Trekking up to Machu Picchu, Peru

Nicole Furman is a student at Brown University. Last Spring, she joined a group of friends who set off to explore Peru for spring break. She writes of her wonderful experiences.

We woke up at 4:00 am. Lima, Peru, was still black and foggy. Casino lights that never sleep lit our way as we headed to the Jorge Chavez International Airport. There were six of us who had chosen Peru over Cancun for our last college spring break. After hopping on the plane, we went straight to sleep, never noticing our flight was delayed two hours before departing for Cusco. Flight time for our journey is usually less than an hour, but because Cusco is at such high altitude (3,300 meters above sea-level), weather conditions must be perfect for flying. So a short flight often still takes a long time. 

We started taking pills to prevent altitude sickness the night before, but that wasn't a solution.  Just after deplaning, one of us was put in a wheel chair and given oxygen. Don't worry, though! Given the frequency of altitude sickness resulting from low air pressure, the Cusco airport is well equipped. He soon felt better.

Getting There

We arrived at our hostel and were served mate de coca  - a tea made from the infamous coca leaf used as a natural remedy to help acclimatize to the altitude. Then, we hopped on a two-hour bus ride to Ollantaytambo.

There are direct trains from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The Peruvian tourism industry has learned to price discriminate so well ($30usd for the backpacker rail vs. $300usd for the luxury line) that, unless you book far in advance, the only spots by train are on the luxury line, where you are wined and dined. We opted for the Backpacker Train and our own snacks on a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the base town of Machu Picchu.

Once in Aguas Calientes, we browsed through the markets selling all sorts of Peruvian souvenirs (i.e. chuyos, ceramics, ponchos, pan-flutes etc.). We realized there was still another trip leg. So, we embarked on a short bus ride up a mountain so steep we were happy to reach the peak alive!

Finally, we were a few steps away from Machu Picchu - one of the great wonders of the world, and the "lost city of the Incas" built around AD 1430. As we made our way through some big tour groups, a native man approached us speaking nearly perfect, self-taught English. He offered to be our tour guide for the afternoon (and little did he know, our personal photographer too).

Reflections on Machu Picchu

Seeing Machu Picchu was fascinating, to say the least. It seemed as though the Incan period had been frozen in time. There we were, centuries later seeing a nearly intact Incan settlement. It still amazes me that they constructed this awe-inspiring settlement at the peak of one of the toughest terrains known to man. Getting a guide was a smart choice - he had great insights and was able to teach us all about their religious views, their sacrificial customs and their carefully planned military tactics.

In the middle of an explanation how rocks were chiseled into tools, we saw an odd-looking rabbit-like critter perched on one of the craggy hilltops. Following an "aw cute" from one of the girls, the guide recommended it as a meal best when accompanied by roasted potatoes, tomatoes, fresh herbs, and a glass of red wine. We asked where we could try it, but learned that only natives ate them in their households. Disappointment, we stuck with ‘merely' a diet of cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca.

As the sun set, we retraced our steps.  We headed down the mountain to Aguas Calientes, back to Ollantaytambo, and finally to Cusco. By 11:00 pm, we returned from our epic journey. We were greeted once again by a black and foggy night - only unlike in Lima - we all sensed ineffable mysticism in the thin, crisp Cusco air.

The Local Environment and Economy

Agriculture has a role in Cusco's economy; over 2,000 varieties of potatoes are grown there. However, tourism plays the predominant role. This was evidenced on our trip by the sheer numbers of hotels and restaurants in this area, which we were told have increased greatly over the past two decades. More money is flowing into the region in terms of tourist spending and from new jobs required for industry expansion.

It is the hotel and restaurant chains established in wealthier parts of Peru with the capital to invest in Cusco that reap the profits. At least the money seems to be staying within national borders. If the effects of tourism on the local economy are not equitable, at least the pie is growing, which continues to provide local opportunity.

Are the effects of increased tourism detrimental to the local environment? A few years ago, controversial issues arose regarding creating a tourist quota allowed inside Machu Picchu. There was speculation an overflow of tourists negatively affected site conservation. It was explained to us on our tour that academic efforts are in place to study conservation issues. So far, there isn't evidence of environmental deterioration. In terms of the expansion of hotels and restaurants, most are remodeling existing structures and not urbanizing green space. Hotels at the base of Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes appear to be especially environmentally friendly in their service offerings.

Cancun vs. Cusco

As mentioned above, six of us decided to embark on this journey over other more popular destinations, like Cancun.  We had considered the fun and sun Cancun offered.  We were ready for a trip which would be more cultural, and in which we could immerse ourselves in foreign customs, even if just for two weeks. So, we ate every type of ceviche and tiradito possible, trying all sorts of raw fish cuts and different sauces. We tried several different potato varieties. We decided to go truly local, as a unique experience we tried guinea pig and alpaca. When else will we all be here together enjoying this moment again?  They are tasty, although once was more than enough for a few of us. 

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