I had heard about altitude sickness before coming to Cusco. It’s a result of the body’s reaction to having about 40% less oxygen than it’s used too. The symptoms are headaches, dehydration, dizziness, shortness of breath, and sometimes even death (but that’s only in really extreme cases). People going on treks around Cusco are encouraged to spend a few days relaxing in the city beforehand, undergoing the process of “acclimatization,” in which your body manufactures more red blood cells so you can handle the difference. Coca tea is a favorite medicine, or even just the Coca leaves themselves, which locals chew as a stimulant (it’s the same plant that Cocain comes from, but it’s not quite as potent unrefined). Before coming here, I figured I was a reasonably fit guy, and that the altitude wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Just to be safe, I even hit the gym a few times to get ready. But my first climb up a steep Cusco street, carrying my 50-pound suitcase and huge backpack… well I guess that put me in my place.
The first few days were rather terrifying. It was as if I’d aged 50 years overnight. I found myself having to stop for breaks on the ten-minute walk from the center of town to my room, huffing and puffing like an overweight seventy-year-old with a bad case of asthma. While trying to have a simple conversation, I’d have to stop for air, which often resulted in the sympathetic Peruvian telling me the Spanish word I must have forgotten. I’d even find myself short of breath while lying in bed, and have to gasp in gulps of air like my life depended on it.
Things got better after a few days, but I still felt horrendously inept. It didn’t help when local kids sprinted past me up the steep streets, seeming to need less energy than it took me to sit on a couch. My first weekend came, and I decided it was time for action.
The Sacred Valley is located just north of Cusco. The heartland of the Inca empire, it has a number of magnificent ruins, second only to the world-renowned Machu Picchu. It is also known for its spectacular hikes, many of them only moderate in intensity. And, most importantly, it is, on average, nearly 1,000 meters lower than Cusco itself. I had the medicine I needed.
On Saturday afternoon, I packed my camera, some clothes, and a borrowed guidebook, and set off for a street that a Peruvian friend had told me about. This obscure alleyway was where one could take colectivos to Pisac, one of the closest towns in the Sacred Valley. These colectivos, or combis were just about what I expected: a sort of grotesque mixture between a bus and a taxi, battered vans that packed in passengers and took you all to your destination for an absurdly low fee. The combi I wanted was not hard to find.
“Pisac! Pisac! PIIIIIIISAC!!!!” the driver screamed, gesticulating towards his van. Pisac was boldly etched across the front, for anyone who hadn’t gotten the message. When I muttered that I was indeed going to Pisac, the man looked at me as if he had just recognized a long-lost friend, and then herded me enthusiastically into his van. I only had to wait another fifteen minutes or so for the combi to fill up; apparently Pisac is a rather popular destination. That, or a number of terrified passersby had opted to abandon their plans for the day and head to Pisac, rather than crush the dreams of my shrieking driver. Squashed in the back corner of the van, with my hiking pack crammed into my lap, I watched as the we left the narrow cobblestone streets of Cusco behind.
On the road to Pisac, I met a most fascinating traveler. She didn’t look quite Peruvian, but she spoke perfect Spanish, and looked to be in her mid twenties. She wore an impressive array of shawls and an elaborate headdress, and carried a small guitar-like instrument the likes of which I had never seen. After some conversation, I deduced that she was in fact from Jordan, but that she now lived in Ecuador, where she tended her own chocolate farm. She had lived in a number of places, including Ohio, and had two brothers who worked in New York City, but she preferred the Ecuadorian jungle, where one could be in touch with nature and the healing power of the moon. Biking was the best way to travel, she asserted, and she had traversed all of South America by bicycle to prove it.
When we got out at Pisac, a quaint, neatly-arranged little town nestled beneath a looming mountain, my new acquaintance helped me find a hostel for the night, and then went off to meet up with some friends at a local school. By this time, it was about 4:30, well after the supposed closing time of the famed Pisac ruins (3:00, according to my guidebook). However, as I walked down the main street that runs through the town, a taxi driver rushed up to me, offering a ride up to the site. He assured me that the ruins were open until 6:00, a fact that I questioned, but since I had limited time in the Sacred Valley, I decided to at least pretend to believe him.
You can hike up to the ruins from the town, but this is an all-day venture. Considering the lateness of the hour, I decided to take the man’s offer (after a little haggling). He would bring me up to the ruins, and I would hike back to town. As we wound up the curving road, we passed a number of backpackers, all heading in the opposite direction. I asked my driver how easy it was to follow the paths back.
“For me, it’s easy, because I know them,” he said. “I don´t know how easy it will be for you.” He casually mentioned that it would be getting dark soon, and offered to come pick me up in an hour and a half when the site closed.
I pondered his offer for awhile. It was already going to cost me 20 soles to get to the top, not to mention the entrance fee to the site. My guidebook said it would take about 2 hours to hike back to town, and I figured I’d be able to beat the guidebook´s time.
“No, gracias,” I said. “I´ll find my own way back.”
My driver asked if I had a light, and I told him no. The car stopped at the top entrance to the ruins. He briefly showed me a map of winding paths, took my money, wished me luck, and drove off.
The entrance gate was eerily devoid of any official waiting to sell me a ticket. But there were a few kids dressed in traditional Andean garb hoping to take a picture for a tip, and I could see a few tourists milling about on the distant terraces. So I put on my pack and set off.
In the heyday of the Inca empire, the fortress at Pisac had been used to defend the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley. Its uses, however, were not only military, but also agricultural and religious. The steady terraces leading down the mountainside were used to cultivate a wide array of crops at altitudes that would not have been possible if it weren’t for the genius of the Incan agricultural system.
As I descended the mountain paths, I passed through ruins of ancient temples and storehouses, dark tunnels, and steep stone stairways. Bellow me, the valley stretched out for miles, providing views of pastures and snaking rivers. For awhile, I was so enthralled by the scenery that I forgot I was short on time. When I checked my watch, it was well past five, and the sun had begun to sink behind the mountain peaks.
Realizing it was probably time to get moving, I set off at a moderate clip. Before long, however, I came to a fork in the mountain pass. I couldn’t decide whether to head directly towards town, or to take the path that I thought (based on my very sketchy mental picture of the map my driver had shown me) lead to the lower entrance to the ruins. As if to taunt me, an arrow on the ground pointed back in the direction I had come.
I had to make a decision, so I turned left. I presumed this path would take me to the main entrance, from where I would follow the road back to town. I walked for about fifteen minutes on a fairly level path. The sky was getting dark, and the first stars were beginning to appear overhead. I felt less and less sure about my decision, but I wasn’t about to turn back now. Finally, I reached a road…
And realized that I was only 100 meters or so below the very point where I had started. This was not the main entrance, just some street connecting the ruins to some houses and farms off in the distance. I had taken a wrong turn, setting myself back by a good half hour. It was getting very dark.
Trying not to ponder the very real possibility of having to spend the night on the mountain, I doubled back the way I had come. I tried to strike a healthy balance between speed and caution, thinking it advisable to avoid tripping and taking a spill down the Incan agricultural system of terraces that everyone talked about so much. By the time I reached the fork in the road, the sun had set completely.
Using the scant light provided by the stars, I made my way down the mountain path. Sometimes it was tricky to see the way, but as my eyes adjusted, it got easier. Once the town of Pisac came into view below me, its lights helped as well. I stopped worrying about adding a fresh archeological specimen to the Pisac ruins. I was a creature of the night.
When I was close enough to town to hear dogs barking and laughing voices, I saw a group of silhouettes headed up the path towards me. Figuring that if I was going to be mugged, I might as well be friendly about it, I shouted out a greeting. The group responded in kind, and after seeing them up close, I realized they were four backpackers like myself. They said they were heading up to the mountain top for the night, to sleep beneath the stars. I guess I wasn’t the only fool in the Sacred Valley after all.
The rest of the trip was thoroughly enjoyable, albeit considerably less dangerous. I hiked some more steep paths the next day in Ollantaytambo, but I had the sense (and time) to do it while the sun was in the sky. Just to be adventurous, I sneaked into the famous Ollantaytambo ruins without paying (thanks to a tip by my Pisac nighttime comrades, who had visited this place as well). I was planning to buy an all-inclusive Tourist Ticket anyway, so I wasn’t really saving money by hiking up the side of the mountain and sneaking in the back. But it was worth it for the thrill.
I returned to Cusco on Sunday night, thoroughly exhausted. In just a day and a half, I had explored terrific Incan ruins, haggled for a bargain on an alpaca-wool sweater, eaten the best trout I’d ever had, and risked my life in the mountains. And, best of all, I hadn’t felt even the slightest bit of altitude sickness the entire time.