Warning - Macchu Picchu spoilers!
Trip Start Aug 12, 2011
22Trip End Jan 31, 2012
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Acclimatising to the altitude meant drinking 5-6 cups of mate or coca leaf tea per day and doing very little. We got about the town: saw the colonial-style town square, cathedrals, and stocked up on little bits that we needed for the walk. Noteworthy finds were the Incan and pre-Colombian art museum (a reinterpretation of their carvings and ceramics by modern artists) that had a clay vessel which was apparently "a mythological representation of a potato," and another which was part owl/part pumpkin. The Inca museum was mostly in spanish, and our spanish wasn't quite up to it yet. However, it did have black and white photos taken by Hiram Bingham from when he rediscovered Macchu Picchu (all overrun with creepers and still mostly ruins) back in 1911. We think that he was the original inspiration for Indiana Jones, seeing as he was an american university professor and adventurer/explorer. Possibly even more interesting were the skulls of Incas and other Quechuans found amongst the ruins variously showing evidence of sacrifice, trephination and bandaging of the head producing an elongated cone-shaped skull as a sign of nobility and leadership. Mim discovered a cocoa and chocolate museum, full of facts such as: "90% of coca grown is used in the production of cocaine" and "Peru's second biggest export next to cocoa is asparagus." She did their afternoon course on the process turning cocoa beans into chocolate, whilst Simon sampled the end product directly. There was a chilli hot chocolate served with cloves and cinnamon, the spaniards variation on the Mayan hot chocolate.
Cusco food was worth mentioning. Between us, we had guinea pig ravioli, alpaca hamburgers, alpaca steak in a fig and red wine sauce, alpaca meatballs in a passionfruit reduction and other non-alpaca meals. The alpaca was a highlight, though, usually accompanied by a pisco sour.
It was also a relief to be able to use some of the Spanish we had been learning, and to be able to communicate somewhat more with people than just on a pleasantries basis and then reluctantly asking whether they could speak English.
Cuzco's centre is pretty enough with it's colonial influences and plazas, even if most of the stonework was nicked from the nearby Incan temples, mainly Saqsaywaman. It suffers from the tourism however. There's an edge to touts and taxi drivers you wouldn't get in a smaller place - but you can't have your colonial architecture, Sun temples and your alpaca steak with red wine jus without tourism.
An early start followed the evening before, when we had agonised over making sure we had everything but not wanting to carry a gram more than was necessary. Out of the town centre, Cuzco is actually mostly adobe huts made of the red clay and grass that is everywhrere. There are lots and lots of eucalypt trees, introduced from Australia. We got used to seeing them all over South America, but the first time driving down a dusty red road with smell of small fires burning gum leaves was very disorientating. The road out to the Sacred Valley follows the Urubamba river, past Ollataytambo (an important archaeologic site where the Incas won a decisive battle against the spanish) and finally to the km 82 mark. This is where the porters have their loads weighed, a passport check for trekkers and the trek begins. Our Inca trail trek must have had the Sun God smiling on it, because for a number of reasons we were very lucky. Firstly, our guide was an absolute champion, you'll see why. His name was Freddy, and he worked for Peru Treks. Now this is the only plug you going to see here in our blog: if any of our readers are contemplating or know of anyone thinking of doing the Inca trek, this company is locally run and owned and is easily booked online ahead of time without a travel agent. They were exemplary. Secondly, we were blessed with an easy going and talkative group from the USA, Japan and the UK. We all spoke English and got on well. Thirdly, it did not rain once on the trail and for that both trekkers and porters were thankful. Rain makes the tents and bags heavier, and the trail muddy and slippery.
Freddy, our guide, seemed to be enjoying himself almost as much as we were. We don't know how he manages to keep up the edge and excitement despite having done it innumerable times. He was full of local knowledge as he was mestizo; half Spanish half Quechuan. He also had a way of bringing the porters and hikers together, so it did in fact feel like his "family" as he put it.
The Porters or chasquis are actually farmers. Most from our group were from a small village out of Cuzco. In ancient times, chasquis were the tireless runners of the Inca empire who ferried messages between Lima, Cuzco, Cochabamba etc. They were so fit it is rumored they could get from Lima to Cuzco in 48hrs. Nowadays, there is a competition amongst the porters to run the Inca trail. They do it in under 4 hours. Whilst we were walking, they would often pass us at a jog with 25+kgs on their back in sandals - downhill or uphill, even at 4000 metres. Mim tipped her porter generously.
The food standard from Cuzco was, miraculously, maintained on the trail. Noone got sick. Quinoa, chicha, api (hot corn syrup) and other traditional meals were there, but also trout, chicken and calamari. One noodle dish had fresh ginger and coriander. The porters ran ahead of the group and set up tents, tables with tablecloths, bowls to wash your hands and your tents. This was the same for every meal- not one meal was less than 3 courses. One time it was 5 courses: and a cake. We think the cook liked our group- and we liked the cook.
Each day, we were woken in our tents by Jimmy, the assistant guide, with tea/coffee/hot chocolate. A combination of coca leaves, coffee and chocolate is actually very nice. At breakfast, Freddy would outline the day and give us Freddy's forecast. On the second day, we approached Dead Woman's pass- 4200m. Although not as high as some of the other treks around (Salkantay for example), most of us fatigued easily with breathlessness, or had a headache behind the eyes. The recommendation is to chew 10 to 20 coca leaves with charcoal; the alkali helps to extract the goodness. After a while your cheek goes numb. It also tastes disgusting and makes your saliva go green. We saw archeological ruins every day, (it's not just Macchu Picchu) some very impressive, their Quechuan names often not known (Macchu Picchu was not what the Incas called it). Freddy's explanation of these sites usually went something like: "cos you know family -insert explanation- it makes sense." And sometimes it did make sense, but mostly it was just his favorite turn of phrase.
On the first night, there was a soccer game at the campsite, porters against locals. A couple of us joined in, but the altitude was a killer. Speaking of killers, there was also the affectinately named Gringo Killer- 2000 steps very steeply downwards to our third campsite.
There were also the monkey steps, where Freddy foretold we'd be calling him a bastard before reaching the top. These steps lead to the Sun gate, near vertically, which all groups get up in time to see at dawn. The final prize was breathtaking, and no description will do it justice. See our photos for a taste. We really enjoyed walking amongst the huts and temples, seeing the fountain that still works after 600 years and all this with a spectacular panoramic backdrop. It was crawling with tourists by midmorning, most of whom had not walked there. The only other downside was the toilets - oh, the toilets. The australian outback dunny would have been welcomed like a long-lost friend in preference to the grossly underserviced and fetid squat toilets at each campsite.
We finished with an epic lunch in Agua Calientes, where the train leaves from. It was definitely with a tinge of regret that we said our goodbyes to Freddy and some of the crew. However, a few of us met up the next morning in Cuzco for a recovery brunch in Jack's cafe.