To offset the effects of the altitude, we were introduced to an Inca remedy – a ball of ash and coca leaves, chewed to release the juice then nestled inside the cheek to be slowly sucked on throughout the day. We also came face to face with a llama – the undisputed lord of the rugged environment – in a pre-fab café, isolated from everywhere high up on the altiplano. We stopped there for a coca tea to help remedy the same condition. That night, swimming by moonlight in thermal springs, watching steam curl into the silver light and dark sky, it seemed impossible that anywhere so tranquil could make anyone ill. The next morning I was faced with a quandary as to which was the more spectacular: Colca canyon itself plunging deep down sheer cliffs, waterfalls tracing its walls or the condor swooping straight past this backdrop. The jury is still out.
From Arequipa it was time for the business end of the adventure tour – the flight to Cusco and preparations to walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Excitement built as we gained some background to help us understand what we would eventually see, with visits to Coricancha – the Temple of the Sun and Moon – and a walk around Cusco to see the remnants of the Inca capital which the Spanish had used as the foundations of their own buildings. As the tour guide at Coricancha put it; Inca good, Spanish bad – and that assessment was not just about the architecture. In case we had not yet grasped the point, the collections at the Museum of Inca Gold (that which was not plundered by invaders), juxtaposed with the cathedral, helped illustrate the gulf between the two cultures upon the arrival of the Spanish and underlined just how much had been lost by the local people. After this, the intrepid four-day hikers departed to walk the entire trail. The more feckless amongst us, myself included, decided that moving away from the gastronomic delights of Los Perros and Macondo was too much to bear and we opted for the two-day hike to give us more time to wallow in food and drink.
When our turn arrived, we piled onto the train which linked Cusco with Aguas Calientes, the base for the most direct access to Machu Picchu, used by the groups who preferred to travel up to the ruined city by coach. Our group jumped off the train at the104 kilometre marker to find the track up to meet with the four-day hikers on the trail itself. The train ride was fun for railway enthusiasts, with the old train switch-backing its way out of Cusco and up through the hills and tiny villages.
Inca ruins lined our section of the Inca trail. These included a water temple, complete with water channels and fountains. Facing the river and mountains and catching the warmth of the morning sun was followed by four hours of uphill stair-climbing to the campsite, trying to see everything seemingly at once – the mountains, the forest, the orchids and other flowers and a spectacular waterfall interspersed among the Inca terraces. Sights such as these served to highlight the mystical element of walking the Inca Trail as a sacred pathway, another piece of the puzzle that had begun in Cusco.