This post is all about the first day of my Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu. This is the easier route when compared with the better known Inca Trail, and it involves a lot more stopovers and fun activities. Essentially it’s the fun version of the Inca Trail!
For more info on what the Inca Jungle Trek actually is, this post on Backpack South America: What to Expect from the Inca Jungle Trek. There’s also a very handy packing list.
Inca Jungle Trek: Day One
Day one of our trek started bright and early with a 7 am pick up at our hostel. We’d been up since about 5:45 am, so we were pretty tired, but once in the bus we started chatting to the other members of our group and perked up pretty quickly. Our group was relatively small, just six of us, but on the first day we were combined with the group doing the three day option of the jungle trek so there were a lot of us. Of the four other members of the four day group, we had a slightly mixed bag: Cynthia and Denise, two lovely Dutch girls travelling together, were awesome; Michelle and Sassy, two spoilt little rich English girls travelling together, were not. Fortunately, the two Dutch girls more than made up for ‘the brats’.
We drove for about three hours, stopping for breakfast just outside of Ollantaytambo, and eventually found ourselves winding up a curled mountain road alongside an ever-increasing drop. Soon, the drop, along with the cliffs, the road and almost everything else, had completely vanished from sight; we were driving though the ‘Zona de Neblinas’ as a wooden sign proudly declared: the cloud zone. Everything was grey. Outside the bus windows, almost nothing was visible, and we ploughed on blindly along the curving road through thick, damp mist. Inside the bus, everyone was silent, with the exception of occasional tense jokes and awkward laughter, and I’m pretty certain most of us were sending up quiet prayers for protection.
Mountain Biking in Peru
After that slightly nerve-racking bus ride, the first stage of our adventure packed jungle trek didn’t seem so scary: mountain biking back down the other side of the mountain we’d just climbed. There was a long wait while everyone was fitted with safety equipment (including plastic-padded, Power Ranger style jackets which were irresistibly sexy) and bikes were adjusted, then our guides gave us a thorough and forceful safety briefing (stay on the right, ride single file, don’t go too fast, etc.).
Finally, though, we were off, cycling through a thick, wet, grey mist that meant we could barely see the bike in front of us, let alone the horrifying drop on the far side of the road. The mist cleared pretty quickly as we descended, though, and before long we could see the long, dark grey snake of road, shining with damp, stretching out below us, and the dark, rocky hills on the far side of the valley.
The air was pretty cold – after all we’d started at 4,300m above sea level – and the mist got us wet quickly, but we were flying downhill on our bikes and I was reliving the sensation of being ten years old and cycling as fast as I could, and the experience was absolutely amazing.
We had a brief rest stop after about forty minutes or so, and immediately after it started raining. In my sports bra, two tops, fleece, raincoat and armoured cycling jacket, I was about as prepared for the rain and cold as it was possible to be, but that didn’t stop my trousers and hiking boots getting soaked though as we cycled through the many streams that cut across the road.
We were wet, but not too uncomfortable, and I was having the time of my life. When I was younger, I loved cycling, but I’ve only been on a bike once in the last eight years, so it was a sudden thrill to be back on one and speeding downhill as fast as I could comfortably go. Sure, there were plenty of people going much faster than me – Sam included – but I was going as fast as I wanted to and loving it.
The further we descended, the more the mist and rain cleared, until eventually we were cycling in bright sunshine, with the water visibly evaporating from the tarmac. After the last rest stop, my bike got a flat tyre and skidded out from underneath me – luckily I managed not to fall off – so I had to wait for the van to catch me up to swap bikes, meaning that I was right behind the group in a very sorry last place. Sam sped off ahead of me, and I trundled along in front of the bus, feeling pretty sorry for myself, until suddenly I caught sight of the slowest member of the group not far ahead of me.
The road was more or less flat, now, rather than an easy downhill, so I had to peddle as hard as I could to catch up with her, inwardly chanting to myself ‘don’t be last, don’t be last’, so when I caught her up and whizzed past I almost whooped out loud from elation. After her, I also passed Michelle and Sassy, although I had to peddle so hard I was almost wheezing, meaning that even with my flat tyre I still managed to finish a long way from last place.
White Water Rafting in Peru
After the bike ride, there was time to change into dry clothes and have a big, three course lunch (the first of many similar meals involving quinoa soup followed by rice with meat and veg), before we were whisked off to our second activity of the day: white water rafting. There were only three other people, all from the three day group, joining us as this was an optional extra (with an additional fee), but it was so much fun that it was well worth the extra $30 USD or so we paid for it.
The rafting is run through a separate company, who drove us down to the river in Santa Maria, gave us a briefing (which was much longer in Spanish than the English translation which pretty much finished with, “just copy the others”) and fitted us with some very attractive plastic yellow tops, life vests and helmets.
The white water rafting was amazing. We plunged into the fast, choppy water of the river and instantly started leaping over huge waves, with all of us struggling to follow the rapid, barked instructions from our guide and ploughing through the water with our oars. Every time we stopped for a momentary break, I turned to Sam with a huge, goofy grin from under my plastic helmet and shouted “this is awesome!”.
I’ve not really done anything so fast, so adventurous or so adrenaline fuelled for a long time, and the whole experience was incredible. Although it lasted about 45 minutes, it’s hard to describe the rafting session in detail as most of it is quite similar; we were in a big, plastic raft, we were sweeping down a churning and rock filled river at a startling speed, and we were either crashing through or flying over huge white waves as we went.
At one point, the guide offered us the chance to ‘body raft’ by floating alongside the boat and holding onto the rope. Two people, not me or Sam, volunteered, but within about thirty seconds the girl on Sam’s side had let go of the rope and gone under. Luckily, she was only under for a moment or two before she floated back up behind us, already in the safety position (lean back and poke your toes up), and the current carried her to the edge of the river, where she had to wait for the safety boat to pick her up.
That small mishap aside, no one else fell out, and we made it down river accident-free. We finished on a total high, wishing that we could have spent longer on the rapids, and headed back to the rest of the group in a fantastic mood.
The Actual Jungle Trek
The last part of the first day was not my proudest moment, so I’ll relay it in brief. After the rafting, we had a short hike of one hour up through the jungle outside Santa Maria to our lodge. It was night and very dark already by the time we set off, so we were walking through a hot, dark jungle surrounded by rustling trees and ominous noises. We were also walking very steeply uphill, I was tired and walking uphill at altitude is really, really difficult for me. Soon , I was making the noise of a pig, wheezing and panting uncontrollably, and had to fall behind the group out of embarrassment (and because I simply couldn’t keep up). It wasn’t a pretty sight, and I didn’t deal with it well – in fact I acted like a total baby and pretty much cried my way to the jungle lodge, something I’m totally ashamed of now.
Still, we made it to the lodge, had another big meal almost identical to our lunch, showered quickly in icy cold water, and fell asleep at about 8:30pm, completely exhausted. The first day of the jungle trek had been a real challenge; taking on my fear of heights, my chronic unfitness, and the terrifying white waters of the Santa Maria river, but it had also been one of the best days of our trip so far.