View from Urquillos Inca Trail View from Urquillos Inca Trail
Breakfast at El Mercado hotel in Cusco was heavenly; the best of our trip, which made us happy that we’d be returning here at the end. Wide variety of fresh fruits, including aguaymanto (see Day 0 entry); many Andean cheeses; gorp and yogurt; a silken smooth local coffee; and quite possibly the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had for breakfast. The coffee and chocolate were both from Quillabamba, a nearby area. I vowed to search for them when we returned to Cusco; I was unsuccessful.

We drove over an hour to Chinchero, where we toured a disgusting church. Originally a small Inca temple, Spanish vandals had their Inca slaves build over it, add an altar and frescoes and other superstitious nonsense. I found it depressing and was glad to walk back out into sunshine.

Three colors from the same cochineal Three colors from the same cochineal

From there, a 4-minute drive—if we’d known we would’ve walked—to a textile market where we enjoyed a fascinating overview of all things woolly: how they shear it, clean it (making “soap” by grating a local root), spin it (using a device kind of like a toy top; we saw many, many more of these over the course of our stay), dye it (roots, leaves, and, most impressively of all, a small insect called cochineal which is one of the six animal species domesticated by the Inca. It grows on prickly-pear cactus leaves; when you squish it you get an alarming quantity of bright red blood-like liquid which apparently makes a great dye and can be combined with other substances to make orange, yellow, and many other bright colors. Watching that was strangely riveting. I will never look at dyed wool the same way again).

After the demo, shopping. Or at least that was the intention. I thought we were on a hiking tour, and did not feel adequately prepared for the commercialism we were about to experience. Understandable as it is, it was more than a little uncomfortable. But more on that later.

A short hike down the Inca Trail

After everyone else had finished shopping, we split up into two groups: a cultural experience, and a hiking experience. Our guide, Fernando, gave us next-day briefings each evening; the previous day he had described this day’s options and had given us his frank assessment: the cultural experience, a tour of Inca terraces and still-active salt mines, was by far the better one. The hike was easy and not especially scenic. Despite this assessment—which turned out to be accurate—I chose to hike: I needed to move, feel my legs, feel Inca Trail beneath my feet, really start getting a sense for the land. Ginger chose the salt mines and terraces, and we agreed to share notes later.

Giant blue agave Giant blue agave

Looking down the valley Looking down the valley
The hike was spectacular. Maybe not to a native, and maybe not in comparison to the ones we did afterward, but I loved it. There are hundreds of kilometers of still-maintained and still-amazing Inca Trail all over Peru and the surrounding countries; this one, the Urquillos one, was my first real exposure to walking on Inca Trail for a few hours. It was humbling. Beautifully constructed and graded; small aqueducts occasionally running alongside; a formidable retaining wall on one steep section; and the whole thing easy on the feet. A couple of scenic waterfalls. One bend where we did see impressive glacier and valley vistas. Gigantic blue agave plants, some of them with enormous seed stalks. Bright flowers. A river. Prickly pear, some of it colonized with cochineal! Examining those up close was fascinating. And, eventually, a town plaza with an REI van waiting to take us to an idyllic lodge in Lamay where we were welcomed at the front door by smiling staff offering warm towels. Luxury.

Our group arrived first, so we hung out at the lobby eating tapas and trying a local beer. Until the other group arrived. Ginger did not look well. Turns out, she didn’t feel so good either.