Days 1-3: Cusco
I arrived at Cusco, had a walk around Plaza de Armas in the center of town, and then checked in to Loki Hostel. I mingled around in the courtyard area and quickly made friends with a group of people from all over: a few fellow Americans, and a few folks from Malta and Luxembourg. We ate dinner together at the hostel bar and had some drinks while the hostel staff prepared the bar for a party. As soon as the music started, and the bartender brought out a round of flaming shots, I knew it would be an interesting night. This ended up being one of the most wild parties of my life. Later on in the night, way too many of us crammed into the back of a taxi and headed to a club downtown, but we eventually found our way back to the hostel.
The next day, after experiencing my first high-altitude hangover, I joined a few folks from the hostel on a free tour of the city. The hilly neighborhoods provided some beautiful views. After spending the afternoon chatting over alpaca burgers with some new friends from the night before, it was time to head back to Loki to register for the Salkantay Trek and attend a preparation briefing.
Days 4-6: The Salkantay Trek
My trekking group took a bus out to the starting point of this 5-day hike. After stopping to push the bus out of several mud puddles, we eventually reached a puddle that was too deep, so we started the hike several miles early. The hike on this first day was beautiful, and the peaks were looming up ahead. As the day went on, I noticed the altitude affecting me more and more. We reached the base camp in the early evening, at the bottom of a very steep hill with the beautiful Lake Humantay at the top. We had the option to hike up to the lake before dinner. I considered staying at the camp due to the altitude headaches, but I ended up making the climb and I was so glad I did. The lake was beautiful and we were able to see a small avalance on the other side.
The second day, after a sleepless night dealing with some mild altitude issues, it was time for the hardest day of the hike. This day was incredibly fun but it also tested my resolve. The higher we got, the more I felt my head pounding. Under normal conditions, this hike would have been pleasantly challenging but nothing too crazy. The altitude, however, had a profound physical effect and made you fight for every step. There was a particularly taxing set of switchbacks called the "gringo killer" near the end. While we couldn't see very far due to the fog, it felt surreal being so high.
Upon reaching the top, our guide led us in a Quechua ritual prayer, and then we continued the hike, gratefully descending in elevation and feeling each mile get easier. The rain picked up, and I was shivering and soaked to the bone, but I didn't care. I was just happy to get more oxygen. I got a bit ahead of the group, and decided to stop and wait once I was back below the treeline. It was here I met an old Quechua man living in a hut, many miles from the nearest settlement. He spoke no Spanish, and I spoke no Quechua, but we sat and chilled together for a while anyway. That night, we stayed in a remote village called Santa Teresa and my hiking group had a campfire, played some music and drank some Inca tequila.
The third day of hiking was much easier - we hiked through forests and along rivers. At one point we ziplined across a gorge. We also got to experience the terrifying cliff-side van rides that you may have seen pictures of online. When sitting in a rickety van on a tiny dirt road, containing double the number of people it was built to hold, with mere centimeters of space separating you from a several hundred foot fall, all you can do is sit back and laugh.
Days 7-8: Aguas Calientes and Macchu Picchu
We walked for several hours alongside an old railroad track in the forest until we reached the town of Aguas Calientes. It is a very touristy town, so after a quick lap around town to check things out, I was content to get an early night to prepare for Macchu Picchu. At 4am the next morning, we began the walk up to the famous ruins. It was a long walk from the base of the mountain up to Machhu Picchu, but it felt like nothing compared to the hike two days before.
Macchu Picchu was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. There's no point in describing it here because I can't do it justice. After walking around the main site and getting a history lesson from our guide, our guide said his goodbyes. In fact most of our hiking group said goodbye to each other right there. I continued on with two other guys from the group whom I had become quite good friends with. We first walked up to the "Sun Gate" and then walked up to the peak of Machhu Picchu mountain, which provides a great aerial view of the ruins. Then, after a long walk back down, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo and then rode in a van back to Cusco.
Days 9-11: Cusco Revisited
In the morning, I said goodbye to my two favorite hiking buddies as they were due to go their seperate ways. Then I took a walk up to the beautiful local attraction known as Saqsaywaman, which was once the capitol of the Inca empire. I got into a brief argument with a pair of con-men who were telling tourists that Saqsaywaman was a 30-minute drive away, and trying to charge them for rides. In reality, Saqsaywaman was about a five minute walk from where they were standing.
That night, I met up for a drink with a British woman whom I'd met a few days earlier when her family randomly showed up at my hiking group's campfire in Santa Teresa. She and I kept in touch and we are actually married now, but that's a story for another day.
Not five minutes after I said goodbye to the Brit, food poisoning struck me. The timing was impeccable. I dragged myself back to my hostel and spent the next day and a half basically bed-ridden. After that, it was time to head to the airport. I puked on all three of my flights. Whatever it was that was attacking my insides, it did not stop until I was wheels-down in my hometown. Despite this unfortunate end to the trip, I was still in good spirits, because I had just finished the best solo trip of my life.