Cusco: A Magical Land

4 days, 3 nights; our first camping experience ever; tens of mosquito bites; a mildly swollen knee; and memories of a lifetime. The Inca Trail is not for the mild-hearted … not only because the 45-kilometer (28-mile) hike is a challenge even for the fittest; but also because the views, the history, the triumph of the human mind, and the strength of the human body are overwhelming.

There were so many emotions brimming in my heart during the course of the hike, but one was over-archingly dominant: respect. The towering mountains command it as much as the porters.

We booked the trip in March knowing it would be demanding on our bodies, but figured August was so far away that we’d have more than enough time to prepare. Wishful thinking.

Day-to-day demands, a lack of urgency, and general laziness seemed to prevail for four months. Until three weeks before the trip when I started reading up forums for packing tips. Not only did people detail how to pack for the Inca Trail, they also described, in sordid detail, the toll this hike took on their muscles and joints. Add some altitude sickness—tales of dizziness, vomiting and persistent headaches—and you’ve got the perfect mix of dread and measured anticipation.

I started fearing Dead Woman’s Pass. And I was freaking out about the “toilet situation.” I could do something about the former in the little time left. The latter … well, let’s just say I packed some diarrhea medication and hoped to remain constipated on the trail.

I began walking up and down 10 stories of stairs at work during lunch break. We hiked Stanford Dish every evening after work for two weeks and did Mission Peak the weekend before we were scheduled to fly. I felt assured I wouldn’t die before reaching Machu Picchu. Whether I would enjoy the Inca Trail was another question altogether.

King Pachacuteq: an Inca warrior statue in Plaza de Armas

D-day. We landed in Cusco at 11:45 a.m. local time. After some coca tea to alleviate any symptoms of altitude sickness and a hot shower, we decided to get some lunch. The Main Plaza was bursting with activity—tourists like us with digital cameras dangling down their tired necks; hawkers selling everything from fresh fruit to hand-knitted alpaca scarves and belts; local boys trying to impress the visitors with their knowledge of the “centro’s” architectural history—it was the perfect amalgamation of the old and new.

Lady knitting alpaca belt

Fruit stand lady

Man in alley

Ciro: a local artist

Cobbled streets steeped in Inca and Spanish history speckled with gadget-happy visitors from far and wide. You’d see an old woman in two plaits, layers of cardigans, a skirt, tights and cowboy hat herding an alpaca one minute … and a sign that said “Skype, Wifi, Internet” the other.

Dogs, and people, rummaging through street garbage on one street and South America’s highest-rated French restaurant in the next. While locals survived on an average salary of 500 soles a month, tourists could easily spend that amount in a night about town. It was a city of contrasts, shaped and sustained by the tourism industry.

As we walked up the steep slopes rubbing shoulders with gringos and locals alike, I started feeling just a tinge of light-headedness combined with a dull headache. So, this whole “altitude sickness thing” wasn’t just a scare tactic!

A delicious lunch of local quinoa soup and vegetarian flatbread later we headed to the Super Mercado for some coca leaves and candy. The hotel manager had said to stock up since some days we’d be needing these two things more than anything else on the trail. Who were we to argue? If the locals said it would aid with digestion, give us bursts of energy, and help curb headaches, we were all for it.

Next stop on our way back to the hotel: Culturo Central. The sleepy, albeit colorful, market housed everything from artifacts to essentials. Reasonably priced handicrafts that enticed us. We decided to do the “touristy thing” and got two matching alpaca hats with the word “Cusco” inscribed on them. Much as the claims touted, they were soft and very warm.

Girl at the blue door

Lady with Alpaca

The red car

The Streets of Cusco

It had only been three hours of slow exploring, but we were feeling drained—another symptom of altitude sickness. And the darned headache wouldn’t go away! Slowly we made our way to the hotel, gulped another cup of hot coca tea with an Ibuprofen each and rested awhile.

Climbing up and down the four stories in our hotel had had me winded. What was I going to do on the hike? Would I even survive?

Dinner at the Inka Grill was a quiet affair. The causa limena that I ordered with a side of rocoto ají gave me a taste of the traditional flavor. More was to come the next day in other shapes and forms.

We slept for 12 hours. 12 frickin’ hours. It wasn’t jetlag, informed our breakfast staff—it was acclimatization.

We had our Inca Trail debriefing session at 7 p.m. and no plans for the day, so we decided to explore the area around Cusco. Mario, our assigned driver, was to take us to four Inca sites. Mario did not speak a word of English. And our Spanish was “piquoto” at best. All three of us spoke well with our hands, though. Our fist stop: Saqsayhuaman (meaning satisfied falcon), a fortress perched high above Cusco. We spent almost two hours expressing amazement, awe and wonderment at the impossibility of what we witnessed. Apparently 3,000 people spent a decade building this site, perfectly adjusting stone blocks as heavy as 155 tons without the use of mortar to build walls almost 80 feet high. The assumption that they brought these stones over from a quarry almost 13 miles away boggles the mind.  The theory that aliens built the site seemed most plausible.

Juan worshipping the sun at Sacsayhuamán

Lady and child with baby alpacas

The Shy Knitter

Flute player at Pisac

Next stop was Tambomachay, or the Temple of Water, where we saw, for the first time, the Incas’ attention to detail in action: the two perfectly-etched drains acted as faucets, pouring water in unison into the carved square-shaped bowl below. How these people could do what they did with mere hammer stones is beyond me.

Our last stop for the day was Inca Písac, where ruins sit perched atop the most magnificent agricultural terraces. With military, religious, and agricultural structures still standing strong on the site, it is believed that this was a thriving “mini-city” in the 15th century. When explored properly, the visit to Písac takes an entire day. For us, it was 90 minutes.

As enthralled as my mind was by the history, my body was telling me it needed rest. The lack of oxygen at that height was exhausting me pretty rapidly. Again, that gnawing thought: would I survive the hike?

But that was tomorrow. Right now we were at an animal sanctuary, operated by the government and supported by voluntary contributions, staring in the eye of “The Boss”-a 60-year-old condor. I have never seen a creature half my size, fly with such speed and agility. With a wingspan of 10 feet, this close-to-extinct bird can reach speeds of 35 miles an hour! As I gaped open-mouthed at this magnificent bird, the sanctuary guide softly asked, “Want to see some pumas?”

“Are you kidding me? You have pumas here?”

“The Boss” Condor

The Stork

The Alpaca

The Puma

“Sure enough,” he smiled as he led the way to the caged area next door. Three majestic samples of the feline family. I was stoked that we were able to see two of the three creatures that formed the Andean philosophy trilogy: the condor representing the Hanan Pacha or the higher world, the puma representing the Kay Pacha or our world, and the snake representing Uku Pacha or the world below.

But now it really was time to head back to Cusco.

We arrived at Llama Path’s office at 7:05 p.m:  the last ones of the group embarking on the hike the following day. A quick look around and we realized that the 10 others sitting in a circle were the same age group — more or less. Roger, our guide, showed us a map of the trail, explained how many miles we’d cover each day, reassured us that we’d be fed well, and reminded us to enjoy ourselves. He also said that the toilets were nasty but that he’d make sure – nay, that he’d force us – to go every single day. “It’s best for you,” he said. I wasn’t so sure.

As we asked questions, I soon realized that everyone else seemed fitter, stronger, more relaxed. Frankly, I’d been hoping we’d get some “oldies” in the group, so I wouldn’t be the last one arriving at the campsite each day. Didn’t look like that was about to happen.

Some of them were brave (crazy?) enough to have opted for the Wayna Picchu hike (another 1,200 feet of steep ascent) after reaching Machu Picchu on Day 4! Yep. That’s the lot I was going to be hiking with. Didn’t do my nerves an iota of good. The only thing I was feeling good about at the end of Day 2 was that my headache had vanished. At least I would be going in “healthy.”

Based on Roger’s recommendations, we packed our Llama Path duffel bags that night with five moisture-wicking t-shirts (one for each day of the hike and an extra), two comfortable hiking pants, undergarments, four pairs of woolen hiking socks and two pairs of liner socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, night clothes, thermals, sleeping bag liners (we rented the sleeping bags), snacks, a pair of sandals, toilet paper, and personal medication. Our only restriction was that each duffel bag had to be less than 7 kilograms (almost 16 pounds)—the maximum weight allowed per porter. In our backpacks, we packed two water bottles, a woolen cap, a scarf, gloves, rain gear, 2 sweaters, a windbreaker, a day’s supply of personal medication, snacks, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and small first-aid kit. 10 pounds in all.

I couldn’t sleep well that night. The anticipation was reaching an internal crescendo and all I could think about was dying out of exhaustion.

Continue reading the adventures of the Inca Trail here.
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  4 comments for “Cusco: A Magical Land

  1. MDNo Gravatar
    September 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Very nicely written. We too hiked with llamapath in may/ june this year. We practiced by climbing up mission peak 4 times, eagle peak (Mt Diablo) once in addition to a bunch of other hikes. I hadn’t heard of Standford dish, will check it out one day.

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