Cusco, the Salkantay trek and Machu Picchu
02.07.2009 - 05.07.2009 16 °C
Hmm, so the large pictures didn't work out so well after all. I've changed the 'style template' now. If you scroll to the right, you should be able to see the text and the entirely of the pictures in their full-sized glory.
North a little to Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca empire.
As in Ecuador, the locals seem to have a thing for Batman. Bats were one of the most revered animals in Inca culture. Could it be that the ancient practice of creating textiles and pottery in celebration of the bat find their 21st century incarnation in the adornment of vehicles with the Batman logo?
Cusco's 'famous' 7-sided stone was a bit of a let-down. Apparently the shape of the stone, part of the wall in the alleyway below, matched the outline of ancient Cusco. Nowadays a man in brightly coloured feathers stands like a sentry next to the stone, grabbing passing tourists and encouraging them to have their photo taken with him and the stone.
Cusco was really the only place I've been where the level of constant hounding by street vendors actually made the experience unpleasant. It was impossible to walk 10 meters without someone popping up to sell, beg or scam. The worst offenders, strangely, were touts offering massage.
Although the hassle was somewhat compensated for by the good food on offer.
Cusco is extremely hilly, and full of houses with whitewashed walls of straw and mud, and beautiful paved streets and staircases:
And surprises round every corner...
(it's a llama bum)
The sacred valley
The nearby Valle sagrada is a valley packed with the ruins of ancient Inca sites in various stages of preservation.
With a shortage of flat land, the Incas took to building impressive tiers of earth, retained with rock walls, on which to cultivate crops:
And built forts at the tops of the mountains:
In the valley floor, artisans make every conceivable item out of alpaca or llama wool:
Including more llamas...
At the end of the valley we came to another site that mixed agriculture and military fortifications:
In a quite spectacular setting
Machu Picchu, the famous mountaintop Inca fort, and probably South America's number one tourist attraction, is situated about 50 miles from Cusco. Despite this proximity, after being abandoned around the year 1500 it rested unknown to the outside world until its rediscovery in 1911.
There are several ways to hike to Machu Picchu, the best-known of which is along the Inca trail that leads there: a several-day trek along one of the stone-paved pathways that the Incas built to connect their empire. However, due to a restriction on the number of people permitted on the trail, you have to book this trek months in advance. It's also quite costly. So I opted for one of the alternatives, the so-called Salkantay trek.
Lynne, Laura and I booked ourselves in with one of Cusco's hundreds (literally) of tour operators. We met our group at dawn: the three of us, four other trekkers, a guide, cook and donkey herder (with an unknown number of the animals, to carry clothing, tents and food).
It was a sunny morning and in the village where the trek began the corn had been put out to dry, guarded attentively:
The first two days (of five total) were spent hiking up to the Salkantay pass at 4800m (16000ft).
Near the start of the trek:
The first campsite:
Near the pass (NB at this point I was just starting to feel the food poisoning that made the next two days slightly more tricky):
The pass itself, just below the snow line:
After the second night, we rapidly descended down into the Urubamba valley, which encircles the mountain where Machu Picchu is situated.
There is a railway line leading from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, where we stayed the night before our visit to the ancient city. It's the easy way to get to the site (i.e. no hiking) but provided some welcome easy trekking for us:
As long as we were careful to dodge the trains:
We arrived in Aguas Calientes the night before our final ascent to Machu Picchu. The railway line goes right through the centre of town, and right past our hotel...
Where engineers were performing essential track maintenance:
We were up at 4am the next morning to get in line for a bus up to Machu Picchu -- yes, there is a road! We could have walked the last stretch too, but to arrive early enough to beat the bus crowds in the line for tickets to Wayna Picchu (the limited-access mountain that neighbours and overlooks Machu Picchu) we would have had to hike all night.
We were there in time for dawn. Wayna Picchu is the peak on the right.
Our guide for the whole trek, Alex, showing us around the site:
There weren't as many tourists as I had feared. Or maybe there were, but the site was big enough to absorb them. Struggling to be seen:
The walls are built from perfectly-interlocking stones. Amazing craftsmanship when you consider the Incas didn't have metal tools, and had to grind down each stone by just rubbing them with other rocks:
A group of llamas live at Machu Picchu. Of course every tour guide had his own story concerning how they got there. Alex told us they had been abandoned there following their use in a beer commercial.
Laura and I, our limited-issue tickets in hand, set off up Wayna Picchu to get a better view of Machu Picchu.
The climb was tough but rewarding!
Back in Cusco
Well we survived. Back in Cusco we managed to find an excellent curry house, and while we played cards I had my first real meal in four days. Lynne had been worried that she wouldn't make it up to the pass. In the event she sprung off up the hills, with me dragging along at the back of the group due to my food poisoning. I didn't drink anything for two days and got very dizzy. Laura had to hold on to me to prevent me falling off the narrow path.
Well done Lynne, thanks Laura.
Here's the happy hiker afterwards...