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It happens rarely, but sometimes an email will come across my computer that makes me sit up and take notice. In the most recent case it was Travelzoo‘s weekly email of the top deals in travel.  Could it be true?  A long weekend in Iceland, including tax, tour and some meals for, like, $600?  I needed to know more.  Within 30 minutes, the trip was booked.  And we added on Bjork tickets for the Iceland Airwaves music festival for a mere $80.  The O’Hurrens are heading to the land of the Vikings!

Are you aware that a direct flight from Toronto to Reykjavik is a mere 5 hours?  5 HOURS! Given my travel history, this is just a short jaunt indeed!

We arrive quite early Saturday morning (we’re talking 3 am), where we are completely free until Sunday.  Sunday we take a tour around the countryside visiting glaciers, hotsprings and a national park.  That evening we hit up the Bjork show (which is supposed to be CAH-RAY-ZEE awesome, even if you aren’t a huge fan of her music).  Just the venue looks completely awe-inspiring and opened this spring.

So, I’m super excited to see some traditional turf buildings (viking-style), as well as bathe in some hot springs – and of course, to see Bjork.  Fingers crossed we also get to spy some Northern Lights!

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I just wanted to share a few more of my most favourite pictures from Machu Picchu…

Check out the amazing stonework of the temple pictured below – the artisan masons have actually perfectly fitted stones into the crack of the cliff…its almost Tim Burton-esque in its shape and form.  This is considered one of the most precious places in the whole complex, and lots of time was dedicated by the people in constructing it and making offerings to the gods.

This final picture will give you a pretty good idea about the state of the site.  Archaeologists are constantly working to stabilize and reconstruct many of the sections that have crumbled over the years.  Its a difficult task that will surely take decades more.

Machu Picchu was unquestionably one of the trip highlights for our entire group, and I know it will be tough to beat for any future trip.  It’s sheer size, history, setting and breathtaking beauty really have earned it a place on top 10 lists everywhere.  For me, its probably closer to #1.

Our wonderful and fabulous GAP guide Edwin (who somehow managed to get me through the Inca Trail in one piece) was a wealth of knowledge on Inca culture and history, as well as on the site of Machu Picchu itself.  While he knew many facts and details on its construction, what was most impressive was his incredible passion in retelling us this history.  You could tell he genuinely loved sharing his culture with us.  He told me that no matter how many times he had visited Machu Picchu, he was constantly impressed, and each time noticed new things.  He was phenomenal, and his eagerness translated to each of us.

In this picture you can also see a row of houses in the background.  What you’ll notice is how they are very stone-y.  This is because these buildings were for average people doing average things – living, eating, sleeping, storing food etc.  The Incas saved the majority of their time, energy, and construction might to be used on their temples, which incorporate classic Inca construction – seamless joints, large stones, and stunningly complicated angles.  The image below is from a street in the city, with the left side being a rough-hewn building, and the right side the back of a temple – it really shows how construction methods varied depending on the purpose.  Can you even believe those seamless walls!  Seamless!  No mortar!  You couldn’t even fit a sheet of paper in between those joints!  And of course, they are angled in the typical style to withstand earthquakes.  So, so, impressive.

And how do they keep the grounds so neat and tidy?  Why, llamas, of course!

We made it!

Machu Picchu is literally breathtaking, stunning, amazing, wonderful, mysterious and completely incredible.  Surrounded by mountains, it is a feat of engineering, a marvel of construction, and something we’ll never forget.

Built by the Incas between 1450 and 1540, it was abandoned when the Spanish arrived in an effort to preserve it from destruction. Luckily, it was never discovered and remained as it was built until the 20th century.  Local peoples knew of the site, and one family was even farming its terraces when American historian Hiram Bingham discovered the site in 1911.

It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and was named one of the seven New Wonders of the World in 2007.  2500 visitors descend on the site daily.  Despite this, it never felt busy or overcrowded, and there were many corners and buildings to look at where you found yourself completely alone.  There are many sections to Machu Picchu: temples, residential buildings, farm buildings, storage facilities, farming terraces, and many other buildings whose original uses have long been forgotten.

We woke up at 3:30 am the final day to finish the trail and be one of the first people at the site, ready and waiting for the sun to rise.  Now, getting up at 3:30 really isn’t my idea of a good time, but it had already been 3 days without a shower or a change of pants, so I was kinda over it.  I just brushed my teeth, put a hat on, did a quick clean with some baby wipes and went on my way.  There were a few girls at another campsite that were applying their makeup – at 3:30 am!!!  Totally nuts, if you ask me.  In any case, we rose, got ready as quickly as possible and headed for the entrance.  We were quite near the front of the line, so when the gates opened at 5, we were running to finish the final 2 hours to the Sun Gate.  It was totally like the Amazing Race, and we finished in only 1 hour and 2 minutes!  Here is a picture of our group at the Sun Gate, just before sunrise:

The best thing about the Inca Trail is it is the only trail with an access point that will take you to the Sun Gate, where as the sun rises and sweeps the mist away, you have the most incredibly stunning view of Machu Picchu from a distance.  Theoretically.  Sadly, in our case, the mist never really cleared, but at one point it thinned enough to get a quick glimpse of what was to come:

 

The third day was unquestionably the longest, with about 8 hours of hiking.  It was also the most beautiful.  The terrain was not very difficult and the views were completely stunning.  Jungle, mountains, rivers, and archaeological sites – hurrah!

While we passed almost a dozen small sites, we saw 2 archaeological sites that were literally breathtaking.  Sayaqmarka was the first one of the day.  It had been a large fortress built in the pre-Inca time, but expanded during the Inca period.  It featured a large temple to the sun, as well as residences for priests and townspeople.

Sayaqmarka, unlike many other sites, it was not at all agricultural, although it may have been used to store produce from nearby farms, like this one, as seen from Sayaqmarka:

Around hour 7 of hiking, 0ur guide Edwin gave us the option to either take the long way or the short way to the final campsite.  While the short way would save 30 minutes, he suggested that the long way actually had easier terrain, and a most stunning site.  It was not raining, and so we opted to take the long way, and I am SO glad we did. This final site provided me with perhaps the best memories of the entire trip.

We arrived at Winay Wayna through the Cloud Forest.  It had stunning views of the Urubamba Valley and snow capped peaks beyond.  It was covered in mist, and completely silent.  We were the only ones there.  It. Was. Magical.  Our guide told us this site was uncovered in 2004, and even today it is not completely excavated – the terraces go on for miles, covered by the jungle.  It was too exciting to be one of the few people to set eyes on this site.

I so wish we could have gotten more photos, but at this point our camera was running out of space, and you can’t NOT have pictures of Machu Picchu!!!

So we had been warned that day 2 was the hardest day of the trek.  It would be approximately 6 hours, uphill.  Over 1000m total to the highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass – a name which I came to find out was very fitting indeed.   Imagine 6 hours of doing the stairmaster, without oxygen.  Its tough!

After only a couple hours, you can see the pain on my face:

It was amazing how we could pass through such different terrain as we went along:  Arid mountains, humid jungle, grassy valleys.  Incredible!   Mike was clearly having a more enjoyable time than I was:

Phew, I get tired just looking at that picture!  In any case, we ate our snacks, drank our water, and used plenty of expensive runners energy liquids and gummie electrolyte treats.  About 1/3 of the way to the top it began to rain, and get very cold.  I can’t convey enough how difficult this became as the air got thinner, and thinner, and thinner as we went.  It is a feeling as though you cannot catch your breath, which is very disconcerting.   What is interesting is that you have no idea how your body is going to handle altitude until you experience it for yourself.  It seemed to me that your body health and your physical shape almost didnt matter.  They day after we completed the trek a young triathlete had to be airlifted off the path, as she had become so ill.  So hey, you never know!

My tip:  Don’t be a hero.  Go at your own pace, even if you’re last.  Take lots of breaks.   Eat lots, drink lots.

Here I am struggling 200 m from the top:

I think I might be smiling in that picture?  Its likely because I was delusional.  No, really.  At this point my brain started to malfunction, and according to Mike I kept talking about “getting the beans”.  Whatever that means!

But we made it.

Now for 2 hours downhill to get to the campsite…

 

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