Heading South. Peru, Bolivia, Chile. / Episode 1: Cusco, Pisac and the Sacred Valley, Salkantay Trek

Here is the first episode! Here’s the beginning of the tale about our journey. It took more time than I expected to publish this episode, because of some organizational, technical and mood issues here, back here in Montreal. But be sure that the next episode will arrive. Soon, I hope. I’ll do my best!


Today, you’ll discover our first four days, spent between acclimating, warming-up and visiting the cities of Cusco and Pisac, several Inca archaeological sites, and also the first day of our trek. What else?!

You may have seen the map of the journey in the prologue … I said that I would make it become more and more accurate as the journal goes, and it begins today. In this map, you’ll see some information about the locations we have visited and the places we’ve been (and I’ll fix the map soon, so it can be more easily readable :) ).

 

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Transiting in Lima, arriving at Cusco

The first thought I have after I land in Lima is that I’ve been traveling for 30 hours already. It’s been a loooong day! But I’m almost done: just have to find Lisa in the airport, wait for 5 hours and then flight again for an hour and a half to reach Cusco. Almost there, good!

I get my luggage back, I go through police, and get the first stamp of the journey in my passport! I head to the customs, and I have my first funny discovery: no search in your bags based on whether they like how you look or not, but rather some kind of automated and random system. A red button is waiting to be pushed, and then a board lights up just above it. If it’s green, you’re good to go. Red, you can go in line for your bags to be checked.
Green! I really like that color, especially now :D .
I exit the restricted area and arrive in the hall. Lisa is there, it’s easy to find her. At 1 a.m., there’s nobody in the airport.
Little talk, and I go check my bags in again, the desks are free. Four hours before my flight, but if I can leave 26 lb there …
Bad news: after looking at some information on my ticket, the hostess tells me that my flight has been delayed … for 5 hours. Arrrrrrrgh!

I’m really disappointed, but I try to keep my cool and I put that in perspective thinking that “a bit more or a bit less …”.
Thankfully, the airport is not empty of activities or places. We sit at a Starbucks coffee shop, waiting for Lisa’s flight (we don’t fly on the same company, and her flight will leave on time).

6 a.m., I walk with Lisa to the departure area. “Ciao! See you there!”. I go back to the Starbucks and get a coffee (the 7th or 8th since I’ve left Montreal) and enjoy the Internet connection. Little time Skyping with my parents, my girlfriend … I feel better. In front of me, a security guy is sleeping, standing still. Eyes closed, he slowly swings, left to right, backwards and forwards. I smile, I think my eyes may betray the same lack of energy.

I head to the departure gate at 8 o’c. Police again, controls again, and I’m in the waiting room, overcrowded.
Still two hours befor leaving. It will be long. I haven’t slept that much during the last hours, I even haven’t slept at all. I close my eyes.

I wake up at 9:40, on some adrenaline rush. Everything happens in a fraction of a second. I check the time. I check if my flight is still on the screen. I check if my bag with all my material is still between my legs. I check if my GPS is still attached to my belt. I check if my ticket and passport are still in my pocket. All good. My heart is beating really fast. I hate this kind of wakening. It takes me a few minutes to settle. I just keep waiting, half-awake.
We finally get on board and leave, 20 minutes late. “More or less, eh …”.

The flight is pleasant, the view is amazing. To get to Cusco, we fly over some Andean peaks, covered with snow or ice. Nice landscapes.
The arrival in Cusco is spectacular too. The city is laying in a valley, and to get to the airport, our plane goes down and skims some summits, which look too close to us, goes through some mountains, which look too much near, somehow like in these movies when the pilot decides to fly through some canyon by flying on the side.

Landing, getting the bag back again, leaving, looking for a taxi.

Our meeting point is at the Plaza De Armas, where I’ll find Lisa and JB, in front of the cathedral. I share a taxi with an American guy who lives in Colombia, and we get to the center of the city.
My friends are here.

We take some minutes to talk, and we walk to the hostal where I’ll drop my bags. We go out again, to enjoy the afternoon outside. Discovering Cusco, we walk a bit, we go into some stores offering the trek we want to book, the Salkantay Trek, and we finish the day in a restaurant on the main square. First new local curiosity: the coca tea. Supposed to be good for the altitude sickness, perfect! Cusco is at 10,912 feet of altitude. It’ll take some time to adapt. My light headache, my short breath and my fatigue approve that.

View on Cusco’s main square

View on Cusco’s main square

The -already-legendary coca tea

The -already-legendary coca tea

We’re all exhausted, we decide to get some rest, after planning tomorrow’s activities.

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Discovering Pisac and the Sacred Valley

We wake up at 10 a.m., we needed that! Breakfast, we pack our bags and we go out to look for some transport meaning to go to Pisac, 20 miles from here. Thanks to a couple of locals, we find a collective taxi which will drive us for 4 S/. (~ $ 1.50 / 1,25 €). On the way, new landscapes through the windows. We quickly get in the Rio Urubamba valley, better known as the Sacred Valley. Little villages, hills, mountains, and sometimes between two peaks a glimpse at a farther snowy summit … Wow.

In Pisac, we walk a bit to discover the area. Little city with a colonial style, Pisac is at the center of most of the activities you can do in the Sacred Valley. I found the water gutters curious, elegant, as they run through the streets in the middle, drawing amazing shapes on the ground. Nice and funny for the kids playing with marbles, but less convenient when you’re biking or driving a small vehicle. Put one of your wheels in it and you’ll see :) .

Streets of Pisac
Streets of Pisac

Streets of Pisac

Nice to play with marbles in the gutters …

Nice to play with marbles in the gutters …

… but with a small car, it must be less funny

… but with a small car, it must be less funny

We get lunch in the central market. Sitting with the locals, we eat our fabulous menu of soup and chicken with potato and rice meal (potato and rice, something that we’ll eat almost everyday), at the price of 3.5 S/. (~ $ 1.35 / 1,10 €). Try to find something as good, local and cheap as this!

We buy some fruits, and we leave to start our first hiking: climbing the mountain and going to see the Pisac archaeological site. An easy walk as it seems: 2.5 miles only, 1,500 ft to climb. Short but a lot for our bodies still not adapted to the altitude (I speak for Lisa and me. JB has arrived a few weeks ago already). Walking is exhausting, the breath is too much short. Climbing takes us two hours, but the view worths it: the Sacred Valley, the gradings for agriculture.

The beginning of the trail …

The beginning of the trail …

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The agricultural gradings

The agricultural gradings

Inhale … Exhale …

Inhale … Exhale …

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View on Pisac and a part of the Sacred Valley

View on Pisac and a part of the Sacred Valley

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Some little and high steps to arrive at the first citadel, and after several minutes, we are at the Moon Temple, an Inca ceremonial place.

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The temple

The temple

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Some residential places on the side the mountain

Some residential places on the side the mountain

We stay a bit, then we go down back to Pisac, walking on the other side of the mountain.

The other side of the valley

The other side of the valley

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The Sun slowly passes down, the low beams of light give the valley a mystic appearance

The Sun slowly passes down, the low beams of light give the valley a mystic appearance

Back in town, we do a bit of shopping in little stores to find some articles that will be useful during the trek: gloves and hat for Lisa and JB, just a hat for me.

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A quick drink in a bar after sunset, and we take a taxi back to Cusco, at 6:44 p.m., the last one available. Most of the human activity here is linked to the natural time and rhythm.

Dinner. We meet Sophie for the first time, as she was visiting the Machu Picchu on her own. Chatting. And then bed time. Good to be back in bed, I still have a little headache, maybe caused by the altitude.

I also realize that for the first time I’ve completely forgotten my name-day. May 26, Saint Bérenger. I think that in 2012, my May 26 has been spent doing more interesting things than usual :) .

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Gathering in Cusco

Julien is finally here! He missed his flight in Madrid yesterday, spent the night there, but he’s here at last!

The group is now complete, and we gather for breakfast, the five of us, at 9 a.m.. Coffee, cereals, bread-butter-jam, fruit salad, coca tea. I love breakfast. I NEED breakfast. :)

Real discovery of Cusco today. We walk through the city, guide in hand (well, with us. Our guide is Julien. He’s the one with the guide in hand …).

Plaza De Armas, fiesta day!

Plaza De Armas, fiesta day!

Julien, our guide. Our guide Julien …

Julien, our guide. Our guide Julien …

A little group playing Peruvian music on the street

A little group playing Peruvian music on the street

We enter a small artisanal market. A lot of things for tourists, but we have precise needs: warm clothes that we will take on our trek. Everyone’s trying on (we “have to”, cause the stallholders always think that you’re really onto something when you look at it for more than two seconds). At last, we all leave with a bag. I buy a sweater made of alpaga wool which will keep me warm while hiking (and to be true, I’ll wear it almost everyday until the end of the journey, I don’t have that much clothes :D ).

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We lunch in a restaurant above the market. Good food for just 9 S/. per person (~ $ 3.50 / 2,80 €).

We’re back on our way, in the sinuous streets of Cusco, and we walk towards the North-West.

Plaza De Armas
Plaza De Armas, and the statue of Pachacuti, the ninth ruler of the Kingdom of Cusco

Plaza De Armas, and the statue of Pachacuti, the ninth ruler of the Kingdom of Cusco

Paris-Dakkar in Cusco? Is the city on the way from Europe to Africa?!

Paris-Dakkar in Cusco? Is the city on the way from Europe to Africa?!

We climb, heading to Sacsaywamán (pronounce it almost like “Sexy Woman”), an religious and military archeological site. The more we leave the center of the city, the more we climb, the more we have a nice view on Cusco. From here, the city seems to lay down at our feet and almost to the horizon.

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Tourists :)

Tourists :)

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We don’t get into the archeological site (the ticket costs 70 S/. (~ $ 27 / 22 €), not that expensive, but as we already have spent $ 250 to book our trek …). We just go there and back to the city, a nice walk under the eucalyptus trees, looking down at Cusco, meeting our first local animals. First sight at a Lama, on the road.

LAMA!

LAMA!

Plaza De Armas, as seen from the hills

Plaza De Armas, as seen from the hills

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Walking down to the center

Walking down to the center

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We slowly go back to Plaza De Armas.
Just talking to each other, we realize it is already our last day in Cusco. We are a bit sad to leave that soon, there’s so much more to see. “We’ll have to come back!”.

Tonic thing after the walk. Chocolate fondant (aww) and fresh mango juice …

Tonic thing after the walk. Chocolate fondant (aww) and fresh mango juice …

Last minutes to get some groceries for the trek: water, dried fruits, cereal bars and we go back to the hostel to pack our bags.

We’re ready! Yahaaaa!

We’re ready! Yahaaaa!

Some pasta, and everybody’s in bed at 10 p.m.. Tomorrow, we’ll have to get up early: 3:30 a.m.

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The Salkantay Trek, first day

Distance traveled: 73 miles (12.13 miles walked)
Difference in altitude: 8,802 ft / 7,178 ft (4,564 ft / 1,043 ft during the hike)

Quick note that will be also useful for the next episodes, about the differences in altitude. The two numbers are respectively for the positive and negative level differences. Here, during the hiking, we walked 4,564 ft up and 1,043 ft down. It’s important to keep both of the numbers, because if we speak, for example, about a round-trip to a summit, like 4,000 ft / 4,000 ft, then even if you end at the same altitude, so a difference of 0 from your starting point, you would have still climbed 4,000 ft up and 4,000 ft down, so a total of 8,000 ft. It’s walked distance, and we don’t want to be considered as amateurs, do we?!. :)

Back to our lamas (the local sheeps …).

Really early wake-up: 3:30 a.m.. Hard to move and get ready. Breakfast, wash, bags and we go to the little hall of our hostal where our driver will come to pick us. We will be 11 in our group, for the trek, and we’re supposed to drive through Cusco to get everyone on the way, before going to Mollepata.
4 o’clock, we’re ready. Looking at each other, laughing, chatting and saying goodbye to Sophie who will leave us. She has to get back to Europe!

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Hohoho. Tough morning.

Hohoho. Tough morning.

4:45 a.m., our driver is finally here. “Peruvian delay”. A small bus is waiting. We get in, put our bags, and I fall asleep after 10 minutes. No information about the road and the landscapes, but I can say that the bus was shaking a lot :D .
We arrive in Mollepata, 2 h 15 later. 9,498 ft alt.
I wake up slowly. We’re all together, and we start our day with … a breakfast. Second one :) . A few minutes to meet everyone, but we don’t go into details about us, everyone’s still a bit sleepy.
We then gather on the main square where Daniel, our guide, introduces himself. He talks about the trek, the security things and says that we’ll have to do our best to enjoy our trek and the days together. “Believe me Dani-boy, it’s what I’ve planned!”. For the next five days, the language will be the English, as it’s the common language to everyone.
And it’s time to start. Smile on my face. Here we are!

The center of Mollepata. Thinking about it, I don’t know if there’s much more than that …

The center of Mollepata. Thinking about it, I don’t know if there’s much more than that …

Breakfast place

Breakfast place

We walk to the North, and get to a small dusty trail, that we leave quickly to get into the nature.
20 minutes later, first break. Daniel asks us to introduce ourselves.
– Amie and Jenny, two sisters from Australia,
– Emily and her boyfriend Oliver, from England,
– Hugo and Antonio, two friends from Brazil,
– Sandra, Peruvian,
– and the four of us.
A nice team, young and waiting for adventure!

Here’s everyone!

Here’s everyone!

Back on the trail. We stop every 30-45 minutes to get some rest, the first day is quite physical, “a training for the second day, the hardest one of the trek” Daniel says. At each break, the view is amazing, making hard to start again (or maybe it’s because we’re already tired?). Valleys, peaks, hills, plateaus, glades. The landscapes on this first day are really … wow.

Salkantay Trek, Peru
Salkantay Trek, Peru
We walk, we climb up, we admire the landscape …

We walk, we climb up, we admire the landscape …

… we take breaks …

… we take breaks …

… we walk again …

… we walk again …

… we see a lot a landscapes again …

… we see a lot a landscapes again …

… we chit chat …

… we chit chat …

… landscapes again …

… landscapes again …

… another break again …

… another break again …

… we climb up again and again …

… we climb up again and again …

… and we take another and another break again looking again at some other beautiful landscapes …

… and we take another and another break again looking again at some other beautiful landscapes …

… and another …

… and another …

… I think you got it :)

… I think you got it :)

1:34 p.m.. 5 h 30 after we left Mollepata, we reach our lunch spot. We put the bags down, breathe, lay down on the grass. There are tables, a roof made of metal sheets, and the first meal prepared by our chef. Delicious. We do have a chef (and what a cook!), from here, who will be with us during the entire trek and who will feed the group. He will surprise us at each break, day after day :) .

We eat, drink tea, and the break ends. Just some seconds for me to write a bit in my/our travel journal, and we’re already back on the trail. Two more hours to go, and we’ll arrive in Soraypampa, where our campsite for the night is.

The afternoon walk is easier: 4 miles of up false flat (1,312 ft of difference in altitude), going up by the West side of the valley. We are on a ground trail, and some jeeps bypass us, several convoys with donkeys, and we move with other tourist groups who have the same destination. Green, waterfalls … we go fast and we arrive in the Soraypampa valley.

During the afternoon, we are greeted with other amazing landscapes …

During the afternoon, we are greeted with other amazing landscapes …

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Our campsite is in the plain, at the bottom of the mountain …

Our campsite is in the plain, at the bottom of the mountain …

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Good thing we’re almost there. It’s 3:20 p.m. and the Sun is already setting down behind the mountains, and at this altitude, in the shade, the air gets colder really quickly. We put our sweaters and bonnets.

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We discover our campsite. A green field with several little shelters, and for us, a shelter made of metal tubes covered with a blue tarpaulin. It will protect our tents from the strong wind.

Bags down. I’m happy to drop mine (26 lb). And it’s snack time! We gather around the table, light the candles. Some hot water, for tea, coffee or hot chocolate. Some crackers and two plates full of … pop-corn. :o . Our chef knows how to make us feel better after this first long day! Fresh and still warm pop-corn.

Pop-corn! (and Emily and Oliver :) )

Pop-corn! (and Emily and Oliver :) )

We rest and try to warm our bodies, while Daniel is telling us what our walk will be tomorrow …
We rest and try to warm our bodies, while Daniel is telling us what our walk will be tomorrow …

We rest and try to warm our bodies, while Daniel is telling us what our walk will be tomorrow …

I go out to attach the GoPro to some rock, I will leave it there for a while so it can take pictures for timelapse of the Sun disappearing behind the Nevado Humantay (19,412 ft) and of the first stars appearing.

See you tomorrow dear Sun!

See you tomorrow dear Sun!

Our dinner is ready half an hour later, after Daniel takes some time to explain the route of the next day. Tomorrow, we’ll have to face the most difficult and exhausting day of the trek. But I’ll get to that later.

Chatting before going to bed …

Chatting before going to bed …

Everyone goes to bed quickly, I go out to get my little camera back, and take some minutes to sit, rest and look at the sky, very bright because of the full Moon but still with a lot of visible stars. Some pictures. I don’t stay outside for a long time, don’t have to forget that we’re at 12,795 ft alt., and the temperatures are now negative. Last shot at 7:14 p.m.. Bed time. Tomorrow again, we’ll have to wake-up early!

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I like these moments of solitude, looking at the sky …

I like these moments of solitude, looking at the sky …

7:14 p.m., the last shot of the day … And what a picture :)

7:14 p.m., the last shot of the day … And what a picture :)


To be continued in the next episode!

Comments

  1. Julien

    Superbe boulot Bérenger. Images magnifiques, récit précis. Vraiment un beau billet.

    1. b!

      Merci Julien ! Ç’a été vraiment un bonheur de partager cette aventure… Les photos sont déjà là, le plus dur est de se replonger dans le récit pour en sortir quelque chose de précis et intéressant, comme on l’a vécu sur place, (déjà) deux mois après :o (ça passe vite…)

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