On a High
Well the flight from Easter Island to Cusco was another fairly long one with 5 hours to Santiago a 7 hour wait and then another 5 hours to Cusco. This was probably the part of the trip I (Rach) was a little anxious about. Cusco - part of Peru sits at 3400metres above sea level, the the same height as Mount Cook. Many people travelling straight to this altitude will experience some form of altitude sickness. Symptoms can range from mild - nausea headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath to those that affect the brain and the heart and are more life threatening. In a ideal world you would take several days to get to this altitude and travel in by road so that your body has time to adjust and compensate. But we didn't have the luxury of that kind of time and it was also important for Matt to acclimatise prior to doing his run. There is a medication Acetazolamide (Diamox) which you can take a to help lessen the effects of altitude sickness. You should start it 1 -2 days prior to going to altitude and continue for around 3 days. We had opted to get this medication but it was stupidly in the pack left behind in Auckland and was arriving to Cusco with the Bolitho family on the day we arrived - not ideal but better than nothing. So you see we hit the ground running. Tired from a long journey and very little sleep and without having started our medication.
Arriving into Cusco was like another world. A stunning and compact city - known for it's archaeological remains and Spanish architecture it was once the capital of the Inca empire. Matt and I were reminded very much of Turkey as our plane came in to land in this beautiful city. We immediately knew we were going to enjoy this place. We didn't say much at all to the kids about the altitude - not wanting to put ideas into their heads. Walking off the plane the air was cool and definitely much thinner than usual. It was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated - I'd envisioned it would be like breathing with a plastic bag over your head! It did however only take a few minutes to feel a little dizzy or like your head wasn't quite right. I enjoyed the ride to the accommodation with the window down sucking in as much of the cool air as possible.
Our apartment at the Warra Warra Hostel was perched right on the side of the hill overlooking the central Cusco Plaza, The Plaza De Armas. We had plenty of space and the view was just to die for. The building was quite old but we were well catered for and our kind host Miguel was very accommodating.
The view of the Plaza from out apartment
Even forewarned of the cool temps it was still a bit of a shock too me. Matt is never one for a winter holiday - instead favouring warmer climates. So here we were armed with puffer jackets and gloves. The temp would drop below zero overnight but we were blessed with warm days in the low to mid twenties. We were keen to check out our surrounds so off we went for a wander. Poor Bellie and Holly began to suffer the effects of the altitude with Bellie throwing up in the Plaza and Holly all of a sudden becoming vey quiet. A quick dinner was therefore had by those who were up to it. Followed by the trudge up the 100 or so stairs. Well now that really and truly messed with your mind. After the first flight of stairs we were all breathing like we had run a marathon, having to stop and rest frequently. It was at that stage Matt became a bit concerned as to ever being able to run the Inca Trail with a pounding headache and racing heart despite only a couple of flights of steps.
Before leaving NZ I (Matt) booked a few half day trips with a local company based in Cusco. I knew with the altitude doing too much in one day would not go well. Our first excursion was a half day trip to Pisac to visit the ruins and also the market. As a bonus we were visiting the market on a Sunday which was the biggest of the week. The ruins were perched on the side of a mountain and gave us a decent climb to explore. Our guide Jamie (pronounced Haime) was a wealth of information. He had grown up in the Sacred Valley where we spent three days touring. His passion for the area and expert knowledge was definitely our gain. The views from the top of Pisac were incredible. Only matched by our appreciation of how hard the Inca people worked build these amazing cities. We spent two hours wandering the site under the midday sun and were relieved to purchase some freshly squeezed orange juice from a local stall holder on the way out. It was a welcome thirst quencher as the midday sun had become very hot. The rest of the afternoon we wandered the market picking up a few trinkets and some fruit to take back to the apartment. We'd missed fruit on Easter Island - it was scarce I guess due to the climate and logistics of importing it. It's amazing how quickly your body starts to crave it. We were lucky to have Jamie introduce us to many fruit we had never seen and would have been otherwise unlikely to purchase.
The Pisac ruins
The next day we started earlier as we had a full schedule of visiting Chinchero, Moray and Maras. Again all sites in the Sacred Valley.
The town of Chinchero was the first stop. We watched a textile demonstration which was not on the itinerary! Then went into the ancient town. The plaza was really impressive as was the church the Spanish had built with it's beautifully painted ceiling - Christian paintings done by the Inca people.
The highlight though was being able to see and old Peruvian lady of 78 (Lucia) peal some Chuno (Potatoes) - these potatoes were being preserved using an ancient method of freeze drying where the potatoes are frosted, soaked in water and then peeled using your fingers. They are then frosted and dried in the sun several more times until they look like a small white stone. They can apparently be stored this way for many years.
We all had a go and enjoyed the chance. It turns out Holly struggled in the speed department and doesn't have a future in this vocation
Us chipping in with potato peeling
3 local village ladies on their way to church
From Chincero we drove to Moray where a series of terraced circles where excavated using the contours of the land and were used by the Inca's to experiment with diversifying thier crops in altitude. They started planting at the bottom and gradually moved the crop up a level - it therefore adapted to it's new environment in a gradual and planned way. On our walk around these terraces Jamie showed the kids how to entice the spiders out of their holes using a piece of grass and a dead cricket. The kids shrieked with delight as the spiders snatched a moment out of their holes to grab the bait. He had hoped to entice a tarantula out but fortunately for us we only saw the smaller brown spider. By this time Jamie had become a real hit with the kids. He was forever answering their hundreds of questions - no matter how trivial.
The last stop of the day was to the Maras Salt Mines these are pre Incan and fed by a subterranean stream with salt content was 10% compared to sea water which is around 6%. The first view of the salt mines was blindingly bright the kids immediately drew comparisons with the terraces of Pamukale in Turkey. We got to wander the narrow ledges between the various salt pools. Stopping to taste the water and the salt that was the by-product of the evaporation. The pools were split between many farmers who would own and work 20 small pools each.
We finished our big day with a 1 hour trip back into Cusco - these trips in the van are not for the faint hearted as we speed and dodge between both sides of the road. Sometimes it's better to be asleep!
Our last full day in Cusco Matt and Ben went to their Inca Marathon race meeting. We shopped at the markets and then did a 2 hour Cocoa Chocolate making workshop. We all got to make our own chocolate - the kids were in heaven!
At the end of each day we had some fun social dinners with the Bolitho's trying out various restaurants near the Plaza De Armas - the vibrant main square and meeting point in Cusco. The kids have loved having other familiar kids to hang with and share the experience of life on the other side of the world. We part company in Cusco but are hoping to catch up in Galapagos again for a night before they return home.
The Bolitho and Watson Clans enjoying some dinner
Our fifth day was time to move on from Cusco. An early start saw us collected from our apartment at 7 to explore Ollantaytambo and it's surrounds. The tour was a mixture of visiting the ruins and also the local village and catching a glimpse of what life was like. Jaime told more stories of life in the Incan times, the hard work, the worshipping of the natural elements - Earth, Sun and Water and the movement of up to 7 ton rock blocks onto the terraced sites by way of ropes, ramps and pure man power. The kids decided they would not have survived had they been born in the 15th Century. As in all of our visits to these Incan sights the common thread was the same. A sadness that the Spanish had desecrated these sites and in doing so had destroyed an entire culture.
We returned to the Plaza De Armas where Matt and Ben met up with their running tour group to start their adventure while Rach, Anna and the 5 kids headed off on the train to meet them at the end.