Cuzco to Cuzco – the highs and lows

So I survived – just. Here follows a blow by blow account of the highs and (extreme) lows of the journey from Cuzco to, er, Cuzco!!

We left Cuzco on Sunday 9th December, and headed through the sacred valley to Ollantaytambo. The sacred valley (known as Wilcamayo by the Incas) is lush and fertile, and is the main source of food for the high Andes. The terraces carved into the valley walls provide space to grow different crops at different altitudes. We stopped in the local Chincharron community for a demonstration in colouring and weaving textiles, and for lunch. Lunch is worthy of note on this occasion because it was so spectacularly bad. In fact, it{s the first time i´ve encountered food on this trip that was borderline inedible. First course (no surprises) is a soup, allegedly potato. It was grey in colour and was the texture of wallpaper paste. The dominant taste was “starch”. I persevered, and was proud to have put away about half the bowl. Next course was chicken with … wait for it … potato. Did I mention that they grow about 4000 types of potato in Peru? or is it 7000? Anyway … this was marginally better (thankfully). Next up, something i´ve been looking forward to since Ecuador – guinea pig. We just got one between us so we could try it. It arrived at the table whole, with its litte teeth, feet and claws perfectly identifiable. Cue a photo session – our guinea pig is probably the most photographed dead animal in history. So how was it? One word – underwhelmed. It was quite hard to identify the parts that you were actually supposed to eat, and it was very greasy and rubbery. Apparently it´s possible to get good guinea pig, but i´m not about to order one anywhere to find out!

Ollantaytambo is really cute. It´s kind of an Inca Trail “base camp”, and almost reminds me of a little ski town.. On arrival we found a small cafe for tea and cake, and then hiked up to some old ruins for views over the archaeological site and the town of Ollantaytambo. It was also good training for the Inca Trail, being similar in terrain. After a good meal at a local restaurant there were a few rounds of “shithead” (that´s a card game, mum!) before our last night in proper beds.

The next morning we were up and out early, having luxuriated in the last shower that we were going to get for a few days. We caught a bus to the 82km mark where the trek starts. Our group of 15 then struck out with 2 guides and 26 porters (more about them later!) bound for the first campsite, roughly 12km away. On the way we passed the ruins at Patallacta. This was a great photo opportunity, although I realised upon sitting down to pose that I had planed my ass on an ants´ nest. Only happens to me. We also passed a burial site which looked like a cave in the side of the mountain before we arrived at our first campsite at Yuncachimpa, 3300m above sea level. When we arrived we found our tents waiting for us already set up with sleeping mats and our bags inside. We also got bowls of warm water to wash in – couldn´t fault the service!

This is an appropriate time to mention the porters. we had 26 of them for our group of 15, ranging in age from late teens to late forties. They are SUPERSTARS!! In the mornings they woke us with coca tea. The chefs made 3 amazing meals a day; no idea how given the facilities they has! Every morning the porters would start behind us and finish ahead of us, and we would arrive at a campsite to find tents up and hot food. Each porter carried 25kg on his back (the equivalent of my main backpack, day rucksack and ´snackbag´, and the actually RAN the trail! Some of them even do it in flipflops as they find it more comfortable. We were amazed as we struggled up the steep bits with our 5kg daypacks – those guys were truly awesome. Apparently the record for completing the entire Inca Trail was set by a porter, and is 3hrs 45 mins. The trail is 45km long, and to say it is challenging is a mild understatement – it took us 4 days!

Another point of note – the toilets. One word – bleurghhhhhh!!!! On arrival at a campsite they were not too bad, but then we were usually among the first groups to arrive. They were basically holes in the ground, or China-style “squattie potties”. These holes however seemed to be gateways to the underworld, and in the mornings were utterly disgusting. It´s hard to imagine how it´s possible to make that kind of mess – presumably the offenders forgot to take torches on their nighttime ventures. We were advised that there were “proper” loos at Machu Picchu, so I decided I was holding out. We took to using bushes as they were cleaner than the campsite facilities. No doubt our boots are now worthy of biohazard stickers, and mine will be very lucky to clear Australian customs. Sleep came with difficulty in the tents. Actually it didn´t come at all the first night, leaving me slightly concerned as to how on earth I would get through Day 2 on no sleep!

Day 2, otherwise known as “the tough day”. This section is about 14km long, and includes the highest point on the trail at 4200m – the aptly-named Warmiwanusca or “Dead Woman´s Pass”. This was the most challenging part of the trail, and I arrived at the top gasping convinced that I had burst a lung. After the climb there was a steep downhill, before climbing again to the next pass (I can´t make this sound as painful as it actually was!!). Now at this point, it should be mentioned that it was absolutely pissing with rain. So we were effectively climbing up and down a waterfall as the water was gushing down the mountains. We also looked hilarious – we were all wearing plastic ponchos in different colours, so we did the Inca Trail looking like a Durex selection pack. We were pretty glad to get to the campsite, freezing cold and soaked, but alive.

Day 3 was light by comparison. We continued over the 3rd pass to reach the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the “town above the clouds”, before descending to the final night´s campsite which had stunning views from the tent!

Day 4 was the final push. We were dragged out of bed at 3am to allow the porters to get packed and away in time to make their train. We sat shivering waiting at the control point for the door to be opened which allowed us access to the last part of the trail. At 5.30am, the race to the finish was on. Or at least you´d think it was a race judging by the behaviour of a really idiotic group of Canadians who were determined to finish first at any cost. A short hike led us to the “Gringo Killer”, the name given to the 50 steep steps that have to be climbed before reaching the Sun Gate, where you get the first view of Machu Picchu. The steps turned out to be a great leveller – we caught the annoying Canadians who had overtaken us at speed half way up the steps on the brink of cardiac arrest. Retards.

The Sun Gate, unfortunately, turned out to be the ´cloud and rain´ gate as the weather let us down again and there was nothing to be seen of Machu Picchu. We decided to press on rather than wait and hope, and after another 40 mins or so arrived at our goal – Machu Picchu and “proper” toilets.

While it´s thought that Machu Picchu was built around 1440 as a country retreat for Incan nobility, there is evidence that this has been a sacred Incan site for much longer. We´ve all seen it in pictures, but (shitty weather aside) nothing prepares you for actually being there when the mist lifts and the city appears, particularly when you hiked 4 days through the pissing rain and braved the toilets from hell to get there. It really is amazing, and the photos just don´t do it justice. To be fair, doing the 2hr guided tour in the driving rain really sucked on an extreme level, but even the rain and the tourist hoards couldn´t take anything away from it. We stayed a couple of hours, took way too many photos, and then it was time to get the train down to Aguas Callientes, the small town nestled in the cloud forest in the hills at the foot of Machu Picchu. Waiting for us there – lunch, and a well-deserved glass of red (that went straight to my head, obviously).

After lunch we boarded the train back to Ollantaytambo to catch our connection back to Cuzco. Once back in Cuzco it was hot showers, cocktails and soft beds – heavenly!! The next day was a free day in Cuzco, which meant laundry, shopping an eating. We caught a cheesy tour bus to take us around the city (done enough walking and my knees and back were screwed!), and had a nice civilised day before it was time to press on again to Puno and Lake Titicaca …

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