On our third day in Peru we began the acclimatisation process. Altitude sickness can be fatal, so it was incredibly important that we adjusted in enough time before the trek. We went on a short walk up to the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman, which was about 3800m above sea level at the highest point. We spent a morning climbing up to and exploring the ruins, and then headed home feeling thoroughly pleased with ourselves.
The ruins themselves were spectacular. No-one knows what the complex was intended for – our guides maintained it was the temple of the lightning god, whereas some historians believe it was a mountain fortress – but it is truly something to behold. Dark, hulking stone makes up the walls, each rock taller than a grown man. The smooth, neatly cut boulders fit together seamlessly, running along the hillside in a long, zigzag pattern and rows of terraces are cut into the earth. Historical documents say that when the conquistadors invaded, much of the fighting was concentrated around the site, and after the battle was one the Spanish invaders took apart most of the original Incan buildings and used the stone to build their own settlements. However, much of the site still remains intact. When I stood up on the hill, the last remnants of the Incan settlement sprawling out beneath my feet, I was struck by a sense of real awe. Despite the best efforts of the Spanish invaders to destroy it, the Incan legacy has lasted for centuries.
The rest of the acclimatisation trek was relatively easy. Our guides had chosen a route that took us up to the altitude we needed to reach, but avoided the steeper paths. We went through some truly beautiful countryside. Enormous green hills, some spotted with grey and brown rocks, were on our every side, twisting chaca trees lining the paths, while the city of Cusco lay miles below us. I loved seeing the city from a distance; watching the bustling city from the peace of the mountains is a strangely relaxing experience.
Then, we headed back into Cusco, where we had the afternoon free to explore. We spent a few hours climbing up the steep, stone streets with nothing in particular to do. We made our way past stalls groaning with colourful woven blankets, shop windows twinkling with hand-made jewellery, and restaurants with the windows thrown open, so the smell of roasting alpaca wafted down into the street. Dawdling through the streets of Cusco is perfectly safe, but it’s very difficult to go far without being stopped by a street seller. Most of them will leave you alone if you tell them you aren’t interested a couple of times, but on one memorable occasion two women came barrelling out of nowhere, pulled a lamb out of their shirt, threw it at my chest and asked me to pay for holding it.
The next day, the real work began.