So Machu Picchu was NOT the finale of our trip, but I think it might have been better if it were.  After our hike we had a couple additional days in Cusco to recuperate and relax before heading south to Lake Titicaca.  The plan was to take a 7 hour journey by bus to the town of Puno where we would take a boat cruise of  the lake, which is the highest navigable lake in the world. The scenery changed dramatically as we went from jungle to mountain, to an almost desert-like environment.   All seemed to be going well until the last stretch, when we were inexplicably stopped in what appeared to be a traffic jam.  After waiting for an hour, our guide discovered that the traffic jam was part of a protest by local Puno residents, who had blocked the entrance to the city by throwing masses of boulders on the highway.  They told us if we attempted to pass, our vehicle would be stoned.

Our only option was to backpack the last 30 minutes into the city.  Ugh. I normally wouldn’t mind, but my stomach was kinda sore.

In any case, we unloaded our gear and began the walk.   It was very disconcerting seeing the blockages on the road, but even moreso seeing the numbers of people at the clifftop ready to throw rocks at us.

The area was dusty and polluted, not to mention the extremely high altitude, which made it very difficult to breathe.  At this point, my stomach started hurting a bit more.  Within about 10 minutes I was unable to walk, the pain was so strong.  Luckily, my tour mates grabbed my bags and helped me onto our bus, which our guide had somehow procured and was ready and waiting for us.  It really warmed my heart to see the numbers of local men and women who rushed out of their homes and shops to come to my aid, bringing coca leaves, smelling salts, and all manner of medicine to help.  I was surprised to see the level of care and concern these people had for me – a stranger in the middle of nowhere.  Despite the discomfort (ok – PAIN), this was one of the best memories I have of the kindness of the Peruvian people.

Luckily we had an AMAZING GAP Adventures guide, as well as the best medical insurance money could buy.  Within 15 minutes of our arrival to the hotel, a doctor had arrived from the local hospital to treat me, with our guide acting as interpreter.  I ended up having a vicious intestinal infection, complete with delirium, shakes, fever, and a racing heart.  A cardiologist was also called in to make sure I wouldn’t have a heart attack.  A little over the top, I’m sure – but it was great to be in good hands!  A needle in my bum, handfulls of pills, and a good sleep later, I was ready to rock on the next adventure!

So what the heck is the difference between a llama and an alpaca?  Are they even different?!   They sure are, but not by a lot!  They are both members of the camelid family, however the llama has a longer neck and bigger head.  We were told that historically (and still today) llamas were used as beasts of burden to assist farmers and Spanish conquistadors.  They refuse to carry more than 40 lbs.  I am not sure if this is scientifically true, but we did hear it more than once on the trip!  In any case, check out these llamas we saw grazing at Machu Picchu:

Alpacas on the other hand, remind me more of sheep, in terms of their matted, thick hair.  Its smaller than a llama.  Their coat is the thickest of all camelids.

For the record, alpacas are also delicious, particulary when dressed with some tangy Andean cheese!  Yum!  Interesting fact: Alpacas use communal dung piles, so they never, ever, eat where they poop.  This helps prevent illness and intestinal issues in herds, as well as allows them to be housetrained!  Neat!

To complicate matters between these species further, you also have the Vicuña.  The Vicuna is a relative of the llama, and the wild ancestor of the alpaca.  In my opinion, it is also the cutest.  Of the three, their wool is most expensive, as they produce the least of it, and it is the most delicate while being extremely warm due to its unique composition.  They were declared endangered in the 1970s, and are protected by law.  They are also the national animal of Peru!  We did see a few, however I didn’t manage to get a good photo.  I will instead use the magic of the interwebs to procure one for you:

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:


So the big day finally arrived, and we set off for our 3 day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.  Now, I had done a LOT of reading online, and I thought I was ready.  Most of the bloggers out there stated that if you were in reasonably good health and shape, this hike would be no problem at all.  Those people, are liars.  You can read all about my preparations here and here.

So here is our crew on day 1, bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to rock!  If only we knew what was coming (and that, my friends, is called foreshadowing!)

And the first day was stunning.  Amazing weather, beautiful scenery, and not too challenging overall.  We also had the chance to see quite a few archaeological sites, some tiny, and some large.

If my memory serves me correctly, this site is called Wayllabamba, which was discovered by Hiram Bingham on his way back from “discovering” Machu Picchu.

After a short 5 hours of hiking we reached our first campsite, nestled on a set of small terraces with a stunning view of the valley.  I was pretty much ready to die, knowing full well this was supposed to have been the “easy” day.   What made my life a lot tougher was the washroom situation.  I was not expecting the Four Seasons, but I was also not expecting a squat toilet, and myself and the 1 other woman with me to have to share it with 22 men.  Just imagine!  It was completely disgusting.  And the bottoms of your pants get sooooo filthy, and you can’t shower.  So yeah.  Recipe for yukkyness.  And on my way to use the washroom before bed, I saw a tarantuala.  So that was freaky.

But waking up to a view like this?  Priceless.