Cusco is like a giant mall. From the minute we arrived we were accosted by people wanting to sell you anything and everything. Everything also happens to be a “good price” and even “happy hour”. Who knew sunglasses had a happy hour? It was overwhelming and exhausting having to say “no gracias” every second. It took a day to realise that if you say nothing and walk around with your head down, you could reduce the harassment by half. That leaves only the deaf people who you can’t ignore, as they walk right up to you and make you feel bad when they don’t understand when you tell them you already have whatever they are selling. It’s either very sad that deaf people have to live and work in these conditions or a brilliant scam.
Cusco is a very old and beautiful city. It is sprinkled with old buildings and churches. However, it also seems to be the tourist capital of South America. So every little church costs you to enter and they charge you for whatever they can. There’s no such thing as a free trinket! We spent the five days we had in Cusco looking around the city and resting up. We did a day trip to the ruins around Cusco city. It started with a two hour slow walk around the Sun Temple. It sounds interesting, but I can assure you it was two of the longest hours of my life. The tour guide spoke everything in Spanish and then English. She pointed out every little nook and cranny in what appeared to be a product of a child’s art class. She then showed us all the animals that were apparently represented, which took a pretty far stretch of the imagination to see. Then we sped past the ancient paintings, only to stop at a little well with a poorly watered plant. Thankfully we soon left and went to see the real ruins.
The first one we went to was Saqsaywaman and was a large paddock with ruins either side. It was very nice and you could almost sense the Quechuas who lived there. The area is named as such as it means condors’ feast. When the Spaniards came and killed everyone they left the bodies there for the condors to eat. We then went to a temple, a water ruin and a fortress. Most of the ruins have been recreated, as nearly everything was destroyed by the Spaniards. The one good thing the Spaniards did was document a lot of what they saw, so at least the information is available to recreate these areas.
Finally the first day of our Inca Trail tour arrived. We checked into the hotel, where a lovely cupboard was provided to sleep in. We had a pre-trek talk and met the group we were going with. There were 13 of us, mostly Australian and Canadians with a couple of Scottish people thrown in too. The group had a diverse range of fitness and ability levels. Day one of our trip was a tour around the Sacred Valley. We visited two more ruins that day, which were much larger than the previous ones we had seen. These held whole villages, but were also largely recreated. We stayed in a guest house that night. Unfortunately the roof was about the same height as my head, so Ben couldn’t stand up in the room. The shower was a dribble and was a final farewell to hygiene for the next four days.
The first day of the hike was supposed to be easy, but was still a serious bit of walking. We walked down the Sacred Valley. Along the way were many families, who passed us on the trail with their donkeys and scooters. Our group was made up of 13 gringo travellers, 2 guides, a chef, an assistant chef, and 16 porters to carry all the gear. This was a new form of luxury hiking that I had never experienced before.
The campsite was all ready when we arrived, despite the porters each carrying a ridiculous load of 25kgs each. Somehow they all managed to run past us as we panted up the hills. For dinner we had a three course meal, with all the trimmings. That’s what happens when you have a qualified chef accompanying you. This continued for the whole four days.
The one thing that no one ever tells you about the Inca Trail is that the toilets are atrocious. They are holes in the ground and nothing else. Squatting room only. When you first arrive at a camp they aren’t too bad, but by the next morning you don’t want to go anywhere near them. A number of people in the camps have diarrhoea as a result of the altitude and the change in food, so you can only imagine what this does to a squatting toilet. You have to go in armed with a sweaty scarf as a gas mask and hold your breath just long enough that you don’t pass out and land in the hole. It’s quite an experience and one I would rather forget.
It was fairly evident that the group was divided into those who were fit and had hiked before and those who had not. Day one was a long day, as we all had to walk together. However, after that we could walk at our own pace. On the second day we walked up to Dead Womans Pass. It was appropriately named. It was a 1200m climb straight up the side of a mountain. You could see the top, but every step felt like you were getting further away. Katie and I made it to the top in four and a half hours. Ben ran up like a goat in four hours and also stopped to carry a porter’s 25kg bag up the last half hour of the climb. The porter was very happy, as you might imagine. Once at the top we waited for the rest of the group to arrive and cheered them on their last few steps. The next part of the day was to descend 600m. This was a real knee destroyer, as it was steep uneven stairs we had to get down. By the end of the day we were tired, but we still had the longest day ahead of us.
Day three was hard. We started with a climb up to the third pass. It took about an hour. Then we had to go down and then up again and then down and up all over again. If we weren’t gasping for breath, we were holding our knees in agony. We did get a number of stops along the way to look at various ruins and inca trails. It was a very enjoyable day, with amazing views.
Day four we had to get up at 3.30am to line up at the control gates. The gates don’t open until 5.30am and all the groups line up early to be first to get to the sun gate. We were the third group in line and ran the track to the sun gate. We wanted to get to the sun gate by sunrise. It was a tough run in the semi-darkness. It wasn’t helped by the walking-pole brigade who tried to trip us over so we couldn’t get there before them. At 6.15am we made it to the gates and there were only a few people there. There was no sunrise as it was misty, but we watched Machu Picchu coming in and out of view through the mist. We sat there until the rest of the group arrived and got a team photo. It was a relief to see Machu Picchu after walking for so long and it had been a dream of mine for a long time.
We walked down to Machu Picchu and our guide took us around the city. Unlike the ruins around Cusco, Machu Picchu is 80% original. The city was incredible and we walked around seeing the different rooms and temples. They believe 500 Quechuas lived there. There is a sun temple at the top, which has the first ray of light come through its two windows on 21 June and 21 December every year. These dates symbolise the first days of the wet and dry seasons. We then had some free time to rest and look around the city. Then we went into the town to have lunch and catch our train to Ollantaytambo and then bus to Cusco. It was a very long day, but well worth the effort.