Adventures Within Reach

The Capital of the Inca Empire

There is a lot going on in Cusco. It is the most visited city in Peru – and for good reason. Anyone who visits Machu Picchu travels through Cusco on their way to the ruins – whether they take the train, hike the Inca Trail or do an alternative route like we did. Beyond the draw of Machu Picchu, the city has a lot going for itself – it’s beautiful, there is a lot of history there (being as it was the capital of the Inca empire shortly before it’s demise), there are tons of great restaurants and beautiful hotels, and it serves as an access point to the Sacred Valley which is an awesome spot to do just about anything outside including hiking, horseback riding, rafting, mountain biking, etc.

As part of our trip and activity research for Adventures Within Reach, we had the opportunity to do some mountain biking in area and we were not disappointed.  The group consisted of Ted and me, as well as another couple from Canada. We had a lead guide in front and an assistant guide who brought up the rear. Both Ted and the other gentleman from Canada had some mountain biking experience under their belts so they were able to fly down the hills with the lead guide.  Myself and the other woman were not quite as experienced and appreciated having the assistant guide back with us going our pace.

The Sacred Valley is a wide open valley used heavily for farming but also surrounded by 20,000+ foot mountains. The scenery is spectacular. Just before lunch we had the opportunity to visit the ruins of Moray which anthropologists believe were constructed as an experimental farming technique that dates back to Incan or possibly pre-Incan times.

After a delicious lunch the mountain bike trail changed from mostly flat and rolling hills to being essentially a straight downhill ride. It was at this point that our guide informed us that we would be riding on one of the most popular downhill racing routes in the South America and that he in fact competed in the race! It was a fun ride, for sure, but as it maneuvered around tight corners and over slippery gravel patches near the edges of a cliff, I found myself relying more and more heavily on my brakes.

On the way down we stopped another time at the Maras Salt Pans. People from the town of Maras still use the the pans and literally mine for salt. The water that comes out of the mountain is naturally high in sodium and as it evaporates in the shallow pans, salt forms. Every few days they gather the salt and allow more water to fill the pans. It’s quite a sight, actually! We were told that some of the salt is used for human consumption and some is used for animals.

After the final stop, we cruised down a bit more before celebrating with a beer at the bottom. It was quite a day and we were able to strongly recommend Amazonas Explorer’s mountain biking day-trip to Adventures Within Reach for their future clients! We looked forward to doing a rafting trip and hiking trip with Amazonas Explorer as well, however, our plans were unfortunately canceled due to a nationwide strike that was brewing…

It’s a Hot One in the Jungle

Our next trip research assignment for Adventures Within Reach took us to the jungle. We flew from Lima to Iquitos, Peru which is the largest city in the world that can not be accessed by road! There are over 500,000 people in this place and you can only get there by boat (on the Amazon) or by flying. Immediately after we landed we were sweating. This place is hot! I mean, damn hot! Not only is the temperature high (in the 90s), but the humidity was the main challenge as we had gotten used to the dryness of being at altitude.

Taking our transport into the city, I kept getting the feeling we were near the beach – everyone is driving around on mopeds and wearing skirts. The bars are advertising tropical drinks and the weather is hot and sunny. However, though there is no beach nearby, there is plenty of water, and that water is the Amazon River.

We took a boat for over two hours up river before transferring to a smaller boat and continuing up a tributary for another half hour before reaching Muyana Lodge. Muyana is perched on stilts in the middle of the rain forest, hours away from anything. We were visiting towards the end of the dry season so the water level was quite low, but during the wet season the river comes up all the way to the stilts and rooms are essentially islands connected by the boardwalk pathway.

Both our room and the main lodge/eating area were entirely screened in, which did a fantastic job of preventing bugs from finding their way to us. Though overall the Muyana Lodge was quite nice, the fact that it is in the middle of nowhere means that electricity is a luxury. There is no electricity in the rooms (they provide you with a couple oil lamps each evening) and there is limited electricity in the eating area, depending on the time of day. No electricity means no air-conditioning (which we obviously weren’t expecting), but it also means no ceiling fans or any kind of relief from the heat. We would have paid good money for a breeze could such a thing be purchased!

Once we kinda adjusted to sweating all the time, we were happily distracted by our guide Moises (pronounced Moses) who was born and raised in the jungle. Our activities included:

  • A boat trip up the river looking for birds (herons and macaws) and wildlife (several kinds of monkeys and a sloth!), that culminated in a beautiful jungle sunset.
  • A hike through the rainforest with Moises who was amazingly adept at making a variety of bird and animal sounds as well as pointing out incredibly scary insects hiding in tree trunks, underground, etc.
  • Fishing for piranhas and other fish. I caught nothing but Ted snagged a couple piranhas and we then ate them for dinner!
  • A nighttime boat excursion where a different guide literally got out of the boat and caught a caimen (an alligator-type creature) with his bare hands!
  • Seeing pink-bellied dolphins and swimming in the Amazon!

I was pretty unsure about swimming in the Amazon after fishing for piranhas only the day before, however, after nearly 3 straight days of being uncomfortably hot, I couldn’t help but see any other alternative. Our guide led the way followed by Ted and another woman in our group. We all lived to tell about it and it certainly was worth the dip!

Ted and I loved our time in the jungle. It was an incredibly unique experience that we are happy to have had. That being said, we have decided that we are NOT jungle people and if it wasn’t for those cold-water only showers that we utilized at least three times a day, we might not have made it out without melting first!

Fortunate Timing

We had a lot of opportunities to conduct trip research in Peru (best job ever!) for our good friends at Adventures Within Reach. The reason there were so many trips to check-out was because our time there coincided with the largest travel industry gathering in Latin America called TravelMart. Buyers and sellers of trips from all over the world, gathered in Lima and to incentivize the buyers (i.e. tour operators in North America, such as Adventures Within Reach), sellers (i.e. Mountain Lodges of Peru) offered low to no cost opportunities for people to go on their trips (known as “familiarization” or FAM trips in industry lingo). We were happy to be those people!

And another wonderful benefit of the TravelMart being in Lima when we were there meant that we were delivered another cute laptop computer just like the one we had stolen from us in Ecuador! A huge thank you to Mark Lewis in Boulder for doing the on-the-ground shopping to replace our belongings, and an equally big thank you to Barbara and Robin at Adventures Within Reach for schlepping our items all the way from Colorado to Peru. We can’t thank you guys enough!

Machu Picchu

A lot of people asked us what we were most looking forward to doing on our trip and Machu Picchu was certainly on my short list. Like many, I have always been fascinated with the place (it must be the anthropology-major in me!) and wonderfully, we were not disappointed.

Machu Picchu opens its doors at 6:00 am and we were there in line when that happened. Our guide walked us to the “postcard viewpoint” and just let us take it all in. The morning at Machu Picchu is surprisingly serene as the majority of the Inca Trail hikers haven’t arrived and all the day-trippers from Cusco are still hours away. Our MLP guide also provided our tour of Machu Picchu and we happily followed him around for 2.5 hours as he pointed out and explained all of the fascinating aspects of the incredible history we were experiencing.  Amazingly, the architects of this world wonder only lived here for ~100 years before the Spanish arrived and the site was abandoned.  The Incas barely got to enjoy the fruits of their labor before they up and left! Truly an incredible place, with its remote location being one of the many impressive things about it (and the reason for its existence – fortunately, the Spanish never found this gem).

Three of us from our trekking group wanted to climb Machu Picchu’s most famous peak, Wayna Picchu (the mountain in the background above).  Due to the hike’s popularity, park officials limit access to only 400 per day.  To get one of those prized Wayna Picchu entry stamps, you have to get up SUPER early – we had to be in line at ~4:30am (and our guide was already there saving a spot for us!).  Having arrived in Aguas Calientes fairly late the night before, it was a short sleep.  BUT, well worthwhile.  The hike up Wayna Picchu is a steep climb. It is a hard climb. But luckily it is a short climb (45-60 minutes), and the views at the top make it worth it (photo to the right)

There are other things you can do when visiting Machu Picchu that we didn’t quite get to – such as climbing Machu Picchu Mountain, visiting the Sun Gate, or hiking to the Inca Bridge. I guess we’ll have to go back again sometime!

Best Trek Ever

Through Ted and I mostly have an open itinerary, we do have a few planned trips thanks to our good friends at Adventures Within Reach (AWR). AWR is a Boulder-based tour operator that we are working with while on our journey. It’s a pretty amazing “job” actually – AWR needs detailed information about different treks, hotels, and operators in some of the areas we are visiting, and we are happy to test, research, and report on them as it allows us access to some amazing adventures that would normally be out of our price range.  If you’re thinking about a trip to S. America, Africa, or Nepal, you should check out their website.  We’ve really been impressed, as you’ll see below.

Our first such trip arranged with AWR’s assistance was the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP). The most popular trek to Machu Picchu is the famous “Inca Trail”, but due to its immense popularity, limits have been imposed on daily access (500 people per day – needless to say, the trail is crowded).  In reality, there are many Inca trails in the region, and some of these alternative treks provide equally stunning scenery, and a much more private atmosphere. The Salkantay is one of these treks.

We knew ahead of time that the MLP trip would be fancy, but we really had no idea what we were in for. The 8-day trip was the most fantastic that either Ted or I have ever been on. We emailed our parents that we felt like we were on our second honeymoon! Anyone who is considering a trek to Machu Picchu that wants a “comfortable” experience should seriously consider the MLP trip. Hands-down amazing!

As I mentioned above, there are many different hikes that get you to Machu Picchu and most of these involve rather long days of hiking and then camping each night. The other companies usually make the trip in 3-4 days. The MLP trip is different, not only because they spread out the 24 miles of hiking over 6 days, but you get to spend each night in incredible lodges (with hot tubs!), eating beautifully-presented, wonderfully-delicious meals. In addition, the staff and guides provide over-the-top service and think of every last detail to spoil you rotten (why yes, I would love a cool towel and a glass of fresh fruit juice after my long day of hiking).

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves but a few of the many highlights included:

-Our first view of the Humantay Glacier. There we were walking along on our first day of the trek and then we rounded the corner to see the most beautiful glacier-covered mountain peak.

-The view from the hot tub at the first lodge (with the Salkantay Glacier and Humantay Glacier in the distance).

-The highest we’ve ever been! The pass on our third day of hiking took us over 15,000 feet! Ted and I have done a few 14ers (14,000 foot peaks) in Colorado, but this was certainly our first 15er.

-Wayra Lodge – the second lodge we stayed in our trek. It has to be situated in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  And, it’s only accessible by foot – no roads!

-The food. Peruvian food has been impressive nation-wide, but food we had on this trip was truly gourmet. We’ve never taken so many pictures of food in our lives. They were absolutely works of art.

-Our great group. We got to meet fun, unique people that are also in the travel industry. We were also lucky to have amazing guides and be accompanied by two cool MLP office staff members. You spend a LOT of time with your group, and we are certain that they were part of the reason we had so much fun.

-Oh, and by the way, did I mention it culminates at Machu Picchu, the most amazing historic site on the planet!  More on this soon!

So if you can’t tell, we absolutely loved the trip and would do it again tomorrow. It was literally the first thing we did upon arriving in Peru and it certainly set the stage for the amazing time we were going to have in this country.

More pictures?  Check out the full MLP album here.

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