After a somewhat beleaguered journey from the jungle to the mountains, we arrived at Cusco, a veritable tourist metropolis where one can hardly walk five meters without being offered day trips or massages. Being British means saying “No, gracias” about every 30 seconds when in the centre of town to all such offers, especially those who ask if you want a photograph with a baby llama which is in fact a lamb which is being passed off. It’s moderately exhausting being so polite, but I’ve still only managed to avoid saying “No, gracias” on a handful of occasions at my most tired.
Cusco sprawls between several mountains, and is fairly picturesque in its way, although the narrow streets can sometimes be filled with exhaust fumes which makes breathing at altitude that bit more interesting. We’ve wandered around numerous times now, with most sights not being that easy to photograph, save for the cathedral and church in the Plaza de Armas, although quite why one needs both a cathedral and a church within two minutes walk of each other I’m not quite sure. We did visit the site of the most important temple of the sun in Incan times which was transformed into a priory by the Conquistadors who systematically dismantled the most perfectly formed and fitted Incan masonry and replaced it with the more European style lumps of stone held together with mortar.
As is the case with many gringos in Cusco, the real reason for being here is to see Machu Picchu, and if you were very good at planning (as is the case when two project managers plan their travels) walk the “Inca Trail” too.
Day 1 was quite enjoyable, largely strolling along a valley on relatively flat land. You can see in the main photograph of this blog post just how fresh looking I was at this point, despite waking up at 5am to travel to the start of the Inca Trail. Sites such as Patallacta were built in the valley and show a range of uses of the famous Incan terraces which were used for three purposes: (1) to reinforce structures further up hill and prevent land- or mud-slides; (2) for farming, and as you may know the Incas learnt how to exploit differences in temperature and sunlight between terraces to grow different crops; and (3) for gardens so that things would look pretty.
Day 2 is where things got interesting. We went from the relatively low-lying and flat valley, and almost lowest part of the trail at around 3,000 metres, up and over Dead Woman’s Pass which peaks at 4,198 metres. I didn’t realise it was called this at the time, and I’m not sure why it would be more lethan to women than men, so perhaps it’s just one of those names added by the Conquistadors when they came to explore (and pillage) the area. I tried to capture just how hard the walk was with a couple of pictures, both looking back on the path we’d taken and forwards on the path we were about to take. However, as with many attempts to capture the Inca Trail photographically, it doesn’t seem quite possible to do it justice.
Compared to Day 2 which seemed to have one primary purpose, to get over that damn peak, Day 3 was pretty packed with sights and ruins. We started early in the morning, as usual, and got to the first ruins at Runkuraqay as the sunlight was starting to come over the hills. Of course, everybody loves a steep ascent to start the day without any warm up whatsoever, so we weren’t sweating at all by this point.
We saw a few other ruins along the way but what surprised me the most was arriving at the ancient Incan pylons. Unfortunately, they were so far in the distance that I struggled to get a clear picture of them which means I’m unlikely to get them posted on http://www.pylonofthemonth.org/, although I daresay that the fact that their ancient should trump image quality.
Towards the end of Day 3, we were treated to a visit to Wiñay Wayna which apparently is a rarity for our guide who said most groups don’t make it to the camp before it shuts at 5.30pm. This in itself was further evidence of the good timing our group made along the Trail who, despite consisting primarily of 22 and 23 year olds who were in theory being held back by those of 29d and 29f years, still made very good progress. Two of the youngsters had knee problems and one smoked, so this sort of levelled the playing field for us.
Then it finally arrived, Day 4, the day we were to hike to Machu Picchu. The day didn’t get off to the best of starts as most of the group decided to go to the toilet before finishing packing up. I thought this was the last chance before we had to sit in a queue for about 90 minutes, so the need was obvious. And so, we arrived at the final check point just a little too late to grab a spot on the sheltered benches, and were instead relegated to the floor in their immediate vicinity. As it was, there were toilets nearer to the check point, so the loss of being able to use a proper seat was all the more painful.
After about 90 minutes, which included having to block out the not-so-dulcet sounds of a group of over-excited Americans, the gates finally opened so that we could make our way to the sun gate, or Inti Punku. After managing to overtake a few of the slower hikers, we got stuck behind a large group who seemed intent on taking up as much of the path as possible which prevented us overtaking them. Eventually, the path widened enough for us to make our way past and then began the dash for the sun gate. It’s worth noting that this is not the point you want to be dashing as the final leg is a steep upward climb of many steps, one set of which required the whole hands-and-feet shebang. At first we thought we’d made it to the top after those stairs, but alas, there was yet more to climb, so the dash continued until we finally went through the gate and got our first sight of Machu Picchu from afar.
Then began the luxurious walk down-hill towards the ruins of Machu Picchu itself. A side-note to introduce here is that Machu Picchu is actually the name of one of the mountains that protects the settlement itself. The mountain that can be seen in the background behind the settlement is Huanu Picchu which I’d originally intended to climb, tickets bought and everything, but then decided that my legs weren’t entirely obeying commands and the steep climb probably wasn’t a great idea.
The settlement of Machu Picchu is more impressive than any photograph can capture in my opinion (either that, or you need to be a damn good photographer). The site includes a mixture of building styles, including the rustic stonework which is a mix of stone and mortar, typically used for workshops, stores, and housing for the Quechuas. Some parts of the site, typically those dedicated to religious purposes, do not use mortar, and instead have perfectly fitted stones. The most important parts use the same technique, but even more effort has gone in to making perfectly flat stone surfaces, which was achieved by wetting the stone and rubbing it with another piece of stone to slowly grind it down.
All types of terrace can be seen in Machu Picchu and additionally, there are some larger terraced spaces which were used as staging areas for performances, an open air theatre as it were. In numerous places, it is also possible to see representations of the Incan view of the world as being split into three layers: the sky; the earth; and the underground. The temple of Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, can still be seen, and atop of this is the temple of the Sun, the most important of all gods to the Incans.
From Machu Picchu, we headed down to the town of Aguas Calientes where we had a day or so of rest, including an “Inca Massage”, which I think is something entirely made up for gringos which consists of a mixture of techniques including hot stone massage that I’ve never had before and found very pleasant indeed. There’s not quite as many people trying to get you to take pictures with their baby llamas in Aguas Calientes, and even better, there was a french bakery which served massive portions of apple crumble pie, which was a perfect way to end the trek in my opinion.