest stops at regular intervals to accommodate travelers. Sort of like “Inca motel” 🙂
We arrived at our campsite around 2 pm, after covering about 9 km, gaining about 450 m elevation. The campsite was located at an altitude of 3750 m, near a small village that consisted of 5-6 houses and accompanying farms. I was astonished to learn that the local children hike up and down (18 km round trip) to the town where we had camped the night before, every day to attend school!
Our campsite
Our makeshift kitchen
The help staff and mules had arrived ahead and set up the tents for us. I was musing to myself the resources required to keep 5 trekkers on a 3 day trek comfortable–3 mule drivers, 1 cook, 1 guide, 4 mules and 1 saddle horse. Traveling in luxury like this is only possible in lower income countries such as Peru where you can have the services of 5 humans for 3-4 days at a price affordable to those who live in high income countries. The situation on the Inca trail is even crazier. Because mules are not allowed on the Inca trail, porters carry all of the heavy stuff such as camping and cooking gear. Each trekker is typically accompanied by 2 porters, and a porter averages 2-3 runs on the Inca trail every month! Our guide Juan Manuel claimed to have done the Inca trail 250 times!
We rested a bit, had tea and snacks at 4 and dinner (chicken, rice, steamed vegs) around 5:30 PM. The views of the mountains around us were gorgeous. The wind picked up around 4 and it got quite chilly as the sun set and the temperatures dropped. It felt a bit like how winters in my hometown in India used to feel like–the temperature rarely dropped below 3-4 degree Celsius, but it would feel bone-chilling cold, likely because of the high humidity. It would have been great to set up a camp fire and chat a bit before going to bed, but camp fires are not allowed in that region of the Andes, according to our guide.
The toilet situation was good. We had a flush toilet in a small shed, with an area to wash your face and brush your teeth.
I read my book about the Plantagenets for a bit, but with nothing much to do, we all went to bed very early. It got very chilly over the night. To get some extra warmth, I slept in the sleeping bag liner and spread the sleeping bag over me as a blanket. However, I kept tossing and turning (because lying in one position on the thin and narrow air mattress resulted in pressure points) and the liner + sleeping bag combo kept getting tangled up. I had a few hours of fitful sleep and woke up next morning with a slight headache and not feeling well rested.

Day 5

Day 5 was the longest and most difficult day of our trek. We had to walk ~15 km with an elevation change of roughly 700 m (in one direction, so 1400 m total). We got up around 5:30 AM, had our usual breakfast of coco leaves tea, omelet, pancakes and coffee, and set off on our trek. As usual, the help staff stayed behind to pack up the tents, cooking equipment etc, and load it up on the mules (they would catch up with us later).

The gradient was steeper than on the previous day and air thinner. However I had acclimated well to the altitude and had no trouble keeping up. By this point, we would naturally split up into three groups while trekking. The guide, me and Sonja (Harvey’s cousin) would lead the pack, Julie (Harvey’s sister-in-law) stayed in the middle and Harvey and Sandra (husband and wife) brought up the rear. Sandra was recovering from a cold and therefore having a harder time adjusting to the altitude. We’d stop every km or so for the group to get together.
As we crossed the tree line, the views became even more gorgeous as we could see farther without obstructions.

About an hour into our trek, the help staff and mules caught up with us. Our guide had Sandra ride the saddle horse (which was the whole point of bringing the horse, to have some spare ride capacity in case anyone in the group needed help).

We arrived at the first pass (altitude: 4400 m) around 9:30 am. It was a great sense of accomplishment and we got treated to some amazing views of snow-capped Andean peaks, specially Veronica, one of the highest peaks in the area. We lingered for a few min to take pictures and admire the view and then pushed on (our guide urged us to not linger for too long, because hypothermia can set in quickly because of the cold temperature and winds).

Our lunch spot was about a kilometre ahead. The crew had already set up a lunch tent and prepared a delicious lunch consisting of vegetable + quinoa broth (a Peruvian staple), trout and even a dessert.

After lunch, we continued along an undulating path of ups and downs to the second pass, which at 4450 m was the highest point of our trek.
At the top of the second pass
From here, we commenced a steep decline down a narrow, rocky path of dirt and loose gravel zig-zagging down the hill. The trekking poles really showed their value while coming down. I soon got the hang of swinging the pole in front of me so the pole tip hit the ground first, before my feet. That way, part of your body weight is borne by your arms rather than entirely by the legs. Another trick is to put your thumb on top of the trekking pole, this makes it easier to push down on the pole without losing your grip. In a way, the poles become an extension of your arms, utilizing all four limbs rather than just the legs. Another trick I learnt was to tighten up the front shoe laces. This keeps the foot from sliding forward and the toes pressing against the front of the shoe. A bit hard to believe I’ve been hiking all these years without practicing such basics!
After about an hour of climbing down, I saw a quarry on the right side. This is why our trek is called the “Quarry trail”. It was still a good 8-9 km from the town below. It is incredible to think the Incas somehow lugged the heavy stones all the way down to the town.
The quarry

On the way down to the final campsite of the trek, we stopped at Intipunku (“Sun Gate” in Quechua), a spiritual place for the Incas that offers incredible views of Ollantaytambo and the neighboring mountains. Intipunku is about 5.5 miles from Ollantaytambo and a back and forth day hike from Ollantaytambo to Intipunku is becoming a popular hiking option.

Me in front of Intipunku

From Intipunku, it was about a 20 min trek down to our camp site. The camp site was located at around the same altitude as the campsite the night before, a bit disappointing, because I was hoping for it to be a bit warmer during the night.

As usual, the mules and help staff had arrived ahead of us and set up the tents, kitchen and bathroom. This campsite wasn’t near any settlement, so there were no toilet facilities. The help staff set up a “chemical toilet” (called Porta-Potty in the US). Suffice it to say that it served the purpose, but wasn’t the cleanest system. I was quite glad this was our last day of camping.

The chemical toilet

After the whole group had gathered, we had an afternoon snack, rested for a bit and had dinner around 5:30. Just as last night, the wind picked up in the afternoon and it got chilly after sunset. We retired to our tents shortly after dinner. I used the wet wipes to take a “dry shower” in the tent, which felt great. Perhaps because I was very tired and hadn’t slept properly the last two nights, I slept better on the third night.

Just like last night, it rained a lot through the night and the ground was wet when we woke up. Pro-tip – if you leave your shoes outside the tent (which you likely will, because they get smelly after 2-3 days of hiking), make sure they are well under the tent flap so they don’t get wet if it rains!

The next morning, the cloud cover that obscured the snow covered peaks of the mountains nearby had cleared out. We were greeted to amazing views of the peaks and valleys nearby, including Mt. Vernonica, the tallest peak in the area.

We had our usual Coco leaves tea and breakfast. On the trip, we made coffee by adding water and powdered milk to coffee concentrate. By this time, there was only some dark sludge left at the bottom of the coffee concentrate container, so the coffee was barely drinkable. The rest of the food continued to be of excellent quality.

We started our way down to Ollantaytambo around 7 AM. We had about 7 Km to go along a mostly gentle decline that followed in part steps laid down by the Incas so many centuries ago. Along the way, we came across remnants of rock-lined water channels created by the Incas to transport water from mountain streams to their settlements in the valley.

Walking down the beaten path of the Incas!
Remnants of an Inca water canal

Along the way, we passed by another quarry and a few small Inca archaeological sites. One of them featured a grave that according to our guide, was used to bury workers who died while carrying the heavy stones down the quarry. Our guide also pointed out a granite stone with perpendicular corners, straight edges and straight line incisions. This stone was probably abandoned part way through the process of being carved into shape to be used as a building material.

Granite stone block with rectangular corners and straight edges. This block was likely in the process of being carved into shape by the Incas
These grave sites held skeletons in a crouched sitting position. They may mark the top of caverns housing several other skeletons. Incas liked to bury their dead in a crouched sitting position, with the dead expectantly facing the rising sun, a symbol of rebirth.
The agave plant. This plant typically lives for 10 to 30 years. It has a spread around 1.8–3.0 m with gray-green leaves, each with a prickly margin and a heavy spike at the tip that can pierce deeply. Near the end of its life, the plant sends up a tall, branched stalk, laden with yellow blossoms, that may reach a total height up to 8–9 m
One of my favorite pictures. Lovely view of the Urubamba river snaking down the valley
A bit further down. The trains that run from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes can be seen in the background
Almost there! Nice view of the Inca bridge that spans the Urubamba river
And finally back!
A beer never tasted so good! 🙂

We finally arrived back in Ollantaytambo around 12:30 PM and promptly found a bar and treated ourselves to some beers. I was astonished to learn that Harvey, one of the Australians in our group, had a total knee replacement on both his knees just last year! I would never have guessed from his gait and the pace he maintained throughout the hike. I also have some cartilage damage in the medial compartment of my right knee, due to an ACL injury many years ago, and may need a partial knee replacement at some point in the future.. With some luck, we’d have figured out by then how to coax the body to regrow cartilage, eliminating the need for artificial knees. I was quite gratified that my knees felt absolutely fine, no pain or even strain of any kind. The trekking poles are partly to thank for that. Even a little bit of cushioning and shock absorption over time has a compounding effect in lowering cumulative stress on the knees, specially while hiking long distances.

Next up was talking the train to Aguas Calientes, a town at the bottom of the mountain on top of which Machu Picchu is located. Since we were staying at a hotel in Aguas Calientes that night, we didn’t have to pack for camping anymore. So, after lunch at the bar, we walked back to our hotel (where we had stayed before leaving for the Quarry trail), and repacked our backpacks and duffel bags with what we needed to spend the day in Aguas Calientes and the day trip to Machu Picchu the next day. As the name implies, Aguas Calientes features natural hot baths, a popular tourist attraction. So, I made sure to pack my swimming trunks.

Our tour had already arranged for the train tickets (which are generally sold out, and should be reserved in advance). The train was nice and comfortable and took about 2 hours to arrive in Aguas Calientes. The route follows the Urubamba river and offers superb views of the river valley. We also passed by a hydroelectric dam on the river.

The hyrdo electric dam across the Urubamba river. Roughly 50% of the electricity in Peru is generated from hydro electric sources

We had the afternoon to ourselves in Aguas Calientes. The town is teeming with tourists and innumerable bars, restaurants and hotels that cater to the tourists. I got lunch and walked over to the thermal baths. The thermal baths feature three pools with temperature varying from 38ºC. (100.4 ° F) to 44ºC. (111.2 ° F). The water is drawn from a natural hot spring nearby. Due to the high sulfur content, the water looks muddy orange in color, which being the same color as body waste, can be a bit uninviting. Towels can be rented at the baths, although it is a good idea to carry a hotel towel in your backpack.

The thermal baths in Aguas Calientes
The stream that feeds the thermal baths. The water color is very similar

I spent about 30 min in the baths. Next up was getting a massage. The town is full of massage centers catering to the large population of weary hikers. Good quality massages cost about 25-30$. I got one at a massage center near our hotel and really enjoyed it. The masseuse did an amazing job. I highly recommend getting one.

Later in the evening, we had our trip briefing for Machu Picchu and then went for dinner and ate and drank with abandon 🙂

Day 6

We got up early the next morning to take the bus to Machu Picchu. The bus tickets had already been arranged by our tour. It took about 20 min to arrive at the gates of Machu Picchu. One can also hike up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, which takes about 2 hours, and is something to consider if I visit Machu Picchu again. As I mentioned earlier, there are 4 circuits that visit different sections of Machu Picchu, along with several add-ons to visit the Inca bridge, Huchuy Picchu (small mountain) and Huyana Picchu (big mountain). I originally had a ticket for circuit 3, but my tour guide was able to persuade the guard at the entrance gate to let us follow circuit 2, which is the most popular and covers the largest number of sites.

Upon entering the premises, we walked up to a spot overlooking Machu Picchu which is very popular for taking pictures, and for good reason. However, a cloud hung over the city, obscuring much of the view. Along the way, I had seen a sign for the Inca bridge. I asked my guide if we could hike up to the bridge. She said that isn’t possible, because an extra ticket is needed for the bridge. However, we walked up to the entrance to the hike leading to the bridge anyway. There was a lone guard manning the entrance. After some negotiation and promise of exchange of Soles, he kept my passport and let us proceed along the Inca bridge hike. After walking for about 15-20 min along a narrow stone path carved into the cliff face, with incredible views of the mountains, the Inca bridge came into view. At first glance, I was disappointed by what I saw. I had expected to see a massive rope bridge, a marvel of Inca engineering, spanning the distance between two mountains. This is how the bridge looks like:

You can see that the bridge fills a gap left on purpose in the stone wall built by the Incas on the cliff face. Later I learnt the reason why. The bridge was intended to be used as a drawbridge to protect Machu Picchu from any invading armies heading that way. Without the bridge, an invader would have to walk down and up the gap, slowing them down and giving Inca sharp shooters (located near where the picture above is taken) time to shoot them down.

After taking some pictures, we headed back to Machu Picchu. I gave the guard the money he was promised, picked up my passport and walked back to the picture taking spot, hoping the clouds were gone. Indeed they were! After taking a zillion pictures, we slowly wound our way down to the city. In many areas, the authorities have built separate stairways next to the original stairs laid down by the Incas to prevent accelerated wear due to heavy tourist foot traffic.

Classic Machu Picchu photo!

As we continued along the circuit, we passed by several important buildings in Machu Picchu, such as a hotel, apartment buildings, and the main temple..

One reason the Incas chose this site to build Machu Picchu was the abundance of large stone blocks. The Incas masterfully built some of their structures around specially large stone blocks in their original locations, as seen here.
The renowned Intihuatana (‘place to tie up the sun’ in Quechua), carved out of a single stone block, likely used by Inca astronomers to predict solstices. It survived since the Spanish never discovered Machu Picchu. They destroyed all the other similar stones around the entire Inca Empire.
The temple of the three windows. Look at how the stone blocks forming the trapezoidal windows are carved and assembled to perfection.
Another Inca holy place. The significance of this place can be seen in the specially refined quality of the stone work. Look at how perfectly the stone blocks fit into each other, specially on the left wall.

I couldn’t help thinking how much energy and resources were invested by the Incas on superstition and religious affairs, which ultimately didn’t improve their quality of life. Perhaps if this energy and ingenuity were spent instead on developing new materials and technology such as iron and gunpowder, the Incas may have fought off the Spaniards. Although perhaps without unifying elements such as a widely-held belief in a shared pantheon of gods, and the divine right of the Inca emperor to rule, it would have been impossible to maintain control over a vast empire where news traveled as fast as the human runners who carried it.

The “Central Park” of Machu Picchu, called the Central Plaza. In Inca times, the Plaza was used to host public functions and sacred celebrations

Rock carved in the shape of the mountain peaks behind it
Alpacas don’t need any tickets and roam free. Also notice the extensive Inca terrace in the background
Temple of the Condor. The rocks are carved to resemble the head and wings of a condor, a bird of great spiritual significance for the Incas
Part of the Inca drainage system meant to capture the runoff from Machu Picchu’s thatched roofs and lower the risk of flooding
Then as now, the houses in the working part of the city weren’t as well built and therefore not as well preserved
The Urubamba river. But for a hydroelectric dam up river that diverts a significant portion of the river water, there would be a lot more water in this section of the river

I had forgotten to carry bug spray and got bitten pretty badly by tiny flies that are everywhere in Machu Picchu. Their bites caused red bumps, some of which turned into blisters and caused terrible itching for almost 2 weeks! So make sure to wear long pants, carry bug spray (or both).

After about 3 hours touring Machu Picchu, I bid farewell to my tour guide and took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. Over lunch, I reconnected with the rest of our group that had done the Inca trail. Because of the uncertainty created by the agricultural workers strike, they had ended up losing almost the whole of the first day of hiking on the Inca trail, and had to make up for it on the second day, meaning they hiked around 20 km on the second day. On the last day, they had to get up around 3:30 AM to make their way down to Machu Picchu (the Inca trail leads directly to Machu Picchu, unlike the Quarry trail that makes a loop around Olantaytambo). As an aside, the early wake up time is to give the porters enough time to pack up and catch the 5:30 AM train back to their bases. The group looked surprisingly sprightly given the long and strenuous day they had already! Looking at them, I was filled with a deep pang of regret not having signed up for the Inca trail, but some of the regret dissipated when I heard stories about the unsanitary toilet facilities on the Inca trail.

After lunch, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo, picked up our luggage from the hotel and then took the bus back to Cusco. We treated ourselves to a huge dinner and regaled each other with the stories of our adventures.

Day 7

I was scheduled to depart around 9 PM for JFK via Lima, so this was my last day in Cusco. I had already done some sightseeing in Cusco on my first day and half. On this day, I decided to visit some of the museums I had missed earlier and do some shopping.

After breakfast, few folks from our tour group and I ambled over to San Pedro market, full of traditional souvenirs, food and fruit juice stalls, accessories for traditional costumes, fabrics, stalls of healers and witchcraft, herbal tinctures, ointments and all sort of knick-knack. We had a huge glass of fruit juice for ~2$.

From San Pedro market, I walked over to the Qorikancha museum. The Qorikancha (The Golden Temple,” in Quechua) was the most important temple in the Inca Empire. Most of the temple was destroyed after the Spanish conquest, as settlers took it apart to build their own churches and residences. Much of its stonework was used as the foundation for the seventeenth-century Santo Domingo Convent. Part of the original outer wall of the Qorikancha, with its distinctive carefully carved dark stone can still be seen.

The museum exhibits ceramic fragments and samples of metallurgy, textiles, paintings, sculptures, musical instruments from the Incas and pre-Inca cultures. Two exhibits I found the most interesting were a model of how the Qoricancha originally looked like, and a portion of an original Inca wall partially covered over by plaster and murals by the Spanish.

Model of the Qoricancha. The Inca temples were quite unlike the places of worship of most major religions today, which tend to be tall, imposing structures. In contrast, the Inca temples were single storied and laid out horizontally
Portion of an Inca wall covered by plaster and mural paintings.

After the Qoricancha museum, I visited the Archiepiscopal Palace of Cuzco, a colonial mansion converted into a museum that houses several pieces of art, combining European and indigenous art styles with local motifs such as the natural landscape, plants and animals of the region around Peru. I found this depiction of virgin Mary particularly interesting

Notice the triangular depiction of her dress, symbolic of mountains. This was an attempt to reconcile Christian ideology with Andean concepts and landscape features to ease the adoption of Christian symbols and imagery.

Next up was buying a couple of gift items for friends and family. The streets of Cusco are full of shops selling very cheap Alpaca textiles, that look and feel good to an untrained eye and touch. The same items cost 3-4 times more in more official-looking stores. I couldn’t understand the reason for such a big price difference when the quality seemed similar, although the design and finish of the textiles is noticeable better in the more expensive stores. I ducked into an expensive store that had a sale going on, and asked the store owner the reason for the price difference. She explained it had to do with durability and quality of the material used in the textile. According to her, the cheaper stuff wouldn’t last more than 2-3 rounds of laundry, while the pricier textiles are a lot more durable.

You’ll see young people hawking cheap massages (for as little as $10 for an hour long massage) everywhere on the streets of Cusco. I wondered how these massages compare with the excellent one I got in Aguas Calientes. So, I followed a lad back through some alleys to a “massage parlour”, which was a large room with cubicle like sections along the walls. Each cubicle had a bed with a curtain in front. The lady running the parlor immediately tried to sign me up for a much more expensive massage, however I insisted on getting the bare-bones one being advertised on the street. She reluctantly agreed. The quality of the massage was terrible. It don’t think the girl who gave me the massage had more than a few minutes of training before being let loose on customers. I recommend avoiding the cheap street massages and going to a proper massage parlor. You’ll pay a bit more (~25-30$) for a massage, but it will be worth it.

That was all that I had time for. I said good bye to the people in my group and took a taxi to the Cusco airport. The taxi driver tried to overcharge me, but I negotiated the price down. At Lima, the security check and immigration controls were super chaotic and slow. I would have missed my flight if I hadn’t pleaded with the security people to let me cut ahead in the line.

Overall, I had an incredible time in Peru. I met some lovely people, ate delicious food, challenged myself a bit on a spectacular trek through the Andes, and learnt about the history and culture of the Incas and the civilizations who came before them. Machu Picchu lived up to the hype every bit and then some.

That’s it! Hope you found this useful. Please leave a comment if you did! 🙂



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