Cusco sits high in the Andes mountains of Peru, a charming city of tan adobe structures with red tiled roofs, old Spanish churches, winding cobblestone streets up steep hills. My traveling partner, my son Adam, and I met at the Lima airport in the middle of the night. I was coming from Guatemala where I was teaching, and he from Colorado during summer break from university. After a day of sightseeing in the city, we flew up to the high country. Lima’s cloudy skies were hazy white, but the Cusco sky mirrored the clear deep blue of Colorado mountain skies, as dazzling as the altitude. At 3,326 meters (10,900 ft), we took it easy the first few days to acclimate before strenuous hiking at even higher elevations.
Hotel Los Niños was started by a Dutch couple who adopted many Cusco street children. There are two clean and attractive hotels in Cusco that finance care of dozens of children, their medical and education expenses, and feed hundreds of local school children two meals a day and provide help with homework after school. The rooms are named for children—ours was named Luis. We had the pleasure to visit one of their living homes and meet several cheerful young students first hand. Niños Unidos Peruanos Foundation has since expanded to serve 600 children in Peruvian villages.
We missed the window to book an Inca Trail trek in advance, the reservation system had just started and was already a months-long wait. As in Antigua (Guatemala), however, the streets were lined with travel agencies anxious to sell you a trip that starts the next day. We booked a five-day trek by way of Salkantay Mountain, ending at Machu Picchu. Although there were not ruins dotting that trail, the scenery was spectacular, small villages appeared here and there, and it was undoubtedly a road less traveled. If I had seen pictures of some of the more difficult spots beforehand, I might well have chickened out—narrow rocky and eroding trails etched into mountainsides with precipitous drops. I gratefully accepted our guide’s steadying hand more than once. But it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed, and I found the courage to commit, taking things one step (literally) at a time.
Our last afternoon in Cusco, we chatted with a young man in the park. He taught us a few words in native Quechua, asked Adam about his interest in Cusco girls, and we compared life in the US and Peru.
“Remember the land of the poor when you are a professional,” he advised Adam when we parted.
We started our trek with a pre-dawn bus ride to the village of Mollepata, the jumping off point for the Salkantay trail. Elvis, our guide, introduced himself with the words “and I can sing too! Only kidding!” He gathered our small group for breakfast in a restaurant. Our trailmates were mostly European—a Belgian couple, an American/British couple (that we would later visit in London), a woman from Argentina, a German couple who discovered later that they were actually with another group but they joined us on the trail for part of each day. Johanna, a guide in training, joined us as well. After we secured our pack horses, Elvis grabbed my day pack, grinned, and said “I’m young.” I looked around and realized I was the oldest in the group. Armed with just my camera, I began walking.
We climbed steadily the first day. Like Guatemalan volcano hikes, there were few switchbacks; the trails were steep and relentless. Elvis kept us entertained with details about the flora and stories from Inca lore of gods and battles and myths. We camped at the dramatic base of Salkantay (Goat Mountain) in the shadow of the 6,270 meter peak (20,565 ft), our coldest night. Our support team, four Peruvian men, had tents pitched and dinner cooking when we arrived. Three substantial meals a day kept our energy up, with cookies and popcorn to occupy us while cooking, delicious soups, a typical Peruvian main dish, and mate de coca or tea from coca leaves, which helps ward off altitude sickness.
During dinner we talked about Peruvian and Argentinian politics. Conversation turned to the limits on the Inca Trail, which most of us had come expecting to hike. Treks must be booked at least thirty days in advance and the trail limited to five-hundred people per day including porters, guides, and cooks, limiting the number of tourists considerably and understandably helping to slow the damage to historic areas. The changes had been especially detrimental to small tour guide agencies and effectively closed them out of that trail. The larger companies mentioned in the guide books and on the Internet have better access to advance bookings and have larger support teams in their entourage.
Our most demanding day began with mate de coca delivered to our tents. The Germans appeared with packs ready to join us for the day’s trek. The towering white, rugged peak in the not-too-distant vista was ours to conquer. We hiked up the steep west shoulder in the snow. One of our party suffered from altitude sickness and needed a guide to lead and support her, another struggled with a pulled leg muscle. Blocking the snowy trail was a horse down with a hurt leg; the porters worked at moving his equipment to other animals and getting him on his feet. We had to break trail across the switchbacks through deep snow to get past.
As we neared the last few turns in the trail, Elvis handed us each a rock to carry to the top, to ask the goat Salkantay for permission to cross. At the top of the pass (4,600 meters, 15,088 ft), amid misty snowflakes, were dozens of cairns, little rock piles that mark trails, sitting on top of larger rocks like so many offerings to an Inca god. We added our stones to the diminutive sculptures in the snowy mist. Elvis had us each throw a handful of coca leaves into the wind for luck on our journey.
The trail downhill was steep and sharp, we hiked on and on for two hours after dark until we reached the pampa, or meadow, filled with tents. Dinner conversation had a lighter note that night; we were exhausted but feeling good about having made it this far. Elvis and Johanna told folk tales of children kidnapped by dwarves, a dog in the form of a woman, and more, with strong morals.
Day Three took us through the village of La Playa along the Salkantay River, with a stop at a fruit stand selling grenadias that kept us eating the sweet yellow fruit for the rest of the hike. We reached a point beyond which the horses could not continue, so they headed back and four local porters, including two small women, carried our bags. Each was trained to carry up to fifty kilos (110 pounds), and made light of our load.
At one point we hopped a ride on a truck bed to Santa Elena. Railings outlined the back of the truck. Our friends draped themselves over and around every rail, hanging limbs bouncing over a bumpy dirt road ride along cliffs, called out to lower our heads when passing branches, and pointed out farms, “cafe!” “bananas!” “platano!” “palta!” (avocados), reaching out trying to grab fruit. There was a local party planned in the field where we were to camp, so we set up tents in a schoolyard. After a failed attempt at finding a trail to a hot springs, we dined late and several members of our group went in town to check out the party.
At breakfast we played a language game, naming things on the table in Spanish, each person repeating the list each time. The school children lined up to watch us take down the tents and hungrily gathered around to finish the remains on our breakfast table. When the bell rang, they ran in and we listened to their sweet voices singing the national anthem as the flag was raised.
That day we crossed the river in a tiny open cage way above white water. Two or three of us in the cage at a time, the first half of the ride was a slide down the cables to the middle of the river, then we were yanked across to the other side by a rope pull. There was no way around it; I had to cross. Without looking down, I climbed in and held on tight. Further up the trail we marveled at a powerful waterfall rushing out a hole in the rock under the road ledge, arriving there from some mysterious underground place. We were walking along a dirt road then, and a truck passed loaded with standing passengers; we waved to our German friends as they went by. The massive back of Machu Picchu rose in front of us as we approached, its treasures hidden from view, stalls lining the sides of the trail offering lunch.
Walking down the railroad tracks, we stopped at Mandor. Elvis negotiated with a woman who owned the land so we could enter. A cool, tranquil pool lay at the base of a tumbling waterfall. Some took a swim, others dipped our feet in, so refreshing, then walked back out to catch the train to Aguas Calientes (hot waters), the town closest to the ruins. We soaked our tired muscles in the natural hot springs pool and stayed in a hostel.
Watch for my next post: Machu Picchu and Inca ruins
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