Friday, May 30, 2008

Trekking The Inca Trail: Lima, Cusco, Pisaq, Saqsaywaman, Aguas Calientes (Part I)


We flew into Lima's Jorge Chávez airport at around six o'clock on the evening of the 27th May, all quite exhausted. Once we had claimed all of out luggage and regrouped we made our way to the coaches which were going to take us to our hotel.

It was now just after seven o'clock and we started our drive across Lima to our hotel, the Jose Antonio, which was in the Miraflores region of the city.

Upon arrival we all made our way to the bar for our first briefing about what lay ahead. This is where we first met our expedition leader, Libby, of the Ultimate Travel Company and the official cameraman for the trip, Jez.

The other introduction we had was to our unofficial drink of the trip, Pisco Sour. Pisco is the spirit of Peru, it is fermented from grapes and the weak version is 30% proof! I found Pisco Sour to be a bit like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it. I love Marmite but I hated Pisco Sour, there were plenty of people on the trip who loved it though.

It was in the lobby of hotel after the briefing that I first met my room/tent mate Alex Buck. I'd been trying to find out who he was all day but we couldn't seem to meet up on any of our journeys. He seemed like a really nice bloke and after we'd got our stuff and found our room we retired to the hotel bar to soak up some atmosphere and chat to our fellow trekkers.

One thing sticks in my mind about that bar, apart from the cheap beer, and that was the great piano player in the corner. Either he was tone deaf or he knew that his piano was out of tune and he was just having a laugh. Whichever, rather predictably we nicknamed him Sam. For the first night in Peru it was good fun, the beer flowed, the conversation was funny and plentiful but we knew we had to call it a day quite soon as we had an early morning flight to Cusco.

In the morning we packed out bags and put them in reception before having a pleasant breakfast in the hotel. We were going to Cusco, which at 3,360 metres (10,920 ft) above sea level would be mine and most people's first experience of being at altitude. We were told we would have about two thirds of the oxygen normally available at sea level.

After I had bought some water (Agua) for the journey it was back on the coaches for our trip back to the airport, which took about half an hour. As we were to find out later in the trip Libby and Explorandes are very organised. We were ppre bookedon our flight from Lima to Cusco so Libby checked us and all our luggage in while we were still sitting on the coaches. Once that was done we all decamped to the internal departures area and waited for about an hour for our flight to Cusco.

About Lima

Lima was the capital of Spanish Peru and home to the viceroy of Spanish South America. In 1821 Lima was liberated from the Spanish by San Martin.

The city lies on the Pacific coast of Peru and is almost always engulfed in a thick grey sea fog (garúa), aalthoughwe saw just a fraction of the city what we saw did not strike me as attractive. It now has a population of over 8,000,000 although in 1920 this was just 120,000. Most of the population live in shanty towns (pueblos jóvenes) on the outskirts of the city.


The flight from Lima was an hour. On the way we marvelled at our first proper glimpse of the Andes below and some snow peaks in the distance. It seems a stupid thing to say but one of the first things I felt once we were over the mountains was how big it all was.

The flight was uneventful and I left the plane in Cusco with trepidation thinking that now we were at 3,360 metres (10,920 ft) my heart would jumping out of my chest trying to find some air but it wasn't. I can't say I was disappointed but taking into account what I had read I was quite suprised. I didn't feel any different, yet.

Outside the airport it was a completely different scene from Lima, firstly it wasn't dark! Blue skies, early morning sunshine and a colourful market all in an area which was surrounded by mountains.

We were surrounded by people trying to sell us packets of coca leaves. Chewing these helps alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. They definitely take some getting used to but they do help. Coca leaves are very important to the Peruvians and they have many ties to the deep Andean religion. When the Spanish invaded Peru they considered banning the growing and use of coca leaves but realising how much money they would lose they only enforced the ban in Lima.

We learnt that the best way to chew them was to put a few leaves into your mouth, chew them until they were mushy and then rest what was left at the bottom of your mouth next to your gums. Every so often you just sucked on the coca leaves to get a bit of the juice. They were definitely a help, especially on day 2 of the trek.

Once we had loaded our bags onto the coaches which were waiting for us we drove the short distance to our hotel in Cusco, again called the Jose Antonio.

When we had checked in and freshened up we made our way downstairs to sunny courtyard just off the main hotel reception. Here we found complimentary coffee and what became a favourite, coca tea. The tea was definitely a more subtle way of getting the benefits of coca leaves.

Everyone assembled for our main trek briefing given by Libby and another of the senior guides, Ian from Explorandes. All the guides for our trek worked for Explorandes, a local company with ISO 14001 accreditation. They are the first tour operator in the region, and apparently in the world that has been certified at this level.

We were told what to expect and what to not take with us on the trek. Just the bare essentials, no hairdryers, electric razors or electrical equipment etc. We were just to take the clothes we would need for the trek. I was lucky because I had packed very light in the first place but I still managed to strip some weight out of my main pack. The hotel would look after the stuff we were leaving behind until we returned in about six days time.

The next day was to be our acclimatisation day, so we could get used to being at altitude before starting the trek proper the following day. For the acclimatisation day we were going to a Peruvian market in a town called Pisaq and then on the way back we would be dropped off at some Inca ruins to the north of Cusco, these were called Saqsaywaman. We would then be free to explore the ruins and then walk back into Cusco.

Another tip we were given about coping with the altitude was not to over eat and to drink plenty of water. The body uses oxygen to power the digestive system, so the more food you have eaten the less oxygen there is for the rest of your body. So chew coca leaves or drink coca tea, drink plenty of water, don't overeat and don't drink alcohol and you should be fine!

After a light lunch in the hotel we all walked to the Plaza de Armas (main square) which Cusco revolves around. This was a very vibrant place and our first impressions of Cusco were very good. The city was the capital of the Inca empire and it must have been a magnificent sight in the days of Inca, the god-king.

As soon as we got there we were pestered by kids trying to sell us colourful finger puppets or postcards. This afternoon was the afternoon when everyone learnt to say "No Gracias"! In fact, wherever we went in Peru there were always kids trying to sell us homemade finger puppets!

We entered the Plaza de Armas by the south corner. The first thing you when entering the square from this direction is the cathedral (built 1556 - 1669) and to the right of that is a church, El Triunfo (built 1536), the site of Cusco's first church. In the centre of the plaza is a fountain, if you are standing at the fountain facing the cathedral and look right you will see La Compañía or Jesus's Church (built 1578 - 1668).

We spent some time looking around the plaza and all the little shops, we stopped to watch some street entertainers and then decided to find a bar and have a beer. We found a place right on the plaza called the Cross Keys. This is actually as near to an English pub as you will find in Cusco. It is owned by the British Honary Consul in Cusco, Barry Walker MBE. He is a keen Manchester United fan and his pub is a shrine to the team and the sport. We were told that the consulate office is actually a back room in the pub!

This turned out to be a popular place with the Scope trekkers as quite a few of us met in here. After a few beers it was late afternoon so one group of us made our way back to the hotel while two girls from London who were on the trek, Sarah and Fiona, went to find some photographic equipment in one of the many shops dotted around the Plaza.

I was in a group which included Alex, my room mate and Adam yet another nice guy, this time from Scotland. We wandered back down Avenida El Sol to the hotel, between the Plaza and the hotel the two girls caught up with us. We all just hung around the hotel chatting and drinking coca tea or popping across the road to the indoor market or perhaps buying water in one of the local shops.

At around seven o'clock, before we all went out for dinner the group had a briefing in the hotel bar. After the briefing, we all left the hotel in coaches back up the Avenida El Sol to Plaza de Armas for out first experience of eating out Peruvian style, the buffet. The buffets we had in Peru were all very good and the nice was that as it was a buffet you could have as much or as little as you wanted. They were typically made up of; bread, rice, pasta, salad, chicken, beef, pork and sometimes guinea pig, yes guinea pig! Guinea pigs in Peru are not the small cuddly rodents we have as pets in the UK. Guinea pigs are bred domestically for consumption and a well fattened up one can feed up to six people. As well as Peru they are also eaten in parts of Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. See the Links section for information about dining on guinea pig.

Our meal was in a restaurant called the Inka Wall, on the north East corner of the Plaza de Armas. As an introduction to Peruvian buffets it really was good. We had live stereotypical Peruvian pan pipe music with some dancers which was entertaining but monotonous. It had a definite feel of being laid on for the tourists. All the food and one Pisco Sour was pre-paid for any other drinks we had we had to pay for. Although we were driven to the restaurant we were up to our own devices to make our way back to the hotel. People started making their way back after about an hour, either walking;king or by taxi. The taxis in Cusco are good and should charge a flat rate of s/.2 (2 Solos or Sol) which is about 40 pence. This should be a flat rate for anywhere in Cusco but not to the airport. I say should be but the taxi driver will realise that you are a foreigner and try and charge what he thinks he can get away with.

By around a quarter to nine everyone except for me, Chris and one of the senior guides with Explorandes, Ian had left. It was now that the place livened up, almost all the tourists had left and the restaurant filled up with locals. The band changed aswell, it was now a lot more lively group of musicians and dancers. We had music and dancing as the Peruvians like to see it not as they like us to see it. Peruvian culture has a lot of caribbean influences and this was evident from the dancing. There was a dance which reminded Chris, who used to be in the Navy, of an event on board called "the dance of the flaming assholes" which involved naked men and rolled up newspapers. There was nothing that extreme in the restaurant but what we saw had similarities!

It was just after 10 o'clock now and we had a busy day ahead so the three of us left the Inka Wall, Ian got a taxi to where he was staying while Chris and myself made our way back to the hotel. Along the way we inevitably discussed the day's events and enjoyed Cusco's night time sights and sounds. At no time while we were walking down the Avenida el Sol did we feel at all threatened or intimidated. Cusco really is a lovely place, I'm sure it has a bad side but from what I saw it is a beautiful town. When we got back to the hotel we found Libby and Lucy in the reception still working hard arranging the next day of the trip. We told them to try and get some sleep and then we went to our rooms.

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