I wrote the ink draft of this installment sitting on the roof of a slow motor boat gently ploughing the fresh blue water of Lake Titicaca. Besides having one of the most memorable place names around, Titicaca is the worlds highest navigable body of water, sitting between Peru and Bolivia at close to 4,000 metres and surrounded by the strange flat landscape of the altiplano. There has been little respite from altitide in the last ten days or so. We left the coast with a farewell toast at Ica, Perus wine and Pisco producing region. Brandy and wine in fierce midday heat seemed like the perfect preparation for a sixteen hour bus journey back into the mountains – to Cusco.
Last week was spent exploring the holy grail – or in fact the Sacred Valley – of Peruvian tourism. Cash cow or golden goose might also be appropriate epithets. Cusco is the beating heart of this ruin-strewn wonderland of mountains, jungle and tropical forest. Or rather I should say belly-button, Cusco having been named by the Incas who founded it as being the navel of the world. The capital, and sacred centre, of their vast though brief empire (which ultimately fell apart under sibling rivalry and Spanish invasion in the Sixteenth century), Cusco nowadays is the hub of the roaring Valle Sagrada tourist trade, the star attraction of which is if course Machu Picchu.
The famed four-day Inca Trail trek which takes you to the lost city – available to book at literally thousands of agency outlets – has more competitors now, with plenty of other trailsexisting throughout the valley, and pressure of numbers and competition pushing the drive for alternative ways of exploiting the areas potential. But, having our own tent and stove we shunned them all in favour of the most budget way of doing Machu Picchu that we could muster.
Our explorations began in Pisac with a brilliant climb up from the smart little town through extensive Inca ruins whose layers of farming terraces were echoed in the streaks of clouds sitting in the blue skies above us. Quiet, commanding stunning views over the Rio Urubamba valley, and with few visitors, this was a very happy introduction to the Inca heartland, made even happier by fresh orange juice and apple pie in the buzing market place that lies at the foot of the descent.
Moving further west the following day, Ollantaytambo is an even smaller town, but one whose existence seems to revolve more exclusively around the tour groups who flock in and out to visit the ruins that sit on the valley sides overlooking it. With a central square always full of tour buses, a train station with connections to Cusco and Machu Picchu, and overpriced cafes selling pancakes, pizzas and milkshakes, the town itself holds less charm – but the Inca ruins were once again a joy to explore, and astounding in their size and standard of preservation. Steep climbs up scrubby paths bring you to the Temple of the Sun via more miles of classic stone terracing and walls built as only the Incas knew how. Across the valley few people made the effort to scramble up to the sandstone remains of an elegant series of long roofless chambers set into the hillside, where the bright afternoon sun cut stark shadows and the hustle of the town seemed far away.
Our own trek was a more modest two-day effort, though it involved a serious and at times lung-searing climb of over 1,400 metres on the first day, from a tiny village close to Ollantaytambo up to a serene and stunning mountain laguna where we camped at dizzy heights. Haing arrived triumphant by lunchtime, we were treated to a surreal afternoon lying in our sleeping bags in the sunshine, watching weather like a living thing moving around us, as clouds at every level poured and swirled abover our heads. Having half-expected heavy rain this was a sublime treat. When the sun finally went we cooked quinoa in the door of the tent and fell asleep listening to the mountain frogs who sang through the night.
After conquering the ascent on day one we were excited for day two, which after a steep start over the pass consisted of a beautiful long descent through the misty, mossy Lares valley. As on so many occasions, Peru pulled out all the stops and rewarded our efforts with thermal baths at the strange town of Lares when we arrived, sweating and aching and in need of nothing so much as a hot soak.
A full day of travel on the Thursday brought us close to Machu Picchu. After hours on buses we had the most incredible walk from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes, the overnight stopoff for visiting the famous ruins. In the last two hours of daylight we followed the railway line (a treat for all Stand By Me fans) accompanied by the calls of parrots and other jungle sounds, creepers and bird of paradise plants lining the way.
And what of Machu Picchu itself? Well firstly, dont think that you can beat the crowds by getting up at 3.30 am for the walk up to the ruins, because they dont open the bridge out of the town until 5, by which time a good crowd of people will have gathered in their ponchos for the gruelling climb up the steps in the rain. But once you arrive all feelings of frustration disappear, and you will be glad of the thick heavy morning mist that lends to the site a spectral ambience that enhances its history as a sacred yet populous place. And with perfect timing the mist will clear and the high forested slopes that form the citys amazing setting will be revealed, and the whole splendid citadel can be seen from above when you have completed the even more arduous ascent up to Waynapicchu, the steep, pointed peak that rises above the main ruins.
Ill say no more, for it is an experience to be felt and not described – and perhaps some of you may have the pleasure yourselves one day. I will just leave you with a warning not to drink too much at altitude in Cusco when you arrive, for a happy morning after it doth not make. Now, unvelievably, I am in Bolivia, having moved firther round the shore of Lake Titicaca and over the border, where the clocks have gone forward and it is time for me to eat.
Next weeks story will come from La Paz, the highest capital city in the world. See you there.
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