Saturday, September 17, 2016

Cusco, Machu Picchu, & the Inca Trail

Undoubtedly the highlight of Peru, and one of the highlights of the entire gap year, was the Cusco region, including Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail.  The first thing tourists notice about Cusco:  its flag is super gay.  It’s the same rainbow as the gay pride flag except it has a seventh stripe of sky blue.  This previously caused some problems in conservative Peru, with some calling for the city to change its flag because too many tourists were thinking the area was just one big gay-friendly jizz fest.  But, most have finally gotten over it and the traditional flag has remained.  I like it.

A few highlights of my time in and around Cusco:

The tourist centre of the city is the Plaza de Armas with its statue of Pachacuti displayed prominently in the centre of the square.  Pachacuti was the ninth Inca king.  He had 200 children.  His official motto was “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.”  Surrounding the plaza are several churches, including the main cathedral and the attached Iglesia del Triunfo.  The cathedral has an excellent videoguide that took me around the expansive building all the while providing immense detail about the structure, artwork, and history of the area.  This was definitely the best cathedral tour that I took in all of Latin America (and believe me, I saw plenty of cathedrals…)  My favourite part was an educational one, and probably the only cool thing I’ve ever learned about the Catholic religion.  Did you know that there’s a patron saint for women who want to marry?  There’s also a patron saint for men who want to rid themselves of these women.  AMAZING!

Also near the Plaza de Armas is the Museo Inka, though I visited that after doing the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, and all of the other sites, so I quickly breezed through the collection.  Also nearby sits a prime example of an old Inca wall, stretching down one long alleyway known as the Lareto.   It leads to Qorikancha – Inca ruins located right in the city.  Sacsaywaman (pronounced to tourists as “sexy woman”) are another set of Inca ruins located on a hill above the city.  While we didn’t do a formal tour of those ruins, the site offers great views over the whole of Cusco.  There’s also a big statue of Jesus because… Catholicism.

Best of luck to you in pronouncing the name of this place.  Ccaccaccollo is a small weaving community outside of Cusco.  There we stopped to learn how the women make wool from alpaca fur.  They use natural elements to dye the wool, including using imported eucalyptus from Australia to get a gray colour.  They had alpacas on site and I got to feed them!

Pisaq & Ollantaytambo:
These two sets of Inca ruins we visited on our way toward the start of the Inca Trail.  Pisaq features the typical Inca terraces along with interesting burial holes dug into the side of the adjacent mountain.  Ollantaytambo is a major tourist town and base camp for many who start the Inca Trail.  Though much of the ruins there are still under excavation, the Temple of the Water is mostly unearthed featuring various fountains and canals.  There are of course plenty of terraces, as well as a giant face carved into a nearby mountain and a colca – a cool place on the mountainside where the Inca could store potatoes and other crops for 20 or even 30 years.  The Pachamama Stone – a large rock at the site – has crystals inside to capture energy from the sun.  When you touch it, you get the energy from the rock.  I desperately needed the energy for the next day’s challenge!

Inca Trail:
Most tourists to Machu Picchu take the train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to the most famous of the Inca ruins.  I, however, wanted the full experience, so I booked early and secured one of the very limited spots on the Inca Trail.  The four-day hike sounded daunting:  camping is the only option, bathrooms are rudimentary, showers are mostly non-existent, and the elevation gain can be more-than-challenging on some days, including over one kilometre of elevation gain on day 2 alone.  Oxygen levels are lower and altitude sickness is a major concern.  Luckily, our tour gradually increased in altitude from Lima to Nazca to Arequipa and the highest stop at Puno, so I had ample time to adjust.  I figured now was the time to do it – while I’m still relatively young.  There’s also the threat of the Peruvian government closing down the Inca Trail and access to Machu Picchu as years of tourism has taken a bit of a toll on the ruins.  I wanted to make sure I got in while the getting was good.

I was prepared the best I could be:  plenty of water, Gatorade, rehydration tablets, medicines, snacks, a poncho, walking sticks, and various layers of clothing to adjust to the changing climate (and thank god I brought that – it went everywhere from hot and sunny to cold and rainy).  The tour company provided tents and meals, and plenty of cooks and porters to bring the heavy stuff along the trail for us.  The porters were fucking ridiculous:  the ranged in age from 20 to their 60’s and they could carry up to 25kg (over 50lbs) of stuff in a big sack on their back while doing the trail in half the time as the gringos.  These men should be Olympians.  Half of them were wearing sandals too!  WTF???  They are MACHINES.  The cooks made delicious meals despite having to cook in a tent.  It was insane.

Despite being showed up by 60 year-old men, I actually did quite well on the Inca Trail.  Let’s be honest, I’m not the most fit of the bunch, but years of treating my body like crap has made it able to survive and prosper in harsh conditions.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.  I was relatively quick on the up parts, though fairly slow on the down parts due to me not wanting to hurt my dodgy knee.  I am old.  Rain on the afternoon of day 1 and morning of day 2 was annoying (it hadn’t rained in months!) but the sun came out in all its glory on days 3 and 4.

Day 1 was the easiest of the days – relatively flat and with stops at various archeological sites including Llactapata.  The locals also had little stands along the way to provide some very expensive provisions.  Thank god I stocked up in advance!

Day 2 was the highest day with a steep climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass.  At a whopping 4,215 metres above sea level, the pass is 1,115 metres higher than our start point that day.  It was a tough climb up, but rewarding at the end.  The rain stopped, the views were great, and I totally felt like Rocky after climbing all those steps.

Day 3 featured the Runcuracay ruins and Runcuracay Pass where we placed wishing stones on the mountain.  We also visited ruins at Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarka, and Intipata, along with various old Inca messenger stations along the way.  Our lunch stop was near another smaller pass and it was beautiful – overlooking a valley and actually above the clouds!  Llamas wandered through our lunch site and I got some great photos of them.  Walking to the campsite from the terraces at Intipata, I had the pleasure (along with Lenora and another girl from our trip) of witnessing a llama block the trail off and proceed to squat down to take care of some business.  And yes, I got a selfie with a llama taking a shit and piss.  ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED!

Day 4 began at… 4am.  Ouch.  We climbed another pass up to the Sun Gate where we were surprised by an incredible view of Machu Picchu.  Though we arrived just after sunrise, the sun had yet to climb high enough to get into the valley, and we got to see the whole Machu Picchu site be slowly illuminated a short time later.

Machu Picchu:
After about another hour of hiking, we were down in the valley and at Machu Picchu.  The once-important city of the Incas featured various ruins, including the main temple, the Temple of the Earth, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, a quarry, an urban area where people lived, and Intihuanatana – a stone structure likely used by astronomers to predict the solstice.  This is a rare survivor of colonial times because the Spanish destroyed most of these things.

Machu Picchu is one of my 103 Things, and I was super stoked to check it off my list.  Going into the trip, I thought the Inca Trail was all about getting to Machu Picchu and that Machu Picchu would be the culminating highlight of the journey.  But I must say:  the actual Inca Trail was more of a highlight.  It was up and down (literally) and featured so many other ruins and gorgeous landscapes along the way that Machu Picchu was more of a complement to the incredible journey than it was the star of the show.

After weeks of being at high altitude, after an amazing journey exploring one of the new world’s most prominent ancient civilizations, and after undoubtedly experiencing one of the best parts of my entire year, it was time to do something a little different.  So, off to the Amazon I went!  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in and around Cusco, follow this link:

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