Cusco, G Adventures and the Inca Trail! 23rd September – 29th September 2016

Note to self: don’t ever bother trying to get a taxi in Lima at 7 in the morning, it either won’t turn up or will be expensive. We had arranged a taxi to the airport at 6.45 – turns out that the traffic coming in and out of the city (and just about everywhere in Lima) that if the taxi driver thinks it’s too much effort, they’ll just cancel last minute. This is exactly what our taxi did…luckily the guy in the hotel was really nice and stood out with us to help us get a taxi to the airport for a decent enough price so we didn’t get ripped off. Where we did get ripped off though, was getting the taxi from the airport into Cusco city to our hotel. The taxi from Lima airport to the city was 55 soles – that’s fine, it’s a standard price for all four taxi companies in the area and the drive is about 30 – 45 minutes depending on how bad traffic is. There is only one taxi company in Cusco airport. They charge 40 soles to get to the city…for a 15-minute taxi journey. We found out later that it should have only cost us about 10 soles for the journey…ugh. ANYWAY, we made it to Cusco and to our hotel, the Hotel Prisma.

We had a wander around the city – it’s really beautiful, much nicer and less crowded than Lima centre! The churches are gorgeous, there’s really nice green areas and parks, and you can see a big statue of Jesus on a hill in the distance, looking over the city. It was really interesting to actually feel the effects of the altitude: it was way harder to catch my breath, I could feel my heart beating much faster and harder than usual and I got dizzy just standing up or turning my head too fast! Luckily I could feel my body adjusting by the end of the day. We met our group in the hotel along with our guide Eber – everyone seems really nice, and there’s a couple from Ireland, which is always good! Out of our group of 13, 9 of use are all in our 20s and then there’s four that are all in their 60’s – fair play to them! We ended up giving them the nickname The Rockies, they’re hard core! For the trek we were each given a duffle bag that the porters would carry, and which we could put 6kgs of stuff into. Naturally the first was the sleeping bag and roll mat. Then it was a case of making a list and figuring out what could go in the duffle bag and what needed to go in our day bags. Our big bags would be locked away in storage while we went off.

Day One of the tour – Sacred Valley!

Breakfast at 6.30 (ugh), tried cocoa leaf tea, it was pretty tasty! We were on the bus ready to go at 7.30. First stop, the Christo Blanco statue we saw from the town. It’s a really impressive statue up close, and the view of Cusco is brilliant. Next we went to the Ccaccaccollo Community Village (try saying that ten times really fast), which is where the Andean women work with llama and alpaca wool making all sorts of clothing and blankets using traditional methods. We got to feel all the different wools – baby alpaca wool is so soft it feels like silk! We watched one woman turning the wool into a long string of wool by basically spinning it and winding it around a large wooden cone…it was one of those things that looks really simple but is probably very difficult to master, and she was doing it while chatting away with us. And she had the CUTEST baby in a sling on her back – it had a biggest cheeks I’ve ever seen I swear to God! After that we were shown how they make the different coloured dyes for the wool; the base for a lot of them is the blood of the cochineal beetle, it’s mixed with different things to get different colours: water (brown), water and salt (red), water and sulphur (dark purple), and water and mineral stone (light purple). Leaves and petals from different plants and flowers are used to get yellow and different shades of green. They then showed us how they use a traditional loom to make blankets. It blew my mind – even when she was doing it really slowly I could not for the life of me understand how she was weaving it all together and creating the patterns, so impressive! Of course then we were shown their market – there was so much stuff!! I really wanted a poncho or a shawl but they are just WAY too big given that we’ll have to carry them around for a year, so we got ourselves some really soft and pretty alpaca wool scarves.

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Next stop was and Inca site called Pisac. There are massive terraces everywhere – each terrace was made so it had its own microclimate for growing different crops, so impressive! The ruins themselves are in amazing condition and we could wander around as we pleased. Naturally we had to go all the way up the top first to the look out, and then we made our way down, exploring the maze of buildings. We then went for lunch in Pawra restaurant – outside the restaurant is all dust and desert-like terrain, and then you walking in the gate for the restaurant and it’s got a big garden full of flowers and trees and grass, it was like walking into an oasis. And the food! OMG it was SO TASTY! Salad, quail eggs, sweet potato with trout and oregano bread for starters, Peruvian “golden potato” soup, black quinoa Chinese style, stuffed chilli pepper, and Peruvian black potatoes for main, and super fruity and tangy passion fruit jelly for desert. Fun Fact: peru has 3,500 types of potatoes and over 200 types of quinoa!

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Last stop for the day was the town and Inca site of Ollantaytambo. On the way we drove past women who cook and sell guinea pig (Peru’s speciality dish) – they just cook them on a stick so that when they want to sell them they just hold up the stick and wave it at you! We went on a tour of the Inca site, saw the water temple and sun temple and went up the top to enjoy the views of the mountains and town, it was just lovely. Also, we found Machu Picchu patches!! J At dinner I tried alpaca, it was SUPER tasty!

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Day two – First day of the trek! 😀

Took the bus to kilometre 82 which is where the entry point to the Inca trail is. We met our porters and collected any gear we rented. We also gave our group a name – The Alpaca Pack! We made it through the checkpoint and across a really cool wooden bridge to start our hike! The first day is really nice, nothing too strenuous, good way to ease you in. We had a lot of breaks and chats from Ever along the way; at the start of the trek we stopped by a cactus and Ever showed us where the cochineal beetle is harvested from. He then crushed the beetles in his hand, mixed the blood with some water and we all got our cochineal warrior facepaints for the hike! We visited some Inca sites along the way – Willkarakay and Q’entimarka, and saw absolutely beautiful scenery along the way. I wish I had a camera that connected directly to what I see so I could have captured the sheet vastness and beauty of the mountains – my photographs just don’t do it justice! Lunch was delicious! Rainbow trout and salad, loved it! We saw so many hummingbirds as we walked along, they are massive here! Made it to the first campsite in good time, were introduced properly to our porters, had our dinner and then played some games. Ever taught us a great card game for large groups: everyone gets a card, and starting from the person beside the dealer either keeps their card or swaps it with the person to their right. When everyone’s done, everyone turns their cards over and the lower number is out. It was brilliant! Before bed we stepped out to look at the night sky and OH. MY. GOD. It was stunning. Gorgeous. Awe-Inspiring. Just amazing. I’ve NEVER seen a night sky like it – there were stars EVERYWHERE, and I could see the Milky Way. I actually still get a bit choked up thinking about it weeks later.

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Day three – Dead Woman’s Pass! (Dun dun DUUUUUNNNNNNN!)

This was an INTENSE day, but it was good. We had a lovely hike through a forest area first, really liked it! E introduced us to two remedies they use for altitude sickness: coca leaves and agua de florida (flower water). First we had some agua de florida – technically it’s an alcohol but he did not recommend we drink any. Instead he poured some in our hands and we were to smell it. At first it burned because of the sheer amount of alcohol in it (could smell why he didn’t want us drinking it!), but one that went the actual smell of it was gorgeous, like perfume! I just rubbed it all over my skin so I could keep smelling it after! Next we tried coca leaves: you’re supposed to chew it for about 10 seconds, then tuck it into the side of your mouth and leave it there for about 20 minutes swallowing any juice that comes out…it barely lasted a minute, it was just so gross tasting! It did help a bit – I could definitely feel the altitude as we were higher than Cusco at this point, and going higher! We were given “free time” to get up to Dead Woman’s Pass, so everyone could go at their own piece. Myself and AJ were part of the Alpha team, first to the top! It was tough, but not as impossible as I feared it would be! And the view from the top was just incredible!! After that, to get to camp….it was BRUTAL. Solid downhill for about an hour. That was the moment when I thanks every star in the universe that we had brought hiking poles – without them at best I would have badly twisted my ankle, and at worst, broken my neck! However, I made it to camp INJURY FREE, quite an achievement for me and my dodgy ankle…I did nearly go over on it in camp going to the toilet, but that’s another story! We had lunch and then were able to go for a siesta – so good to lie down!! 😀 E told us that some companies only stop for lunch in the campsite we used and then did another TWO HOURS of hiking to the next camp – we were so thankful that we didn’t have to do that!

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Day four – The Gringo Killer! (these days just get better and better…)

After hiking a bit out of camp we were able to see the “sleeping lady” of Dead Woman’s Pass, really cool to see! The altitude was getting to me a bit at that stage – had a bit of a headache and felt a bit nauseous, but the views were worth it! We visited the Inca site Runkuraqay, and had a tour around it while learning about the Inca culture and history. It’s really fascinating learning about it. All their cities and trails were built within 100 years – just three generations! Their religion centered around 3 animals (snake, puma and condor), 4 foods (quinoa, corn, potatos, and coca), 3 main gods (water, sun and Pachamamma – mother earth), and the 7 colours of the rainbow. We also visited Sayaqmarka up this insanely steep stone staircase at the side of the mountain – a lot of astronomy and religious ceremonies were performed there – shamans would do in there young men and just never leave; around the inside of the city there were holes in the walls by the stairs for old people to hold on to when going up and down, but there were any by the stairs at the entrance to the city. We saw a water mirror, which was used for tracking the movement of the sun, moon and stars, and big hollows in the walls where mummified bodies were kept to keep the connection with “up above” and “down below.”

Lunch was so nice! There were loads of salads, and the chefs had turned different vegetables into trees and birds, and afterwards we had cake!!

It was needed as well, as after lunch was the dreaded GRINGO KILLER. OMG it was awful, just endless downhill on stone steps, my knees were killing. We did go through really cool jungle – the scenery was really pretty, and we went through a few Inca tunnels too! The last stop before camp was the Inca site Intipata, OMG the stairs down from it were pretty much vertical! My legs were like jelly by the end. It was hilarious to see our other guide L just running down them casually like it was no big deal – if I’d tried that I would have fallen the whole way down for sure! Dinner was amazing, and then after, we said goodbye to our porter team with a small speech, as we were off super early the next day!

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Day 5 – Machu Picchu!! 😀

Up at 3.30 (UUUGGGHHH) – quick breakfast, packed up and off to get in line for the checkpoint which opened at 5.30.

We made it to the Sungase at 6.30 – what a view! I couldn’t believe we’d actually made it, through all the hiking, (literal) ups and downs, I’d almost forgotten that the whole end point was this amazing site/sight! Walked further down to get the ‘postcard picture.’ There were already tourists who’d come in on the train…we got so many weird looks at how scruffy we looked and our walking poles…those people did not understand what we’d been through!! Down in Machu Picchu there were people EVERYWHERE, uuuugggghhhhhh….. E took us on a walking tour of the site. It’s such an interesting site, and a total feat of engineering and I really appreciated what I was seeing and where I was…but I was SO. DAMN. TIRED. I then knew why E was saying that the last day was the hardest! We walked around and saw the main bits of the city – the temples of sun, water and condor, the three windows, the altars where the sacrifices were done, the sundial, the sacred rock, and terraces. While in the Temple of the Condor, this woman with her son started asking us something in Spanish, I could only catch the word ‘fotografia’ and she was waving her camera so we assumed she wanted us to take a photo. We nodded but when Alice reached for the camera, the woman shook her head, stepped back and motioned for us to stand beside her son! I am still completely bemused about this – I like to imagine the kid brining the picture into school for Show and Tell – “The day I met the gringos.”

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We grabbed the bus to Aguas Calientes for lunch – small pizza and a beer, very much deserved!! E also got us all a pisco sour – it’s actually really tasty!! After that it was off to get the train back to Ollantaytambo – it was the nicest train I’ve ever been on, nice than the Virgin trains by a long shot, PLUS we got free drinks and snacks! We grabbed the bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco (had an amazing nap on the way), where I headed straight for the shower and scrubbed off about four layers of dead skin. It felt SO GOOD. E took us out for our last meal together in a nice secluded restaurant near the main square. We all chipped in for one guinea pig to try as a group…gotta be honest, it’s really not something I’d try again! It tastes like gamey chicken/pork…glad I tried it, but never again. E was LOVING it – he ate the head, brains and all, just leaving the skull! AJ and I had the trout salad, it was really nice! We were too tired to stay out so we said goodbye to E and headed back to the hotel for some well-earned kip!

Roasted Guinea Pig Day six – time to, say goodbyeeee…. Had our last day in Cusco. Met the group for breakfast, and then went to check out the Inca Museum. The exhibition was absolutely fascinating – no photography allowed unfortunately! We saw lots of pottery, ceramics, carvings, textiles, miniature replicas of different Inca cities including Machu Picchu, art from when Cortez and the Spanish invaded Peru, and replicas of cave paintings. The coolest part of the exhibit was definitely the mummified bodies in the fetal funeral position – adults, children and a dog too! Outside in the courtyard there were stalls selling hand made and painted pottery and jeweller, and a tapestry exhibition “Hands of the Sun” – beautiful but very expensive! Afterwards we went for lunch in Paddy’s, the highest 100% own Irish bar in the world, it was class! Lots of Irish-themed and guiness posters, and letter from Bono to the Peruvian President, and other random stuff on the walls, and they served cans of guiness (it used to be on tap but there wasn’t the demand). I got a jumbo breakfast (how could I not?) and AJ got a lovely toastie. On the way to the museum we had gotten caught up in a peaceful protest march, and the waitress in the bar told us it was teachers who were looking for a better salary – they only get paid 200 soles a week! What a joke! While we were in the bar, we watched a church procession happening by the cathedral, lots of people dancing, playing music, wearing masks and carrying a giant statue with them…not too sure who it was meant to be… Untitled  Untitled Untitled  Untitled

It was really sad to say goodbye to everyone, but at least we’re all friends on facebook now! 😀 We booked our taxi for the next morning and packed our stuff up – we were off to Puno the next day!

Slán!

G xx

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