Of Incas and Gringos

After party town RdJ, Peru is quite a different experience… We arrived in Cuzco by plane via Rio, Sao Paulo, Lima and let me tell you it felt nice to use the plane once again after so many bus trips. Hopping in a taxi and driving to the hostel we noticed immediately the colonial character and charme of the city. Apparently Cuzco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America, originally built by the Incas, and it is really a beautiful and impressive place. Gee, if those walls and cobblestone streets could talk… Second thing we noticed is that we felt kind of dizzy and were breathing like old steam trains after just a short uphill walk. Well, Cuzco is at an altitude of 3400m (higher than Mt Fuji!) which is quite a leap from the beaches of RdJ. Amazingly at day time the temperature still rises to the 20s (celsius) and the sun is burning down very strongly. Night time is a different story though. All you want then is some warm clothing and a hot shower (and I have to admit that I was dreaming more than once about the wonderfully heated toilet seats they have in Japan. Later on I would have been happy just to have a toilet seat at all…).  Cuzco is also the tourist capital of Peru and yes, there are a lot of gringos around here. Machu Pichhu and Cuzco are at the top of the list for every Peru traveller and hence it is no surprise that tourism accounts for 70% of the local economy. The downside of this is that trips on the Inca Trail have to be booked one year in advance (I guess it did not help much that we started reading Lonely Planet Peru only 2 weeks before arriving there), that prices have been skyrocketing (they seriously charge USD220 for a 10 hour train ride from Cuzco to Puno now) and that they seem to sell Pizzas on every corner (despite the many delicious local specialities). Well, talking about local customs, coca tea is supposed to help you getting over altitude sickness, so I was all over the stuff in the first couple of days (maybe a little too much because I cannot go anywhere close to coca these days). And for the record, we also had lama and alpaca on our plates but the guinea pig project is still on hold (childhood memories anyone?)…

Plaza de Armas and city center Cuzco

Plaza de Armas and city center of Cuzco

Ruins of Sacsayhuaman

The ruins of Sacsayhuaman, close to Cuzco

After 2 days of taking it easy, strolling around Cuzco and getting acclimatized we felt ready for some trekking and signed up for the Salkantay Trek. This is a 5 day/4night trek, one of the more challenging alternatives to the classic Inca Trail, peaking at 4650m, supposedly with great views of the Salkantay Mountain (6270m) and totalling about 60km. This one does not lead directly to Machu Picchu, but hey if we have to take a bus on the last day to get up there that’s a small detail. The upside is that the trail is much less crowded and commercialized.

The rainy season around Cuzco “officially” ends in March, so we knew that trekking in April may bear some risk and conditions may be wetter than we like. And so they were… It was not that we were walking in pouring rain all day long but there was enough rain every day to keep the clothes wet and the  path very muddy. So from the second day our clothes and shoes did not really dry anymore and on top of that half of our group were hanging in the ropes due to diarrhea, blisters, altitude sickness and just general exhaustion. Fortunately though we had a really good bunch of people and so thanks to a good dose of OZ humour, Mexican charme, Swiss power (Gustavo aka El Tren), US spirit, British innocence (Excuse me, what is spooning?!) and some local mules and coca leafs we all made it across the Salkantay Pass and from there downwards towards the valley. However, after day 3 we had enough of mud, walking, wet clothes etc and the infamous Plan A was created. It involved hopping on a bus and getting a lift to Santa Teresa where we could camp at a wonderfully green campsite and enjoy the hot springs. And boy, it was a heavenly oasis… I felt like we had checked into a five star luxury resort. Most of us did not leave the hot springs for hours (maybe also because Kevin07 opened his bottle of red wine) and jumped in there again first thing next morning (6.30am, no red wine involved then)! It was amazing how rejuvenated both body and spirit felt and hence the 3 hour walk to Aguas Calientes on day 4 (again with some rain sprinkles) was a piece of cake. I think it was the first day of the trip that everyone had almost fully recovered from their physical pains and the thought of visiting Machu Picchu put us in high spirits anyway.  In Aguas Calientes (this place is almost gringos only) , our guide Freddy offered an additional hike of 1hr to Putucusi mountain from where we would be able to get a first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Uh la la, sounds very tempting…! But just when we were about to leave, it started raining again, so only 3 of us took up the challenge. Thank God I did not chicken out since this 1 hour excursion would turn into the adventure highlight of the trek. To be fair, it was more of a climb than a hike and at times it felt like we were only going vertical for the whole hour. We had to climb some wooden ladders straight up the rocks, the longest one probably close to 100m long (I kept thinking of the song “Stairway to Heaven”, that’s how it felt)! When we got to the top, I was totally out of breath but also unbelievably proud because I am normally suffering from vertigo and did not think I would be capable of doing something like this.  We also got lucky with the weather and while we were catching our breath at the peak, some of the last sunrays of the day put the spotlight on Machu Picchu on the hill across. We all lit up with joy. This was the perfect occasion and the perfect spot to sacrifice our 3 best coca leafs to the Inca Gods and make 3 wishes (a local tradition).

Trekking in the Mud

The Salkantay Trek was a muddy proposition…

Salkantay Mountain

Despite rain and clouds we got a glimpse of Salkantay Mountain

Tough Trekkers at Salkantay Pass

A bunch of tough cookies at Salkantay Pass (4600m)

Views from Putucusi Mountain

Amazing view from Cutupusi after a strenuous climb

Finally, day 5 – Machu Picchu was waiting for us. We got up at 3.45am (I never thought I could get up at that time – surely the Inca Gods must have kissed me awake) in order to catch the first bus to Machu Picchu. And guess what? It was pouring and when we got up there after a 20min bus ride most of the ruins and scenery were covered in fog and clouds. Hence we first went for a hot chocolate and gave it another try one hour later. Luckily, it started clearing up somewhat but unfortunately we would never be able to see the full panorama (MP is 360º surrounded by hills and mountains). Our guide Freddy took us for a 2hour tour around the site and it was interesting to see and learn how advanced the Inca culture had been at such an early time. Even to this day though, there are still a lot of speculations what exactly MP served for, who lived there, why it was built there (I could not think of a more beautiful spot) and why it was never discovered until 1911. As I mentioned, the ruins, the terraces, the setting and the history behind it are all spectacular and interesting but I still think there is a little bit too much hype around it. Interestingly, the Unesco has asked the Peruvian government a couple of times to slow things down, otherwise MP may take permanent damage (the hill is moving at rate of 2cm per year), but sadly the bucks seem too tempting for now…

 Classic View of Machu Picchu

Classic View of Machu Picchu

The Inca Gods continued to be very kind to us (must have been all those coca leafs I sacrificed) and thanks to a farmers strike that made it impossible to get out of Aguas Calientes we got to stay there another night. This was the perfect occasion to party and finally even our OZ friends started drinking (I was already getting worried about them). It turned out to be a great night (probably the first night in Peru I was not in bed by 10pm) and while most of us were dancing away amidst exotic rhythms (irrespective of talent…) and having a great time, our poor guides were so exhausted (and drunk) that they were napping in the disco…

Finally, we made it back to Cuzco the next day and it was time to say goodbye to everyone. I felt pretty deflated that day, not sure whether it was the hangover, the fact that one of the big highlights of our South America trip was behind us or simply the lack of Mexican charme around us… Fortunately my mate Gustavo had already planned the next steps of our trip and dragged me on a (gringo) bus to Puno.

Amazing landscape on the way to Cuzco

Amazing landscapes and colours on the way back to Cuzco

Puno (altitude 3800m) is on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America. The town looks a little awkward because none of the houses are painted and many look unfinished with iron rods still sticking out at the top. The reason? Only finished houses are taxed… We went to see the floating islands at Uros on Lake Titicaca. There are about 300 families living on floating islands made of reed and they seem to be living a very peaceful life. On recommendation of Kevin07 we took a bus to Copacabana (no joke) on the Bolivian side and from there a boat to Isla del Sol. This is a beautiful island in the middle of Lake Titicaca at an altitude of 4000m. At times I felt like on a Greek Island and at times it felt like the French Riviera. The only difference was that we could see the Bolivian Andes at 6000m and higher, plus the temperature dropped pretty badly at night (I am actually getting sick of cold places now), so we went to bed pretty early every night (again). Funnily, Isla del Sol was the first place on this trip where Gustavo and I actually lowered the average age of the guests at the hostel even though it had Youth Hostel stickers all over the place. Ah, and Isla del Sol also wins the award for first place on my trip (almost 3 months now) where I could not find an internet cafe.

Uros, floating village

The floating village of Uros

View from Isla del Sol

View from Isla del Sol

So far so good. We have been in Peru now for a little more than 2 weeks and it has been fun. Also, the Peruvians are incredibly friendly and (justifiedly) proud of their Inca heritage.  The sites and landscapes have been amazing. Looking forward to the coming Peru chapters…

Hasta luego

Adrian

PS – ever since we stopped trekking the weather has been good! Another sign from the Inca Gods?

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