When I’ve dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu, I’ve always known how I planned to get there: trekking like an Inca for days and feeling like I’ve earned it when I arrive. Until recently, I didn’t know you could get to Machu Picchu any other way, I thought getting to Machu Picchu mandated trekking. Which maybe is a bit too discriminatory against lazy people for this day and age, but I thought that was just part of the deal. As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, one of the most popular destinations in South America (and in my opinion the best destination in South America), and one of the most magnificent photo ops anywhere, I loved that it was remote and required more of a journey to reach than, say, the Eiffel Tower. It adds to the mystery of the sacred mountain. I read somewhere that the long Incan Trail was meant to prepare the Incas, mentally and physically, for entering the sacred site of Machu Picchu. I love that. That’s exactly how I imagined my experience. While our Peruvian Henry is adamantly against paying for trekking (and has taken the train to Machu Picchu the past 4 times he’s gone), I knew we had to trek. After a lot of convincing, I got him on board and even he will admit, it was one of our greatest traveling experiences and now one of our greatest travel memories. So…follow along with us on the Inca Jungle Trek!


My Experience Trekking to Machu Picchu Day 1


DAY 1:

Our trek began nice and early at 7am. Everyone was picked up and we began small talking and meeting each other. Very quickly we realized that we had a lively group… From Peru, USA, Germany, Canada, Australia, England, Spain and Portugal, we were diverse and endlessly social. We knew the first day was the biking day, so we were geared and bundled up for the cold of the mountain before we would arrive at the bottom in the heat of the jungle. After hours of driving through the mountains, joking around, and realizing that we were all here for the fun of the trek rather than the physical activity, we had bonded enough to strap into our much-used gloves and bikes before heading down an isolated and windy Peruvian mountain road together. GoPros on and rain ponchos in our pockets, we began down the hill, just as someone mentioned they’d see us at the bottom in 3 hours… Hopefully without rain! We hadn’t prepared for that at all. We aren’t “bikers”, and had bought one dollar ponchos so we felt like we had done something. So yea- we got a bit nervous. But as we went down, proudly holding up the tail end of our group at a safe pace, it became not intimidating at all and just plain amazing.


Mountains on our way to Santa Maria Town Day 1 Inca Jungle


The road winds through beautiful green-covered mountains and the valley full of fog below slowly opens up as the sun burns the mist off. Even though it was cold, it was way easier than I had imagined, and after riding in a car for over 4 hours the windy breeze and silence of the road was everything we were craving. It was the perfect feeling of freedom to start our journey, and I was very quickly convinced that the Inca Jungle Trek was the best way to get to Machu Picchu (I’m an easy sell). As we got used to instinctively rushing to the side when the crazy cars drove by warning us with their horns, packed high on top with cages of chickens, outdoor gear and luggage, I accepted that part of the South American experience is not thinking about the questionable safety of everything and just going with it. We were finally going fast and not caring when we made it to the first meeting point and everyone could catch up for a moment. People were loving it and thrilled to see how much road was winding below when our guide began to announce something about no more mountain biking. I’m not sure what his first words were, but everyone was confused and this is when we first learned about our guide’s sassy side- he did not seem to like people asking questions. Apparently there had been a landslide and a rock had fallen in the road below and we would be ending our bike ride in 20 minutes, before walking past the rock and switching to a bus on the other side. Because we’d have to leave our bikes with our original van on this side, that would be it. It was a bummer, but wouldn’t be more than a minor inconvenience. As we rode down to the line of stopped cars, the sun turned to clouds and the clouds turned to hard beating, sideways rain, and I’m surprised none of us saw the sign that this way for the way our day would turn.

We pulled up, soaking wet, and had to quickly hand over our bikes and gear and grab our belongings to walk towards the crossing. Over a hundred cars were in line, and the rain slowly let up as we approached the front. Kids were sitting on the railings on the edge of the road, waving as our awkward trail of foreigners in cheap neon plastic raincoats walked past. Just before we got the the front, we should have understood the desperation of the situation. All of the trucks stacked with cages of guinea pigs and chickens were going crazy, and massive cows had been unloaded out of the trailers and were tied on the side of the road. Little old women who had been traveling with bread or cheese to sell were posted at temporary tables unloading their goods. We then rounded the corner and it all made sense. There was no boulder that needed to be moved. There was a landslide… Literally half of the mountain had fallen in tiny pieces onto the road, and there was a relatively small CAT tractor slowly scraping at it. We were obviously not going anywhere anytime soon.


People waiting to remove the landslide Day 1 Inca Jungle


Fresh Landslide Day 1 Inca Jungle


Confused and discouraged, we stood around with our packs and understood why everyone we passed had looked at us like we were crazy. Finally, in hopes of finding beer at the last town we had biked past, we returned to our bus parked at the top to drop our stuff. And of course, this is exactly when the rain began again.

When you’re traveling, especially on a tiny mountain road in Peru during the rainy season, this stuff happens. You can’t predict the weather, you can’t predict landslides. You learn that and you learn to accept it. The fun part is when you learn how to work with it. Not just going along with things, but actually using the setback to create even better memories. In our group we had someone who took mere seconds to start this, and it’s times like this that remind you why you love traveling.

We had cheap ponchos, so even though we didn’t want to walk a mile in the rain, we could stand outside. Jeff, our miracle man, quickly scoured the area and grabbed some roundish rocks and decided we had everything we needed for bocce ball. And so we played. We took turns, standing in our ponchos and throwing rocks at other rocks and it was great. When that tired, the lovers of bocce ball tried to analyze our resources for other games. Bowling was decided on, and we divided and conquered to collect water bottles, as well as make a very thrifty bowling ball out of a mini Pringles can full of trash (it needed some weight, thank you Will for your ever present grocery bag of goodies). Before long, the car in front of us slowly trickled over, as the hour we had been waiting was long enough, and they seemed to realize the value in our trash games. It was like a feel-good teen movie, one second we were playing our semi-cute semi-sad little sport, and the next a group of loud Israelis had approached and begun cheering everyone on and amping up the competition (you can always trust the large groups of post-service Israelis to turn things up). While our tour guide had informed us that he had diarhea and left, their tour guide got really into it, organizing us so that we could bowl for our countries.


Killing Time Day 1 Inca Jungle


We waited for almost 4 hours there, playing games, walking back to the landslides for updates, seeing nothing, standing in queues for food as little resourceful Peruvian women cooked whatever they could, and despite it all I was just so thankful to be with such an awesome group of people that remind you why you love travelers. Had they been tourists, the kind of people who had a tight schedule, had spent a lot of money, expected things to work they way they did back home, we would have had a mutiny right off the bat. But nobody seemed to care too much, we just went with it, made our fun, and were happy to take photos with the guinea pigs waiting in cages on the trucks while the construction moved at a glacial pace.

Eventually a tractor came on the other side and began working, but it was getting dark and the “two more hours!” we had been hearing ever hour had fully lost its credibility. One guy, perhaps the oldest and on the tightest schedule of the group, decided we needed to make some kind of decision and cornered our guide when he returned to the car. And, in the endless list of bizarre behavior by our tour guide, Cesar, he whipped around and decided we had to leave that instant. All of the sudden our backpacks and gear were thrown out of the car, we was yelling that we were losing daylight, and we weren’t even given time to wait for those who weren’t at the car. We just grabbed their packs too and moved, and Cesar held up the front power walking in his capris and constantly yelling about daylight. When asked where we were going, he said we were crossing to the other side of the landslide. No more details. As if this had been an option all along and it was a matter of choice, not the tons of rubble in the road.


Mountainslide Day 1 Inca Jungle


As we walked towards the front of the line of cars, we watched as locals smirked at us, knowing what we were in for. Looking at us walking like we knew something they didn’t, we should have realized that if there was a decent way out, they would have done it long ago. Other tourists stared with equal parts confusion and jealousy, and began questioning why there tour guide wasn’t leading them out. And apart from Cesar’s madness, the rest of us felt a bit proud, like the trailblazers. We had no idea how we had a way out and nobody else did, but we were leaving and that was enough.

We we walked straight up to the police line tape divided the onlookers and the construction team. Without hesitation. Cesar lifted up the tape, and motioned for us to quickly come under. I am positive that the locals were cracking up at this point. But we went, with all of our gear, under the tape and quickly into the brush on the side of the road. And this is when we saw Cesar’s way out. It was just down the hillside to the road below. Casual? Not so much. I had asked multiple people earlier if there was a way to walk down and all had answered me that it was basically a straight down tree-covered mountainside. They weren’t wrong. And the reason this wasn’t an option earlier? Because there hadn’t been a clearing yet. Now that about five people had gone before, we could follow something more than clearings created by falling rocks from above.


Read more: My Experience Trekking to Machu Picchu: Day 2

Read more: How to Get to Machu Picchu


Again, no hesitation, Cesar just motioned down and for some reason we listened without questioning, not noticing until later that he had waited for all of us to go first as the guinea pigs (or cuys if you will). We hung off the side of the hill, holding onto sideways tree trunks and passing from one vine to the next as we slid down through the mud. About a hundred feet over was the edge of the road where they were dumping all of the landslide debris and we could hear hundreds of rocks tumbling down beside us as we hung on and hoped none of them came this way. But through lots of adorable teamwork of holding vines for each other, moving rocks that were slide risks and our machine of a German, Paul, who made it to the bottom and then charged right back up the impossible hillside multiple times to bring the rest of us down (one of the other Germans joked that if they had had Paul during WWII the Germans wouldn’t have lost, and I’m glad they didn’t because I don’t doubt that for a second), we made it to the bottom just as we watched a boulder the size of a human bounce down and break in the road, just ten feet from the nearest person.


Inca Jungle Day 1 Trek Mountainside Trail


Despite a solid half hour of climbing down and definitely questioning the safety of everything, we decided that it was kind of like we had an adventure activity included in the trek free of charge, and that had it been advertised, we probably all would have paid for that. We definitely got more stories out of it, and to say we bonded by the end of that first day is an understatement.

We caught a combi bus on the road below and drove through the winding roads, warm in the car, chatting about everything from British healthcare to the Israeli army, and watching a fiery sunset drop into the mountains ahead. We reached the tiny town of Santa Maria, after an hour and finally had a long awaited dinner and giant cold beers. When we made it to our hostel, you’d think everyone would pass out after a day like that. Probably any other group.


Playing Sapito at our Hostel Day 1 Inca Jungle


After one of Cesar’s briefings in which Wolfgang (our wonderfully vibrant German on his sabbatical) learned he was yet again “not on the list” for the following days activities, we found our way to more cold beers and Henry introduced us to the little metal frog that became the god of our trip. Sapito, a Peruvian coin toss game with heavy gold coins and the ultimate goal being the frogs mouth, became our night. From solo player games to doubles competitions to team championships we played all night until just a few of us had made the frogs mouth, the most Henry had ever seen in his sapito days. And yes, I MADE IT IN THE FROG’S MOUTH! As did Henry, our ever determined game-man Jeff, and our sweet German Stella who didn’t even want to play in the first place. And in a wonderful turn of events, frog kings Henry and Jeff lost the final tournament and Stella and Zoe (who also hadn’t originally wanted to play) went on and won the whole thing. I’m now a firm believer that every home needs a sapito.

We finally divided out into our rooms and happily concluded the first day of our trek to Machu Picchu. We were happy to be alive, and we’d already had a trip’s worth of experiences and memories. We had to keep reminding ourselves that even though it felt like it’d been a year, this was only day one. Day one. We had now reached the hottest part of the trek, the jungle, and had three more days of walking to go. But our little Inca Jungle Trek family was already formed and I went to bed thinking that if this was day one, what in the world could the next days bring…


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