We arrived in Cusco after a rocky bus trip from Copacabana... Rocky cos it involved a 6pm departure, a border crossing, a midnight bus switch, a 'we forgot to set our watches forward an hour' moment and a 4am arrival at the bus station which meant a 3hr wait on minimal sleep in order to arrive at our hostel at a civilised hour! Phew. Thank goodness for all those movies that Adrian loaded onto the iPad - we always feel a little smug when we whip them out on a long bus trip! We made it to our charming hostel - Pisko and Soul - in reasonably good spirits and were shown to a comfortable couch where we could snooze without holding onto our bags for the next few hours until our room was ready. Relative bliss.
Spent the next couple of days exploring Cusco and planning our Salkantay trek. Cusco is a city that is on the verge of being consumed by the tourist trade. It is beautiful, comfortable, easy and very Western-friendly - you can buy English copies of Game of Thrones in several book shops - that should say it all! But it is also cosmopolitan and a little generic, and you can't walk 10metres without a tour pamphlet being shoved under your nose. It did come as somewhat of an oasis in the midst of the unfamiliarity of the last 6 weeks, though - when we ordered food we were pretty sure that we knew what we were getting (note to all - do not order a mozzarella and palm heart salad in a mountain top Bolivian town with a population of 2000, particularly when you haven't seen anything resembling mozzarella in a shop for weeks!), we could negotiate with people in a manner that left us feeling as if we were understood, we could buy Ceylon tea (Lipton will have to do under these circumstances) and we even found a restaurant that served a 'flat white'! Don't take things for granted back home, folks.
Cusco offered us two other things besides convenience and familiarity - history and gastronomy. It is a city steeped in history - probably the most important city in Incan history and the archaeological centre of South America. It is the continent's oldest continuously inhabited city. Cusco is architecturally fascinating as the city is built on Incan foundations - massive stone walls, each block perfectly fitting with the adjacent one - but with plazas and cobble-stoned streets that are clearly the legacy of the Spanish. There are interesting museums, churches and statues, and it is, of course, just a hop and a skip to the base of Machu Picchu and all the history associated with it... The reason most people are here!
And - the food. Please bear in mind that, although we have had some small
culinary moments over the last two months, we have mostly been eating rice and llama and rice and white bread rolls and, well, rice... So - the food in Cusco. Aaaah.. We will put up some pics... We found a restaurant called Saledonia's which has made it to number one on Tripadvisor - a local lady who cooks from her little kitchen for five tables each lunch and dinner, her two kids waiting tables once they've cleared their homework paraphernalia off the fifth table(!), and - wow - is the food good. Llama Saltada (this is NOT the kind of llama that we have been eating) chicken in a peanut sauce, mmmm. Then we found Jack's cafe with his flat whites and best brownies in the whole wide world.. Organic food from an organic restaurant that was delicious but cost what organic food costs all over the world, you know what I mean. A creperie run by an expat Parisian... When it comes to food, Cusco has it all.
So - the actual reason we were there - the Salkantay trek. Apart from doing the famous the Inca trail, there are several other treks that you can do, with some of them still summiting atop Machu Picchu. On the Salkantay, you don't walk on Incan paths / steps and so you lose a little of the history, it's a bit longer / tougher and easier to make a booking (for those of us who are only managing to plan a week in advance) and you still end your hike by walking up to Machu Picchu. It was really difficult to choose a tour as Cusco is overrun with companies offering similar trips, the prices vary to a ridiculous degree and there is not really that much on the Internet to help you make your choice. We went with one of the cheaper companies (which may have been a mistake, in retrospect!)
We were 'collected' on foot for Day One at 4:30 am from our hostel and headed for the bus to the starting town. There were lots of people!! We all sat together in a restaurant for our breakfast - cue aforementioned stale white bread rolls with jam and absence of flat whites, sigh. We were split into our groups - we were 17 people, a guide and his assistant, not great ratios! Our mules took only 5kg of luggage each, which we had not been told, and which resulted in us desperately yanking stuff out of our big bag and stuffing it into our day packs in order to relieve the mules! And then we met our trusty guide Jorge - although he offered a little less than expected along the way, we have to acknowledge that this poor guy was given a no-win task - a group of 17 people of different ages, with different expectations, who had all booked the tour through different companies and been told totally different things about what to expect (and who had all
paid different amounts as well!) Organisation - zero.
The first day was a gradual 1000metre ascent to 'base camp' at 3800metres, along a dirt road winding through the hillside. It was a pretty walk, although a little disappointing to spend all 8hours on a road. Spent the time meeting the group - a Dutch couple and a Greek
Guy around our ages, and 12 others ranging between 21 and 24 years old - yep, we were representing the oldies on this tour! Quite a representative group, it must be said - us, four Dutch, two Poms, three Israelis, an Aussie, a Canadian, an American, a Danish lad, a German girl and Chris from Greece.
Arrived at the camp around 5:30, pretty shattered from an unrelenting uphill gradient. The tents were all set up by the support team - inside a tarpaulin enclosure, not quite camping under the starts after all. We hurried down a mediocre meal and were in bed by 6:30 clad in our thermals, beanies and gloves - protection against the
5am start on Day Two - our morning motivational talk by Jorge consisted of him telling us that we would summit the Salkantay pass today and that it would be a really tough ascent at high altitude and some of us would really struggle and we were encouraged to hire horses to ride to the top at a cost of R400! This seemed a rather odd way to get us feeling confident about the day ahead! I confess to walking out of that camp feeling rather terrified that I wouldn't make the climb with Jorge's words of 'this is your last chance for a horse, once you start walking it is too late' ringing in my ears. Poor Adrian - who would be carrying his day pack on his back and mine on his front by the end of the day - had to do a lot of motivating over the next few hours!!
It was a spectacular morning - icy cold, crisp skies, snow capped peaks looming all around and clear rivers running alongside the path. It was also pretty tough - steep gradients, switchbacks that went on forever (the infinity path) and the final surge that took many mantras of 'one foot in front of the other' spoken under my breath to get me to the top. The altitude just destroys you - you walk 10 steps and need to stop, gasping for air.
The peak was beautiful - have a look at the pics. The Salkantay mountain is 6200m high and we hiked over the Salkantay pass at about 4600m. The word 'Salkantay' is Quechuan and means wild or savage... Jorge informed us that no one has ever successfully summitted Salkantay, although some Internet research may have disproved this. Not sure of the facts. Over the three years that Jorge has done this trek (and corroborated by one of our co-walkers who did the trek five years ago) the amount of snow on the mountain has drastically decreased. You can't hide from global warming.
After the summit - a 5hour descent... Oxygen streaming into your lungs as you climb down the other side, but a little tough on the toes and knees. Similarly to the River/Ride trip that we did, you have the extraordinary experience of spending your morning gasping for air on a snowy mountain and your afternoon swatting bugs off your legs in a tropical jungle! Spent the second night in the tents under the stars (yay) sans thermals.
Day Three was an up-and-down walk through jungle terrain with less to carry - we managed to sneak a few more kilos onto those mules! Ended the day with a short bus ride - complete with Rihanna and Jason Bieber disco remixes - to Santa Teresa, and the promise of the hot springs to wash away the dirt of the last two no-shower days. This turned into an interesting night when, after dinner, we were entertained with a cheesy marketing video for the zip-line tour on offer the next day, followed by an invitation to chill next to the bonfire which - when inspected - was a fire indeed, but set in the context of a blaring music (see aforementioned disco remixes) and multi-coloured strobe lights all around the bonfire area. Us old folk called it a night after a couple of beers and giggled in our tent when we were woken a little later to the drug-induced ranting (perhaps psychosis) of one of the other travellers... When his histrionics took on a racist edge we giggled less and admired our Israeli friends for just going to bed - cos, let's face it - despite his orders, they probably were not able to single-handedly free Palestine that night.
Day Four was a little disappointing - another dirt road - this time broken up by construction sites, with trucks intermittently flying past in clouds of dust. No more mules either - so 20kg on Adrian's back and 10kg on mine (another little omission on the part of the tour operators). Not quite what we had expected. But..... Ended the day at Aquas Calientes - the town at the base of Machu Picchu and were able to glance upwards and know that we were going to see this historic old city in the morning. We were put up in a comfortable hostel with warm showers and comfortable beds. Ready for the 4am start the following day....
Machu Picchu day dawned and I, unfortunately, seemed to have picked up a tummy bug.. So we started the walk up the mountain in less-than-strong condition! 1700 steps to the top.. Well, I can confirm that there are, in fact, 1930 steps to the top - I know this because those extra 230 nearly killed me! Wow, that was quite a morning stroll. Entering those gates and seeing the city slowly emerge from the morning mist was spectacular. Machu Picchu is surrounded by colossal mountains that seem to peer over the city from every angle. The stone-work is staggering - there is not a millimetre of space between blocks in the walls. One can't help wondering what it would have become if the community had not been forced to abandon it. We will let the pictures speak for themselves - it was all we had hoped it would be (perhaps with less running to the loo next time!!)
And so that was Salkantay, that was Machu Picchu and that was Peru. Cusco and Machu Picchu were amazing, the trek was beautiful but a little disappointing (probably not the kind of tour where you should pick the cheapest option cos the group size/organisation/food will reflect that!) And now, after much discussion about time and budget, we are headed via plane (we are in our 30's after all) to Bogota, Colombia!