I’ve put off writing this blog post for a short while now; partly because the last few weeks have been somewhat nuts and hazy, but mostly because these 10 days or so as a whole, were so unbelievably good that I’m not confident in my ability in putting them into words.
We arrived in Cusco at 5am, with the rain lashing down (seriously, come on?!). We checked into Loki hostel, and were lucky enough to be given beds to crash in for a few hours again. Loki is a chain of hostels across South America, similar in a way to Wild Rover, but way more chilled out and with a less hard-core party vibe (or so we thought). Anyway – as you’ll find out if you continue reading – we fell in love with this place and I would 100% recommend choosing here to lay your sozzled head. Beautiful buildings that are seemingly constantly cleaned, actual hot showers, a super friendly vibe, delicious food at the bar, and with help-yourself tea and coffee all day long, you can’t go too wrong. Although the reception is the most inefficient thing in the world, be warned.
After napping we meandered around town for a few hours, absolutely blown away by its beauty. Santiago may have been the city I could most see myself living in so far, but Cusco is without a doubt the prettiest we’ve visited. Surrounded by mountains, the quaint cobbled streets lead to a number of grand and majestic squares that are bustling with energy instead of packed full of people. The whole city felt untainted and authentic; I was impressed by the incredibly inconspicuous chains like KFC or Starbucks that you really couldn’t spot unless you were up-close. In the mood for a night-out, we headed to the hostel bar and joined in the ‘gender bender’ themed festivities. It’s fair to say we joined in a bit too hard, and none of us made it as far as the club. I fell asleep on the bar’s sofa and unconsciously experienced my first 2.30am Loki staff meeting before being escorted to bed by Dick, one of the lovely bar men.
The next morning was spent hungover watching the England vs Ireland 6 Nations rugby game and cuddling Miel, the resident dog and soon to be our best friend. In the afternoon we took a free walking tour (not free, but you do get a Loki bandana and pisco sour in return for your tip) with the hostel in the afternoon, which despite getting very limited tangible information out of the tour guide, gave us the chance to see the city from areas we may not have discovered ourselves. I’m still in disbelief that they have a hill named ‘Sagsaywaman’. Yes, it’s spoken exactly how it phonetically reads. We bought dirt cheap jewellery from the central San Pedro market and eyed up all the other beautiful crafts and tasty treats on offer.
One thing our tour guide was knowledgeable about was where to get good traditional Peruvian coffee. I wish I could recall the name of the cafe, but it was on the right hand side if you’re walking from Plaza San Francisco to Plaza de Armas. We sat on the top floor and Peruvian-people-watched, as well as spotting Irish Ferg again! I can drink coffee like its water, and caffeine generally has no significant effect on my body, but this stuff was on some other level. After a stressful Internet cafe experience, I was so wired I couldn’t work out if I wanted to kill a man, have sex and a cuddle, or bawl my eyes out.
That evening we tried to get an early night before our Machu Picchu trip, but were rudely awoken a few times by inconsiderate room mates – the downside of this kind of hostel. We booked a 4 day, 3 night Jungle Trek with STA Travel in the UK before we left, and I’ll talk a little more on that later. The day started at 7am when we were picked up in a minivan and introduced to Kimmy and Joseph, two sweet 18/19 year olds from London who would be doing the tour with us. We drove just over an hour to a adorable restaurant in Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast. We then drove on for another few hours; the winding roads, altitude and lack of sleep causing me to not feel too great.
The initial part of our tour was mountain biking, although as it was on Tarmac road for the entirety, I’m not sure it can really be labelled as such. That being said, the ease of road cycling in comparison to the likes of mountain biking on death road meant you were able to take in the beautiful scenery, the wind and sun simultaneously on your face and the butterflies landing on your bike and coming along for the ride. Although let’s not talk about the number of butterflies we also incidentally killed. We were blessed with sunshine the whole day although that’s not to say we stayed dry; along the way we cycled through many substantial streams from the mountains which was good fun but did mean I had a wet bum for most of the ride! The 4 hour bike ride ended in Wamanmarka town where we caught sight of our first Inca ruins.
A short car journey took us to Santa Maria town where we eat the first of many 3 course lunches and then stayed at Dona Eleña’s guest house. Relative to what we were used to, it was luxury. All round dodgy stomachs and multiple bad nights sleep did not put any of us in good stead for another 6am wake-up, but somehow we managed it.
For the next 3 hours or so we trekked through the jungle and along a short part of the Inca trail that was only discovered about 15 years ago. The hike wasn’t exactly easy: it was sweltering, steep the majority of the way and we were being bitten to s**t by fruit flies. I also very nearly put my foot on a snakes head which made me also nearly poo myself. But we saw some unreal views and Incan builds, saw coffee plantations and eat passion fruit and avocados picked fresh from the jungle – does it get any better than that? We stopped off at a few local houses on the way, one in which we met this sweet jungle dog named Poncho.
At the end of the trek we got back in a car and headed to Santa Teresa where we had a well deserved 4 course lunch of soup, a whole avocado with onions and vinaigrette sauce (why’s that not a thing we do back home?!), Lomo Saltaedo and pudding. Lomo Saltaedo is a staple which you’ll see on every menu, and it’s worth hunting down a good one. It consists of white rice, chips and stir fried beef fried with red onions, red peppers, tomatoes, vinegar and soy sauce. What bikini body?
That night we were lucky enough to stay in EcoQuechua Lodge, just outside of town. The sumptuous wooden lodge sits in the jungle tree tops literally next to the raging Urubumba river which you have to cross to get there. Three days previous to our arrival the rainfall caused the river to burst its banks and took the heavy duty bridge with it. So in its place was a temporary pulley with a little metal basket… One of the most interesting/hilarious/dubious modes of transport I’ve taken yet!
After dumping our bags, we got in a car and headed 10 minutes up the road to the zip-lining centre. With the recent rainfall, the roads were covered in mud and our car couldn’t make it up the hill. I’d like to think it was the case of ‘third time lucky’ that helped us make it and not the fact that us 3 fatties jumped out on the 3rd attempt. Las Gorditas strike again.
The following few hours were absolutely phenomenal! We hiked up the hill and then went on 6 separate zip-lines through the mountains and above the river, at 300 metres above the ground. It was hilarious good fun, and hopefully I’ll have some good GoPro footage to share with you once I get time to go through it! Amy and I were even brave enough to go upside down on one which was pretty friggin’ cool 🙂
We immediately headed to the natural hot spring pools which were absolutely gorgeous and perfect for our tired legs. Right on the edge of the mountain and just 20 metres from aforementioned crazy river, it was pretty picturesque. We tried to get back to the bridge replacement before dark but didn’t make it – an even more interesting experience!
We had another delectable dinner in the jungle restaurant, feeling very spoilt. With the jungle right outside my bedroom door and the river just 10 metres or so away, I was swiftly lulled to sleep that night. Not that I would have needed it. The owner of the hostel was eager to please and clearly proud of his lodge; and so he should be.
The next day we took a car to the hydroelectric power station and then walked for about 3 hours along the deserted railway line and river to Aguas Calientes. It was the an incredibly scenic walk and I saw even more butterflies here, which I barely thought was possible.
Aguas Calienties is an adorable little town at the base of Machu Picchu with a vintage looking train running through the middle and a market with an abundance of crafts and ‘silver’ products. You’ll also hear the sounds of pan-pipe ABBA everywhere you go. We spent the afternoon haggling and well, arguing, for some beautiful jewellery. A lot of the jewellery in the area is real silver but be warned there area lot of fakes, some obvious and some not. Lucky I refused to pay more than a few pounds as my finger is now green! We went to a cute little French Bakery next to one of the bridges which I would 100% recommend if you fancy good quality pastries and tarts and a little bite of home. There is one long road of tourist restaurants where you should expect to get hounded. Most offer 4 for 1 happy hour all day long – not sure they’ve entirely grasped the idea of that. I also tried quinoa ice-cream which was novel!
In the evening we went for our last meal together, which was probably the best one yet. We ate like kings! It was so good that Joseph actually licked the plate clean. For starters I had a fried Peruvian potato cake topped with trout and avocado tartare, which was indescribable. That was followed by quinoa chaufa with crispy chicken, which is a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese food and very popular. The grand finale was a 3 milk sponge cake with passion fruit sorbet. I’m still dreaming of it all.
Our last day started at 4am (zzzzzz), so we could get up to Machu Picchu on the first bus. We had to leave the site at 12.30pm so we were all for being the first ones there and making the most of the morning. February is rainy season and we had heard horror stories from other travellers about rainfall, but also seen some pretty horrific sunburn so we were feeling hopeful for the latter. Especially considering how lucky we had been in the past 3 days, we were praying that the Incan gods had our backs. They didn’t. We were told the thick cloud was likely to clear between 9am – 11am. Our tour guide Juan took us around Machu Picchu for a couple of hours and filled us in on the history. In saying that, we spoke to other travellers who learnt different stories so maybe I should do some extra history lessons of my own and get some facts straight! At 10am we started hiking Huayna Picchu – the well known steep mountain you see in the back of the classic Machu pichu shot. Only 400 people are able to hike this every day and tickets sell out months in advance, especially in high season. Obviously due to the potential rain fall, this isn’t high season but we all agreed that due to the number of people present, we would have hated to go in high season when it would just be crawling with thousands of tourists. In February, It still mostly retained its calm, eery, and special feel.
Huayna Picchu is steep and at points you’re crawling up. You even pass through a narrow part of rock at one point which the mildly claustrophobic part of me disliked. I would love to say the view at the top was totally worth it, but the clouds only cleared enough to see Machu Picchu for a split second! Still, we got up and down in record time so I’m hoping it’s had a positive effect on my untoned legs and bum. On the descent the heavens opened, and even with ponchos on, we were drenched to the bone. Unfortunately that sort of scuppered our plans for pretty pictures with Machu Picchu…
Forgetting the rain, Machu Picchu is one of the most prodigious and magnificent places I have had the pleasure of visiting. Trying to describe it is impossible, so I’m barely going to try. But it’s beautiful, and fascinating, and so extensive that it’s literally no wonder (and no pun intended… sort of) that it’s one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
A note about our package: we booked our tour with STA travel in the UK about 6 months ago, because we were certain we wanted to do it and there is a fair amount of scaremongering that if you don’t book it well in advance then you won’t be able to do it. Our particular tour is also always closed for the whole of February due to maintenance and poor weather, so it was vital for us to get on the first tour when it re-opened. Prices for varying Machu Picchu tours in the UK vary from £400 to £700, and after a bit of bargaining on the phone I managed to get about £60 off taking ours down to £513 each.
So imagine our horror when we arrive and numerous travellers are picking up these tours a day or 2 in advance for $200 – $300! Less than a 1/3 of what we paid… Now the strong sense of thrifty in me was incredibly torn and pained to see that, but even so, by the end of our tour we all agreed that we would probably do it the same way again. The exceptionally good meals and accommodation, the friendly knowledgeable English speaking guide, and the fantastic activities all coalesced to create the most memorable 4 days. The inclusion of Huayna Picchu tickets and general peace of mind was important to us too. We were also told by others who clearly did activities like zip-lining at different centres that it was underwhelming and unsafe, which ours certainly was not. So my conclusion is, if you can budget it in months in advance and forget the dent it makes, do it that way. But if you’re travelling on a shoe string and happy to take your chances then just show up in Cusco – you’re gonna get a super good deal that way.
We took a super cute and luxurious train back from Aguas Calientes along the river and with the most stunning views, even just that was a real highlight. Arriving back at Loki around 6.30pm, we had originally intended on jumping straight on a night bus. But before Machu Picchu we had met an American guy called Clayton, and that night was his birthday so despite our 4am start we agreed to stay and party and leave first thing the next day. This same guy bought 350 blood bombs and spent the equivalent of about £500 on in one night to set a new record…Nutter. Dad, you’ll be glad to know I eat enough popcorn to fully line my stomach and everyone else’s. The night was Karaloki and we bought Panic at the Disco to the table. Obviously we didn’t get up in time for our bus, and headed to the bar for a late breakfast and to mull over our plans and last night’s hilarities instead.
This following day was absolutely hysterical and easily one of my favourite yet. Lee, Asgar and Dick spent the day begging us to stay, plying us with blood bombs and hiding our belongings. These brilliant boys had us laughing our heads off for hours and it wasn’t long before we decided to break rule number 4 for the second time (although we didn’t tell them that, kept the drinks flowing). Our new management friends also offered us jobs and asked us to stay a bit longer. That night was a cringe UV paint night and against my better judgement and everything my body was telling me, I got painted up, drank some blood bombs and actually made it out to the club.
The next day was a haze of sleeping, eating, laughing and Miel cuddles. Andrea wasn’t feeling well and with her birthday the following day it was up to her whether she wanted to get the night bus as planned or leave the next day. After not too much discussion we decided to squeeze one more night out of Loki, breaking Loki Lie #4 for the 3rd time. Oops. To ensure we actually got moving and didn’t waste her birthday, we booked a flight to Lima. After a miraculous Loki recovery, we somehow got ready for one last party. We were given the prestigious honour of sitting in on the staff meeting (concious) before all heading out to Changos. There is the most unreal kebab house opposite Changos club which is well worth a visit. Dick, Jacob, Mish and I had a super cute 6am breakfast date there. The morning after was slow once again and had our flight not have been delayed we may well have missed it – the boys were pretty convinced we would be back, and it’s not hard to see why…doh.
For a few days Loki became our second home and we will be forever [grateful/hateful] for everything it [gave/did] to us. Over a short period of time we became very fond of this lot; hopefully we’ll be back for a blood bomb or two one day!
Love, Lottie xx