The ride into Cusco was a bit intense. The nearer we got to the Centro Historico the streets became busier, steeper and narrower. I flatted on a busy street and had to use a bucket in the toilet of a nearby restaurant to locate the pinhole in the tube. We arrived at our AirB&B frustrated and arguing only to discover the suite was in a building in the midst of a renovation. We had two guys plastering overhead our entry door – not good!
Cusco, on the other hand, is charming. A long history of occupation in the valley culminated in the city becoming the capital of the vast Incan empire stretching from Argentina to Columbia. The Spanish conquistadors destroyed much of the city tearing apart the spectacular stone structures built by the Inca to build their churches. A few remnant walls, a testament to the remarkable skills of the Incan stone masons, remain throughout the city and the surrounding area is filled with ruins that once seen, make tales of alien assistance in their construction almost plausible. Cusco is filled with tourist accommodation, good restaurants, lovely plazas, and artesania galore. It is also the jump off point for trips to the internationally renown, Machu Picchu. The net impact of tourism in this area must represent a significant component of the Peruvian economy. Thank God we were there in the low season.
Of course, we arrived in town with little forethought/planning and spent our first day figuring out what we were going to do, how we would get to Machu Picchu, etc. MP is on a ridge surrounded by deep valleys and precipitous mountains. It was occupied for a relatively short period (+/- 80 yrs) and abandoned prior to its being discovered by the conquistadors. It undoubtedly deserves its inclusion as one of the ‘new’ seven wonders of the world. Access is very controlled and ranges from very expensive, deluxe tours to arduous, dirt bag affairs. The classic route is via the Inca Trail, a 4 day walk that leads to the Sun Gate overlooking the ruins but this is booked out 4-6 months in advance. We ended up choosing the more difficult 5 day Salkantay Trek and despite my aversion for organized tours, we opted to go with a guided group.
We lucked out and ended up with a diverse group of travellers who were a pleasure to hike with. There were 13 of us (1 Saudi, 2 Irish, 1 French, 1 South African, 1 Dutch, 4 Germans, 1 Spaniard & us, the 2 Canadians) plus the Peruvian guide, a cook, his assistant and a mule handler. Other than a fit as a fiddle, 50 year old German, the average age of the rest of the gang was +/- 28. I suspect some of them thought we wouldn’t be able to keep up but we held our own. Gerald, the older German and Saleh the Saudi both defied their respective stereotypes and like everyone else, they were great additions to the group. Every day’s hike was a work out with long distances and/or big climbs. The environmental transitions were quite dramatic, from high alpine moraine to steamy jungle. Regrettably, the day we walked under the snow clad peak of Salkantay ( 6271 M) it was totally socked in and poured rain for 4 hours. We got cold and wet but spirits remained high. Despite the primitive working conditions the cook and his helper turned out multi-course meals that played a big part in keeping our spirits up. On the evening of the third day we all walked to a beautifully developed hot spring that worked wonders on sore limbs. Our fourth, long day we pulled into Aguas Calientes, the notorious, touristy little town in the river valley far below MP. As we waited for our bags to arrive, we formed an unruly gang on the street in front of our hotel drinking Cusquena beer. For dinner that evening there were two for one pisco sours, followed by rounds of Inca tequila. We were a raucous, happy bunch that headed to bed early for the 4:30 AM wake up and an early morning climb to MP (equivalent to the Grouse Grind).
That fifth and final day was a bit of an epic. The climb, which started in the dark, to the ruins was a tough start to the day but we did it in half the allotted time and we were some of the first in line to get in. As expected, Machu Picchu was a sight to behold, and we are glad we made the effort to get there. We also did the climb up to the Sun Gate, the hike out to the Inca Bridge (very cool) and then after wandering around the ruins we did the long descent back to Aguas Calientes- as opposed to paying the extortionate price for the shuttle bus. God, I’m cheap! We caught the 7 PM train to Ollantaytambo, the a bus to the main plaza in Cusco and finally a taxi to our hostal arriving at 11:30 PM.
The following night we headed to the St. Patrick’s Day festivity’s at the Wild Rover where some of the Salkantay gang wanted to meet up. As we walked into the bar, it was packed with a crowd half our age. The music was pumping, there were leprechauns dancing on the bar (see video below), everyone was in silly hats and, for some strange reason, we were made to feel right at home. We couldn’t talk so we danced and had a great time. I stood out like a sore thumb (grey hair, balding, etc.) and on various occasions random people came up to me and said “we want to be just like you guys when we are as old as you” (sic). It was a fun, welcoming crowd. Blew me away the way everyone, foreigner and Latino alike, seemed to know the lyrics to all the songs, even the old songs. The impact of Spotify I assume.
A day or two later we moved to the Hostal Estrellita, a ‘casa de ciclista’, a hostal that catered to bike tourers. It was great hanging out with other cyclists, swapping tales and making plans. We regret not seeking out other Casa de Ciclistas that one can often find in larger South American centres. We also found out that other cyclists shared our perspective on the dangers of Peruvian roads, which reinforced our decision to fly to Cali, Colombia. It was always our plan to skip Ecuador, a country that we had visited twice before but skipping northern Peru, especially the Cordillera Blanca was not a decision lightly taken. Despite all the hassles of flying with bikes, the short time remaining on our trip made the flight the best use of our time. The thought of crossing Peru and Ecuador in multiple bus stages was just too daunting. The deteriorating weather predictions did not help.