Machu Picchu is one of the most amazing manmade sites I have ever seen, the only thing that comes close is Petra. I would highly recommend that if you are in Peru that you see this amazing ruin but I would not hike the Inca trail to the ruin. Why?
Two reasons; first because when I was doing my research on Machu Picchu, I kept reading about how overcrowded the trail has become, a lot of trash along the trail and the danger of being robbed. Second there is another ruin that is spectacular in its own right, an amazing 4 day hike (2 days in and 2 days out) and you will see very few if any other hikers, it’s called Choquequirao; more about Choquequirao later.
Back to Machu Picchu, I would highly recommend that you take the train from Cusco to Aguas Caliente and save your energy. Spend the night in Aguas Caliente and enjoy the town. Get up very early and catch the first bus to the top of the mountain and go to the guard tower immediately. As the sun comes up through the mountains it is an absolutely gorgeous site and you can take the famous picture below without any people in the shot. As long as you are at the guard tower you might as well finish the hike up to the Sun Gate.
Spend two lovely days relaxing and warming up in Machu Picchu but do it soon (our guide told us there is talk about shutting down Machu Picchu for ten years to do restoration and reduce the wear and tear on the ruin) but conserve your energy to take on a REAL challenge, Choquequirao.
Choquequirao (Cradle of Gold) is often referred to as the sister of Machu Picchu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choquequirao). Choquequirao sits at about the same altitude as Machu Picchu (9000 ft), the only way to get there is to hike about 43 miles (20 miles in and 20 miles out), there are no roads or trains that go to the site. We took our 2008 Globetrotter team to Peru and took on the amazing hike to Choquequirao (www.dustinsgreenhouse.org). Below are some of the pictures and the blog entry I made after taking one of the most beautiful but grueling adventures in my life.
2008 Globetrotter Trip – to Choquequirao
As we headed out for Choquequirao none of us had any idea what was in store for us. After about a 4 hour bus ride we arrived in a little Andean town, our guides served us lunch while they loaded up 10 mules with our luggage, tents and provisions for the 4 day trek.
The trek started simple enough, a winding path that twisted and turned, slightly up and down, really a pretty easy walk. The scenery was beautiful, rolling hills and fields with small farm houses dotting the landscape. The further we walked the more beautiful the scenery and relentless the terrain became. I had asked our guide, Eve how far we would have to walk and he told me 33 kilometers, or about 20 miles. I assumed that was the round trip there and back, unfortunately I was wrong. Quickly the Wow of the scenery turned upside down for many of the kids with a¨”ma” added, Mama!
We found ourselves walking about 14 miles the first day with the last 7 miles or so straight down the side of a cliff, to about 5000 feet (altitude of Denver Co). Everybody was going at their own pace with Germ, yeah I know “what a name”, bringing up the rear with horses for anyone too tired to walk.
We walked until after dark, Lou and I arrived at the campsite utterly exhausted and our feet feeling like they were going to fall off. We were not the last to arrive, several of the girls arrived late and in tears announcing, “they could not make it another day”.
After everyone got some rest, a meal in their belly and all got their chance to express their extreme displeasure at how hard the hike was, I pulled the whole group together and explained a major part of a Globetrotter trip is pushing yourself to your limit; find out what you are made of; find out how far you can push yourself. They seemed to get it because our Globetrotters started the second day with a whole different attitude. Thank goodness they had no idea that this was just the beginning.
I don´t know how we would have done it without the guides. They would break down the camp each morning as we began hiking, pass us running up the trail and have camp set up and dinner cooking when we got to the next site. Anybody want a job being a guide to Choquequirao?
The second day was even harder, a little shorter, this segment was only 8 miles, but straight up, 7000 feet, switchback after switchback your eyes would search for the end. At times you made your feet move, counting your steps. Just 20 more steps and I will take a rest, just 20 more steps and I will rest, over and over again.
When we arrived at our campsite, we were on a crest of a mountain, overlooking a valley that was absolutely gorgeous. The view outside the tent flap was breathtaking. The bad part was we had hiked over 21 miles over two days, with no shower in a dirty dusty unrelenting environment. The good part was this campsite had a real bathroom and showers.
During the hike to Choquequirao, everything seemed opposite of what we are used to; the water was hot, and the showers were freezing cold. All the leaders headed for the showers. I was a little surprised that the water didn’t form icicles as it came out of the shower head, if you stuck your head under the water for more than a few seconds you would get a brain freeze, just like when you drink an ice slushy too fast. Needless to say you washed one part of your body at a time and for us guys we got a new definition of shrinkage. After dinner we all hit the sack, sore, bug bitten and only the leaders close to being clean. It was really weird to be in bed by 8:00pm almost every night.
The next morning we got our chance to tour the ruins, but only after hiking another mile or two and 1000 more feet of altitude. Choquequirao is vastly larger then Machu Picchu and much less excavated. You can tell by what they have excavated that the ruin covers the whole side of the mountain. This is already an incredible ruin to tour but when they get finished many scientists believe that it will dwarf Machu Picchu.
The dwellings seemed to be more advanced than those at Machu Picchu also, many having two floors and more complex construction. They have uncovered some paintings of llamas at Choquequirao, these are the only art that has been found at either site. To see the llamas required more hiking about 500 feet down the mountain and back up. Only three people choose to take this trek on, yep you guessed it Michael and Darius and the surprise trekker Lou Green.
After about a half day of viewing the ruin (I would recommend possibly spending a whole day, ½ day was not enough time) it was time to head back and we all knew what that meant, 20 more miles, hiking 8000 feet of altitude down then back up. As we headed back, we had to traverse back to the campsite, all the way back down the mountain to the Apurimac River and back up a couple of kilometers to our original campsite.
This has been three days of the toughest hiking I have ever experienced and one more to go. By the end of the day I had given my walking stick to one of the kids (believe me a walking stick really helps in this environment), I had run out of water and had a 15 lb pack on my back. I was counting the steps coming into the campsite after dark, wondering if I could make it. I made it and so did all the kids.
That night Germ and Lamont entertained us after dinner with Germ on the flute and Lamont pole dancing. Yep, you read it right Lamont grabbed a pole and started shaking it to the delight of all the guides. He even got some of them up and shaking their booty. Lamont kept us laughing much of the trip, in Aquas Caliente he went into a restaurant and convinced the staff that he was Kobe Bryant, Rachon was a professional basketball player and Greg was Brad Pitt´s son.
Eve recommended that we leave at 4:30am the next morning to beat the heat and get back to Cusco at a decent time. So we took him at his word and started out at 4:30am, hiking again in the dark, hiking again straight up.
The hike to Choquequirao was the hardest physical activity I have ever done in my life. All the leaders and about 5 of the kids made the 43 mile trek without the aid of a horse. Although most would say they will never see Choquequirao again, it was something we will never forget, the beauty, the biting flies, the relentless terrain, it is quite an accomplishment.
We arrived back in Cusco about 5:00pm and this time we put the kids in one of the nicer hotels in Cusco. They had slept in the airport in Lima, the bunkhouse in Iquitos, the platform in the Amazon (all without hot water), a couple nights in a moderate hotel in Cusco, and 4 days on the trail without a shower. This was a really “ripe” bunch of kids.
All of them headed for the first really hot shower and nice bed they had, had in over two weeks. Needless to say we put a smile on their faces. Then I told them they were going to get their first professional massage which created more smiles. This is something we have done on every Globetrotter trip.
Our agenda is to show these kids how lucky they are to live in America. How life is not fair all the time, and for many people in the world it is not fair at all. What it means to give back to less fortunate people then yourself. How to face your fears and push yourself beyond any limit that you thought you could possibly go and finally if you stay in school, set your goals and work hard you can accomplish anything. Finally we give them a taste of luxury, with a beautiful hotel and a massage.
If you would like to read the blog on the rest of the 2008 Globtrotter trip to Peru, go to http://www.dustinsgreenhouse.org/dustin_s_greenhouse_blog.html