My first visit to South America!
It began with an easy six-hour direct flight from Toronto to Lima with Air Canada. The list of flight options I stared at on the expedia.ca web page told me it wasn’t the cheapest- but it was a direct flight, no landing first in New York or Miami or Washington or Bogota to pick up more passengers or to change planes. When you’ve got a duffel bag full of mountaineering gear, that’s the price you pay for reducing to the minimum number the chances for baggage handlers to screw up!
The 6:30 a.m. flight from Lima to Cuzco went without a hitch- and there I was hailing a taxi to take me to the Hostal Marani. It is a short walk up from the ultra-central Plaza de Armas on one of the narrow streets of the San Blas barrio (neighbourhood).
To say the least, I had to jettison some preconceived notions in a hurry. I was expecting a Spanish version of Namche Bazaar, the ramshackle capital of the Khumbu region in the Himalayas. I plunged into a dynamic and thriving city of some 350,000 people with massive buildings both ancient (thanks to the fact that Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire for 200 years) and more modern (due to the Spanish use of the city as their Andean capital).
The very number of flights to Cuzco from Lima should have clued me into the reality- I later learned that over two million tourists visit the city each year. Admittedly many of them are passing through Cuzco on their way to another attraction- Machu Picchu!- but still…it is a booming metropolis 3800 meters (11,200 feet) high up in the Andes and it has the modern tourist infrastructure to match. If up-scale is your style, Cuzco can accommodate you. My fantastic room, complete with private bathroom but without TV or a telephone- cost $22. a night. (In South America hostal means guesthouse as opposed to the dormitory-style accommodation for young people that North Americans sometimes imagine when they hear the word.)
I could have spent a week just exploring Cuzco and putting my newly acquired Spanish to use- and the city was crawling with Europeans and Americans in their early 20’s studying at one or another of the many language schools to be found there. Unfortunately, I only had seven days in total and that included four for the Inca Trail walk.
After a three-hour snooze, I spent my first day in Cuzco just walking around the central area within a kilometre or two of my room. Frequent stops at outdoor cafes ensured that I didn’t get overly ambitious.
To get an idea of what the weather is going to be like, click here for a series of charts showing the historical monthly averages for various weather indicators. You’ll see that the stretch from May to August is the best overall – and may just be when you are there too!
I had set aside the first three days just to give my body some time to get used to being at 11,000 feet instead of the usual 400 feet altitude of the shores of Lake Ontario! I did bring along the left-over Diamox (acetazolamide) from previous mountain climbing trips but left the pill container closed for the week and instead did all the other things you’re supposed to do- i.e. getting lots of rest,drinking lots of liquids (non-alcoholic), climbing high and then sleeping low, and here in Cuzco, drinking mate de coca. I was fine. Check out this thread if you want to get a sense of other people’s experiences with soroche (altitude sickness).
I spent the first three days exploring Cuzco and its surroundings and getting a great introduction to the wonders of Inca building and architecture which I would later see at sites along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The first site I visited is now the Church of Santo Domingo. It was built by the Spanish on and with the ruins of Coricancha (also Qorikancha), the Inca Temple of Inti, the sun god. (Not to flog the obvious but it should be noted that it was the conquerors who had done the ruining!)
Cuzco is a fascinating and safe place to walk around. I did notice the presence of tourist police in the central area of the city; city officials are obviously very conscious of the negative impact muggings and petty theft would have on a key creator of jobs in the city.
Most of the sight-seeing was self-directed but I did make use of an all-day tour (also with SAS Travel) to get to further-away places. This map illustrates nicely the $20. one-day tour of the Sacred Valley I did on the second day there.
The bus first descended 1500′ (460 m) to the Urubamba River valley (aka the Sacred Valley) to the town of Pisac, where the weekend market was in full swing.
Above Pisac sits the ruins of an Inca site which served as a defensive military post at the south end of the Sacred Valley. Also evident still are the agricultural terraces and what are said to be religious buildings. Some imagination is required to recreate the scene but all in all it gives the tourist/pilgrim some insight and appreciation of the civil engineering skills of the Inca.
Then it was time to move on to Ollantaytambo, another Inca site which helps make the argument for Panchacuti as the greatest of the Sapa Inca. He is credited by historians with rebuilding this site as his personal estate. The results are impressive- and can be added to Cuzco’s Coricancha and Machu Picchu and the great fortress above Cuzco itself (Sacayhuaman) as projects built during his reign between 1438 to 1471.
And then it was on the road back to Cuzco. But first, a perfunctory stop at in Chinchero to see the colonial-era church.
It was getting dark now and we must have been behind schedule because we were soon back on the road and by 7:30 we were home. Definitely a bargain for $20. A quick bite to eat at the nearby veg-friendly Jack’s Cafe and then I was done for the day.
My last day in Cuzco was split between museum visits and a walk up above the city to the ruins of the Inca fortress of Sacayhuaman. Walk high, sleep low!
A meeting at the SAS Travel office with the other people signed up for the Inca Trail trek the next day forced me to shift gears. By 8:30 I was packing the stuff I’d be taking on my next adventure. The rest of the gear (like the ice axe, crampons, mountaineering boots, climbing harness) I’d leave behind in the hostal’s storage room. A taxi had already been booked for 6 a.m. with pick-up at the Plaza San Blas. I’d be sharing the ride with a young American couple- we were on the way to the start of our Machu Picchu adventure!
If you want some details on trekking the Quebrada Santa Cruz and climbing in the Ishinca Valley in the Cordillera Blanca area (Huaraz is the gateway town), then click here. The post is titled Getting Higher in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca
I had such a great time in Peru that I ended up going back in 2010 for another three weeks, this time on an incredible trek around the Cordillera Huayhuash, a little-visited sub range of the Andes that figures in the mountaineering epic Touching the Void. You can see the post here.