Hiking the Inca Trail has been on my bucket list for a long time.
I remember, when I was quite young, setting myself a goal of travelling to South America by the time I turned 30, but then, when that date came and went, I changed it to 35, and then 40. It was one of those destinations that, over the years, became a bit elusive for me. There was no doubt I wanted to go, but other great travel opportunities kept getting in the way. Eventually though, at age 46, my chance came.
The trip was an overwhelming experience and it’s taken me a while to sit down and write about it. I guess I just needed more time than usual to reflect on this particular journey, where I saw my dream of hiking the Inca Trail come to fruition. The trek was physically and mentally challenging; in fact there were times where it was so hard that I thought I would give up. I also shared the experience with my older sister, Sue, which made the trip even more special.
Sue has a quiet and calm manner (which is pretty much opposite to me). She is also the mother of four adult daughters, so she knows how to nurture and look after people. But here, the roles were somewhat reversed; as I was the one with all the travel experience. Her daughters even farewelled us with the parting words: “Look after our Mum”. The pressure was on…
I’ve decided to break this blog into three parts, because there is simply too much to put into one post. I hope you enjoy reading it… and if you’ve had a similar experience, please share it with me in the comments section below.
Cuzco and the Sacred Valley
“We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.” Francisco Pizarro
Cuzco is the historic capital of the Inca Empire. It is situated in southeast Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range, and is the South America I’d always imagined. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983, this ancient city has rustic stone buildings with flower-adorned balconies; cobblestone streets leading to vast and picturesque squares; and a myriad of narrow alleyways and steep stairways, which are a joy to explore.
The city is also situated at high altitude (the average altitude being 3316m above sea level), so our day here is mostly about acclimatising and getting prepared for our trek. From our hotel, we meander to the San Blas district, a bohemian artisans’ quarter, which on certain days transforms into a marketplace. We are keen to pick up some colourful handicrafts, particularly alpaca-wool knitwear, but decide to wait until after the trek.
We have a guide for the first part of our walk and she tells us that most of the buildings in Cuzco are Spanish-influenced, but the foundations of some Inca buildings remain. She recites a wonderful saying: “The Spanish conquered the Incas but the Incas provided the foundation for them”, and shows us an example. Some of the huge stones were just too difficult for the Spanish to destroy, so they built on top of the existing foundation.
En route to the Plaza de Armas (the Main Plaza), we see plenty of women and children in traditional clothing as they dress up for the tourists. It’s customary to tip one sole for each photograph (about 0.40 AUD) and I have to say, it’s pretty hard to resist. The children are gorgeous and it’s a thrill to finally see some alpacas.
We arrive at the Plaza de Armas around lunch-time and find a restaurant overlooking the square. It’s truly a spectacular view and I’m sure I’d never tire of gazing at the Cathedral, the Church of La Compania, and the impressive gold statue glimmering in the sunlight. During the Inca era, this was known as the ‘Warrior Square’ and, when the Spanish arrived, it was here that Francisco Pizarro proclaimed the conquest of Cuzco.
After lunch, we detour to a laneway full of camping stores to pick up lightweight ponchos and Coca leaf sweets, which are meant to help with altitude. Chewing Coca leaves is a traditional custom in the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands, but it’s somewhat controversial as the leaves can be turned into cocaine. For now, it’s also common practice for hotels to serve Coca tea to their guests and I, for one, am drinking plenty of the stuff. I’m prone to altitude sickness, which I discovered almost 20 years ago on Mt Kilimanjaro. I am also knocking back some Diamox tablets, just to be sure.
Up until this point, I’m coping admirably with the altitude. The air is noticeably thinner, but we are walking slowly and taking plenty of deep breaths. It’s our decision to climb a long steep stairway to San Cristobal Church – for an amazing view over the city – that is my undoing. By the time we reach the top, I’m light-headed, and it takes us a while to find our way back to the hotel via a few more hills.
The rest of the day is a blur as I rapidly deteriorate. I’m feeling bitterly cold and a headache is coming on. Unfortunately, I have to stay alert and upright, as we are due to meet our trek guide for a briefing. I should be brimming with excitement, as he describes each day of the trek. Instead, I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed.
Luckily, Sue is coping really well with the altitude and her mothering instincts kick in. She makes me some Coca tea and orders soup from a nearby restaurant, even though I don’t really feel like eating. She is doing a wonderful job of looking after me, even though I’d promised to look after her. It’s a sign of things to come.
The following day I feel a lot better and hope sparks that I’m finally acclimatising. We are heading for the Sacred Valley (and lower altitude) but en route stop at a factory in Chinchero (which is actually at the higher altitude of 3762m). Encouragingly, I feel fine. We watch some women making traditional textiles – spinning, dying and weaving the alpaca wool – and then we barter for goods. The women are lovely, as are the children, who definitely help increase their sales.
Afterwards, we descend to Chichubamba – a spectacular drive – where the tour company (Intrepid Travel) supports a community project. We visit a chocolate shop and a ceramics factory, as well as eat lunch with a local family – sampling Quinoa soup (a type of cereal) and Chicha (a home-made beer made from corn).
Late afternoon, we arrive in the gorgeous Ollantaytambo, where we will spend the night. This town is a miniature version of Cuzco but, significantly, is surrounded by much more dramatic mountains. We gaze up at them, in nervous anticipation of the coming days.
To read Adventure in Peru – Part 2, click here.
Travel tip: Getting small change to pay for photographs, Coca sweets and souvenirs is a big problem in Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and the Inca Trail. Even 20 sole notes (about $8 AUD) are difficult to change. If at all possible, get plenty of small change in Lima.