Inka Terra

Cusco, Peru

We fly from La Paz, Bolivia to Cusco, Peru and are back in Inka terra, the land of the Inka. Cusco is a city with a layered history. It was settled by indigenous people 1,000 years ago, became the capital of the Inka in the 13th century and then was the centre for Spanish expansion into South America starting in the 16th century.

Two grand cathedrals flank two sides of Cusco’s main square. A statue of Manco Capak, one of several revered Inka leaders, sits in the middle. Restaurants, shops, cafes and museums abound. Narrow, steep streets lead from the main square into the various neighbourhoods. Traditionally clothed women mingle with more modernly clad young Peruvians and many foreign tourists, mostly from the rest of South America and Europe.

We meet our friends Donna & Ron and Seonag & Geoff here. We’ll spend the next two weeks together, mostly travelling from Cusco to Machu Pichu.

Our route to Machu Pichu is five days via the Lares valley, not the traditional Inka trail, which we have decided to forego. The strenuousness of the hiking combined with the lack of creature comforts do not appeal. Instead we book a tour with a company called Mountain Lodges of Peru. Emphasis on “lodges”. The first one has three llamas grazing on the grass outside our room and a hot tub in the garden. The second night we have private hot tubs on balconies overlooking the valley in the shadow of the Andes. The colourfully dressed staff give us a heartfelt send off in the morning. The third night we are in houses set around a garden, where our hosts serve us delicious home-cooked meals. We feel very pampered!

All of the food is gourmet, including lunch the first day, high up a mountain and outdoors. The pork, chicken, lamb and guinea pig – a specialty in Peru – all come out of the ground, where they have been surrounded by hot stones, with dirt mounded on top, and cooked for several hours. Potatoes come out the hot dirt as well.

We travel in a mini-van and hike for portions of the day. The first afternoon we hike downhill for a couple of hours to an Inka ruin called Pisaq. The ruins sit high on a triangular shaped plateau, with plunging gorges on two side. The views of it from the hiking trail and then the views from the ruins themselves are of a countryside of hills and valleys dotted with small farms and villages. All made of “bricks” composed of clay and straw. It is like stepping back in time several hundred years.

Missing from the scene are the Inkas themselves. What started as a small tribe in the 13th century and grew into an empire by the 15th century was destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century. They left behind many hilltop towns that are now in ruins. The terraces they built to grow food and the many food sources they domesticated – potatoes, quinoa & llamas – also remain.

We start the second day by buying bread and coca leaves at the market, not for ourselves, but rather for the locals we will meet as we hike. Because they live in very remote areas and have little access to amenities and as we are hiking through their ‘hood, it seems the right thing to do.

Our 4 hour hike takes us to an elevation of 13,800 ft, high up in the foothills of the Andes. Although we cover only 5.4 km, the trail is rough, steeply uphill in places and the air is thin. It feels like a workout! The hot tub awaiting us at the lodge at the end of the day is most welcome.

The third day we hike through a canyon filled with llama, alpaca, sheep and donkey, small farms and shepherd’s shelters. Children tending the animals or just walking on the trail greet us with their cheerful “buenas dias”. They are happy to pose for photos, particularly after we hand out bread and cookies. Craig has brought bracelets. Donna has pencils for them.

The kids and what we see of their lives gets us talking philosophically about cultural differences between North America and a lot of the rest of the world. Our guides remind us that even though the rural Peruvian kids we encounter on our hikes appear to be “deprived”, they have a lot of love and family support. They don’t worry about bullying or designer clothes. I’m almost convinced of the wisdom of this … and then I take a second look at their feet, which the photos don’t really show … black and calloused and shod in flimsy sandals. Maybe we romanticize their poverty?

By now we have spent enough time with our guides and driver to know something of their personalities. Johan, the lead guide, is serious and responsible. A family man, he is the father of a 5 year old boy and a 9 month old baby girl who he says is his “corazon”, his heart. Abel is younger and likes to joke around a lot. But he is also passionate about politics, particularly as it relates to the way that Chile dominates South America. Cesar, the driver, is amazing behind the wheel on the narrow, windy, one lane roads. We soon realize he has our lives in his hands. His musical tastes run mostly to 80s American rock interspersed with latin salsa and the odd Peruvian folk tune, which usually gets Johan and Abel singing along. Cesar entertains us with salsa moves which do not at all fit with his appearance. Think older, portly favourite uncle.

For three days we travel around the “sacred valley” of the Inka, along the Urubamba River. We visit ruins and market towns and hike. The fourth morning we drive to Ollantaytambo (it’s a mouthful and is properly pronounced oy-an-tee-tam-bo) for a visit to the ruins there. A bloody battle with the Spanish was fought on the terraces of the ruins in 1536, one of the few won by the Inka. Unfortunately they did not capitalize on the victory by pursuing the Spanish. Rather, they retreated farther into the jungle and this would prove to be the start of their demise.

From Ollantaytambo we take a train to Aguas Calientes, the town that serves as the jumping off point for Machu Picchu, and then a bus from there up to the famed ruins. After a few days of unsettled weather, the skies clear and we are rewarded with a glorious afternoon at Machu Picchu. We are still sorting through the hundreds of photos we took and trying to find words to describe the magnificence of it. Once again, stay tuned!

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