DAY ONE: CUSCO - SANTA MARIA
Our morning started with a quick egg and toast breakfast at Cuscopackers Hostel (One of our favorites in South America!) before jumping into the minivan headed for the snowcapped peaks. We were with a group of about 15 others who were eager to start their 34 mile bike ride starting in the dry, crisp snow capped mountains to the tropical jungle below. After nearly 3 hours of driving the windy roads, we finally reached Malaga Pass (14,160FT above sea level).
INCA DEATH ROAD
After a quick safety briefing and our guides gave us the go-ahead, we took off! The road zigzagged down extremely steep terrain alongside massive cliffs lining the edge of the road. The longer I cruised down, the more I felt comfortable flying around the sharp curves without touching my breaks. Not before long, I was at the front of the pack blazing down the mountain with a massive smirk beaming across my face. When we arrived at the first and only checkpoint halfway down the mountain, we were able to take photos of the incredible valley glistening in the sunlight below.
Shortly after we began peddling down the mountain, a storm instantly appeared. High winds and rain soaked us with each switchback, so we all had to take our time on the sharp curves. After another hour and a half of cruising down the mountain, we reached Santa Maria, a quaint town next to the Urubama River. Luckily, during the final thirty minutes of the ride, we were all able to naturally dry our clothes making our way down from the warm sunshine. The entire group crammed in a small, local restaurant for soup, chicken, and rice before gathering our belongings for the next adventure!
WHITE WATER MADNESS
We changed into our swimming suits, hopped in another minivan, and charged for the riverbank. An Australian-English couple joined the four of us (Corinne, Jacqueline, Mark, and I), and we all jumped into a large raft with our super goofy guide. We were ready to conquer this raging river! I had went white water rafting a month prior for my friend’s bachelor party, and this river was definitely more powerful than back in the States. With every large rapid that we pummeled through, we all screamed and hollered with shocking laugher. It was mostly the freezing water that drenched us with every turn! Our guide was hilarious and made sure we had a blast. Every time that we safely made it through a set of rapids, we all gave high-fives with our paddles and screamed our team cheer. As the sun set behind the towering mountains surrounding us, we were able to soak up the remaining twenty minutes of our rafting experience under a neon orange sky. This tour was way above my expectations and looking back on it now, it was one of my favorite experiences of the trip!
DAY TWO: SANTA MARIA - SANTA TERESA
The next morning we all woke bright and early to devour a quick breakfast and prepare our minds for an epic and long day ahead. We started the first hours of the fourteen mile journey hiking on a dirt road beside the river. After about an hour, we reached the trailhead and followed a winding path up the mountain. The higher we climbed, the more expansive and incredible the views of Huancarccasa Canyon revealed below. We stopped to rest at an indigenous family’s home and our guides shared Incan history, personal stories growing up, and their beautiful insight on life. There was also a show-and-tell presentation with traditional drinks, plants, and fruits that we were able to sample. It was the perfect rest break before conquering the famous Inca Trail.
THE FAMOUS INCA TRAIL
Our group continued on making our way up the switchbacks until we finally reached an ancient Inca Trail that historically connected Machu Picchu with the city of Vilcabamba. This section was my favorite part of the day. The narrow trail hugged the cliffs with impressive views hundreds of feet above the valley's floor. We continued following this path for a few hours and eventually made our way down to the riverbed for lunch. Relaxing at another indigenous family's home, we were able to fill our tummies and take naps in hammocks while listening to the surrounding jungle sounds.
When the hour lunch break ended, we continued following the trail along the river towards Cocalmayo. Our guide stayed behind and let us hike for a bit alone, instructing us to meet at the large bridge. Halfway into the hike, we stumbled upon the most massive snake that I have ever seen in the wild! As we approached, the tail of the snake started vibrating rapidly and slithered by us into a dark hole. We showed this photo to our guide later that day and he said that this snake is definitely poisonous. Phew - no one was injured!
HEAVENLY HOT SPRINGS
After we crossed the large bridge over the river, we hiked another hour until we reached the local cable car crossing. Here, we had to pay about $3 before jumping into a small cart. We instantly took off zipping high above the raging river below. After about fifteen more minutes of following the path, we reached Cocalmayo Hot Springs surrounded by towering green mountains. The entrance fee was another $3. With three large crystal clear pools, it never felt too crowded or uninviting. I couldn’t dream of a better way to end a fourteen mile day of hike. Living the dream!
DAY THREE: SANTA TERESA - AGUAS CALIENTES
Luckily, we were all allowed to sleep in a bit after the prior night’s shinanegins salsa dancing to the latin beats in the small town of Santa Theresa. After another breakfast of eggs, toast, and jam, the four of us hopped in another van heading for our final adventure tour: Vertikal Zipline. While the rest of the group went to experience a zip line in another valley, our original travel agency hooked us up with the best zip line in the area! There were five zip line cables + the scariest suspension bridge of my life. At times, the planks on the bridge were no less than four feet between each other. I don’t know how Corinne or Jacq was able to get across! I had such a blast purposefully shaking the bridge while walking and gazing back at the rest of the group trembling with fear with every single step. The zip lines were also way above my expectations. We were allowed to fly upside down, backwards, and do the Superman!
STROLLING THE TRAIN TRACKS
Once we finished zipping across the valley for a few hours, we hopped in the next minivan and headed to Hydroelectrica for lunch. This was the end of the road for vehicles. There are two options: hike two to three hours along the train tracks or take an $18 train ride. We chose to hike. After eating the standard menu of the day (quinoa soup, chicken, rice, and salad), we were free to walk at our own pace to the final town of our journey: Aquas Calientes. This simple walk along the train tracks completely blew my mind! I couldn’t believe the dramatic lush mountains surrounding us while hiking beside a stunning river.
It was truly amazing to look up at the mountain peaks and see glimpses of Machu Picchu ruins carved into the cliffs above. After about two hours of walking the tracks, we made it to Agua Calientes, which is the closest town to the entrance of Machu Picchu. It truly is a beautiful little paradise with lots of smalls shops, cute restaurants, and a wide range of hotels tucked away in the mountains resting beside the river.
DAY FOUR: MACHU PICCHU GRAND FINALE
At 3:20am, my alarm started blaring and we both jumped out of bed ready for this epic day ahead! After taking a freezing shower (my natural caffeine), we bolted out the door to be the first in line at the bridge crossing. (All tour companies leave at 4am, so to be one of the first in line, you’ll have to be one step ahead the groups.) We only walked for about twenty minutes and sat 3rd in line to cross the bridge. From 4am to 5am is when all of the hikers start lining up (it could be several hundreds of people demanding on the season). Once the clock strikes 5am, the security guard opens up the walkway across the bridge to the famous 1,500 stone steps straight up to the entrance of Machu Picchu.
It was truly amazing to be one of the first in line because we were able to hike the steps without anyone else crowding around or passing us. Only the sounds of the jungle, the breeze through the trees, and the dark fog filled our senses as we rapidly hiked our way up. Twenty-nine minutes later, we reached the top and out of 5,000 daily visitors to Machu Picchu, we were the first two people to enter the park that morning. It was such an amazing feeling to be standing above the eerie fog, gazing down at Machu Picchu below, and not have a single person around us. Of course, the crowds began to pile in about ten minutes later, but we truly soaked up every minute while we had Machu Picchu solely to ourselves!
Once our entire tour group eventually made it to the meeting point, we followed our guides and explored Machu Picchu. Usually, Corinne and I aren’t keen on taking guided tours, but it was really informative to learn all of the history about this fascinating ancient city. I couldn’t believe how every stone was cut and perfectly placed together forming an incredibly strong foundation. The Incans even built all of the walls on a slight angle to prevent any collapses during earthquakes. This place is going to be here for A LONG TIME!
THE BIG SURPRISE!
After about an hour and a half tour, our guides said farewell and it was our chance to explore by ourselves. The four of us decided to climb Montaña (must book in advance because there is a daily limit), which is a mountain peak that overlooks the mountain range and majestic ruins below. We hiked up about halfway to an incredible lookout and Jaqueline had no idea what was coming. While Corinne and I knew the BIG secret, I told Mark and Jacq that this would be a perfect spot to take a photo together. They posed for the photo and within seconds, Mark got down on one knee and proposed to her! It was such a beautiful moment to share with them and truly made our visit to Machu Picchu so much more meaningful.
The newly engaged lovebirds decided to hike back down and spend the rest of the day together in Aquas Calientes, while Corinne and I powered through to the summit of the mountain. We were completely surrounded by dense clouds and every once in a while, there was a cloud-break and where we could faintly see the valleys below. After about an hour of waiting and enjoying the mountain breeze, everything completely cleared up and we were able to see Machu Picchu resting on the cliff down below!
I’m going to be honest. My expectations for visiting Machu Picchu weren’t very high. I was expecting another extremely touristy attraction that we had to cross off our bucket list. But after experiencing these four days, it was SO much more than that! The mountains surrounding these ancient ruins were way more amazing than I could have ever possibly imagined. Towering, jagged peaks and rugged rock faces surrounded us in all directions was the view of a lifetime.. Sitting up there didn't even feel like real life!
I am so incredibly thankful for Jaqueline and Mark deciding to visit us because they were the true reason we decided to visit Machu Picchu. We had such a blast during their entire visit and really bonded together through of the challenges and achievements on the tour. During our final dinner together discussing each our favorite parts of the trip, it was awesome that we all shared different memories that really stuck out and impacted us. From biking down the Andes to white water rafting at sunset to zip lining across a stunning valley to hiking the famous Inca Trail to exploring the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to Mark’s wedding proposal, this has definitely been one of the highlights in our entire journey across South America!