Cuzco, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

According to most of the guidebooks, Cuzco, nestled 3310metres up in the Andes, is a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah but without the fun bits. If you don´t get mugged you´ll get stabbed, if you don´t get stabbed you´ll get mugged and at weekends you can take advantage of a special local two for one offer and get both stabbed and mugged, which would be unfortunate.

The reality is very different. It´s a charming city with some superb architecture in a stunning location which the Incas originally laid out in the shape of a puma. Sure, there´s some tourist hassle to contend with, but you just shake your head, say ´No gracias´and walk on. Its bad reputation probably comes from the fact that there are a lot of gringos fresh off the metaphorical banana boat and on their way to Machu Picchu strolling about with gaping bags and wads of dollars in their back pockets. The biggest danger we found was that the local Irish bar (the highest Irish bar in the World allegedly) actually had cans of Guinness in its fridge, which led to a very long and expensive night when we first got here, not to mention bodily injuries caused to two of our number in the infamous Yorkshire Terrier versus Wiltshire Warrior fight-dancing contest.

It´s a great city to nose around with some fabulous Inca ruins in and around it and some great post-Colombian religious art too, including a highly impressive local rendition of the Last Supper with Jesús et al tucking into a roast guinea pig in the main Cathedral, and some archangels painted as if they were modern street kids in Santo Dominigo. The last in particular were strangely haunting, which probably explains why I started hallucinating them halfway up the first murderous climb of the Inca Trail a couple of days later.

We looked round the city, we looked round the various ruins dotted around the Sacred Valley in which Cuzco nestles, and then we donned our walking boots, got a coach to Km 82, and passed through the control gate and onto the four day long Inca Trail.

Whether it was the heat, the humidity, the altitude, or whether I´m just a lot less fit than I like to think I am, the first day was hell, pure and simple. The 12km along the valley floor was okay, but after lunch we started the 700m climb to our campsite and only about 50 metres up I died the first of what seemed like a thousand deaths. I dropped off the back of the group and first my head went, then my body and it all started getting a bit strange. Demons of past failures flayed me and tried to push me back down the mountain at every step as they reared out of the rock, before I then started seeing all my friends standing at the hairpins and cheering me on while the Santo Domingo archangels swooped overhead. When that got too emotional to deal with and I was on the verge of weeping, all of a sudden I started imagining my fellow overlanders as characters out of Á Midsummer Night´s Dream´ for some reason with Rob as Oberon, Shannon as Titania, and Leader Tubbs as a very Puckish Puck. Weird…

It was three of the worst hours of my life to be honest: every step a painful, sweat-soaked exercise in agony and near despair. By the time I eventually got to the campsite I was white as a sheet and utterly exhausted, and all I could think of as we ate the excellent food provided by our team of porters (the average ratio of porters to trekkers on the trail is a little more than 1:1) was that next day we still had 500m to go to get to the top of the 4200m high Dead Woman´s Pass and it might have to be renamed the Dead Stout´s Pass at this rate.

Thankfully, a night of rest and altitude adjustment got me mentally back on track if nothing else and, with the aid of an iPod full of righteous tunes as motivation, the two hour drag to the top was just physically knackering and nothing more. I even managed to fill my lungs and let out a fairly impressive ´Come on you Bath´ before it spluttered to a wheezing end when I got to the top, which startled at least two porters and could apparently be heard echoing off the mountains a good half hour back along the trail.

None of the rest of the trail was as bad, though it´s still probably the toughest physical thing I´ve ever done. The rocks the Inca used to build the path are uneven and treacherous so you have to watch every step closely, meaning that everytime you looked up at the view it seemed your ankle was in danger of turning over. So, you get into a rhythm of watching your feet with only the occasional snatched glance at your surroundings, which kind of misses the point a bit if you ask me. Still, I managed to catch a glimpse of a condor soaring on the thermals and the occasional humming bird snaffling nectar from the plants of the cloud forest crowding the path, and the views of mountain tops and valley bottoms when the clouds and mist parted were of a Hollywood special effects budget standard.

Cloud cover took the sting out of the heat and we were lucky that when it rained it rained at night, so it was good walking weather. Nevertheless, when we were up at 03.30 on the final day to get to Machu Picchu I´d had more then enough of walking in the mountains to last what (at the moment anyway) feels like a lifetime and my legs felt like half-set jelly. Next time, I might just get the bus. From the station at Km 82 where we started you can actually walk along the valley to Aguas Calientes, the village at the bottom of Machu Picchu. It takes about 10 hours and was the way that the Incas kept the site supplied. The Inca Trail which we followed over three Andean passes was a religious pilgrimage and only fit for the noble classes, which will teach me to get ideas above my station…

And so to Machu Picchu (pronounced ´pickchu´ - it means Old Mountain. Don´t pronounce it with a single ´c´, as that apparently makes it mean Óld Penis´). Make me walk over endless mountains to an NCP car park for four days and I´ll be glad to see it when I get there to be honest, but arriving at the Sun Gate just after dawn and seeing Machu Picchu laid out like a living thing in the saddle between two mountains was a stunning sight and one that will long live with me.

We got to wander round for a good couple of hours before the tourist hordes arrived from Cuzco too, which made the aching calves and quads well worth it. The ruins, the mountains and the cauldron of cloud surrounding us that morning all combined to create a scene of awesome beauty, but I have to admit I didn´t get the spiritual kick out of the experience that others did. Maybe it´s because it´s not my land. Take me to Avebury or to the White Horse and I can almost feel the earth alive beneath my feet, but for all it´s grace and photogenic allure, Machu Picchu failed to speak to me. Perhaps – along with the aching legs – that´s why I decided not to spend another 45 minutes climbing the perilous steps up to the nearby Huanta Picchu site, but instead disgraced myself by going down to Aguas Calientes and taking pictures of trains :-)

I´m writing this back in Cuzco on a Sunday afternoon, sipping fresh limonada in a café overlooking the Plaza and the Cathedral, with the pueblos of the city stretching up the hillside behind. It´s odd to think that in under a week I´ll be thousands of miles away in another hemisphere back in England (when I promise to upload the photos finally) and looking out of my windows across the paddocks and the Oxfordshire countryside to the Ridgeway beyond. But before that happens and life snaps back to normal tomorrow we head up to Lake Titicaca where, amongst other things, apparently we have a football match organised against the locals at 4000m. We´re fighting over who goes in goal already…

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