Cusco and the Inca Trail
Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
5Trip End Apr 18, 2010
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Where I stayed
Saturday 3 April, Day 6 – Lima to Cusco
Altitude sickness strikes in 'breathtaking' Cusco
We were met at Cusco airport by our tour company representative – a lady whose name neither of us could remember but who would mysteriously reappear over the next few days to randomly shower us with kisses.
Hotel Del Prado Inn rocked. Literally. One whole wall was apparently a real-deal construction of the Incas, from way back in the 1500s. Not only that, we managed to score one of the honeymoon suites, complete with spa. (If we'd known there were so many perks to being on a honeymoon, we might have gotten hitched years ago!)
After we'd settled into our room and imbibed copious cups of coca tea to ward off altitude sickness, our bus arrived to take us on the 'city tour'. Unfortunately those copious cups of coca tea were not quite enough for Tam, who lasted about half an hour into the tour before being whisked off to the first aid room to be put on oxygen. After about 10 minutes on the gas, Tam was feeling fit as a fiddle and raring to go again... for about 5 and a half minutes... and then back to the oxygen department. After another failed attempt to join the group, we decided to bail on the tour and went back to the hotel.
By the time we re-emerged, night had fallen over the picture-perfect town. With the hills all lit up in the background, it looked like something that had been plucked straight out of a fairytale. We found a restaurant with a well-placed balcony to enjoy the view. Tris ordered the alpaca, bumping his carnivorous conquest tally up to 18 unique species.
Sunday 4 April, Day 7 – Sacred Valley Tour
Witnessing the ruins – of the ancient and not-so-ancient kind
Our trip to the Sacred Valley began with a detour. What is normally a 30-minute bus ride had been turned into a 1.5hr trip after the landslides in January wiped out half of the bridges. It's not hard to see how this area could be prone to landslides – Cusco itself is set in a valley surrounded by impossibly steep hills. It's a shining feat of human endeavour that they even managed to build here.
Our first stop on the tour was a little market in the town of Pisac, where we saw textiles being made out of alpaca wool and got accosted by small children selling hand-woven finger puppets (which we naturally got sucked into buying). There was also a massive, gold-encrusted cathedral, which seemed weirdly out of place in a town that was yet to discover plumbing.
Next stop was Ollantaytambo, where we climbed up a huge temple built by the Incas. Our guide explained that each of these 70-tonne rocks was ground down by hand over a period of months, until it fitted the one beside it. (Thank God for modern building technology.)
On the way home, we picked up the bus driver's family, who'd spent the day working to rebuild the home they'd lost in the landslides. Mum, dad and the kids all got on and greeted each and every person on the bus with a cheery 'buenas tardes'. Anyone who didn't know better would have thought they'd been out for a pleasant Sunday arvo picnic.
Monday 5 April – Day 8, Inca Trail
Nobody told us we could hire a porter!
Inca Trail Day One was finally here, just five days after its reopening following a two-month closure due to the landslides (talk about cutting it fine!). So here we were, at 'Kilometre 82' with about 200 others, about to embark on the trek of a lifetime – with the BIGGEST PACKS OF ANYONE IN SIGHT! The realisation sent Tam into a bit of a panic, followed by a tirade of expletives directed at our travel agent. Nobody told us we could hire porters!
Resigned to our plight, we passed through the control point, crossed the furious Urubamba River and began the steep ascent on the other side. (And they said Day One was supposed to be the easy day!) To our great relief, the ascent was short-lived and gave way to a nice easy walk for pretty much the rest of the day. Stops were plentiful and food even more so. We had 3 courses for both lunch and dinner. (We definitely weren't going to starve out here but the idea was to get fitter, not fatter!)
Our first campsite was a rustic homestead by the river. The 'rustic' part extended to the lav, which was an old-style 'squat' loo. There is a first for everything, I guess. Given the remoteness of the place, taking wood from the forest was banned. So it was a rather chilly, campfire-free early night.
Tuesday 6 April – Day 9, Inca Trail
So you think you can climb mountains?
Day Two – the one that everybody had warned us about – began with a briefing about what we were about to face and how to tackle the challenge ahead: "Don't eat too much because the altitude will slow your digestion and you'll get sick; don't stop too long or you'll get hypothermia; try to keep a slow even pace, don't try to keep up with anyone else; the group will split up so be prepared to end up on your own." Eeeeeeeek! What had we gotten ourselves into!!!
As the early morning mist started to melt, we quickly got a taste of what was to come – up, up, up and more UP, and LOTS of steps! At first it seemed pretty easy. We took it slow and kept an even pace. What was all this fuss about, we thought. Ha! Little did we know what was around the corner.
Combine about 5km of almost vertical climb with the murderously energy-sapping effects of altitude and you have Inca Day Two – Hell on Legs. 20m up. Stop. 20m up. Stop. And repeat ad nauseum. After about 1.5 hours of this, the top came into view at long last. Hallelujah! But alas, what looked so close at this excruciatingly slow pace was actually a world away. Little by little, we edged our way forward. Each of the rock steps, no matter how small, became an obstacle. "Two feet together – Contemplate – Attack". It didn't seem to matter whether you were young, old, fit or otherwise – we were all in the same boat. Altitude is apparently a great equaliser.
Not sure if it was the ridiculousness of being so close yet so far (and having to sit down every 40 seconds), or the euphoria of knowing that we were actually going to make it, but Tam started to get a case of the giggles as the target got closer.
Finally, we did it. We'd reached Dead Woman's Pass, the prize at the top of the mountain (4200m)! What an unbelievable sense of achievement. The worst was over. It was all downhill from here.
Unfortunately we couldn't lay claim to being the first of our group to make it to camp. There was one guy who beat us, leaving his girlfriend behind – bad form, according to Tam! However, Tam did claim the title of first female into camp, massive pack and all. Our packs, which had initially been the subjects of pity, had become badges of honour.
Camp No. 2, Pacaymayo, is where most groups camp on the second night, so it's like a tiered tent city, set in the valley between two inconceivably large mountains. Where our tent was pitched, we were overlooking about 30 mountain peaks, the highest of which were covered in snow. It was a view not to be wasted, so we pulled a couple of plastic stools out of the main tent and just sat on the edge for a while, soaking it up.
If we'd been in any doubt about whether spending our honeymoon in a third world country was a good idea, this spectacular vista was all the answer we needed. Abso-freaking-lutely!
Wednesday 7 April – Day 10, Inca Trail
Non-regulation steps and the best/worst shower ever
Day Three of the Inca Trail brought steps, steps and more steps – this time going downhill. And these were NOT the kind of steps that would have passed modern-day building regulations. Some went in spirals, some went through tunnels. Some defied the average human foot size, some even defied gravity. Each and every one, in their own little way, contributed to the premature deterioration of our knees.
Nonetheless, we opted to take the 'long route' into camp via the ruins of Intipata. Here, we found steps so steep we wondered whether they could actually be for real. On first appraisal, they appeared as though they'd lead you clean off the cliff. On second appraisal, we realised there was no other option. So down we went.
With few trekkers taking up the option of the longer trail, this part was largely overgrown. Away from the crowds, it felt like we were the only people for hundreds of miles. And for a short time, it felt a little like we were lost. But we soldiered on and eventually found our way to Wiñay Wayna, the last campsite and the one where EVERYBODY stays on the last night.
Unlike the rural digs of the previous two nights, this one has a bar and a communal restaurant and feels a bit like a great big ski resort. To our immeasurable gratification, it also has showers. The showers were unquestionably the most revolting we'd ever encountered – worms crawling up the wall, electrical wires sticking out of the rosette, piddly water pressure – but they were without doubt, the most welcome. They were wet and hot and that's all that mattered!
Thursday 8 April – Day 11, Inca Trail
Machu Picchu – the final descent
Our 4am wakeup call came without the compensatory coca tea offering that we'd become accustomed to over the last few days. To add insult to injury, it was bucketing rain outside, which meant that our chances of being able to see Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate (the whole purpose of the obscenely early start) were slim. When our breakfast of cold toast and runny jam was served without plates or knives, we started to wonder whether our tip had been 'insufficiente'!
By the time we hit the trail at 5.30am, it was still dark but the rain had eased off considerably. Armed with our head torches, we set a cracking pace and quickly broke away from our group. For a while, it was just us, gallivanting along this crazy track in the dark, with a sheer cliff to one side. It was pure, blissful, insane serenity. That is, until we hit the back of the never-ending conga line.
We tried to pass the first few groups but then realised we were fighting a losing battle. (We later learned that the faster guy in our group had come through at a gallop, someone had called 'Porter!' and then everybody made way for him! Doh! If only we'd been going just that little bit faster...)
We reached the Sun Gate via the steepest steps humanly conceivable. We were literally climbing with our hands and feet, like a ladder. Unfortunately we didn't get the 'postcard' view. Machu Picchu was completely obscured by cloud. At the Sun Gate, we quizzed our guide, Bruno, on how his group (one of the last to make it to Machu Picchu before they closed the track) had made it through this last section, which had clearly been affected by the landslides. To which he responded, 'Oh, those are only recent ones. They weren't there before!' He also told us about another guide who was killed by a falling rock in the landslides, just seconds after yelling to his group to run for their lives. Walking along the remainder of the cliff with this bone-chilling knowledge in mind certainly added to the drama of the whole thing.
Despite the thrill of knowing we were nearly there, we made the final descent down to Machu Picchu half expecting to be underwhelmed, given the plentiful scattering of ruins we'd seen along the way. However, what we found when we got there was a long way from uninspiring. If ever there was a mountain view to take your breath away, this was it. And for anyone who has a genuine appreciation for ancient architecture, this was something else.
We explored Machu Picchu for a couple of hours and then headed down to Aguas Calientes ('Hot Waters') for a well deserved thermal bath. Cruelly, the baths were right at the end of the town, so we had to drag our ailing bodies up to the top of a big hill to get there. We probably spent more time getting to the baths than actually enjoying them as we were on the early train back to Cusco. We did make up for it when we got back to Hotel Del Prado Inn, though, with a dip in our jacuzzi. Heaven!