Our first two days in Cusco we were on our own. We had explored the town, visited the ruins of Saqsaywaman, done a lot of shopping and had many good meals. It was definitely a good start. On the afternoon of the third day is when we would join our Mountain Travel group for a city walking tour. Then the next morning we would leave for the mountains to begin our trek.
We still wanted to take advantage of the morning. Although it was a Sunday we were hoping the market would be open. There were so many nice things at good prices that we wanted to get things for gifts for family and friends. After breakfast we headed for the market. We passed through the Plaza de Armas on the way and it was a zoo. It was full of people and there was a big parade going on: school kids, people in native dress, army guys. Everybody was marching around the square. It was quite a production. We continued on to the market and sure enough it was open. Not only was it open, it was packed with people. Tourism doesn't know days of the week or holidays and Cusco is heavily oriented around tourism. But that is a good thing as it has given a big boost to the economy of the city and region and provides livelihoods for many people.
After a busy morning of shopping we hurried back to the hotel with our arms full of purchases. We didn't have much time so we decided to grab something fast at McDonalds in Plaza de Armas. Hey, it was our only time. We were in a hurry and fast food is...fast. I goofed and forgot to order my Coke Zero without ice. I agonized for a few minutes. Ice in drinks is one of the biggest traps Americans can fall into traveling in third world countries. McDonalds should be safe but on the other hand, why risk the rest of the trip over one crummy drink. I opted to be safe and ate my lunch dry. Yuk.
We made it back to the hotel with time to spare. We stashed our purchases in our room and headed down to the lobby. We were there about fifteen minutes early. There were a total of twelve people in our group. As the time for our group meeting approached we watched the people in the lobby, trying to guess if they were people we would be traveling with for the next week or not.
Sandy and I have done a lot of adventure travel trips over the years with REI Travel, American Alpine Institure and Hiuchuli Treks in Nepal. We knew exactly what to look for. Americans. Probably in their forties or fifties. Younger doesn't usually have the money or the freedom from kids for this kind of trip. Reasonalbly fit, probably do a lot of hiking or other outdoor activities. In hiker uniform, wearing cargo pants and hiking shirts from Columbia or REI or Ex Officio.
Sure enough, as the time got closer more and more people who fit the profile appeared in the lobby. After a while we started to go up to people and ask if they were in the group. We would introduce ourselves and start to chat. There is a kind of protocol on these trips when you meet people. What's your name? Where are you from? And then most importantly, what trips have you done? Who says that hiking isn't a competitive sport?
All kidding aside, it was good to meet the people who we would be hiking with for the next ten days. Most of them seemed to be nice folks and in fact over the course of the trip it turned out that we had a very good group.
Pretty soon our trip leader, Juan, introduced himself. We also met Reuben, who was going to take us on a historical tour around Cusco for the afternoon. We did some walking around, mostly areas that we had already visited in the past two days, but Reuben provided some history that we didn't know. Then we visited the Plaza de Armas (of course) and took a tour of the cathedral. After that we went back to the hotel and went inside the Church of Santo Domingo, which was also the Korikancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun. Reuben gave us some really good historical insights. The tour took about three hours and when it was over we took a break. Everyone was free to grab dinner and then afterwards we would meet in the hotel to discuss the trek.
Sandy and I walked down to the Plaza de Armas, found a restaurant and had a really good dinner. It was weird, because we were the only people in the place until we were almost done, when one other party came in. We had no idea why - the food was really good and the prices were reasonable. Maybe we were early, maybe there are just a lot of good choices in Cusco.
We had our briefing where Juan went over the details for the trek. We also met the assistant trip leader, Jairo.
After the team meeting Sandy and I went back to our room to pack. We had to put all our stuff for the trek into our personal duffel bags. We had one extra suitcase that we were going to leave at the hotel in Cusco during the trek. This was when we discovered that with everything we had bought, we had about twice as much stuff as would fit in our suitcase for storage. At 9 pm I had to make an emergency shopping trip to buy another bag for our extra stuff. I thought that the bag that I got was pretty cool with its Peruvian designs even though Sandy thought it was ugly. At least all of our things fit inside. The next morning while we were dropping off our bags for storage, I was chatting with two other members of our trip, Derek and Tamara from Seattle. I told them the story of the difference of opinion between Sandy and I on the bag. I asked them if they would mention to Sandy how much they liked our new bag. They both did, and I thought that they did a good job and were pretty convincing. Sandy knows me too well though and wasn't fooled. She immediatly wanted to know how I had gotten to them.
Finally everything was ready and we all got into two vans for the trip to the mountains. We drove up into the hills of Cusco, with better views as we climbed higher. Cusco reminded me of La Paz in Bolivia, which I had visited years before. The well to do areas were in the bottom of the valley. As you climbed higher, the neighborhoods got poorer. That's because it was colder and harsher. It was the opposite of most cities in the US, where people usually pay for better views.
By the time we reached the pass, the neighborhoods were definitely looking third world. But then we were over the pass and into the next valley. After a while we stopped at the village of Izcuchaca. There were two reasons. One was to give us a chance to tour the local market. The other was to take a bathroom break. An important thing to remember when you are leading a trip of middle age/older folks is that bathroom breaks need to be frequent.
It was fun touring the market. Unlike the market in Cusco, this one was for locals and not tourists. I had fun taking pictures of some of the kids in the market. Some of them were quite friendly, some were quite shy. But they were very photogenic. Kids and puppies are always great subjects for photos.
It was time to move on. Further down the road we pulled off for a photo op. We had our first really good view of Nevado Salkantay, the mountain that would dominate our hiking for the next several days. Unfortunately while I was taking photos I was so enamored with the mountain that I wasn't watching where I was walking. I stepped right in a big pile of poop. I scraped off most of it but it was impossible to get it all. When we all got back in the van there was a distinct smell. It was me, or at least my shoe. For the next hour we drove with all the windows down, whether it was comfortable or not. I was just glad that I didn't get tossed out. Fortunately my traveling companions were all very easy going.
Next we stopped at an archeological site at Tarawasi. It had a beautiful Inca wall with many niches - places where statues representing the Inca gods had been placed. Jairo gave us a good history of the site. Then not much farther along we turned off the main road and began to climb. And climb. And climb. Eventually we reached the town of Mollepata where we stopped for lunch. We ate in the garden of a house? restaurant? Anyway, it was very a pretty courtyard and lunch was really good.
We all peeked in the kitchen to take pictures. In Peru, guinea pigs are considered a delicacy. People keep them in their kitchens where they raise them until they are big enough and old enough and fat enough to eat. A couple of days later we would all get a chance to sample this Peruvian delicacy. Whether I liked to eat them or not, I'm not sure I would want to have my kitchen overrun by guinea pigs.
After lunch we went to a coop where they did crafts. I'm sure they did good stuff but the timing was just not right. People were full from lunch. They were anxious to get to the trail and start hiking. Nobody felt like shopping. I don't think that anyone bought much stuff. I felt badly since they really had nice things and they obviously worked very hard.
Then it was onward and upward. The road kept climbing. It got rougher and rougher, but the vans just handled the road. I have to admit that I wouldn't want a job as a driver. Especially since after we got dropped off the drivers all had to turn around and drive back down to get home. We climbed higher and higher. There were some deep stream crossings. We were getting tantalizing glimpses of very big mountains. Finally both of the vans pulled off to the side of the road. It was time to get out. No more riding. We all grabbed our packs. It was time to start hiking. It was the beginning of our trek.