Cusco and the dangers of tourism

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A local girl fights to bring a lamb over for a tourist photo. The streets of Cusco are lined with women and girls who pose for photos in traditional costume with their animals for money.

During our first taxi ride in Cusco, we asked the driver what drove the city’s economy. “Tourism,” was his first and definite answer. “Are there any other things?” we asked out of curiosity. “Mmm…” There was a long pause before he answered, “Culture. We have culture.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that culture probably also fell under the category of tourism.

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A guide explains the construction of the Saqsaywaman ruins to his tour group. The primary source of income for most people in Cusco seems to be tourism.

One of the dangers of tourism is that when it’s the main economic driver bringing money into your city*, it needs to somehow employ everyone. Yes, there are the people who keep the city running in the day to day, but all of the best-paying jobs are tourism related: hotel staff, tour agents, travel guides, shopkeepers selling souvenirs. And when those jobs are saturated, people find other ways to take part in the tourism economy. There are the llama ladies on the streets of Cusco, dressed in traditional attire and toting their pet llamas. They’ll invite you to take a picture and then demand payment. There are the wandering art sellers, toting their portfolios and approaching tourists, asking them to buy a piece and support their attendance at an art school. And there are the folks dressed as Incan warriors hanging out along Calle Hatumrumiyoc, “guarding” the stone wall here that was once part of an Incan palace and insisting on payment for photos.

The logic is simple. Tourists have money, and they’ll pay me. And doing this pays better than another job I can get.

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A vendor poses with his wares at one of the archaeological sites near Cuscuo. I paid him $1.25 USD for this photo. He will likely make more money selling souvenirs to tourists than as a farmer or local market vendor.

In the high season, there are plenty of tourists around and things are probably pretty good. But in the low season, the people here get more desperate. Sweet invitations turned into shouts and frowns when we declined to take photos of some of the llama ladies. We were offered tours and massages from about twenty different people a day. Art vendors practically begged us to buy something. Again, the logic was simple: times are hard. You have money. You can (and should) give some to me.

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Slow day: in the low season, fewer people come to Cusco and there’s less tourism money to go around. The vendors, tour sellers, and costumed women get more desperate.

And while that logic might be simple, it can make visiting Cusco as a traveller, especially one with little money, feel pretty bad. It’s the constant being sold to, the commercialization of every aspect of the place, the insistence that you must spend, spend, spend to experience and enjoy.

But what the people of Cusco are doing isn’t wrong, either. They’re simply trying to make money to survive, to save, and to take care of their families. To exclude them from the tourism economy is to deny them a better life.

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A woman walks by signs taped up by protesters.

But that exclusion soon might be coming to all of Cusco. The second major danger of tourism as your only economy is that the flow of tourists might stop entirely. This could happen because the global economy dips and fewer people have money to travel. It might also happen if the reason tourists visit disappears or gets destroyed (though this one is less likely). And it can also happen when tourists find a more convenient route to get to what they want to see that doesn’t involve you.

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Signs protesting the construction of the new international airport in Chinchero. Once completed, tourists will no longer need to fly to Lima or Cusco to reach Machu Picchu, the country’s most popular tourist destination.

When we went out earlier, we saw signs plastered around Plaza de Armas in protest and several people scrawling more with black pens on white poster paper. They were protesting the construction of an international airport in the nearby town of Chinchero. Approved in 2012, the plan would create a travel hub closer to Machu Picchu with more capacity to receive tourists. It would also enable tourists to see the ruins without having to visit Cusco at all, and the people here know that’s bad news for the biggest employer in town.

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A man stands at the edge of an Andean vista outside of Cusco. How the city would change from a sudden drop in tourism remains unknown.

Footnotes:

*Frustratingly, I couldn’t find much hard data on the size of Cusco’s tourism industry (in dollars or empoyment).

According to Wikipedia, Cusco’s tourism industry was worth $2.47 billion USD in 2009. Considering that the Cusco region (not just the city) accounted for 4.4% of Peru’s GDP, we can use Peru’s GDP of around $190 billion to figure out that Cusco’s region accounted for $8.4 billion. After this we get kind of stuck, since we’re not sure how much Cusco the city accounts for GDP in the region, but let’s say 50% because it has about 1/3 of the region’s population and as a city it’s going to have a pretty big economic footprint. So that means Cusco the city has a GDP of $4.2 billion.

Assuming tourism hasn’t drastically fallen since 2009 (according to various sources, it’s only increasing), then tourism accounts for at least $2.47 billion of Cusco’s $4.2 billion GDP, meaning it makes up 59% of the city’s GDP. While that doesn’t equate to employment, that does suggest there are a lot of incomes in Cusco that are dependent on tourism.

Regular people of Cusco

After our adventures in Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, we’re back in Cusco! We’ll be moving on to Arequipa soon, but here’s a tribute to the wonderful regular folks of Cusco. While we travellers pass through the city to see the sights, these people work here every day as vendors, cleaners, and builders. So if you visit and see these folks, give them your thanks.

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A worker maintaining the ruins of Tambomachay outside of the city
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Poeple chat in the Plaza de Armas between selling tour packages to visitors

 

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A fruit market in the southwest part of the city
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Fruit vendors at a market in the southwest part of the city
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Two women collect and empty garbage bins near Mercado San Pedro
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A worker carries supplies and children play in Mercado San Pedro
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Construction workers demonstrate on the street near Plaza de Armas

Machu Picchu

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The view from a window in the ruins of Machu Picchu

The nice part about low season is that you can waltz into the tourism center in Aguas Calientes and buy general tickets for Machu Picchu for the next day. You may not be able to get the more limited tickets to climb Huayna Piccu, but most of the time they still have the standard 152 sole (USD $46) ticket to visit the archaeological site. Likewise, while Aguas Calientes might be a tourist trap, the actual tourism office here is wonderfully helpful free of charge. After purchasing our tickets to Machu Picchu yesterday, we stopped by to ask how to get back to Cusco if we couldn’t afford the train. They told us we could walk back along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica and take a van from there. “The last van leaves around 3:00 pm,” they said.

Next came the decision of whether we wanted to take the bus up to the ruins. The first one left at 6:00 am, but when we asked about how much it cost, we found out it would be $35 per person for the 20-minute ride to the top. Uh, no thanks.

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The only consolation I have regarding Aguas Calientes’ steep prices is that they made these adorable frog trash cans, which are free to enjoy.

Our 6:30 am start the next day was early for us, but when we left our hotel there were already more than a hundred people lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to take the buses up. We started out too late to beat them to the top (and have Machu Picchu to ourselves), but hopefully we’d still make it before the ruins got too busy. We hiked out of Aguas and took the left fork in the road for Machu Picchu. The guards at the suspension bridge there checked our tickets for the ruin, along with our passports, then waved us on. Another group wasn’t so lucky—one of them had forgotten their passport, and we watched him sprint off back toward Aguas Calientes.

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The map of the trail up (green). I like how they actually drew all of the squiggles in the trail instead of doing the lazy thing and drawing a straight line up.

Now it was time for the pain before the gain. You’ve seen the pictures of Machu Picchu in the National Geographic or online, high in the mountains and shrouded in mist. It’s mysterious. It’s gorgeous. And it looks like this because it actually is on the mountain. And the hike up is just that—up, up more than a thousand stone steps. Some are wide and easy to traverse. Some are narrow and your foot won’t fully fit, so you step diagonally and cautiously. Some are unevenly spaced. And some are wedged into walls so you’re climbing them like you’re in some kind of real-life video game. We raced to the top stopping only a couple of times and passing more than a dozen other groups. We would pay for this later, but for now we’re going for gold.

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Steps along the trail. Cue up some video game music from either Super Mario or Ico.

We knew when we were near the top because suddenly little old ladies selling water and premade lunches appeared, sitting on the side of their trail and calling out their wares. A few steps later, we were out into the pavement in front of Machu Picchu’s entrance, which was already thronged with tourists. We ducked between tour groups gathering their members and got to the entry turnstyles, presented our ticket and passport yet again, and then stumbled through into the open dirt path. Made it!

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Our first view of Machu Picchu

We had only four hours at the ruins if we wanted to catch a bus back to Cusco from Hidroelectrica. There weren’t too many tourists yet, so we sprinted around the compound to see everything we wanted. First on our list was the Sun Gate (the end of the Inca Trail), but we scrapped that when we found out it took two hours to hike there and back. But we still walked some of the trail in that direction, to get a feel for what the Inca Trail would have been like. The conclusion was rocky and knobbly and full of people with trekking poles and some egos. As we passed one hiking group from the Inca Trail, one guy snarkily asked us if we had enjoyed our train ride here. “We hiked the Salkantay,” Stoytcho said, and neither of us bothered to stop. As we left them behind, I heard their guide say, “That trail is harder than ours. Much harder.”

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Mountains in the morning mist along the route to the Sun Gate

Exploring the rest of Machu Picchu’s ruins was more leisurely, as we climbed up to the northwest part of the compound, then walked down along the north edge to the east side. We visited what looked like dwellings, storehouses, meeting grounds, and temples, all painstakingly reconstructed from the ruins over the past century. I say “looked like” because I couldn’t actually tell you much about the ruins: there are only a handful of informational signposts in the ruins, so learning anything about them requires prior study or a guide. (And no, we couldn’t get signal for Wikipedia up on the mountain.)

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The only sign I remember seeing in the ruins. it proclaims that this was a “ceremonial rock”. Ok.

So instead of studying the ruins, we studied the tourists visiting them. What had started as a smattering of people when we arrived had turned into a torrent by late morning. They posed for pictures, took selfies, and were overall insanely excited to be here. We’ve been on the road for a few months now, and Machu Picchu is just one destination of many for us. But for some of these people, coming here is a lifelong dream and it shows.

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A man takes a selfie
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These women took photos of everything while grinning madly; it was probably their lifelong dream to come here.

And despite the dearth of information on the ruins, it’s clear they’re deeply loved by the staff that cares for them. We encountered more than twenty khaki-clad workers in our visit, doing everything from removing plants and dirt from between the stones to measuring the impact of thousands of human footsteps on the stability of the ruins. From the first moment in the morning to the end of the day, these men and women work hard to preserve Machu Picchu in the face of more than a million tourists each year*. And through chatting with them, we learned it’s definitely not for the money; one worker was stunned and amused to find out how much foreigners paid for admission compared to how much he made working there. “We see very little of that money,” he told us.

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Workers measure the impact of tourist footsteps/walking in the ruins.

So is Machu Picchu worth all of this? The expensive fuss to get here, the painfully touristic atmosphere of Aguas Calientes, the long hike through and up mountains to get here? It could be reviled as the cash cow of the Peruvian government and the local area, or admired as the dream destination of so many and the labor of love for those that work to preserve it. To know if it’s worth it, take a look and decide for yourself.

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The archetypal Machu Picchu view, available to everyone who visits.

*Note: that 2014 linked article stated that guides would become a requirement, but when we visited (January 2017), this was still not in effect. There were some concerted efforts to move people more quickly through bottleneck points though.

Salkantay Trek Day 2: Water, water everywhere

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Cairns placed at the Salkantay Pass

This is day 2 of our Salkantay Trek, continued from Day 0 and Day 1.

The night was uneventful and after our twenty-something kilometer hike yesterday, we slept soundly. I vaguely remember waking up once to the sound of snorting and neighing near my head and spent a few moments afraid that the creature outside might test our tent for edibility. But it didn’t, and I was asleep again in minutes.

 

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Good morning!

We woke up on the second day of our hike around 9:00 am with everything stiff. Arms, hands, knees, ankles, feet, legs, hips-every part of us moved with an immense reluctance. We boiled water and ate a breakfast of powdered soup and bread, and then packed away our camping kit. Between heavy mist and rain showers in the early morning, the tent was wet. Our shoes were also wet, unable to dry from yesterday’s rain. And with the sky’s continued grayness and the Salkantay Pass ahead of us, it looked like stiffness and wetness would continue to be the theme of the day.

 

 

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A waterfall obscured by mist feeds a stream that runs into the valley. 

 

Our fellow hikers Ashley and Kyle were also packing up, and the four of us decided to hike together for the day. Since we got a late start to the day, we probably weren’t going to make the 18 km hike to the campsite at Chaullay, but Ashley and Kyle had notes on a campsite about 10 km away at a place called Wayramachay. They also generously let us borrow their Steripen to replenish our water supply, and then the four of us set off along the trail.

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Hiking buddies!

The first part of the trail was marked by gentle slopes as we trudged through the valley, making it easy for us to enjoy the scenery. The steep mountains on either side of us were verdant through the low hanging clouds and scattered rain, and water flowed through the whole landscape. It trickled off peaks to create waterfalls, flowing along the contours of the mountains down to a river that rushed besides us. There were also signs of human activity here; we passed wire fences, grazing cattle, and stone houses with farm plots.  

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A farmhouse along the trail

In a little over an hour we made it to Salkantaypampa 3.2 km away, and all four of us agreed that it was better we had spent the night at Sorayapampa. Salkantaypampa had only a small shelter and there didn’t seem to be a water source nearby. Excited all the same, we celebrated by taking pictures and continuing on.

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Salkantaypampa campsite is nothing but a small overhang; we couldn’t find any water sources nearby, so it was lucky this wasn’t our final destination last night.

The trail rose more steeply after Salkantaypampa, forming winding switchbacks climbing into the mountains. There were a few points of ambiguity along the trail where it was unclear which direction we should take-one path seemed to lead across the river and up the mountain on the right, while others seemed to lead along the river and still others led uphill on the left of the river. I remembered seeing hiking groups before us climbing the trails on the left and suggested we do the same. A few minutes later a man appeared over the ridge, jogging and driving several horses before him. We tried to ask him whether we were on the right path, but he was out of earshot in minutes and we were left alone again.

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A man drives horses down the steep trails

We pressed on, but as the trail became steeper our progress slowed. Kyle was suffering from altitude sickness, and my own body couldn’t seem to go any faster. I didn’t feel pain, but instead a dread refusal from my muscles to move any faster, to stretch any further than I was currently doing. I resorted to taking small, shuffling steps, waddling like a penguin up the trail.

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Switchbacks in the trail as it leaves the valley floor and begins climbing the mountains

The increasingly heavy rain also made going more difficult. What had started as a soft drizzle in the valley became a chilling sheet of water pouring down on us. It seeped into our ponchos and shoes making everything damp, and only our continued walking kept us warm. The rain also pooled along the trail, creating patches of mud that we either had to cross with caution or find routes around. In places where there was only gravel, the water simply rushed by, turning the trail into another stream rushing to join the river in the valley below. I was extremely grateful that I’ve never found being damp or wet unpleasant, and that I had done several hikes in the rain before. Stoytcho, who isn’t fond of getting wet while hiking, was having less fun.

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Stoytcho stands near one of the many muddy parts in the trail.
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Kyle hikes a trail that has turned into a stream from the rain.

Even with the foul weather and increasing chill from the higher altitude, life continued to flourish high on the mountain. We passed beautiful, brilliant wildflowers from plants that seized the opportunity of rain to bloom. Small, strangely shaped plants adapted for the harsh alpine climate flourished along the muddy hills and walls of the trail. And brilliantly-colored lichens bloomed on rocks, indifferent to the weather around us. The weather might have been terrible for us, but for the flora here it seemed to be a welcome chance to grow and thrive.

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A rock covered with lichen and moss
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Alpine plants flourish in the water brought by the rainy season.

Five hours after we started hiking, we finally reached the blue signpost demarcating the Salkantay Pass. This was the highest point in our trail, a steep 4.6 km above sea level and 1.8 kilometers above where we had started our hike in Mollepata. At this height, the clouds of the current rainstorm hung low and heavy, obscuring our view of the Salkantay peak and other mountains around us. With the continued rain beating down, our celebration at the peak was short before we started down the other side.

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We reach the Salkantay pass! Not pictured: the continued rain and chilling winds.

The trail down seemed less steep than the one up, though this may have been the illusion of going downhill (which I was incredibly grateful for). We still moved slowly, as the low hanging clouds made it hard to see more than a few hundred feet and the continued rain flowing from the mountains made the trail slippery. One small misstep and one of us might have suddenly been travelling far faster down the mountain that was healthy. But after an hour of heading downhill the rain lessened, and as a belated reward for our climb, the snow-capped Andean peaks revealed themselves. Grinning, Ashley pointed out the different kinds of glaciers to us. She and Kyle have gathered a wealth of knowledge in their extensive hiking experiences.

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The peaks of the Andean mountains covered in glacial snow.

We saw the first sign of human activity at around 4:30 pm, more than five hours after the last sign of human activity on the other side of the Salkantay Pass. Small patches of farm plots clustered on the other side of the river, becoming more frequent as the slope of our trail leveled. We found ourselves once again in a lush, grassy valley, but there was also a new sound: a faint hum hung in the air. It grew louder the further we walked, becoming the unmistakable sound of machinery. And as we rounded a bend, we found a small hut with three men busily working. They waved us over to look inside and explained the source of the sound: this hut housed a hydroelectric generator, which harnessed the water flowing around us to create the first electricity their village had ever seen. They pointed with pride to the first lightbulb glowing within the hut.

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Fields cluster along the river outside of Wayramachay.

  With excited voices, we congratulated them and asked the way to Wayramachay. They pointed further down the trail and said it wasn’t far, maybe half an hour. We continued on, and though the rain picked up again and poured down on us, we were in high spirits. We stopped soon after to replenish our water and I offered to carry a few bottles from Stoytcho’s pack, as his load was nearly twice mine in weight. I shoved the bottles into the top of my pack, which would have been a forgettable detail on our trip except for what happened next.

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I don’t have pictures of what happened next, so here are some lupines blooming in the Andean highlands.

We continued down the trail and on a small downhill slope I lost my footing. I collapsed forward, but used my hands to stop my head from hitting the ground. All of the weight of my pack also slung forward too, hitting me in the back of the neck and pinning me. I didn’t have the physical strength to push myself up with the added weight of the pack, so I just sat there on all fours, trying not to let the pack’s weight force my face into the mud and thinking “REALLY?! Come on, I can’t lift this?” I hadn’t realized my body was tilted downhill, so I was trying to lift myself and the pack at an unfavorable angle.

To the rest of the group, though, it looked like I had suddenly collapsed on the trail. Stoytcho rushed over and asked if I was okay. I couldn’t answer at first (see: not letting myself faceplant in the mud), so he started to panic. I managed to grit out “I…can’t…lift…the pack. Stuck…here.” He realized what was going on and gently pulled the backpack backward so I could sit up. Embarrassed, I pushed myself to my feet to show everyone I was okay. There were some scrapes on my hands and knees, but otherwise I felt fine.

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We reach Wayramachay campsite, 99.9% intact after today’s hike.

We passed through Wayramachay without further incident and encountered the campsite less than half an hour later. Nestled on the edge of a gorge, it was a beautiful place to spend the night. It also had water taps and space for preparing food and laying out our clothes. Since we were the only ones at the site, we pitched our tent in the covered areas to get out of the rain. We changed and hung our wet clothes on a makeshift clothesline, with little hope that they would dry. I washed up the scratches on my hands and checked my knee, but bleeding had already stopped. After eating dinner of soup and instant noodles which was inexplicably delicious, Stoytcho and I crawled into our tent, where we fell asleep grateful to be dry and sheltered from the rain.

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Andean peaks obscured by today’s ever-present rainclouds. Hopefully it will clear up tomorrow, but for now we’re at least out of the rain.

Salkantay Trek Day 1: Sorayapampa is how far?

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Salkantay, Salkantay, walkin’ along the Salkantay.

Today is Day 1 of our Salkantay trek, a four day, 60 km-long, 6.4 km change-in-altitude hike through the Peruvian highlands and lowlands to reach Santa Teresa and eventually, Machu Picchu. This is also the first through-hike ever for either of us. It’s like my labmate always used to say, “Go big or go home.” Right? I’ll leave off the second half he always followed up with: “Go too big and get sent home.” Hopefully that won’t happen to us. After all, we’re prepared and have had a good night’s sleep.

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We have totally made a good choice for our first thru-hike. Really.

We got our “early” 7:30 am start out on the Salkantay trail in the northeast corner of Mollepata, with the constant uphill path setting the theme for the day. The trail led through a wooded area for the first couple of hours, as we opted for the longer (but supposedly less hot and more scenic) “hiking” path instead of the vehicle road. Little blue markers with a hiking person led the way after that. Since we were heading out a little later than we had hoped, we scarfed down two granola bars apiece for breakfast with some bites of a giant, football-sized bread boule while we walked.

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The trail split between the hiking and vehicle paths. These little blue signs guided us along the trail the whole way.
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A butterfly drinks water off a rock along the trail.

Though we got a later start than we’d hoped on our hike, we encountered several others on the trail. We passed a group of European hikers chatting amongst each other and said good morning, overtaking them with our faster pace. A few minutes later, we passed another couple hiking the trail and exchanged good mornings with them as well. There were also several locals using the trail. A young man on a horse came down one trail and courteously gave us directions on an ambiguous part of the trail – in this section, there are many because locals have carved so many of their own paths. And a sweet diminutive abuelita we crossed paths with wished us safe travels. “Be careful,” she told us in lispy, toothless Spanish, “there are dangerous men who will cut your throat.” Then she was off down the trail, practically bounding down the trail we had huffed up moments ago.

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The path in the foreground of this picture is nearly vertical, but that doesn’t matter to Andean abuelitas.
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The most dangerous thing we actually encountered on the hike-these berries are probably part of the Solanaceae family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, and the deadly nightshade.

We didn’t encounter anyone for an hour after that, for better or worse—one of the benefits of hiking the off season. The trail gave way from trees grassy hills, and we wound up slopes so steep we were practically climbing. Then without warning, we were on a wide dirt road full of locals. Children played in the dirt while parents sat, waiting for a bus to somewhere else. They were friendly and pointed us to where the Salkantay trail continued. They also pointed us to a sign for the trail. In our two hours of hiking, we had covered 5.7 kilometers of distance and 500 meters of altitude. We had 14 kilometers and 530 meters of altitude gain to go. We were making good time, and might even make it to Salkantaypampa (the next campsite) for the night.

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IT’S A SIGN FROM ON HIGH! It says to…go higher.
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Families waiting for the bus to somewhere else.

The next part of the trail was a steep climb, but we only stopped for water and a few bites of our giant boule of bread (this thing was the size of my head). In half an hour we had covered another 2.4 km and reached the trail fork for Parador Hornada Pata, where we detoured up to get a view of the surrounding countryside and take a break. During the busy season, it looked like this area had water resources and bathrooms, but currently everything was locked. So we just sat on the roofed benches, resting and watching the cloud flow over the Andean ridges and valleys.

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Hiking up to the Parador Hornada Pata
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The view from Parador Hornada Pata

We went back to the trail only to find out the Parador had a path down rejoining the trail later (oops), and trudged along toward our next destination. This is the point where things started to go not-so-well, as I had an increasingly upset stomach and needed to frequently, uh, go. “Great,” I thought to myself, “I’ve also got some kind of food poisoning from yesterday’s meals. At least now we’re eating food so processed I should get better.” I chugged water to ward off dehydration, ignoring more of the scenery and my increasingly tired legs. Our progress slowed, and the couple we had seen earlier passed us, waving cheerfully. It took us nearly two hours to cover the 3.6 km to Mirador Chinchirkuma.

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The sheer scale of the Andes dwarfs any human activity (see settlement on the left)
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A small eggshell we found on the moss beside the trail.

Now came the final push, a mostly-flat 8 km stretch of trail to Sorayapampa cut into the steep Andean mountains alongside a narrow aqueduct. After twenty minutes of walking, we passed a trail marker spray painted onto the rock: 6.4 km! We had covered more than a kilometer and a half. It looked like we were picking up speed again.

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A trail marker spray painted onto a rock along the trail.

We passed the next trail marker half an hour later, in spray paint of another color. This one read…5.7 kilometers? That was odd, because we didn’t feel like we had slowed down any. We continued on, and next marker in yellow spray paint announced 5.1 kilometers; it was immediately followed by a marker in red spray paint that read 5.3 kilometers. It dawned on us that each of these different paint colors was a person’s attempt at marking the distance, explaining why they differed so wildly. Even more fun, the distance of a ‘kilometer’ within each paint color was inconsistent. These are the trail markers you get in the middle of nowhere. Deal with it.

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We have to wear ponchos now cause it’s sproadically raining. Don’t we look cool?
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Yeah, we look cool.

Things were colder and wetter, so we donned jackets and ponchos to stay warm and dry. We trudged on, trying to celebrate the trail markers that indicated the most progress and ignoring the ones that didn’t. We kept our spirits up as the hours passed, taking pictures of each other and of the scenery around us. The Andean mountains were enormous, dwarfing all human activity and forces of nature. Waterfalls were tiny trickles of water off of their rocky walls, and rockslides looked like nothing but dustings of gray across their faces.

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The Andean highlands. That tiny patch of sunlit green is our destination for today, Sorayapampa.
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Rockslides dwarfed by massive Andean ridges.

It was nearly 5 pm and long after I had decided that anyone who had marked this trail as 8 km was a terrible liar when we finally reached the edge of Sorayapampa’s settlement. We had descended onto a plain and emerged in a barren, rocky field, likely the site of a recent landslide. A four-foot wide torrent of water rushed through it. Someone had ingeniously or disingenuously placed a rickety ladder over this stream as a bridge, so we crossed it while hoping it could hold our weight. It held, and we got to advance not drenched in freezing water in the rapidly cooling dusk air.

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Stoytcho crosses on the bridge.

Finally, we reached the first human settlements, and encountered the couple we had seen before. They were setting up camp in a small clearing near the road. “Is this the public campsite?” we asked them. “We have no idea,” the woman replied, “but that guy over there said we could camp here. I…think he was drunk though.” We made introductions and learned their names were Ashley and Kyle, and they were here from Alaska to trek to Machu Picchu as well. After several minutes consulting Google Maps, the four of us decided to hike another kilometer down the trail, see what was there, and then come back if we couldn’t find a more reliable campsite.

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We reach Sorayapampa! Now where’s that free public campsite…

Thankfully Sorayapampa proper, with all of its campsites and grassy plains and emptiness (thanks off season) was only a few minutes away. We asked at a private campsite about the public campsite, and was told there wasn’t one but that they had huts available. We politely declined and continued down the road. One of us noticed a blue sign like the one on the trail, and we realized we’d found it. The public campsite was this big grassy plain fenced off with barbed wire and dotted with cowpies, and it’s our home for tonight. YES!

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I have never been so happy to see a field full of cowpies.
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Our neigh-bors for tonight. Get it? GET IT?

The next hour was the bare necessities of life as dusk and chill set in, pitching the tent, adding some base layers, cooking dinner while huddled over our gas stove, and chatting with Ashley, Kyle, and a couple other people camped there. The air mattress and sleeping bag were a welcome rest, and I hoped that whatever upset my stomach would go away. Oh, and that whoever lied to us about that final 8 km distance to Sorayapampa would COME AND FIX THEIR FRIGGIN TRAIL MARKERS.

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Goodnight, sun. Goodnight, horses. Goodnight, enormous Andean slopes covered in foreboding ice and fog. Tomorrow, I shall ascend one of you.

Salkantay Trek Day 0: Mollepata or Bust

 

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The night before the hike. One of us is tired. The other one isn’t.

We are not morning people. Stoytcho and I have both realized this over the years, although exceptions have been made at certain times in our lives, from the 7:00 AM crew practice to the 8:00 am morning lab meetings. In these cases, we’ve dealt with it, adapted our sleep schedules, and generally acted like the weird image people have of ‘grown ups’. But in the absence of such external pressures, we drift back toward being night owls with a 1:00 or 2:00 am bedtime. It’s just naturally who we are. So it was foolish of us to think we were going to catch the 4:30 am minibus from Cusco up to Mollepata to start the Salkantay hike at 7:30 am. Thankfully, we realized this last night around midnight and adapted; we’d spend tomorrow making sure we were fully prepared for the hike, then take an afternoon bus out to Mollepata, find a place to stay, and start the hike early the next day. No need to wake up at absurd-o’clock, which we’ve already determined is not our specialty.

We spent the day putting finishing touches on our hiking kit and taking in the last sights of Cusco. We discovered our biggest problem in the morning, when Stoytcho ran a dye test on our fancy water filter and realized it was broken. We’re guessing the altitude change when we came here to Cusco ruptured the glass filter, although there’s no real way to know since we’ve been using it for three months without a test. We decided to leave it behind (with a pile of other stuff Pisko and Soul let us leave), but it meant we had to go out and buy ~6 2.2 L bottles of water and stuff them into our packs. This 13.2 L of water wouldn’t get us all the way through the trek, but it would get us pretty far. Towns along the way would fill in the rest of our water needs.

After purchasing water, we stopped at Mercado Central de San Pedro, a local market filled with souvenirs, coca products, and food. We bought some honey candy made with coca leaf infusion, and while that may seem insidious, it’s closer to coffee drops than cocaine. Without the insane refining, coca acts as a mild stimulant, just like coffee, so it’s normal to the people here. Plus, we’ve heard it’s great for dealing with the huge altitude climb over the Salkantay pass. We also got an amazing late lunch here, a heavy beef-and-vegetable stew served up by two cheerfully rotund ladies. It cost 6 soles (~$1.80) for the two of us. We tried to give them more money because we felt the meal was worth more, but they politely refused it. We bought a second helping instead.

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Delicious beef stew. We don’t know when our next meal will be, so seconds was a good idea, right?

 

Full and ready to take on anything, we raced uphill with our packs to where the minibus departs for Mollepata. At 3:30 pm, we were pushing it; the bus we were trying to catch was the last bus of the day. But we arrived with plenty of time to spare and found the bus driver outside his van smoking, with 4 or 5 Mollepata-bound locals waiting nearby. “When do we leave?” we asked the driver. “When we have a full bus,” the driver replied. We went and stood with the locals, made some light conversation with our rapidly-improving Spanish, and watched the traffic go by.

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A local bus passes by us as we wait for our minibus to leave to Mollepata.

It took another forty minutes to gather enough people for the bus to depart, and then suddenly at the end there was an abundance. A woman with an infant showed up, an old couple appeared out of nowhere, and with a quorum all of us loaded into the bus. Then three teenagers came dashing up, though there was only one seat left on the bus. “Please,” they begged the driver, “we don’t want to be left here tonight.” The driver motioned for one of them to get in the back with us, and the other two climbed into the sole free seat in front. Then we were off, putt-putting out of town on the three-hour drive to Mollepata.

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Room for one more? I think not, but we’ll try all the same.

The bus wound its way along the narrow Andean roads, taking us higher into the mountains. Occasionally the driver stopped to let someone off or take someone on, though no one seemed to make any gestures to him. He just seemed to know where to stop for each person, as if by habit and routine. Finally around 6:30 pm, the bus puttered to a halt in Mollepata’s central square. In the dusk light, we climbed off the bus, stretched our cramped legs, and donned our heavy packs. Our two goals were to find a place to stay for the night and to find the trailhead for the Salkantay. We asked some older gentlemen hanging around the square where we could find a room for the night, and they pointed us in the direction of a hostel. But they couldn’t give us much idea of where the trailhead was. I tried asking about the church (according to one blog I read, that’s where the trailhead is), but this was met with blank stares. “This town has never had a church,” they told us.

 

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Don’t worry; they may not have a church here, but they at least have DOTA2.

It was getting dark, so we postponed our search for the Salkantay trailhead and wandered down the street in search of the hostel. Everything looked closed, and we weren’t sure we had gone the right way when we finally a sign that read “Hostal Intikilla“. We rang the doorbell and after a few minutes of shuffling, a woman came to the door. We negotiated a room for 60 soles, trudged upstairs, and finally dropped our heavy packs. With the sun set and darkness advancing, it was getting cold rapidly in this little town. Hopefully we had enough blankets.

We grabbed dinner at the hostel’s upstairs restaurant, which consisted of the innkeeper and her husband cooking while their young daughter tidied up the restaurant and brought us the food. We ordered lomo saltado and pollo a la plancha, which ended up being huge portions of meat accompanied by fries, lentils, rice, and salad. It was way too much, but we forced ourselves to finish as much as we could. “This is the best meal I’m going to get in days,” I thought to myself, “better eat what I can.”

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The name and phone number of our accomodation, in case anyone is looking for a place to stay in Mollepata

After dinner, we set out in search of the trailhead with our headlamps. That turned out to be unnecessary, because even this town in the Andean highlands had streetlamps. Using some maps we had found online and the suggestion of our innkeepers, we headed northeast and uphill toward one corner of town. We passed a man running a grocery store and asked him if he knew where the trail started. He pointed us further uphill. We passed a group of men catching up on a street corner and asked them where the trail was. Uphill, they told us, and turn right when the street dead ends. We followed their instructions, and found ourselves trudging up and down a few hills, past the remnants of Christmas lights on houses. We encountered a group of kids playing out on the street, and we asked them where the trail started. They pointed further along the road, giggling. Finally, a couple of hills later, we found the sign (the link shows where on Google Maps). In blue and white, it named our destination tomorrow: Sorayapampa.

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Finally, we’ve found the start of the Salkantay trek!

Back at the hostel, we got ready for bed. I had a headache and my stomach wasn’t feeling great, so I chugged as much water as I could and hoped that it wasn’t altitude sickness. Guess we’ll find out tomorrow!

Chance Cuisine Encounters in Cusco

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The appetizer at Natural Terra. We didn’t get pictures of anything else because we were too busy eating delicious food. 
We wanted to splurge for dinner after our exhausting hike through Cusco’s trail of ruins, so we looked through Lonely Planet and Google reviews for huge portions and finally settled on Quinta Eulalia. It served traditional Peruvian food, including cuy (guinea pig) and grilled meats, and supposedly also boasted huge portions. Unfortunately it was also not open for dinner, something Stoytcho and I found out when we got there, tired and ravenously hungry.
The restaurant owner next door spotted us and invited us to his establishment, Natural Terra. After the llama ladies* and the encounter with the sheepherder woman earlier in the day, we were wary. But we came over to look at the menu and liked the entrees, while the prices were on par with our budget for the night.
The restaurant owner turned out to also be our chef and waiter, a one man show in Natural Terra’s tiny space. In perfect English, he introduced himself as Pierre and guided us through the menu and recommended what would be best based on the freshness of tonight’s ingredients. We ordered an appetizer and two mains, and he got to work in the kitchen.
While preparing our food, Pierre asked us about our travels in Peru. We explained our trip around the world to him, and he got really excited. It turns out Pierre was also a world traveler. He grew up in (I believe) Brussels, with a European father and Peruvian mother. He eventually returned to Peru with his mother and while he runs Natural Terra (and cooking classes in the morning), he has tried to get away and see the world whenever he can. “It’s good but difficult, “Pierre told us, “because every time I leave I have to close the restaurant for a few months, and then my rankings on websites falls.” We suggested he try becoming a traveling chef, like the amazing one we’d had on our Galapagos cruise, but he just shook his head. “No, I want to be free when I travel. You don’t really get time to see things if you’re working like that.”
Pierre brought us the appetizer first, a potato dish in a rich, creamy, and slightly spicy sauce. It was melt in your mouth delicious, and I’m pretty sure we would have licked the plate if the spoons hadn’t managed to get most of the sauce off of it already. Then came the alpaca saltado and lomo saltado, both grilled meats tossed with fresh vegetables. Full of umami flavor and grilled in a slightly sweet and salty sauce, both dishes were amazing after a day of hiking. Of the whole experience, all I can say is that Pierre’s cooking was perfect.
We saw Pierre the next morning while setting off for the Salkantay trek, and he recognized us and waved hello. We decided Natural Terra should be the restaurant where we celebrate the completion of the trek. But alas, it was not to be. When we did come back after the Salkantay, Natural Terra was closed (we tried visiting on two different days), and we didn’t see Pierre around town. Perhaps he’s off traveling on his own trip around the world.
P.S. If you do want to try Pierre’s cooking while in Peru, check out Natural Terra’s Facebook page. You should be able to reach him there and ask if he’ll be open.
*Who are the llama ladies? You’ll have to wait for a future post to find out!

Cusco’s Trail of Ruins

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A view from Tambomachay
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.
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Cairns along the trail
 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.
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A girl leads a stubborn lamb
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The ruins of Tambomachay
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.
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A worker who maintains the archaeological site walks a trail in the ruins
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Flowers set to seed
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A metallic green wasp rests among leaves
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.
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A sudden abundance of llamas
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Sheep and llamas overflow the trail

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.

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A vendor displays his wares
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.
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The impeccable masonry of the Incas; each stone is carved and fitted together without any kind of joining material. Pale chalk lines are probably remnants of archaeological notes during reconstruction.
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Defiant weeds and mosses make their homes between the rocks
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.
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While not particularly helpful for information, Q’enqo’s wooden information sign frame made a great place to collapse from exhaustion.
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Once an altar?
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.
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Locals picnic on the grass
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Lovers in the woods
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.
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The jagged teeth of the jaguar
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Cusco seems so close now…
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The Jesus that watches over Cusco
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.
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Finally on the streets of Cusco
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Cusco’s Cathedral, built by the Spanish in the ashes of the Incan capital
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.

Cusco: First Impressions

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The rainy season’s clouds settle over Cusco

Country number six: Peru. After a few flights and a terrible layover, we landed in Cusco around 10 am. We were exhausted, but managed to find the correct bus to our hostel, accidentally got off a stop too early, and then trudged uphill to our hostel. Maybe it was the week of pampering on the Galapagos, or maybe it was the thin air, but these first stairs in Cusco were some of the hardest I’ve climbed. One hostel bed and a blessed nap later, we left to explore the city.

Sitting at nearly 3,400 meters above sea level (more than 11,000 feet), Cusco is a high-altitude city normally populated by posh tourists, adventurous thrill-seekers, and local Peruvians trying to make a living. But because we arrived in the low (rainy) season, the narrow cobblestone streets of the city were decidedly quiet, while the sky alternated between bright blue and threats of rain. Here’s our first impression in photos:

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An empty street in Cusco’s hills
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Women selling tours gather to chat in Plaza de Armas
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A thrill-seeker rides his bicycle down the steep steps in a hillside neighborhood
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A signpost explains the layout of Prehispanic Cusco; the original city was laid in the shape of a jaguar along cardinal directions of Mayan myth
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A family relaxes at a park overlooking Cusco
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A mural on the wall in a restaurant and bar
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Vendor shops in an alcove near Plaza de Armas
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Construction workers demonstrate in the street at dusk

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An alternate view of Cusco, not unlike the one you might experience while fainting from the thin air here (just kidding — playing with new photo angles)

Setting out for Salkantay

We’re heading out for the Salkantay trail today, so we’re putting our camping gear to a real test in the first multi-day trek! Since it’s not the Inca Trail, we don’t require permits, and because it’s well marked as of 2015, we don’t even need a guide. We’ve spent the last couple of days acclimating to the altitude in Cusco, which is at 3,470 meters above sea level, and we’re feeling pretty good.

We’ll post a detailed guide when we get back (although a few great ones exist, like those here and here), but here’s a rough itinerary:

  • Day 1 (today): Take a bus from Avenida Arcopata in Cusco to the town of Mollepata, where the hike starts.
  • Day 2: Get an early start on the hike and trek to Soraypampa (3,850 m above sea level) – 23 km
  • Day 3: Take on the Salkantay pass (4,650 m above sea level) and hike to Chaullay (2850 m above sea level) – 18 km
  • Day 4: Take a relaxing hike to La Playa or Lucmabamba, looking for hot springs to rest at along the way (there are reportedly some, but they’re not marked on the tourist maps) – 8-10 km
  • Day 5: Hike to Aguas Calientes (1,670 m above sea level), which sits at the base of Machu Picchu. – 12-15 km
  • Day 6: Visit Machu Picchu, then hike or catch a collectivo (bus) back to Hidro Electrica or Santa Teresa, where we can catch a bus all the way back to Cusco

There’s food kiosks available at campsites along the trail, but we’ve prepared our own rations as well.

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Hiking rations: Food just like you had in college, but eaten in even worse conditions than your senior year apartment.

Unfortuantely our food rations average out to about 1,600 calories per person per day right now, so we’re definitely going to have to supplement with purchases made along the way. We’ve also packed 4 liters of water, although the hike follows a stream most of the way so we should be able to purify water with our water filter.

In all, two things to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t panic if you message us and don’t hear back for the next week. We’re leaving most technology behind.
  2. Wish us luck! This is our first multi-day hike, so hopefully we’ll have some great stories upon return.

Goodbye internet for a week!

– Natalie