Cusco & the Inca Trail – 15th – 22nd March

We arrived in Cusco pretty early after the night bus from Puno. Luckily despite it being about 5am, our accomodation for the next two nights – the Panay Guest House – already had our room ready.

The plan for our time in Cusco was two days exploring the city, then four days on the Inca trail, followed by another two days back in Cusco.

Cusco – Pre Inca Trail

We used the two days pre Inca trail to explore Cusco and to continue our acclimatisation to the altitude.

To start the day off we did the free three hour walking tour with Inkamilkyway, which took us through Cusco’s main squares, churches and market, before climbing up to San Cristobal for a view over the town.

Although we spent a little bit too long ambling round the market (The San Pedro Market), we instantly fell in love with Cusco as a city. A little bit like a bigger version of Sucre. With cobbled streets and Spanish colonial buildings everywhere, it was great just walking round and taking it all in.

As a late lunch we had a menu del día with three courses at just 10 soles (about £2). With a big feed adding to our tiredness from the lack of sleep the night before, we headed back to the guest house for an early night and to try and fix my phone – I’d managed to half submerge it by dropping into the toilet on the night bus. Luckily it had dried itself out by the time we were back…

For day two we’d booked ourselves onto a cooking class at Peruvian Cooking Classes, where we joined by Mick, a great lad from Ireland currently living in New York. He was also doing the Inca trail at the same time as us, albeit with a different company. But we still bumped into him at various points along the way.

The class was great. First of all we all went to San Pedro market to buy the ingredients. As we were the first to book the course we were also able to decide the three course menu to prepare – quinoa soup, Lomo Saltado (a sort of stir fried steak) and Chocotejas (a choclatey treat with dulce de Leche and nuts), along with Chicha Morada (a local drink made from purple corn). One of the chef’s wanted us to prepare Cuy (Guinea Pig). I told him we wouldn’t be able to cook it back home. He told me we could just go to the pet shop…

We were all starving by the time the food was ready to eat. But it was worth the wait. Post lunch came probably one of the highlights of the trip so far (although Phil told me off for saying that…) – a trip to get my Peruvian football shirt.

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Cusco has two teams – Deportivo Garcilaso and Cienciano, who play in the first and second divisions respectively. Although they find themselves in the second division now, Cienciano shocked the whole of South America in 2003 and 2004, winning the equivalent of the UEFA Cup and the Super Cup (the Copa Sudamericana and the Recopa Sudamericana) against Argentinian powerhouses River Plate and Boca Juniors. I’d read on the internet that the club shop was on the second level of a school off one of the main squares. Not only was the shirt only about £15, they also wheeled out the trophies for me. Superb.

For the rest of the afternoon we went to Qorikancha – the former religious centre of Cusco for the Inca’s which previously contained various temples to the Inca gods. It is said to mean Golden Courtyard in Quechua as the temples were covered in gold. Unfortunately when the Spanish arrived, the riches of the temple were looted and the gold walls were melted down. Much of the original buildings were replaced with the Saint Domingo convent. However, there are still some parts of the original structure to enjoy – including the moon and thunder temples.

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We then made our way to Salkantay Trekking for our Inca Trail briefing. Phil and I had chatted during the day about hoping to have a good group for the trail. When we got to the briefing we found out it was just us….so we were in for essentially a private Inca Trail tour with our guide Evert Arce (“Arcito”) and four porters – Rosaleo, Edwin, Percy and Jonah. An early start awaited us, so post briefing, we headed back to pack and get some sleep.

El Camino Inca

The trail itself is over 40km long with over 11,000 large stone steps (this would be even more if the smaller ones were included as well).

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Day one was a nice gentle introduction – starting at kilometre 82, we walked about five hours in total until we reached Huayllabamba, our camp site for the night at about 3,000m. We passed what would be the first of many Inca ruins at Patallacta. It was also our first taste of the food prepared by head chef Rosaleo. Throughout the entire trip the food was incredible. Especially considering that he only had two small gas hobs to cook on.

We’d also been really lucky with the weather. Technically March is still the rainy season. But it stayed dry and sunny all the way to the campsite.

Day two was a tough one. The initial plan was to start walking at 6am and finish up at Payamaco at about 1pm following a steep climb over the top of the Warmihuañusca mountain (4,215m). But with our speedy progress, we carried on walking over the next peak (Runkuraquay 3,800m) before finishing up for the day. The only downside was that we didn’t really get any views from the peaks as it was so misty. My Fitbit reckoned we’d covered about 21km, over 27,000 steps and over 500 floors. It was a tiring day, but we had at least reduced the workload for day three.

Day three began with us being woken up by a group of llamas at around 5am. Phil reckoned all the noise was because they were trying to mate.

We were still above 3,000m at the start of day three, but by the end we’d be down at 2,640m at Wiñayhuayna. En route we passed two sets of amazing ruins – one at Phuyupatamarca and the second just round the corner of the campsite. Unfortunately at around lunchtime the weather took a bit of a turn for the worst and we had our first period of extended rain. Luckily we’d just got to the campsite in time to avoid getting soaked.

In the afternoon it started to clear though, so we went to take a look at the incredible Wiñaywayana ruins right by our campsite.

The work the porters do is quite incredible. They don’t have any animals to carry all the equipment and food as they’re not permitted on the trail. Fortunately the regulations were changed a few years ago so they can only carry a maximum of 25kg per person. But in the past porters used to carry as much as 40kg. Porters across all the different companies race round the trail – it’s ridiculous how quickly they are able to climb and descend (often down pretty slippery steps), at times running rather than walking!

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They take a really early train on the last day – at 5am – leaving the campsite at about 3.30am. So we bid our farewells the previous night at dinner. Phil gave a heart warming thanks. I tried to chip in with my broken Spanish, only to pronounce años (years) as anos (anus)…..Luckily they still let me have some of the cake they’d somehow cobbled together for pudding.

With the porters up early for their train, we had to follow suit so they could pack up the tents. Park rules don’t allow you to start the descent down to Machu Pichu until 5.30am. So we had a two hour wait in the cold sat outside the ranger’s office, in a queue with all the other tour groups. Luckily Arcito had got the porters to prepare a thermos to keep us warm.

The park ranger from the previous day was spot on. The weather was absolutely perfect. No rain – just sun and cloud, which allowed us to take in the amazing views of the city. The scale of what the Inca’s built is breathtaking and on our guided tour with Arcito he mentioned that archeologists are hopeful of uncovering more ruins when they excavate further areas.

After Arcito had left us we met Mick and went to see the Inca Bridge – an old bridge which is no longer used. This required us to climb back up to the top of the city. As much as it’s incredibly impressive how the Inca’s managed to build a bridge into the rock face, we’re not sure if it was worth the extra energy on our tired legs!

Unfortunately our bus ticket from Machu Pichu down to Aguas Calientes, the small town where you take the train to arrive at Machu Pichu, was not included. Being cheapskates we decided to walk it down more steps and forego the 8 USD bus ticket.

We met Arcito for lunch, bid our farewells, and boarded the train back to Wayamaba where we were picked up and taken back to Cusco.

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The whole experience was phenomenal. I was also pleasantly surprised that my frail body held up pretty well over the four days. I didn’t feel that tired and no pain on the old knees, whereas Phil was struggling a bit. All worth it though. Even better news awaited when we got back to the hostel when I caught up on the reds’ 5-0 win over Watford. So all in all, a good few days!

Cusco – Post Inca Trail

Phil woke up with a bit of a cold back in Cusco. So we decided to take our last two days in Cusco pretty easy.

Amidst buying a ton of souvenirs from the markets on our first day back, we tucked into an amazing burger at Native Burgers Chakruna (for about £2, with chips and a drink. It was so good we went back the next day…) and a big slab of chocolate cake following the free tour and tasting at the chocolate museum.

On the evening came another trip highlight. Naturally Arcito and I had chatted about football a few times during the trail. He’d kindly invited Mick and Patrick (another lad from the US from Mick’s group) to join his friends for a couple of hours of six a side.

It was brilliant fun and despite us gringos having our hands on our hips, panting for breath most of the time, we did surprisingly well, winning all but one of our games. As it was winner stayed on, this meant we were shattered – I honestly felt this to be about ten times more demanding the Inca Trail! Mick and I grabbed a quick pizza back in Cusco, before I headed back to bed.

Our tour guide had told us that it was free to enter Cusco’s many churches during mass before nine o’clock. So we went on a quick trip whistle stop tour before tucking into some quinoa and apple at the market.

Before our flight we visited the Quechua museum (more of a shop than a museum…), the textiles museum and went to Qucharitas for an ice cream (although Phil had a bit of a disappointing cheese cake…).

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Cusco’s been fantastic, and similarly to Sucre, we regret not building in more time to stay here for an extended period of time and maybe do some Spanish classes. Lima up next which I imagine will be a bit of a change in scene…

Paul

Songs in my head from the 80s hits CD everyday at breakfast at the guest house:

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