“Master of puppets I’m pulling your strings…” Sound bites from the previous night’s Metallica concert in Lima, Peru stream from the radio in the background as we ascend Machu Picchu Mountain by bus to the entrance of its ancient world heritage site.
It is early and the sun has only recently risen and begun to expose the tips of the green Andean mountaintops. In an effort to retain their mystic quality, the mountain peaks coyly keep themselves covered with the heavy mist of lingering clouds. They are not quite sure they want to expose themselves yet to all of us gawking tourists.
We disembark from the bus like all the other tourists, just another lump of legs, eyes, hiking boots, and cameras, but that is all about to change. Overhead we hear the “thith thith thith thith” sound of helicopter blades circling above and we watch as the helicopter slowly sets down on a flat platform near the entrance of the park.
Like an encore to last night’s concert, the band Metallica steps out of the helicopter with bodyguards and family in tow. All five us stand there stunned and starstruck, reverting to our teenage selves. Our friend Matt remembers the Metallica poster that used to hang in his room and all the surrounding hoards of tourists simply fade to black.
We watch the group huddle up to apply sunscreen, buy water bottles, and use the bathroom before entering the ancient Incan city. We can’t believe it…they are just like everyone else.
Fortunately for us, James Hetfield has no Peruvian coins on him to buy his 1 Sole (Peruvian currency) entrance into the bathroom. Matt, quick on his feet, an extra Sole in his pocket, and a catchy celebrity pickup line on the tip of his tongue, walks up behind James in line for the bathroom and offers to lend him his sole to use the toilet: “Wherever I may roam…I carry a sole to use the bathroom. Here, I have an extra. Use mine.”
And before we know it, we are Metallica’s new Incan groupies hanging with the band. We rub in sunscreen on each other’s backs, crack jokes about coca leaf tea, and tour the famous Machu Picchu ruins together. Like a teenage dream come true, they take our hands and we are off to never-never land with Metallica.
Then, back outside of the Machu Picchu site entrance, Matt shakes his head to clear his thoughts of what could be, he wipes his sweaty palms on his pant leg, and because nothing else matters he nervously approaches James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich for real to ask for a picture with the band.
A bald, stocky, tattoo-covered bodyguard inserts himself between Matt and the band: “I’m sorry sir. The band is not working today.”
Not working!?! Since when was taking a picture and hanging out with some pretty cool folks like our selves work? Matt thinks to himself.
James, with no intention of disagreeing with his bodyguard, refuses the picture but at least extends a hand to shake Matt’s. Then he turns away and casually rubs in his own sunscreen. As karma would have it, he misses a large spot on the back of his neck.
Matt notices the missed spot but decides not to tell him. He silently turns away and thinks to himself, “hmpf! justice for all” and accepts that this was simply the day%2that never comes.
So we really did see Metallica at Machu Picchu, but unfortunately for the band, they didn’t get to tour the ancient Incan city with us because according to their bodyguard, they weren’t “working” that day.
It was really their loss because we had a Schell of a time.
But with or without Metallica, Machu Picchu is definitely worth a visit. Not only is the actual site incredibly well preserved and excavated, but it sits on just one of the many luscious green Andean peaks in the surrounding area. Thick clouds hover in the morning to give it a certain mystique.
We paid the extra $20 to hike Waynapicchu, the neighboring mountain, to see the Machu Picchu site from some different angles. This extra climb is an extra 45 minutes up and 45 minutes down on the original Incan staircase. It was well worth it in my opinion.
There are many 1-2 day tours available for those who do not want or do not have the time to trek their way to Machu Picchu, but having both the desire and the time, we opted to make our Machu Picchu visit the culmination of a 5-day hike to the site.
You've Heard Of The Incan Trail, But What About Salkantay?
You have probably heard of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It’s a 4-day trek on an age-old trail created by the Incans and it leads you straight to the most famous tourist attraction in Peru (besides Ceviche).
But have you heard of the Salkantay Pass? While hoards of tourists trample the Incan trail every year, the Salkantay Pass is a lesser known option (also developed by the Incans). It is a bit longer, takes 5 days, and also ends in Machu Picchu. If you have the time, I recommend it as an alternative to the Incan trail.
Llama Path: The Tour Company
The outfit we chose for this trek was Llama Path. They gave us an informative orientation before we left while we were still in Cusco. Most tour companies are located in and leave from Cusco, which is a really charming city with fantastic Peruvian food. I highly recommend spending a few days here before heading to Machu Picchu. The extended stopover will allow you some time to adjust to the high altitude as well (11,200 feet)
The crew carried our bags with our personal clothes, sleeping bags, and toiletries on mules along with the other gear that the company provided, which was all the food, coffee, drinks, tents, towels, and sleeping mats.
All we had to carry on our backs when we hiked was a daypack with personal necessities (i.e. sunscreen, water bottle, snacks, a hat, etc.).
We had a five-member crew (a guide, two cooks, and two porters/horsemen) for our little private tour of just four people, which included Tom and I and our friends Tony and Danny.
The Food And Accommodations
Although we were “roughing” it by hiking all day, camping at night, and taking no shower for 4 days, our awesome crew made the trek feel more like “glamping” than camping.
*Glamping = a trendy new term for “glamorous camping”
Its amazing what can be prepared in a small, tented make-shift kitchen when you have a chef that can wield a pressure cooker with the precision of a samurai with a sword. There was no fancy convection oven, no granite countertops, no stainless steel grill, just some pots, pans, utensils, and a portable stove, but the results were impressive.
This crafty chef destroyed my excuse for not cooking while staying in hostels and rental apartments with ill-equipped kitchens.
And before we even got to the breakfast table, the crew delivered a mug of hot, fresh coca tea to our tent as a morning wake-up call. Talk about service; you would have thought we were Metallica or something! ;)
The Actual Hike
Okay, enough about the food. Now for the actual trek...
While it was still dark out, we piled into a private van with the crewmembers. We drove about 2.5 hours to the little town of Mollepata. Here we had breakfast in a “restaurant” which I am pretty sure was just the back of someone’s house, and then off we went to sart our hike.
The first day’s hike escalated from 9,500 ft. in altitude to 12,600 ft. in altitude. Most of the walking was along a dirt road through a lush green valley. Although, the initial trail followed a road, it didn’t feel like much of a road. Only about one or two cars passed us by the entire time.
But the real treat on day one was not the scheduled hike (although it was beautifully green and mist-dampened). The real treat was the extra hike that we took after lunch up to a small glacial lake.
We headed out with ponchos on and camera in hand up through a muddy field sprinkled with horses and cows. There wasn’t really any trail, so we cut our own through the field and after about an hour of hiking we arrived to the green-blue lake.
The hike was much further than it looked when we began and our lungs could definitely feel the difference in the thin air, as our hearts pumped hard to make do with its limited oxygen. Nevertheless, the lake was worth the additional hike (not technically included in our guided trek), and it was good practice for the long climb lying ahead of us the next day.
On the way down from the lake, the rain picked up, so we warmed ourselves from the inside out with warm, fresh-popped popcorn and coca leaf tea before dinner.
This was the longest, not the hardest (as we would later discover), but longest day of hiking. We woke up at about 5am, finished breakfast by 6am, and we hiked about 7 hours to our lunch break. We walked all morning and ascended to 15,250 feet at the highest point of the Salkantay crossing.
At the highest point our fingers just about froze off as we stood in the middle of a cloud and learned about the Incans’ human sacrifices and the remaining mummies that were found near the pass and the Salkantay Glacier.
In Incan fashion, our guide had us each place three coca leaves under some rocks as a gift to “pachamama” (the Incan’s mother earth).
Many Peruvians today, still practice remnants of the Incan traditions. For example, our guide poured a bit of whatever he drank, whether it was tea, water, wine, or beer, onto the ground before drinking; a way to give a gift back to “pachamama” as a thank you.
After we ascended down the other side of the mountain pass, we again saw green grass. It was still very muddy, rocky, and wet, but the lingering clouds gave a beautifully mystic appearance to the descending valley.
After lunch we continued our descent through mud and rocks, into the “cloud forest” to about 9,800 ft. altitude. The cloud forest is a bit higher than the better-known “rain forest.” Because of its high altitude the place is wet and luscious from the never-dissipating clouds that linger there constantly.
Our second night, was spent camping in what looked like someone’s backyard. After such a long, cold day, we played a few dice games and went to bed by 8:30pm.
This was a “light” day. We only hiked during the morning for just under 10 miles. The hike was relatively flat with a slow descent into the jungle. The trail had several landslides because of the heavy rain, so we had to walk the safer dirt road instead. And we arrived to our next camp in time for lunch.
With the sun finally out and drying our hiking clothes on the line, we opted to pay for an additional taxi ride to the nearby community of Santa Teresa to take a dip and wash off in the natural hot springs. Many trekkers enjoy the better-known hot springs in Aguas Calientes (the small town at the base of Machu Picchu). But we took the wise advice of our tour guide and opted to swim at these smaller, cleaner, and less crowded springs.
This might not have been the longest day (in terms of mileage), but it sure was the hardest. About one or two kilometers past our camp, we arrived at the steps of an old, original Incan trail. The steps were made of large stones almost completely overgrown by moss.
But the steps were just the beginning. After our initial ascent, the trail continued upward, winding and hugging the hillsides. It more than made up for all the “descent” we had enjoyed the day prior.
We eventually climbed about 2,000 ft. in altitude before crossing over the crest of the mountain. Our reward was to find a small, partially excavated Incan site with a view of Machu Picchu. Here we enjoyed a snack, the beautiful views, and a short rest for pictures.
Next we hiked down the opposite side of the mountain on steep switchbcks for several hours to the bottom of the valley again (2,500 ft. descent). When we arrived to the hydroelectric plant just outside of Aguas Calientes, our chefs met us there to cook one last amazing lnch fo us (the remainder of our meals would be in restaurants in Aguas Calientes).
From here, we had the option to take a train into Aguas Calientes, or walk along the tracks for another 2 hours. Hiking with three men (and their pride) meant we were going to walk. So we chugged down one more glass for fresh-squeezed maracuya juice for energy and finished our final walk into Aguas Calientes.
I’d like to say we arrived with lots of energy, ready to explore the town, but in all honesty we were pooped. We crawled up the steps to our hotel and checked in. Yes, you heard me right...no more camping. We spent our last night in a really nice hotel, with a real bed, and a hot shower. If only we could have kept our amazing chefs with us for one more night!
Here our friend, Matt, met up with us. Matt didn’t do the whole trek because he got sick at the last minute, but he did the alternative 2-day trip. This, by the way, is a great option for seeing Machu Picchu if you don’t have the time or desire to trek your way there. It consisted of a beautiful train ride through the mountains, one night stay in Aguas Calientes, and then a full day of touring Machu Picchu with us the next day.
Finally, we arrived to Machu Picchu. The actual site opens to tourists at 6am. The gates to hike up the hill to the site open at 5am, and the buses start taking tourists up around 6am. We opted for the bus since we were planning on hiking the adjoining mountain, Waynapicchu, later in the day.
Alternatively, if you are a famous rock band, like Metallica, you can hire a helicopter to land you at the top of the mountain.
We didn’t have a helicopter, but we did have the best tour guide to give us a full private tour of Machu Picchu. And after a long day of touring the site, we returned by train to Cusco to enjoy a hot meal and an even hotter shower.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!