Friday, May 30, 2008

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


After breakfast and a briefing we got in the coaches for the 60 minute drive to the market at Pisaq which is 32km north east from Cusco. It was a windy uphill road and the whole journey took us about an hour.We stopped on the way to get our first site of Mount Verónica or Nevado Wakaywilka. This is a glacier which stands at 5,361 metres (17,423 ft) and would be visible to us for much of the time over next few days.

We continued the drive to Pisaq, it was a Saturday which wasn't a main market day but there was still a number of traders filling the town's central square. I spent some time wandering all the stalls. Basically there were woolen goods, Llama and Alpaca wool, hats, pullovers, rugs etc. and jewellery. The hats especially came in a variety of shapes and designs but by far the most popular items were the brightly coloured woolen hats with flaps that came down to cover the wearer's ears. I bought some bracelets for my daughter, a necklace for my wife and a small Peruvian rattle, similar to a castanet for Joshua. For myself I bought a woolen hat to keep me warm during the coming days in the mountains. This would prove to be a wise purchase.

As with all of this trip the weather was perfect. The first restaurant I walked into already had a few trek participants in but not for long. Their was only one member of staff and because of this they wouldn't be doing any hot food only sandwiches, so they wouldn't be getting our custom. A few us left and wandered to a bright yellow building which we had seen earlier. This place was great. It was called Ulrike's Café and it turned out to be run by a German woman who had been to Peru on holiday three times in the past, the third time she decided to stay.

There were quite a few of our group here and I had a wonderful three course meal for 10 Sol (apprx. £2); a thick vegetable soup, chicken pasta and a chocolate brownie. There wasn't a bad word said by any of us about the food although Chris asking for a Shandy (lemonade and beer) did cause our waitress some confusion. That is when we met Ulrike and she sorted the problem out.

After our excellent lunch we wondered around the market a bit more before making our way back to the coaches for the drive to Saqsaywaman, which is just north of Cusco.


This archaeological park covers an area of 3400 acres just north of Cusco at a height of 3,555 metres (11,553 ft), it was our first experience of significant Inca ruins. We only saw a fraction of what is there, the park contains 200 archaeological sites, what we did see was impressive. Saqsaywaman was known to the Incas as the House of the Sun, opinion about it's purpose is divided. Some consider it was used as a temple but the majority of people think that it was a fortress, it probably fulfilled both roles. It's geographical position above Cusco suggests that it was a fortress. What is amazing and what strikes you is the size of the stones used to build the main structures. Each of the large stones apparently weigh 50 tonnes.

I spent about an hour exploring the ruins and then started to walk down the hill into Cusco with a couple of other people from the group. We walked along a steep track out of the park, then along a dusty road to the top of Cusco. As well as filling the basin formed by the mountains all around, the town extends north from Plaza de Armas and covers the hill to the East of Saqsaywaman,see photo.

The road down the hill towards the plaza is very steep and the pavements down either side are made up of long shallow steps most the way down. During heavy rainfall these streets must look like a white water rafting course! Most of the buildings seemed to be single storey and closely packed. The use they were being put to was not just domestic, we passed a small art gallery, shops selling hand printed fabrics, jewelery shops with items hand made on the premises. I do remember walking past a bar, not a common occurrence on this trip I know but it looked quite a grimy local bottle shop, not really a bar at all.

Even though the main plaza is nice the smaller squares off it are equally charming. One of the people I was with needed to visit a camping shop to try and buy some rubber covers for their trekking poles. One of the many rules about trekking in the Machu Picchu National Park is that you cannot use trekking poles if they are not covered. This is to reduce the damage to the trail and the site itself caused by so many visitors. We found a camping shop but their pole rubbers were too expensive ($5 each). Cusco has a number of churches and we passed one on the way which caught my eye, see photo.

At last we had our first proper walk since arriving in Peru, OK it wasn't very far but it was good to get my legs working. We gradually made our way back to the hotel and once we had all recovered we went out to dinner, buffet again in a different restaurant with better entertainment. Lots of colourful dancing with an array of strange masks and a dance routine where two male dancers appeared to whipping each other with pieces of wood on the end of a length of rope. I'm still not certain but I don't think they were making contact!

After dinner I went back to the hotel, tomorrow was the first day of our trek and everyone was really eager to get going, after all the trek was what we had really come for and after 3 days we were feeling more like tourists than adventurers

Trek Day 1

We began with an early morning drive out of Cusco to to the town of Huarocondo, here there were some public toilets (the last we were to see for a few days) and a daily market. Some of us bought last minute provisions such as water and bananas, also brightly coloured and decorated bottles of a Peruvian spirit called Anis, which is very potent. It is similar to Pernod, made with aniseed but without the smoothness.

From here we drove a few miles north along the river (Rio Huarocondo) to the start of our trek at a height of 3,400 metres. There was a big area for our coaches to park and that is where we saw the scale of the operation that would be supporting us. To carry all the equipment we would be using; tents, food, pot and pans, tables, everything but the kitchen sink really! In total there were approximately 50 people who working very hard to ensure that all we had to do was walk. As well as the people there were muels to carry a lot of the equipment and also some spare muels to carry people that got too tired or sick from the altitude.

Everyone was given three self sealing plastic bags, one big and two small. One small bag was filled with nuts and fruit for us to snack on, we were also given a few sweets. The second small plastic bag was for rubbish. Explorandes, the tour company in Peru, are very proud of their ISO1401 accreditation and their environmental policy plays a big part in the award of it. One of the things drilled into us was not to leave any rubbish on the trails, there would be rubbish bags provided in the camp sites but whilst walking we were responsible for our own rubbish.

After about an hour we were on our way! We walked down the road for a hundred metres and made our way over a small bridge to cross the river. As with every day, it was hot, almost everyone, including me, was wearing a sun hat. The moutain sunshine is very strong, even if you don't think it is that hot the rays will still get you!

The terrain we started in was dusty, rocky and quite steep. There were numerous breaks when we cam across a suitably large area where we could all sit down. We were told it would be about three hours to lunch and as we were walking up the valley towards the mountains our lunch spot was pointed out to us. High up on the ridge ahead near to an ancient wall would be where we stopped, it looked miles away but in less than three hours we were there. Lunch on day 1 was at 3,800 metres.

In actual fact we had walked about 4 miles but the altitude made it hard work for me. I was fine when we started but then after a while I could hear my pulse in my head. This apparently is quite common when at altitude, the secret is just to take it all very slowly. If you find you are walking and then stopping to get your breath back, you are going too fast. Slow and steady is best, the trek wasn't a race and I only had to be as fast as the slowest person.

Some people hiked a bit further up to the next peak to see some ruins, I started to but the pulse in my head came back so I went back to lunch. After a simple but filling lunch of soup, cooked chicken and vegetables. Everyone refilled their water bottles and started walking down the other side of the pass towards our first night's camp. After the exertion of trekking to a height of 3,800 metres walking down hill was a welcome experience.

We walked for about an hour and a half along similar terrain to the morning's walk but this time it was downhill, not all the way but the majority of it. At the top of a ridge we caught sight of our camp site for day 1. While we had been walking the mules, their drivers (mueleteers), the porters and all the equipment had overtaken us and gone on ahead to set up the camp.

The camp was at a place called Chilepauwa, the altitude here was 3,800 metres (12,350 ft). When trekking you don't camp at the highest point you walk to in a day. You go up and then come down to camp so that your body can acclimatise more efficiently. For example, we started the day in Cusco at 3,360m, we trekked up to 4,100m for lunch and were now walking down to 3,800m to camp. It was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon by the time we got there and I was quite tired. This would be around the time we arrived at camp on all the days of the trek, except day 4, more about that later though.

The work that had been done prior to our arrival was amazing. We were a party of 74, two to a tent. Plus the Scope staff, so that would have meant at least 40 tents had to be put up just for people to sleep in. In addition to this there was a tent for the kitchen, one for all the porters and mueleteers and last but very importantly a mess tent for us to all to eat in. This was a long narrow tent with folding tables along its length and about 40 folding seats down either side.

Supper was at six thirty so I had a couple of hours of rest and relaxation which which was filled by chatting to people about how the day went and what lay ahead. Although it was warm at the camp site when we arrived, because the site was in a basin surrounded by mountains, as soon as the sun went behind a mountain and cast the site into shadow it got dark and very cold, very quickly. From now on it was fleece and wooly hat time.

We had a briefing before supper Libby and Lucy told us how well we had done on the first day. Libby said that tomorrow would be a long and hard day and to take it easy. Then we sat down for our food which was simple but filling. As well as the main course we had bread, butter, Marmite, tea and coffee. In fact we were very well provided for. By the time I had eating I was knackered. I was in my sleeping bag, fully clothed and with my wooly hat on by seven thirty.

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