6.30am: Sunrise over the mountains, and I’d forgotten what an amazing sight that is. Today is an acclimatisation walk, we’re being taken up to about 3500m and then walking back.
I admit here to being concerned about my foot, the doctor back thinks it could be weeks before it is better. I don’t even want to think about the possibility of not being able to walk.”
Our first real day in Peru started just before sunrise. It was already light outside, but when the sun reached over the mountains I remembered why I love this kind of country so much. We don’t have mountains in England, not a single one, so the best you can hope for is either hills or when the sun comes up over the buildings, which doesn’t have the same sort of feel to it.
Cusco was starting to wake up, like a big cat stretching and yawning. The hotel provided us with breakfast, which incorporated fruit juices, fresh fruit, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, and various bread products. A feature of the trip as a whole was large meals — loading up on the carbs and the calories, since you’d be needing all that you could get.
We were bussed up into the foothills of the mountains to start our first day’s walking — it wasn’t part of the trail itself, just an opportunity to get used to being at altitude and warm up a little for the walking we had ahead over the coming days. We started at a ruin called Tambo Machay — whose original purpose remains unknown, although it has been speculated it served as a place to guard the approaches to Cusco. Because of the Incas lack of a written language, many things about them are open to speculation — including their architecture. Just the same, the structures with its canals and aqueducts remained impressive.
From Tambo Machay we set off walking across country, and other than the altitude it was no more strenuous than many walks in England. It was particularly surreal to be walking through plains and fields and seeing football pitches off to the side, before remembering how popular the sport is in South America.
While the walking wasn’t hard, my foot was still painful. It had been several days since I’d hurt it, and although I was better able to put my weight on it and was taking a lot of pain killers it was still slow and difficult going at times, and put undue strain on my opposite knee. Just the same, although it bothered me, it still wasn’t anything that was likely to stop me altogether.
At times, we passed through towns in the mountains — basic stone houses where people lived their simple and quiet lives. Until the native children would see you, then suddenly there would be a dozen, barely-dressed children surrounding you, holding out their hands for money. We were told not to give them anything — the Peruvians are proud people, and don’t want their children growing up to be dependant on begging and handouts. We were especially told not to give them sweets, since they had no system of dental care.
I think our Macmillan guide Sarah described the children best as incredibly sweet, but so dirty. They were clever though, so often they would appear with a cute baby animal — usually a lamb — and try to entice you to take pictures, which they would then want money for. Fortunately, none of our group was taken in by this.
The next ruin we came to was Sacsayhuamán, referred to by the Peruvian guides as “sexy woman”. The site appeared to be a kind of fortress, and with the city of Cusco forms the head and body of a Puma. What is truly impressive about Sacsayhuamán was the sheer scale of it — from pictures, it looks like any other pile of stones that was once a fort. But some of the stones weigh as much as 200 tonnes, more than twice as tall as me, and are larger than I can comprehend. As with places like Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, it’s amazing and much debated how these huge blocks of stone with rounded corners and interlocking edges were carved, transported across great distances and assembled. The fortress was also assembled with all the walls leaning at a slight angle to help protect it against earthquake. Clever chaps, those Incas — although much of their cleverness lay in borrowing ideas from older cultures.
From Sacsayhuamán, it seemed like the rest of the day was one long descent into Cusco — albeit on well maintained stone steps, and while I wasn’t exhausted by the day, the altitude left me feeling worn out and I was walking very badly by the time we eventually made it to the city’s outskirts.
As mentioned, this wasn’t even part of the trek itself — just a gentle warm up and a day trip to some historic sites, we wouldn’t ever have it this easy again.
Back at the hotel the order of the day was just dinner and bed, since Monday promised a very early start, and the beginning of the hiking itself.
“6.35pm: After a gentle day’s walking to get used to the altitude, my knee hurts and, of course, my foot hurts. The doctors are openly concerned about it, I see them exchange looks, but everyone is very friendly and nice and supportive. I just keep saying I will do whatever it takes to make it through.
Sacsayhuamán was amazing. The huge stone blocks were so perfectly carved, the hills and mountains all looked more like a picture than actually real.
What lies ahead is honestly scaring me. I think everyone feels the same way.”