On the way back down, a vendor stopped us to try and barter some of his goods for Stoytcho’s watch, a ~$30 Casio G-Shock. We politely declined, but I asked if I could pay him 5 soles (~$1.50 USD) to take pictures of his wares. He agreed enthusiastically, suddenly donning a hat and holding up his brightest colored blankets for me to photograph. It was an absurd display, and it seemed so far from life in fact that I cringed inside. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t necessary, that I was interested in him just as himself, and that he didn’t have to dress in the kitsch he sells to tourists and put on a show. Instead, I took my picture and thanked him.
After a day of rest and recovery in Cusco, we decided it was time to test our preparedness for the Salkantay Trail by hiking Cusco’s trail of Inca ruins, a ~7.5 km downhill hike that visits the Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Saqsayhuaman archaeological sites. While 48 hours isn’t a lot of time to acclimate to Cusco’s high altitude, we’re due to head out to the Salkantay tomorrow and it’s better to know now if we’re not in good enough shape. So we paid 17 soles (~$5 USD) for a taxi to the start of the trail at Tambomachay, where we paid 70 soles (~$21 USD) per person for day passes to all four ruins and got ready to hike.
The ruin of Tambomachay was a few minutes’ walk uphill, with bilingual Spanish/English signs along the way that introduced the site’s history. To the Incas, Tambomachay was simultaneously a sacred site, a resort getaway, and a key defensive area. The Incan leaders worshiped the manifestation of water here through the abundant springs in the area, rested in its hot springs and enjoyed hunting, and commanded warriors to use this as a guardpoint for entry into ancient Cusco. Now the area was guarded by polite ropes cordoning off the ruins, and manned by a string of vendors selling souvenirs to the handful of tourists coming by. This time of year is the low season in Cusco, and mostly what these poor folks are doing is huddling under blankets to ward off the morning cold, chewing coca leaves and chatting to each other.
The ruins held our interest for about 10 minutes as we admired the masonry and construction, then we turned our attention to the patchwork of trails around the ruins. There didn’t seem to be a specific trail we should take, so we picked one and started hiking uphill, partly to test our fitness and partly just to see what else was around here. The flora and fauna was decidedly different here – there were plants and insects of brilliant color and odd design, from the papery husk of a wildflower set to seed to a metallic blue-green wasp. The view was also stunning, as the clouds of the rainy season drifted over the Andes.
On a trail high above the ruins, we stopped to rest and were ambushed by a pack of llamas, who insisted on taking right-of-way on the path. We climbed up above them, gazing down in awe as the trail became a flowing river of wool, llamas and sheep walking, stopping to nibble, and rolling in the dust. As we waited for them to pass, I made the mistake of snapping a photo. The driver of this herd, an old woman, had rounded the bend by this time and approached me. “Moneda,” she said forcefully, holding out her hand. I was confused, and then it dawned on me that she was demanding money for my pictures. “Moneda,” she demanded again. “Uh…no,” I replied. The woman stood there for a few more moments, her hand out, frowning. But her herd was wandering on without her, and so she hissed and turned away. For the safety of the money that’s supposed to get me from here to home, I made a mental note to never photograph specific things or people here in Peru without asking first. It’s just too risky. It also seems absurd that photos of daily life would warrant payment, but when tourism pays so much better than anything else then everyone wants in on the action.
The next two ruins were a blur as we trudged down the paved road and dirt trails toward Cusco. Puka Pukara had little information provided only in Spanish, though its walls were beautifully reconstructed and we could see the amazing stonecutting skills of the Incas. Each piece of stone seemed to fit together perfectly, without even space to slide a needle in. This hadn’t stopped plants, though, and mosses and weeds sprouted defiantly from some cracks in the walls, intent on rejoining the structures with the nature around us.
Q’enqo had no information whatsoever, its sign missing from the wooden frame. We walked the ruins anyway, puzzling over its cave and stairs that probably once led to an altar. “This was probably a worship site for the Incas.” I hypothesized to Stoytcho. “Whatever it was, it was meant for shorter people,” Stoytcho replied, bent at nearly ninety degrees as he squeezed through spaces between the rocks.
While we weren’t the only visitors on the hike, we seemed to be the only foreigners around. We passed local families walking the ruins, children playing in fields, and couples picnicking on the hills. Maybe they’re shopkeepers in the city, but they seem to be a different class entirely from the Cusquenos selling souvenirs from street stalls and at the ruins.
It’s late afternoon when we finally reached the ruins of Saqsayhuaman, and I fully admit to being pretty done with ruins. It was a shame, because Saqsayhuaman was one of the most interesting ruins, a reconstruction of the part of the ancient city of Cusco. Ancient Cusco was built in the shape of a jaguar, and the fortress at Saqsayhuaman was the jaguar’s head, complete with an eye and jagged teeth. Many guides here walked with tour groups, explaining the history and structure of the site, and there were several signs explaining the layout of the ruins in English and Spanish. But we were both tired, and so we stayed only 30 minutes before continuing on toward the city. We only stopped again for the giant Jesus on the hill.
Finally, seven hours and four aching feet later, we were walking through the streets of Cusco again. We trudged back down to Plaza de Armas where our trip had started, and sat in front of the Catedral del Cusco. It was a fitting if not morbid end to the trip, sitting before the works of the Spanish conquerors who laid waste to the Incan empire only a few hundred years ago. With guns and horses, they captured Cusco in 1533 and made it their base for Spanish colonization of the Andes. They spread Christianity and suppressed Incan beliefs and political systems, building new edifices of power while the remains of the Inca civilization faded. The Incans may have made the temples, walls, and fortresses, but these conquerors made the ruins we saw today.
And as for the verdict on our condition after the hike? We’re exhausted but not dead exhausted and not injured, nor had we suffered any dizziness or fainting from the altitude. I’m pretty sure we’re ready for the Salkantay.