To most, Machu Picchu is a bucket list destination, right up there with the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Giza. It is a destination that defines an entire continent. But what often comes with such a designation are the precise things one tries to avoid when traveling: crowds, inauthenticity and price gouging. If Jill and I were going to do this, and of course we were, we were going to have to get creative. This was nothing new to us. We were used to dealing with a bit of discomfort in order to stay on budget while visiting major tourist destinations. The tricky part, however, is that we would no longer be alone. My father would be joining us for two weeks as we made our way from Cuzco to Arequipa. While we were thrilled to have the company, our tight timeline and budget in South America meant we agreed to the visit under one condition: that we would continue to travel in the exact manner we would if it were just the two of us. And although his resources provided new options, we would continue to be frugal travelers, cutting corners wherever possible. We wanted to visit Machu Picchu on a shoestring, avoiding the tourism super highway. Or at least as much as that is possible.
The Cordillera Blanca is the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas. There are 16 peaks over 6000 meters including Peru’s highest, the mighty Hauscaràn. Seeing as we like to hit the trail as often as possible we had looked forward to this section of the trip for as long as we can remember. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case the stars were not in line. Not only did we find ourselves in a bit of a time crunch but also an injured knee since Colombia made any multi-day trek a risky undertaking. However, we could not resist getting a small taste. We left our van at the trailhead while we hiked in to Laguna 69 to spend one night in our tent. Our feelings of regret caused by missing out on what most likely would have been our trek of choice, the famed Santa Cruz trek, were lessened when we met a fellow hiker just on his way back from the end of the circuit. He told us that although the Santa Cruz trek was gorgeous in every right, his favorite section of the entire park was Laguna 69. At least our small sample turned out to be the right one.
We started our day in Cajamarca in the same way Inca emperor Atahualpa did nearly 500 years earlier – in the soothing waters of the natural thermal springs that grace this area of the Northern Peruvian highlands. Known today as Los Baños del Inca, the compound is a popular tourist attraction that supposedly gets hundreds of visitors daily. After all, who wouldn’t want to bathe in the same pools that an Inca king once used to nurse his war wounds?
The persistent fog was all around us. It had completely enveloped the mountain landscape, stealthily hiding the thousand-foot sheer drops and allowing our location on this craggy peak to be forgotten. Originally we were hoping for the dense clouds to clear but we had come to realize how perfectly fitting they were. Deep in the northern Peruvian highlands, we were about to explore the well-preserved but little-visited ruins of Kuelap, home to the Chachapoyas or “People of the Clouds.”
Most long term travelers have in the back of their minds a fantasy of a place that they imagine they could find themselves getting stuck in. These fantasy scenarios often include opening up a hostel or some other small business to sustain a lifestyle abroad. As we travel through city after city we have come across a great number of people who have done just that and turned their fantasy into a reality. Travelers just like us who decided to pull the trigger and give it a shot. Would we, Jill and I, be capable of doing this? What typically comes quickly after one of us poses that question is admitting to ourselves that living that far away from home would be difficult to say the least. Nevertheless, no more than 48 hours into Peru and we found ourselves brainstorming about our fantasy with a significantly greater amount of earnestness.