Peru : Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Machu Pichu

Machu Pichu

The first night in Cusco we got to celebrate yet another birthday, this time it was that of our tour leader, Saskia. We had everything from great food and delicious cakes to roaming around the city in silly birthday hats to make the occasion memorable. By now I was convinced to take my next holiday around my next birthday. Even I would like to celebrate my birthday in exotic places.

The Sun Temple, SacsayhuamanCity tour of Cusco was the agenda for the next day. Ruins of Sacsayhuaman was our first stop. It is a three tier lightening shaped fortress where Juan Pizarro was killed in one of the famous battles of the country. Near the ruins, looking down on Cusco, is a Rio style crucifix presented to the city by some Palestinian merchants. This is also the place where the yearly Inti Raymi (sun festival) culminates. Incas held this festival on the southern shortest day (june 21st) to prevent the sun from dying any further. Near the ruins exists a winding pitch dark tunnel and our group, true to their nature, was queuing to walk through it. Having lost out on the aqueducts I was keen to have my share of fun and ended up leading the pack. The journey was uneventful but for us bumping into a similar group midway heading in the opposite direction.

Cusco, the naval of the Incan world, has no shortage of Incan architecture. In fact, most of the buildings in the city are built on Incan Temple of the moon, Qoricancha foundations. Most famous of these is the St. Dominic church built on top of the Incan temple of Qoricancha, the best example of the Incan architecture in the city. The main garden in Qoricancha used be the place where the subdued cultures brought their offerings to the Inca and also the place where their Gods were punished whenever the particular culture became restive. I spent the rest of the day visiting the standard attractions in the city : the main cathedral with its fantastic altar, the religious art museum, San Blast with the famous blackened crucifix of the Lord of the earthquakes and the history museum with its Glyptodonte (a prehistoric giant armadillo) exhibit.

Inca museum is the pick of the museums in Cusco. The museum gives a very detailed picture of the civilisation from its mythical origins to the life of the common man. The other ruins we visited around Cusco include Pisaq, Q'enco, Pukapukara and Tambomachay. By the end, we had seen so many ruins that we all could have easily passed on as guides despite our poor Spanish. Outside of ruins, Pisaq also boasts of a big market which nearly became half its size after Deb and Susan had finished their shopping. My personal recommendation for all the visitors to the market is try out their empanadas. They are absolutely delicious.

Our trek to Machu Pichu started off on the wrong foot when we heard that the new Peruvian president, Alajandro Toledo, was slated to visit Machu Pichu on the day we were to reach there and the authorities hence had cancelled all the treks ending on that day. But since we were to spend an extra day at the ruins, we could convince the people concerned that ours was technically a 5 day trek and hence should be permitted to carry on. Although this helped us to start our trek on time, we weren't sure if we could end it that way.

Despite the minor hiccup, the day of the trek started early with a bus journey to the kilometre 77, our starting point. On the way, we stopped at the ruins of Ollyantaytambo, named so because the Incan general Ollyantay used to frequent the place. These ruins once constituted a military post which guarded the sacred valley. The temple of the condor with a huge condor shaped rock, the temple of the sun with the huge stone altars and the naturally refrigerated silos on high mountain slopes were the most impressive part of the ruins. How the Incas managed to built these structures without the wheel is still a mystery.

Andean Scenery : Urubamba RiverA five hour walk (a stroll when compared to the subsequent days) brought us to our first campsite, Llactapata (meaning: population high), a old Incan military post. We did not know that the wonderful views of Mt. Veronica we saw that day, would pale in comparison to the scenery of the following days!

The next day was a steep ascent to the dead woman's pass (elev.: 4198m). Starting from 2700m, we were to end a few hundred metres short of the pass. It was the day which separated the men from the boys, the women from the girls and the triathlon runner Mike, from the rest of the gang. He used to take 30 minutes where the fittest of the rest took 2 hrs and he gave enough head ache to the people who were in charge of keeping the food and tent ready for our arrival. The sick list was slowly starting to grow. James, Cliff and the American Susan were affected by the altitude and my tent mate Matt, by a tummy bug. Luckily, I was still under the influence of Julian's medicines and hence did not suffer much. The Andean scenery all around our camp site, Lluluchapampa, was stunning to say the least. The name Andes, by the way, is a corrupted form of antisuyu, the western territory of the famous Tawantinsuyu (meaning: four territories) empire, popularly known as the Incan empire.

Around dinner time, bad luck paid us a visit in the form of a noisy group of 80 school kids. Every member of that group was afflicted by a strange disease which caused them to shout each other's name incessantly at the top of their voice. The shouting continued on throughout the night compounding our troubles on the following day, which without the help from the kids, could still have been the toughest day of the trek.

The challenge for the next day was to climb upto the dead woman's pass, smile and pose for a group snap, walk down 500m and climb up 300 m to the next pass and continue walking up and down for 3 more hours to reach the next camp. On our way, we passed the ruins of Sayaqmarca and Runkurakay. Ruins of Winay Winya Sayaqmarca, which means the inaccessible city, was an Incan university dedicated to astronomy. Runkurakay, which means egg shaped, used to be a relay stop for the messengers during the Incan times. Messages used to travel 250 km a day in the Incan empire which means that the messages from Machu Pichu could reach Cusco within 3 hrs! Today, there are masochists attempting to beat that time in the name of a marathon and the present day record is 3 hrs 45 mts. Mike is determined to come back next year to give it a shot. Good luck to him.

On the last day of the trek, we had a raffle for the porters and the event appealed so much to all of us that we had our own raffle before the end of the trip. The trek that day took us through the Andean cloud forests to Machu Pichu. On the way we passed through the ruins of Phuyupatamarca (meaning: city on the cloud), Initipata (meaning: sun owned) and Winay Winya (meaning: forever young). All three were agricultural experimental sites. The convex high altitude terraces of Intipata were always kept cool by the wind and hence helped the growth of potatoes, while the concave low altitude terraces of Winay Winya were always warm and supported the growth of papayas.

Our first sight of Machu Pichu was from the sun gate and it was fantastic. Thanks to the importance of the day, we were bumping into VIPs and ministers instead of travellers and tour guides. One of them turned out to be the tourism minister of Peru. He seemed very happy to hear that we had walked four days to be there. He would have assumed that as long as such mad tourists exist, his job was very safe.

The following day, after a long guided tour of the lost city, the state of the people's legs forced the group to have different activities for the rest of the day. A few of us took a gentle walk to the Inca bridge, a bridge which impresses you more by its engineering than by its beauty, while some others (Bedfords and Mike to be precise) climbed the Winay Pichu - the peak you see in every Machu Pichu picture. From what I heard from the climbers, the ascent isn't as hard it looks. An evening train cum bus journey took us back to Cusco for our final couple of days in the Peruvian Andes.

Click here for more photos from Cusco.
Click here for more photos from the Inca trail and Machu Pichu.

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