Summing Up Peru

I’m really not sure what I expected from Peru. Admittedly I didn’t exactly chose the destination, simply joined in with some friend’s plans to go there. That’s not to say I wasn’t excited about walking the Inca trail though! I think in my mind, coming to Peru from Ghana I expected something altogether more third world, disorganised and chaotic. Like the constant horn-tooting, some westerners found rather irritating, I certainly heard some complaining about it. I barely noticed, I think I have learnt to get used to this over the last few months! In Cusco I found beautiful cobbled streets, albeit rather narrow. Police controlled the traffic in a fairly organised manner and the local people seemed friendly and willing to help, even if you weren’t spending money on whatever they were selling!
Machu Picchu may be the jewel in the Inca grown but Cusco is a real feat of engineering and skill. Street after street of perfect, mortar free walls, these must have taken much time and energy to build. During my first week I was volunteering teaching English (Volunteering) and staying with a local family up the hill. As I walked down into the town each day I was greeted by the sight of beautiful mountains rising from the cityscape and it didn’t take long for me to fall under the spell of Cusco. Outside of my volunteering time I was busy exploring the cities museums and sights, I particularly enjoyed the Inca museum, main Cathedral and the Pre-Colombian art museum with it’s lama head pots! Then there was the wonderfully perfect walls of ancient Qorikancha, once lined with gold, an incredibly important temple during the time of the Incas.  
One full day trip I did from the city was a hike to Rainbow mountain, or as it’s officially, known Vinicunca. This tough, long, day trek was almost a wash out as some unseasonal snow fell overnight, hiding the colours of the mountain from view. The walk took us past small adobe (mud-brick) hamlets, where new mud-bricks could be seen drying by the river. These homes are basic, occupied by the local alpaca and lama farmers. Out there on the windy, barren hillside at altitude they must have a tough and basic existence.  The trek up through the valley to 5000m was slow and tough, especially for those woefully unprepared tourists. Several resorted to hiring horses to help them complete the journey. The owners of the horses on the other hand, sturdy and rugged looking native ladies, were clearly well versed to trotting up and down the hillside to make money from the unfit tourists. Thankfully Pachamama (Mother Earth) was feeling kind and the snow started to melt mid-morning.  Around midday it was clear enough for us to be treated to a view of the magnesium, copper and iron coloured waves that give the mountain its name.  Every last step to the top was a struggle but, as always when it comes to mountains, standing on the top, looking back at the spectrum of colours, was breath taking. The view on the other side of the mountain, snow caped mountains and glaciers, was just as spectacular. I must confess to leaving my group behind (all of them strangers) for the walk back down. My weather instincts were spot on, the front guide and I had just ducked inside our adobe hut for lunch when the first few spots of rain fell. They quickly turned to hail and I had a lovely hot drink in my hands as it bounced of the metal roof!

All in all I was blown away by Peru, to me it has everything to make a perfect holiday. Beautiful countryside, lovely cites and towns and a wealth of history and culture. Everywhere we went we saw people dressed traditionally, and talking in the ancient Quechua language. Working ladies carry their loads and babies in a colourful blanket on their back. Their hair is worn in long plaited pigtails, tied together at the back, to prevent them falling over their shoulders. Of course there are some tourist extras, such as the girls and ladies dressed traditionally and trailing lamas round the city, for that all important Lama Photo. For me, this didn’t detract from the genuine feel of the city, probably because you never had to walk far to see an element of real Cusco life. Such as, the bustling fruit, veg and meat market at St Pedro, a short walk from the main square.  

Or glance up at some local buildings and you will often spot two small ceramic bulls on the roofline, they combine Catholicism and the native religion. The bulls represent happiness, wealth and fertility and are placed on new buildings as a blessing. They are often seen with a cross, which is believed to keep bad spirits away. The bulls are also associated with a native ceremony where a bulls blood is spilt to honour Pachamama.
I ended my Peru adventure the day after we reached Machu Pucchi. That morning, whilst waiting for it to be time to head to the airport, I was lucky enough to see a parade in the square. It seemed to be some sort of religious celebration with dancers and music. Afterwards, I wandered round a few of the smaller plazas, pausing to sit on the steps and people watch. In one plaza I was approached by some university students wishing to practice conversational English. I agreed to be asked some questions about my trip to Cusco. As they thanked me and left, I thought how appropriate it was that I had come full circle to teaching English again on my last day, so many things about this trip just felt as if they were meant to be!

The Sacred Valley

For many the Scared Valley is experienced in a one day, whirlwind bus trip from Cusco. However, after doing my research, I decided I really wanted to spend more time in the countryside. Luckily for me, my friends agreed that this sounded like a great plan! The day after my last volunteering class I headed into the valley and did an afternoon hike to the food stores of Pinkkuylluna. Later, we settled in for a night in Ollantaytambo. Here I enjoyed my first Pisco sour (the local cocktail) and slept to the roar of the river at our cute hostel. Ollanta, as the locals refer to it, has been continuously inhabited since the 13th century. A large section of the residential area is pedestrianised due to the ancient narrow streets. Down their centre irrigation channels roar with river water, an ideal spot for any kind of washing!  
With an early rise the next morning we hiked to the Cachicata quarry. From here rocks were taken to build the Inca temple near Ollanta. In the quarry we found small burial mounds and enjoyed stunning views across the valley. Back in the town, after a late breakfast, we explored the main ruins of Ollanta. This took us a few hours, especially when we decided to climb to every last corner to explore! How this site can be viewed in a brief bus stop off is beyond me. What we did forego, with our slower schedule, was the ability to hire a guide at each and every ruin, due to the cost. Luckily Wikipedia was at hand to give us a written account of the sites we explored. With so little known about the exact use of these ruins, this seemed as good an information source as any. 
As the day came to a close we headed back to the little town centre to organise a car to Urabamba, just 20km along the valley.  Here I was surprised to find a very busy market town. I had read there was very little in Urabamba but what the guide book really meant was there is little in the way of tourist sites. It did however serve well as a base to visit Moray, the Saliners and Chinchero and after the tourist bustle of Ollanta it was great to see a real, genuinely local town.
We started the following day at the Saliners where highly salinated water is fed down through a series of flat terraces. The water evaporates, leaving the salt behind to be collected. I read that each terrace in owned by a family in the valley, what a great way to share the resource! Next we dove through the small town of Maras and onto the archaeological site there, Moray, situated at 3,500m. There is something very beautiful about Moray and its symmetry when viewed from above. The temperature difference between top and bottom terraces is said to be as much as 15 degrees. This fact, combined with the site orientation with respect to wind and sun, has lead some to speculate on the use of the terraces. It is possible they may have been used as a farming experiment, to see which crops favoured certain conditions. Whatever the true purpose of the terraces Moray is certainly a pleasant spot on a sunny day. After exploring the ruins our relaxed schedule meant we could sit down for a while, in a quiet corner, and enjoy the location before visiting our final site of the day.  
Chinchero is believed to be the mythical birthplace of the rainbow, but despite it raining when we arrived and then clearing to sunshine, we weren’t lucky enough to see one being born! The central square boasts a colonial adobe (mud-brick) church, which has been built on the foundations of an Inca temple or palace. Nearby ruins and terraces line the hillside with beautiful mountain views.
 As we walked back down the hill to the car park we were encouraged into a local workshop where women were weaving. As with all the markets around Cusco the colours of the fabrics were stunning and these ladies were also involved in breeding the local delicacy, guinea pig!
The following day we went to the local bus station to take a collectivo (small bus) to Pisac. Once there were enough passengers (and we had established the drunk man on board wasn’t the driver) we were all set for the one hour drive along the sacred valley.  Pisacs narrow streets were filled with market stalls, packed with colour and energy in abundance. 
After a look around and some lunch we got a car to drive us high up the mountainside to spend some time enjoying the ruins perched there. Once again I was blown away by the scale of the ruins and what little time you must spend here on the usual day trip from Cusco. This extensive hilly site contains several sets of buildings which probably had religious, military and agricultural uses. Set in the mountainside a large number of grave sites can be seen. They appear as small holes due to the fact they were later raided by the Spanish. This was thanks to a habit the Incas had of burying the dead with valuable objects, to take with them to the next life.
From Pisca we traveled the final leg of the sacred valley back to Cusco. Here we enjoyed a walk drown through the ruins nearest to the city. Starting at the top of the hill Tambomachy has lots of running water, it is believed it may have been used as a sort of Inca spa. Close by is the castle-like site of Pukapukara, a military ruin. The largest and closest to Cusco, Saqsayhuaman, tends to induce a certain level of juvenile giggling, as when pronounced by the locals its sounds an awful lot like sexy woman! Hilarity over the name aside this site, sitting 300m above Cusco, is large and impressive with excellent views down on the city. It is said that the large circular stone structure here was some sort of solar calendar and the sets of large terraced walls represent the teeth of the Jaguar.
So, did we do the right things spending more time in the Sacred Valley, absolutely without a doubt!

The Inca Trail

When a friend asked me if I wanted to join some friends of friends to trek the Inca Trail I was immediately interested. I love to hike and this world famous 45km trail was certainly on my bucket list.

Due to the certainly I would enjoy it I did little research into what to expect and intentionally didn’t watch any videos, I was more than happy to be surprised. This ancient trail picks its way through amazing high peaks, jungle and cloud forest with various Inca ruins to be enjoyed along the way.

Day 1 involved an early start and long bus ride. When we eventually reached the control gate, after stopping twice on route, we were itching to get going and it was a pleasant walk of gradual uphill. This was also the only day we got any rain with a brief light shower, after that we barely saw a cloud for the rest of the trip. Our group contained many inexperienced hikers and the overall pace was slow, but we reached camp by night fall and tucked into a great meal before standing out to enjoy the stars.

Unfortunately this is the night that it all went wrong as altitude sickness set in. This was really surprising for me, since everyone had come from Cusco at 3400m where they had spent a few nights, I had expected that walking from 2720m to 3300m for first camp would have been fine. It seems however, that wandering around the streets of Cusco and exerting yourself over 16km had an entirely different impact on the body. Many of the group experienced upset stomachs or vomiting as the night passed or in the morning. This type of altitude sickness hits you quickly and unfortunately for my tent companion he didn’t manage to get the tent zipper open before he was sick. I had been feeling fine up till that point but of course the smell of vomit can be enough to tip even strong stomachs over the edge. Thankfully my stomach remained intact and after a couple hours of restless sleep from my poorly tent buddy I decided to ask the girls if I could sleep in their tent. I squeezed in between an old friend and a new one and there I slept for the remaining three nights. Wound up and worrying about the tent mate I’d abandoned I had a fitful, restless sleep with a pounding heart. I woke up feeling shaken and with my blood sugar low. One of the worst things about altitude is that it often takes your appetite away. I did my best to force down enough breakfast to get my sugar levels back up whilst also trying to avoid overloading my stomach and joining the vomiting gang.

Day 2 was a tough and gruelling climb over the highest pass of the trip. I trudged slow and steady with a slightly spinning head trying to keep my breathing down and by mid morning I had perked up. When I opened my gluten free snack provided by Lamapath I found plantain chips, these are a favourite of mine and I found my appetite (for some foods at least) had returned. The climb to dead woman’s pass, so called due to the mountains shape, was slow. It’s seemed to go on forever and get steeper as we approached the 4250m saddle. What an amazing feeling to take that last step and peer over the other side to the valley below. I waited for Reshma and a few others to reach the pass before the two of us continued down to our lunch spot by around 1:30 pm.
It was 3 pm before the rest of the gang arrived and we were given lunch. Our guide entered our lunch tent with some bad news. He felt it was unsafe to continue to camp that day, with a second high pass to negotiate followed by a long downhill section, he felt sure it would be darkness by the time we would arrive. The safest solution was to stay in the campsite we were currently in, originally planned as just a lunch stop.  As frustrating as that was for a few of us the majority of the group looked exhausted, with altitude sickness sapping every last ounce of energy and many people were completely spent.

After a very early night Day 3 started before dawn in order to make up for lost time. We climbed towards the second pass in the dark but spirits were high as many people had improved overnight. Soon a beautiful sunrise warmed the air and our guide let me skip ahead to enjoy the pass alone, never before have I felt so acclimatised and strong at 4000m! Once re-grouped I sped off down to the next Inca ruins using a careful trotting technique on the hard stone steps, there was no way I was repeating my head injury from last year! I enjoyed the ruin to myself and even set up my camera on the self timer to capture the moment. Had we continued the previous day as per the original plan I never would have experienced this Inca ruin entirely to myself, it was a very special moment.

 Due to our change in schedule we saw many ruins on Day 3 and also spectacular scenery from every angle. I was blown away by the excellent condition of the Inca Trail as it clung to cliff faces as intact now as it was all those hundreds of years ago. Towards the end of the day the ruins got larger, even without Machu Picchu waiting at the end this is one of the most spectacular walks I have ever done.
On our final day we rose early to walk the five minutes to the first control and here we waited for two hours. At 5:30 am the control opened and it was a one hour hike to the sun gate. I was the first from our group to reach and I looked down on a cloud free Machu Picchu. The desire for the early start became clear as the sun crept up above the side of the mountain and illuminated the ancient city of the Incas. The site for Machu Picchu was chosen for its natural quarry and water resources. However, that location, buried deep in the mountains, illuminated by the suns rays has got to be one of the most breath taking things I have ever seen.

Walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a humbling experience. So little is known about this ancient and brief civilisation. They worshiped nature, the mountains, stars, sun and moon and they built beautiful perfect temples and cities with very basic tools. What wiped them out? According to our guide a combination of smallpox and simple arrogance that they were the superior power, but what they have left behind looks like it might last forever. Seeing it with your own eyes and walking through the city that remains is a truly unique experience.
A special thanks to all those who where on this very memorable trip!