Cuzco and Machu Picchu: Showpiece

Posted on May 15, 2011

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I bottled out on the mammoth bus journey from Lima to Cuzco and flew instead, a decision I considered justified as the journey took a mere hour instead of the almost full day the ambling bus would have taken. As it was, I was able to check in to my hotel (deliberately a quite sedate affair considering I was supposed to be in Inca Trail “acclimatisation”), have a stroll around the impressive city, eat a deliciously cheap Mexican meal and sit down to watch the entirety of Real Madrid v Barcelona.

I did feel slightly ill, be it from alcohol or altitude, and so retired to bed early with a book. The next day was a similarly productive affair, as I managed to have my camera fixed on the cheap by a vendor in the market. I made it my mission to see all there was to see in Cuzco, so took in an interesting museum and some Inca ruins, which clearly were nothing in comparison to what I was to see over the next few days. I also did my bit for Peruvian alpacas, purchasing too extremely warm alpaca fleeces before settling down to the dinner of alpaca steak. Hero. My good intentions of relaxing entirely pre-Inca Trail were somewhat compromised by my two other adventures over the course of the day. First of all I enjoyed an expensive Full English Breakfast (oh the luxury!) at the Cross Keys pub, with a pint of Old Speckled Hen to wash it down. Then, after popping for a quiet drink at another British-run bar on the main plaza, I met a loco American and wind up spending the evening drinking with him at his hostel.

Thus it was a hungover and forlorn specimen that arrived at the briefing for the Inca Trail the next day. My fellow trekkers were to be an American couple, two American couples and our guide, a lively local named Jose. With everything adequately explained, and myself warned over my activities for the following day, I indulged in a shameless McDonalds breakfast and spent the day napping and reading. After a nice pork dinner on “Pork Street”, it was early to bed in advance of the gruesomely early start the next day.

Picked up from my hostel at 5.30am (this was to become an hour I became increasingly used to seeing), we drove the 1.5 hours to Ollantaytambo, the starting point of the trek. After eating breakfast and stocking up on necessities like Coca leaves, we started the trail. The first day was fairly steady, with no great climbs or descents. What was immediately obvious was the quality of the staff. The porters are a breed apart, bombing past average trekkers such as myself at a speed quite ridiculous considering they wore sandals and carried three times as much. It was evident from our first lunch spot that the food, whipped up there and then on the mountain, was to be excellent, and by the end I considered it the best I had had so far in South America. Jose, our leader, was an inspiration, his constant banter and womanising – yes, womanising – of fellow trekkers a source of great hilarity. Indeed, this jovial humour was shared by the porters and cooks also.

With the first day behind us, we settled for a night in camp. This experience is a bizarre one. Once the food has been had (we had a starter of popcorn!), everyone basically retires to bed, with tiredness, the 6pm sunset and the early rise the next morning all contributing factors. Uppermost in everybody´s mind was that following day´s part of the trek had been affectionately nicknamed the “Gringo Killer”, reaching a high of 4200m.

In the end, for myself at least, the dramatic nickname was a harsh one, as I completed the section ahead of the group and with relatively little trouble. This was as much a surprise to me as to everyone else, but it was a great feeling to be in camp by 1.30pm knowing the toughest part of the walk was probably behind me. Woken at 5.30am by a porter proferring Coca Tea, we were hiking by 7am. One of my fellow trekkers had the misfortune of having been quite ill during the night, and that illness continued into this toughest of days. I imagine that to have been a terrible situation, and did not envy him. But for my part I was completed with surprisingly little problems, and relaxed enough to spend the evening drinking rum and tea to celebrate Jose´s birthday (a cake was even baked, though don´t ask me how) and discussing Quechua chat-up lines with the porters and cooks.

Day Three wound up being more difficult than expected, as it emerged that hiking downhill was not as easy as we had all thought. It was certainly easier than the day before, however, and again it was accomplished with minimal problems. The scenery was amongst the best on the hike so far, with panoramic views and inca ruins to be explored. The main difficulty is actually being able to see it, as one´s major interest is in making sure one´s feet find a stable landing place! The campsite was the best yet, with warm showers (not one of us dirty gringos indulged) and a bar (more than one of us indulged in this).

The final day was the earliest start yet, rudely awakened at 4am. In reality, this was not so much for hiking reasons, given that it was a mere two hours to Machu Picchu, but because it was necessary for hundreds of hikers to wait in darkness at the checkpoint for almost an hour. I am sure there must be a better way of doing this! Packed breakfasts in hand, we created the remainer of the trek with no problems and were able to eat while watching the sun rise over the breathtaking Inca city from afar. Upon moving closer, it emerged that we had been lucky enough to have optimum weather conditions and hence our pictures were brochure-esque and amazing. After a two-hour tour, frankly a bit of a damp squib after what we had just achieved, all that was left to do was obtain the Machu Picchu stamp for our passports and head down to the tourist-trap town of Aguas Calientes for lunch, some beers and to watch the second Real-Barca match.

After taking the bizarre train back to Cuzco (complete with fashion show and sickly meal) I indulged in the partying I considered I had earned at the infamous Loki Hostel. After a night at the bar with an English and a Polish guy, I was up the next day just in time to return to watch Manchester United v Schalke with a handful of Israeli guys. The evening was spent in a similar manner, and it was with heavy heart and pounding head that I rose the next day to make the eight-hour journey to Puno. As a city, Cuzco had been both a pleasure and also the site of a personal landmark.

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Posted in: Experience, Travel