Peru trip: Arrival in Cusco, and acclimatizing to the altitude with a hike up to Sacsayhuaman

LP1030070Here are pix from our first day in Peru. We flew directly to Cusco (via Lima), so had abruptly come up from zero to 3400 m, (11,152′). I still had a whole lot of extra red blood cells kicking around in my system, since I had been to the Himalayas only 2 and a half months before. The altitude was tougher on Dave. In any case, it’s always wise to be cautious when arriving at elevation…. so we had a casual evening, wandering around town and then having dinner and a good sleep, before venturing out the next day.

Arriving at Cusco airport, and Dave is already impressed: they are offering coca leaves (a raw ingredient for manufacturing cocaine) at the airport, to chew to help with acllimatization to the altitude!

Arriving at Cusco airport, and Dave is already impressed: they are offering coca leaves (a raw ingredient for manufacturing cocaine) at the airport, to chew to help with acclimatization to the altitude!

First night in Cusco, walking around town - and there are original Inca walls lining the modern-day streets!

First night in Cusco, walking around town – and there are original Inca walls lining the modern-day streets!

Our hike the next day was up to the archeological site of Sacsayhuaman, Inca ruins on the hill above Cusco. It’s a 300 m climb up to Sacsayhuaman (which can translate to anything between a 15 minute walk to an hour’s walk, depending upon the person). That’s not huge, but it’s not insignficant when you are not yet acclimatized. It’s the perfect thing to do on your first day in Cusco, as you acclimatize: hiking up the hill at any easy pace.

Cusco's central plaza, or Plaza Mayor (built by the Spaniards on top of the original Inca plaza). The hills in the background are wherethe ruins of Sacsayhuaman are, where we hiked up to...

Cusco’s central plaza, or Plaza Mayor (built by the Spaniards on top of the original Inca plaza).

On the way up to Sacsayhuaman... we encounter a local Quechua family and Dave gets to cuddle a baby alpaca.

On the way up to Sacsayhuaman… we encounter a local Quechua family and Dave gets to cuddle a baby alpaca.

I won’t go into all the details of Sacsayhuaman – I couldn’t do it justice without writing ten or more pages. Here’s a quick summary (and if you want more details you can head over to Wikipedia’s page on Sacsayhuaman). I find it one of the most impressive Inca sites (it was my third time visiting it, and I was no less impressed than the first time!).

The size of the andesite rocks that have been carted up there to make the walls, and the precision of their fit (no mortar or anything) is mind-boggling. Many of these stones weigh 100 tonnes or more, and it is still not known today exactly how the Incas were able to move them, then carve them and fit them together so precisely.

The site consists of a central plaza, where ceremonies could take place and, on its south side, a series of three gigantic walls (more like embankments, as they go up the slope). These walls are around 400 m long, and shaped like zig-zags – possibly representing lightning bolts.

View from the striated outcrops (centre of the site), south across the plaza to the lightning-bolt walls. You can't tell how big they are in this photo...

View from the striated outcrops (centre of the site), south across the plaza to the lightning-bolt walls. You can’t tell how big they are in this photo…

...but here, have a look at the size of these Inca stones, with the people for scale. Even the "little" ones are huge, taller than a person. And look at the size of those corner ones!

…but here, closer up, have a look at the size of these Inca stones, with the people for scale. Even the “little” ones are huge, taller than a person. And look at the size of those corner ones!

And it's not only the scale of it all, it's the precision of the fit, how each stone is carved to fit exactly to the next. Don't even mention cement or mortar... you couldn't even insert apiece of paper between them!

And it’s not only the scale of it all, it’s the precision of the fit, how each stone is carved to fit exactly to the next. Don’t even mention cement or mortar… you couldn’t even insert a piece of paper between them!

And another pic, just to show the mind-boggling scale again... here's Dave.

And another pic, just to show the mind-boggling scale again… here’s Dave.

And here am I, at one of the Inca doors. It's characteristicof Inca architecture that things are NOT at right angles. Doorways are always angled in, and even walls are, too - so that gravity works FOR them, not against them. And it does work, this doorways has lasted through 500 years of Peruvian earthquakes.

And here am I, at one of the Inca doors. It’s characteristicof Inca architecture that things are NOT at right angles. Doorways are always angled in, and even walls are, too – so that gravity works FOR them, not against them. And it does work, this doorway has lasted through 500 years of Peruvian earthquakes.

On the north side of the plaza is a fabulous outcrop of a rock that even I, with my PhD in geology, can’t explain: a mound covered in striations (lines) that appear to result from fault movement, but strangely, they are on a curved surface (faults are usually very planar). It seems to be a sort of detachment fault (a sub-horizontal fault caused by crustal extension). I just did a quick Google search to see what the thinking is here, and found this paper about the Sacsayhuaman geology – this author believes that the rocks may have been partially molten as they moved, which makes sense with me. Anyway, those striations down the north face of the outcrop make perfect natural slides! There were lots of kids playing on them… big kids, too. (Dave).

View from the lightning-bolt walls, across the plaza to the big striated outcrop. You can see the lines, swooping up and over the outcrop. They come down the other side, which is where the natural slides are.

View from the lightning-bolt walls, across the plaza to the big striated outcrop. You can see the lines, swooping up and over the outcrop. They come down the other side, which is where the natural slides are.

Hey, you big gringo! Get off the slide and let the little kids play!

Hey, you big gringo! Get off the slide and let the little kids play!

WHHEEEE!!

That's better. (I love this pic, look at all the kids!).

That’s better. (I love this pic, look at all the kids!).

And just to the right of the one pictured above, a much longer natural slide - this one full of adults, some of them looking pretty scared. (We didn't do it!)

And just to the right of the one pictured above, a much longer natural slide – this one full of adults, some of them looking pretty scared. (We didn’t do it!)

Also, on the north side, are all sorts of other ruins and workings – a huge circular area that some consider to have been a reservoir (doesn’t make sense to me, looks more like an arena). Also cool carvings in the bedrock, including some tunnels.

Aside from moving big hunks of rock and carving them, the Incas also carved bedrock in situ. In some places it is clear what they were doing - often making places to hold ceremonies, and carving channels in the rock for flowing water (or sacrificial blood), or carving niches for statues. But in some places, like this one, it is really unclear what the purpose was. A lot of work!

Aside from moving big hunks of rock and carving them, the Incas also carved bedrock in situ. In some places it is clear what they were doing – often making places to hold ceremonies, and carving channels in the rock for flowing water (or sacrificial blood), or carving niches for statues. But in some places, like this one, it is really unclear what the purpose was. A lot of work!

In this northern part, they also carved caves thruogh the rock - they exploited pre-existing fractures, and carved them out. Secret scape routes? I was waiting to take a picture of Dave emerging from this one, but he was preceded by a parade of stray dogs!

In this northern part, they also carved caves through the rock – they exploited pre-existing fractures, and carved them out. Secret escape routes? I was waiting to take a picture of Dave emerging from this one, but he was preceded by a parade of stray dogs!

Yay, a rare pic of Dave and me together!

Yay, a rare pic of Dave and me together!

The ruins at Sacsayhuaman are absolutely amazing, just mind-boggling for their scale and perfection. And those Incas sure knew how to build – those walls have withstood 500 years of earthquakes, and the don’t look like they are going anywhere soon! The complex here is completely different from Machu Picchu (partly because the remains of the towers and buildings are long gone, the stones were looted by the Spaniards to build the colonial city of Cusco). But especially for the scale of the stonework.

Alpacas grazing the Sacsayhuaman plaza... a scene probably pretty unchanged for the last half-millenium orso.

Alpacas grazing the Sacsayhuaman plaza… a scene probably pretty unchanged for the last half-millenium or so.

It’s almost a pity visiting Sacsayhuaman as your first stop on a trip to the Cusco region – because nothing else will match it for the scale. Anyway, we had a great day there, and a nice wander through town on our way back to our hostel. Then we went back to pack up, because the next day we would be leaving the hustle and bustle of Cusco, to head out to my favourite little Peruvian village, Ollantaytambo.

That night - our last in Cusco - we went to the Pisco Bar across from our hostel! Pisco is Peru's national drink - made from grapes, it's like an unwooded brandy, and you make one of my favourite cocktails, the pisco sour, with it! (My motto is.... when life throws you a bowl of lemons, make a pisco sour!)

That night – our last in Cusco – we went to the Pisco Bar across from our hostel! Pisco is Peru’s national drink – made from grapes, it’s like an unwooded brandy, and you make one of my favourite cocktails, the pisco sour, with it! (My motto is…. when life throws you a bowl of lemons, make a pisco sour!)

Dave's suffering from the altitude. (Or was it the pisco?)

Dave’s suffering from the altitude. (Or was it the pisco?)

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