Cusco sits at 3400 meters in the sky. We arrived from sea level at Buenos Aires and it didn’t take long for our headaches to follow. We hydrated and ate with only mild improvement. The local remedy of coca leaves and tea provided no relief. The city itself reminded us of Kathamandu. There are plenty of outdoor gear shops and street hawkers. However, Cusco appears much cleaner with proper sanitation and visible police. The main square – Plaza de Las Armas -displays Colonial era buildings and churches built from stones stolen from Incan ruins.  We treated ourselves to a stay at the JW Marriott which had an archeological site and museum in the basement.  Much like Turkey and Israel, you can’t start digging in Cusco without stumbling upon a historical relic. The service and breakfast were head and shoulders above what we’d become accustomed to.  We spent a day and a half wandering the streets and acclimatizing. We took a liking to the Peruvian fare at the charming Restaurant Sumaqcha.  The waiter/owner sprinted up and down the stairs to give us the very best service possible. Delicious organic plates are served at Greens Organic. I’m sorry to report that Alpaca is quite tasty. However, I’m happy to report we escaped without eating the traditional Cuy (Guinea pig).

We met Saul, owner of SAM Travel Peru and Yarek, our guide to discuss trip details. On the road for more than six months now and hiking in four continents we were prepared for anything the Andes could dish us . . . If only that darn headache would go away. Nonetheless, we set out early the next morning. We drove winding roads to reach the Sacred Valley. It was almost harvest time and the corn was tall. There are many types of corn in Peru. Different flavors and textures for different meals and dishes. We stopped at the local market in Calca, and Yarek gave us a tour of the local produce for sale and we purchased some snacks for our journey. In addition, we were encouraged to purchase gifts to distribute along our journey. These included anything from toys for the children to coca leaves for the adults.

Just outside of town the road significantly improved. It was fresh asphalt snaking through the canyons. Our driver explained it’s a wonderful new road, but a better road means people drive faster. Too fast indeed.  There were occasionally small boulders along the road, but nothing else that resembled a guardrail.  Everytime we ran into a shepherd and their flock our driver complained of, “Traffic.” Another hour or so on the serpentine roadway and we arrived at the town of Lares. Oddly, we began our trek with a stop at the hot baths. After a good soak we enjoyed our first prepared meal in the shade. Our four course set meal consisted of cheesy avocado salad, potato soup with garlic bread, sautéed fish with veggies, and dulce de leche crepes for dessert.  This was already not the trek we were expecting.

Instead of a much needed nap we began scaling the valley above. While we were catching our breath a dozen children passed us on their walk home from school.  Some of the kids travel more than an hour each way.  Kids are tough here.  Our horseman led our horse train and supplies with his 8-year-old daughter, Rosemary, in tow and outpaced us quickly each day.  We approached a house with a makeshift flagpole flying a red plastic bag at its apex. Yarek explained that this meant they were serving chicha, a fermented corn slurry. It didn’t taste awful, but I doubt production methods have improved significantly over the years. Originally, chicha was made from a collection of chewed maize expectorant.

We hiked up to 12,500 feet before arriving at our campsite.  It was a simple leveled pasture with open-air toilet stalls covered with charming linoleum.  An empty community room served as our dining room.  Our cook, Yoel, continued endearing himself too us with hot tea and popcorn appetizers before another four course meal.  Unfortunately, two nights in Cusco was obviously not enough for us to acclimate to the altitude and – despite power hydrating and force feeding our diminished appetites – our headaches only grew worse.  We acquiesced to taking acetazolamide tabs for mountain sickness.

In the morning we woke to “bed-tea” as a wake-up call.  After a pancake breakfast we hit the road. Spanish was the common denominator among us, however, Quechua is the “people’s language” of the Andes.  It’s pronunciation is difficult and despite only using three vowels words are surprisingly difficult to remember.  With a small armamentarium of vocabulary we walked from village to village engaging with many locals along the way.

First, we visited (broke into) a local church and found it full of wheat drying after the harvest.  Next, we visited an older man in his home.  A stately 82-year-old with his 60 year-old lady friend welcomed us with open arms to sit and chat.  We gave them coca leaves and they gave us insight into their lives.  His home was a single room with stacked stone walls and thatched roof.  There were a dozen guinea pigs running around under the bed and a fire dying out in the indoor stove without chimney. It’s obvious that life is not easy for these subsistence farmers and living 82 years is almost miraculous.

Throughout the day we covered two passes as high as 15,000 feet and camped at a beautiful lake at 12,500 feet.  Along the way we passed gorgeous lakes, small villages, and sacred geometry.  The women would display handicrafts, although some obviously not made in their homes. The children were shy, but not too shy.  They would hurry ahead of us and “run into us” along the trail to receive gifts. We handed out notebooks, pens, and toothbrushes to any child we saw along the way.

The next morning we visited a family on our way down the valley.  We taught the children the importance of brushing their teeth and washing their hands after using the restroom.  Their simple stone house had just one room for the whole family.  Sometimes, on cold nights the animals will join them inside.  The father was already gone to work in the fields, and the mother was gearing up to make a day’s trek into town to sell potatoes.  The younger children would be watched after by their older sister.  Running water comes from the stream several hundred feet away.  They have no electricity, no toilet.  Life is simple, but not easy.  Along our trek, we saw evidence of governmental and NGO aid efforts to improve literacy and immunization rates.  We learned about intermittent efforts to curb poverty and improve maternal, infant and under-5 mortality rates.  Meanwhile, many children still wear government issue sandals year-round and survive on less than $2 per day.

We stumbled down the poorly maintained government built road to our pickup destination.  We reflected on how lucky we were to trek in such a beautiful region without running into another tourist group.  We can only imagine what the classic Sacred Valley trek looks like every day with 500 people all using the same trail (and the same toilet facilities).   After lunch and a short drive to the town of Ollantaytambo we boarded a train for Aguas Calientes. 

The Spanish conquests wiped out the Incas but ruins remain visible from almost every town in the region.   There is something about piles of rubble and abandoned buildings that evoke eerie feelings.  However, this was overpowered by the toxic magnetism of the tourist traps and commercial overgrowth within Aguas Calientes.  No matter, we came here for one reason, and one reason only . . . Machu Picchu.  Set atop a mountain more than 7,800 feet above sea level, the former estate to the Incan emperor Pachacuti was a true feat of pre-industrialized construction.  However, we are not sure it deserves the acclaim it receives.  Supposedly, it was only inhabited for 30 years before the emperor’s successor drew the people off the mountain to develop a new kingdom.  Occasionally, it is incorrectly referred to as the lost city, and everybody has their own take on the energy they feel there.  It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the last 30 years and in 2007 it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  It seems Peru is still learning how to balance the welcomed influx of tourists with their money versus the effects they have on the relatively small and still developing communities.

On our way back through Cusco we splurged on digs at the Palacio del Inka.  A perfect end to any trek, we spent some much needed time at the spa.  We found quality pie at Nanno’s Pizza and earthy eats at Green Point.  It wasn’t quite smooth sailing out of town as we got hung out on a laundry debacle.  It obviously didn’t leave too bad a taste in our mouth because we left feeling great.  Our high altitude headaches had subsided and we had survived another trek above 15,000 feet.  Overall, we loved Cusco and the slice of Peru that filled our week.  Add it to the list of countries we hope to return to in the future.