Peru Pt. 2 - Breathless (literally) in the Andes

Cusco, Ollantaytambo in Peru, South America
January 05, 2018 Travel

The second part of the trip took place in the high-altitude parts of Peru, where Machu Picchu is located! Unfortunately, due to the short duration of this trip and last minute planning, we did not get to do one of the treks to Machu Picchu. I would've really loved to do one of the treks, either the Inca Trail or the Salkantay Trek, both look so beautiful! You have to book far in advance in order to do the Inca Trail, especially in the high season (Peruvian winter) as they only have a limited amount of people allowed on the trail. In hindsight though, it was probably a good thing that we didn't plan to do one of these hikes with how sick we got!

For this part of the trip, we planned to spend a couple days in Cusco in order to acclimatize to the altitude, and then head to Ollantaytambo for two nights. The first full day in Ollantaytambo, we would take a train to Aguas Calientes and then a bus to Machu Picchu and spend some time there, as well as hike up one of the hills in Macchu Picchu, Huayna Picchu. Then we would return to Ollantaytambo later in the day and check out the town the next day, before heading back to Cusco for a night. Then we would take a flight back to Lima, and then back home!

Cusco

We flew to Cusco from Lima, which is basically going from sea level to very high altitudes. Cusco is located at an altitude of 3,399m, which is high enough to be at risk of altitude sickness because of the lower quantities of oxygen. People generally recommend at least a couple days adjusting to the altitude before moving on to more strenuous activities, such as a multi-day trek. We were also prepared with altitude sickness pills, which you can get from a travel doctor beforehand. We started taking our altitude sickness pills the day before we flew out to Cusco, as recommended by the doctor.

When we first arrived in Cusco, we immediately noticed the beautiful mountains surrounding the city. We also immediately noticed how short of breath we were, even after just walking a short flight of stairs. With our large backpacks, walking up stairs was definitely a little tough, we had to take frequent breaks. It was at this point that I started to become relieved that I was not doing any long hikes! Unfortunately, our Airbnb was located uphill, and we got a little lost and took a lot more stairs then we had to.

Once we were settled in, we headed out to explore the city and find some food! Other than the shortness of breath, we weren't experiencing any other altitude sickness symptoms yet. The streets of Cusco are very narrow, honestly I was really surprised at how cars could somehow fit in these! We made our way to the Plaza De Armas, a beautiful square in Cusco, and then headed to lunch. We ate at a nice seafood restaurant, Ceviche Seafood Kitchen, which had a variety of delicious seafood dishes as well as really nice juices!

There are a lot of people around the city offering massages and manicures to tourists for really low prices. Of course, we got sucked in, and scheduled ourselves for a cheap massage! In hindsight, they probably weren't the most hygenic, but it was nice nonetheless.

For dinner, we went to Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse, which serves alpaca steak! I had a platter with three small cuts of different steaks, including beef, lamb and alpaca! They were really delicious, and served with some different sauces. I would really recommend going here and trying this place, especially the alpaca steak, unfortunately I was too excited for the food to take any pictures.

At high altitude, the sun is really warm and strong during the day (make sure you have sunscreen!), but it get quite cold during the night time. Luckily we were prepared with our warmer clothing and down jackets, but without heating in our Airbnb, it was really cold when we slept.

Unforunately, the next day when I woke up, the bad times started for me. I was having stomach problems, likely due to all the heavy foods I ate the day before. Something that they tell you about altitude sickness is that you shouldn't eat too much, especially foods that are hard to digest, since your body doesn't have enough oxygen it can't digest food as well as it's used to. I was feeling fine the day before, so of course I did not listen to any advice that I had read about, and learned my lesson the hard way. On top of that, I was also tired and nauseous with no appetite or energy at all. Basically, all we did was head to a cafe for some drinks and just relax. They say that coca tea is supposed to help, so I had a couple cups of that, but other than the niceness of the warm water it didn't do much for me. We didn't do much this day, as none of us were feeling very great, so we just took it easy to try to acclimatize.

At this point in the trip, I was very relieved that we weren't doing a hike. One of my friends was leaving us that night, to do the 4 day Salkantay Trek the next day. I don't think I would've made it if I had to do a hike like that in the state that I was in. In the future, when I come back to do one of the hikes, I think that I will take at least 3 full days to acclimatize before doing a hike, and also be more careful about what I eat. At least I learned my lesson on this leisurely short trip rather than a more active one!

In the evening, we took a collectivo to Ollantaytambo. They are these mini buses that cram a lot of people into a small space, but are dirt cheap, like most things in Peru. Honestly, it was a bumpy ride, and did not do much to help my nausea, but I survived and we made it to our Airbnb that was actually a hostel. It was quite nice though, we had our own private room and our own washroom. The nice thing also is that Ollantaytambo is at a lower altitude than Cusco, although once you have altitude sickness it doesn't just go away immediately.

Machu Picchu

The next day was the day I've been waiting for - we were going to Machu Picchu! Unfortunately, I still felt like crap and was exhausted and low energy. But I was still very excited to go see the famous ruins! We had bought tickets to see Machu Picchu a few months before we left, as well as tickets to climb up Huayna Picchu. There are two mountains you can climb in Machu Picchu, Macchu Picchu Mountain, and Huayna Picchu Mountain. We chose to climb Huayna Picchu because it is the more popular one, and is not as high (but still a little scary for those who are afraid of heights like myself)!

When we woke up, we walked over to the train station in Ollantaytambo and got on the train to Aguas Calientes, the closest you can get by train to Machu Picchu. We booked our tickets a few months in advance as well, from the PeruRail website. The train ride was very scenic, however I might have fallen asleep on the train as we were up early, and moving vehicles really lull me to sleep.

Once we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we quickly made our way over to the buses that would take us up the hill to Machu Picchu. We were lucky that the line wasn't very long, I've heard of people having to wait an hour for the bus, we only had to wait around 10 minutes and then we were on our way! The bus ride was also a little frightening, I don't think I will ever get used to crazy fast bus drivers in foreign countries with hairpin turns in the mountains... There were buses coming down too, I guess you can see if there's another bus coming but still! Luckily it was a short ride, around 20 minutes, and then we were finally there! Talking about it now, you can't tell how exhausted and drained I was from my stomach problems, and not eating for a couple days, but I was really tired and probably not as excited as I sound now. Walking through the ruins was still an amazing experience, and looked everything like all the pictures I've seen, except for there were a lot of tourists as expected!

Since we had a specific time slot in order to climb Huayna Picchu, we rushed to the entrance of the hike. There are two time slots for Huayna Picchu, one that was really early in the morning that we did not choose, and one between 10-11am. The goal is to minimize the amount of people on the mountain at a time, so the idea is that the people in the first time slot are supposed to finish climbing by the time we start. The hike was exhausting! We still weren't completely accustomed to the high altitude, even though it was lower here than in Cusco. We had to take breaks very frequently because we were so tired (and a couple of us were sick), and so out of breath. However, as we got higher and higher, we were treated to beautiful views! We had a great view of Machu Picchu down below, and you can even see the crazy hairpin road that the bus takes to get to Machu Picchu!

Although I was feeling awful, I still had a great day at Machu Picchu! After hiking up and down Huayna Picchu, we were exhausted, even though it was only a couple hours. We quickly went through the ruins, but didn't really have a chance to see everything in detail. I think I would've liked to walk up to the Sun Gate, but maybe next time! We took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes afterwards, and since we had some time to kill before our train back to Ollantaytambo, we found a nice massage place to shower and get a relaxing massage.

Ollantaytambo

The next day, our plan was to explore Ollantaytambo before heading back to Cusco. There are a couple ruins and archaeological sites in Ollantaytambo as well, so we decided to check one of them out. The one we went to was called Pinkuylluna, which overlooks the Ollantaytambo ruins, and is a sort of trail with some Inca ruins! Unfortunately, this required more uphill walking, and two of us were somehow feeling even worse than the other days, so we didn't make it very far up. As I was sitting to rest, these kids came running up the hill (so much energy...) and told me to take pictures, which I did, and then of course they asked for money lol so I had to give them some, but I got some nice shots! I wish I had more energy to explore more, but I was frankly completely out of energy and did not want to move at all. Again, next time!

Afterwards, we got some lunch (although I didn't really eat), and then we took a driver back to Cusco. On the road to Cusco, we had spectacular views of the mountains behind us, that we didn't get a chance to see when we were going to Ollantaytambo because it was night time. We didn't really do much there, as we were so sick and tired, and the next day we flew back to Lima, where we had booked a nice Airbnb, and we just hung out and ordered in food. The next day, we flew back to Canada and that was the end of the trip! Although I was really sick for half of the trip, Peru left a really great impression on me, and I can't wait to come back and check out everything that I didn't get a chance to this time! Something else that I really wanted to do was check out the salt flats in Maras, and Rainbow Mountain, and maybe the mountains in Huaraz. Peru is such an interesting country, and it's so different to what I'm used to in Canada, and the food is really good and different as well. At least now I know that I really need to give myself more time to acclimatize, especially if I want to attempt a multi-day hike next time!