Altitude Adjustment in Cusco
When we hopped into a taxi near Plaza de Armas we anticipated a short ride to an outlying archaeological site and an easy half-day hike back into Cusco. More than 15 minutes later, we looked at each other in the back seat of the taxi and we knew. We knew that we were in store for more than we had planned.
Everything you read about trekking the Inka Trail advises you to acclimatize to the elevation for a few days in Cusco. We read in one of our guide books about some interesting Inka sites just outside of Cusco accessible on foot. We also read that this “easy” trek took about a “half-day” and that allowed for “plenty” of time at each site. This “gentle stroll” was supposed to be an excellent way to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude. The reality was quite an adventure.
Our taxi dropped us off at site number one, Tambomachay.
We were a little surprised to see quite a few people already at the site, including a large tour group. The site also requires a ticket. The previous day we had purchased the Boleto Turistico while in Cusco for S./130 per person. With them we would be able to gain access to many of the sites and attractions on our wish list for this trip. We followed a small creek, watching tiny birds dart in and out of the trees and bushes lining the creek, until we reached the site. We had to pass a line of vendors already setting up for the day before exploring the ruins. Carefully cut stones frame small baths and fresh, spring water is channelled from the mountain above through terraces cut into the hillside. We were quite amazed at the engineering required to pull off such a feat and were duly impressed by our first Inka site. We were also surprised that aside from small roped-off areas, this site (and others) were relatively open to our wanderings. We were able to climb high above the site for some great views (including our next stop) and even got to see a local shepherd tending her flock of sheep on the mountainside. Satisfied with our first stop, we set our sights across the road to site number two on our five site tour.
A short walk down and across the road brings us to Puka Pukara.
The site is made up of several small buildings atop a small hill thought to possibly to be a hunting lodge or guard post; the literal translation being ‘Red Fort’ or ‘Red Watchtower’. The site itself is nice, but the view from this vantage point into a deep valley is amazing. From here we head back to the road to follow it toward our next stop.
It’s at this point where our directions get a little hazy. Well, maybe not the directions so much, but perhaps our following of them. We cut left off of the road and follow what by all appearances resembles a trail. It takes us far from the road and descends behind a small cloister of adobe houses. We cut behind a small pond and continue to follow the small track running adjacent to farm fields where local children were working. The trail heads into a large valley and we follow the instructions to avoid the alternate trails heading higher and descend into the valley. I should mention that we are also completely alone, the crowds and tour groups seen at the earlier sites having gotten back into their cars and buses. We are the only trekkers on the “trail”. This was both awe-inspiring and slightly disconcerting at the same time. It became more and more difficult to follow “our” trail as numerous others crossed and intertwined with our own. We pressed on, at one point navigating a number of felled trees across the path. We stopped for a quick lunch on the trail at a small Inka site not even on any map. We later learned that the site was a Temple of the Moon (we think), newly discovered, and only recently excavated; how cool! It was shortly after this point that we got lost. Our directions set us off down the wrong path and we ended up climbing up the side of the valley. Wrong way? Yes. Worth it? Yep.
From our new higher vantage point we were at least able to see our next destination and plot a course for it.
Down we went back into the valley to reach Salapunco.
The site itself is a large limestone outcrop riddled with passages and carvings. After the long walk, made longer through our meanderings, we were happy to be back on track. The site was underwhelming, but the views, including those of white-capped mountains in the distance, were outstanding. Back on the right path, our next stop should be easy to find.
Nope. You have to understand, our trail is not marked. We are attempting to follow directions that include such landmarks as a “cluster of houses”, a “stand of eucalyptus”, a “field”, a “creek bed”, an “outcrop”, a “dirt road”, a “shallow gully”, and a “stone wall”. After having crossed a horse pasture, dodging land mines, we stood at a road flabbergasted. So much so, that a local guide watching the horses approached us with an offer of aid which we gladly accepted. It turns out that despite our having no idea where we going, we were going the right way and only needed to follow the road a short distance to site number four.
Like Salapunco, Q’enko is limestone outcrop. The literal translation is ‘zigzag’ or ‘labyrinth’ and this site allows visitors to pass through the actual formation. Exploring the tunnels in the rock we discover what may be ancient altar inside. Q’enko is also a huaca or sacred site. The top of the site is carved with many of the animal shapes the Inka held sacred including the serpent, the condor, and the llama. We’ll have to take our guidebook’s author’s word on that, the site no longer allows visitors to walk atop the formation. From here, it’s got to be easy to reach the final site.
It is. We follow the main road down, we’ve been going downhill the majority of the day, and then follow the signs from there. This is one site you cannot miss, take that both literally and figuratively. We’ve reached the final stop on our tour, Sacsayhuaman.
By far the largest and most renowned of the Inka sites near Cusco, Sacsayhuaman needs to be seen to be believed. The sheer size of the stones here is daunting and mind-blowing. One of the stones here weighs over 360 tons. That’s incredible! Was this a fortress? Was Sacsayhuaman a temple? The answer is lost to the ages. What we do know is that this site was used as a fort during the Inka’s fight to reclaim Cusco from the Spanish. Climbing to the top of the fort affords us an excellent vista over the city below.
Opposite the enormous stone walls and across a large, flat esplanade is a stone staircase (I sense a theme) leading to some interesting areas of the site.
You’ll find the Inka Throne, an amphitheater, and some unique rock formations worn so smooth as to be used by children and adults alike as a slide. This area is also a great spot to take some photos as it offers the most complete view of the site. Sacsayhuaman is a large site and we would recommend allotting a fair amount of time to its exploration.
Just when we thought we were done, we remembered that we still had to make the trek into Cusco. From Sacsayhuaman it’s another half-hour or so down to reach Plaza de Armas. And as you can tell from our photo above, it’s a pretty good distance down. And it’s steep. And there are lots of stairs. You do pass the church of San Cristóbal along the way, which makes for a lovely pitstop. From the church, across the road, it’s all stairs, through narrow alleyways, down to the main plaza.
What we thought was going to be a leisurely, half-day walk turned out to be something quite different. It turned out to be a 5+ mile trek which consumed an entire day. We were fortunate to carry enough water and were also able to resupply near Q’enko. In the end, while the day was much more rigorous than we had bargained for, it was a good thing. We saw some great Inka sites. We wandered the Peruvian countryside on our own and not only survived, but thrived. The day helped prepare us for what was to come and while we probably overstretched ourselves a bit, it was worth it. We had passed our first test.