We landed at Cusco airport more or less on time and, our luggage landed too! We soon met up with our guide Nilo and were immediately driven to Urubamba in the Sacred Valley. The route went through Cusco and then up and over a pass at 3800 metres before dropping to Urubamba which is at a more comfortable height. We had a good restaurant buffet lunch in a restaurant by the Urubamba River. The food was excellent and we were also entertained by Peruvian pipes playing, among other tunes, Greensleeves. After a short walk down to the river we were taken to our hotel to recuperate from the journey.
The first event today was an impressive textile demonstration. We saw how alpaca and sheeps wool were washed with 'Inca soap', a grated root that generated suds remarkably effectively. The wool was then spun and dyed with vegetable dyes for blues, yellows and greens and cochineal (a beetle parasite of cactus) for red. The dye is fixed with salt and lemon juice which both work very quickly. There were lots of colourful garments on display and we succumbed to buying a table square with the decoration showing inca cross, eye of puma, beak of condor and snake.
We were then taken for a short walk round the restored Inca works at Moray with their circular terraces. Archaelogists believe that these were for experimenting with and developing different strains of food crops to cope with the varied micro climates. We saw several birds including peregrine, flycatcher and some Andean finches.
After that we enjoyed an amazing picnic cooked by Alex.
Later we had an acclimatisation hike back down to the river. We didn't rush as we were looking for birds and saw another pergegrine falcon and had a brief and tantalising glimpse of a long-tailed hummingbird. Towards the bottom of the path we passed through a community-based salt farm at Maras. This harnesses a small underground stream, believed to come from an underground lake, which is filtered through rock and spreads out into many rectangular pools where it evaporates leaving the salt behind.
Our first visit today was to the Inca Temple at Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. We climbed up and around the temple site, admiring the stone masonry that fitted the blocks tightly without cement and was always slightly sloped towards the hill or, when on the ground, inwards. This gives great stability. The main temple of the sun has large rectangular stones interspersed with narrow blocks, allowing for some movement and adding to stability. It was decorated with protrusions representing Puma eyes.
We then drove to Pisac at the other end of the Sacred Valley. Here we looked at Inca remains on the top of the hill and then walked back down to the town, seeing the Inca graves across the valley. The latter part of the walk was through extensive terracing from where we could look down to the modern equivalent.
After a good lunch in Pisac we drove to our hotel in Cusco.
We started off at Sacsayhuaman, an impressive Inca fortress overlooking Cusco. We then visited Qenqo(Labrynth) which had a ceremonial underground passage. The stone 'table' had three layers representing sky, people, earth. Next stop was at Tambo Machay where we saw a well and system for getting clean water. From here we walked down to Puka Pukara, the red fort, where Nilo pointed out some of the patterns in the stone walls which had occasional larger stones surrounded by smaller stones. We now walked down towards Cusco. On the way we saw children and families flying kites and passed a pond with ducks including the spectacular ruddy duck with its pale blue beak. We then returned to our hotel.
After lunch we visited the chocolate museum and were shown the stages of chocolate making and sampled the wares. On our way back to the hotel there were processions of school children (almost all girls) in fancy costumes as well as a military band and soldiers. At one point there were three bands processing round the main square, all playing different tunes. We then went for our briefing about the forthcoming trek and met up with the other trekking couples.
This trek is named after a spectacular mountain and takes a different route towards Machu Picchu from the classic Inca Trail. It goes over the high Salkantay pass and finishes at the hydroelectric station below Machu Picchu Pueblo. Parts of it are on Inca trails.
We started off by driving to Tarahuasi, an Inca site, with a labrynth cave, terraces and water channels. As we left, a black-chested buzzard eagle flew over. We then drove to an organic farm, supported by Mountain Lodges, and were shown farmed guinea pigs and various crops. After a brief visit to a textile factory and shop we drove to the trail head. The road was a dirt mountain road and David was grateful not to be driving.
The trek was fairly short but started with about an hour of climbing. We then walked along a narrow level track, mostly alongside an aqueduct. Our guide Claudio showed us various plants on the way and spotted a hummingbird (white-fronted). We soon arrived at the lodge which was very comfortable. We indulged in the hot tub which had superb view of Salkantay. From the lounge Camilla was lucky to see a small black hummingbird visit the fuchsiia outside.
Today's main activity was to walk up to Humantay Lake. This was mainly to see the lake but also for acclimatisation as the lake is at 4200 metres. We went early to avoid crowds. The climb up was quite tough, essentially because of the altitude. Camilla was helped by having her rucksack carried by a pony. The lake was lovely with greenish glacial water, fine views all around and several birds. We then climbed a little higher onto the morrain around the lake and enjoyed joining in a special Inca ceremony to thank Mother Earth for her support in the previous year. Two men, Santos and Lorenzo who came from Caros, the village with probably the purest surviving Inca people, had accompanied us on the walk, playing their pipes. They now led us in the ceremony. We all wore colourful hats, came forward to be blessed in Quechua and watched as an offering was made, consisting of a variety of objects, some going to the red Mother Earth side, some to the white Apus side and some to both. The ceremony ended with us all being symbolically `cleansed'. After that we came back down to the lodge to have an excellent lunch. Later we walked along the nearby river and saw some interesting birds, not all identified. Back at the lodge David was pleased to get a picture of a little green hummingbird.
Today was the big walk over the Salkantay Pass (4620 metres). We set off just after 7am. The path rose gradually at first and then more steeply. We had a pause at 4100 metres and then the path rose rather more steeply. Camilla got very breathless and, when the chance to ride the horse was offered, accepted. This meant she could enjoy the superb views. She only rode the uphill bits but it was a significant help. David reached the pass first among the others. After mutual congratulations we then walked to a view of Salkantay lake, a well-kept secret with a beautiful turquoise colour.
It was now time for the descent. This was long but with wonderful views, although clouds were coming in. We had a late lunch on arrival at the lodge and the hot tub was again enjoyed. After our briefing meeting, we were shown videos, the ascent of Salkantay in 2013 and some youtube videos about Inca traditions.
Today's activity started slightly later at 8:30. The walk was almost all downhill, sometimes quite steep and rocky. We entered the Cloud Forest quite soon and Claudio introduced us to some of the flowers, including the dancing lady orchid, and birds. We saw an Inca ring hummingbird and various other birds, most of whom flew before cameras could be clicked.
When we arrived at the lodge we were shown an ancient method of cooking. This involved having a fire lit in an oven built of stones for a couple of hours. The fire is then removed and the food added in layers with the hot stones. The whole is then covered in cloths and then earth. Thirty minutes later the covers are removed and the food is cooked. We then ate the food, together with guinea pig (a local delicacy) which had been cooked separately, and vegetables and sauces. A feast!
Another later start this morning. The major part of the walk was along a path beside a river. This was very attractive, though none of the promised birds put in an appearance. After a 'picnic lunch' (three courses including a delicious beef stew), our porter headed home crossing the river using a pulley system. We walked a little further and crossed the river more conventionally and climbed up to the van that took us to the start of the Inca trail.
After a fairly short walk we entered the coffee region. We visited a coffee 'farm' and were shown the process from picked bean to drink. The ripe beans are picked and then skinned using a machine. The resulting beans are then fermented in water for two weeks and then spread in the sun (with some shade from trees) to dry. The dried beans are then roasted by placing over a fire and stirring for 5-10 minutes. They are then ground. The coffee is prepared by a filter method though with rather more ground coffee than we would use. The result when diluted was delicious. We also sampled a coffee liqueur and honey from bees that get their nectar from coffee flowers.
The lodge was a short walk away and there are no prizes for guessing that we enjoyed another hot tub.
Today was the last day of trekking. The trek started with a long but not over steep uphill along an original Inca trail. At the top we reached a pass and then descended a little to an archaeological site (a trail resting place) at Llactapata. We had our first view of Machu Picchu across a valley. The site is only partially restored but we could again see the high quality of Inca stone masonry. We then descended a bit to a restaurant to have lunch. The views from here were even better. After lunch there was a longish and steepish descent. The butterflies were beautiful, particularly a black, red and white one. Unfortunately they defied any photographic attempts! After the descent we crossed a bridge and followed a dirt track to the hydroelectric railway station where we hadd a couple of beers to celebrate the end of the trek. The train zig-zagged (reversing at turning points) its way to Machu Picchu Pueblo. Here we split from the group as we had been booked into a different hotel.
We met the group just after 5.30 am. This was to try and lessen the wait in line for the shuttle buses. We got on a bus eventually and it zig-zagged up the hill to Machu Picchu, arriving at about 7.00 am. The site is indeed amazing - see the photos. We left the site at about 9.00 am. Jeremiah and Becky set off to climb Machu Picchu mountain but the rest of us decided it would be too rushed and hot for this and so used our re-entry ticket to go back into the site and walk to the Inca Bridge. David and I then took the classic Inca trail up to the sun gate for the views back over the site. We all then met for lunch and took a train and minibus back to Cusco. The train journey was enlivened by some traditional music and dancing and a fashion show.
We said goodbye to our new friends and were left back at our Cusco hotel. We had been incredibly fortunate with the weather! We went on to visit the Galapagos (Galapagos)