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The historic centre of Cusco is quite beautiful. The mountain air is crystal-clear and they must have some fairly strict regulations on building modernisation and advertising, as the heart of the old town is a picture postcard of Spanish Colonial architecture. Take away the cars and the road signs and it would be easy to believe you had travelled back in time.

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Ancient Incan stonework at Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun

That said, behind the beautifully preserved façade, there lurks an efficient tourist industry ready to extract as many tourist dollars as possible from visitors to the continent’s most visited attraction; Machu Picchu, just along the Sacred Valley.

Cusco is the traditional starting point for trips to the Incan city, particularly if, as we are, the visitor is planning to reach it by hiking the Inca Trail! From walking the streets, at least a third of the people you see are gringos of one variety or another. Virtually every Peruvian we have encountered has had a good grasp of English and, according to the guide on our tour yesterday, tourism makes up about 65% of the local economy.

We arrived in town on Friday, in plenty of time to get used to the altitude ahead of our trek. Although Machu Picchu itself is below the altitude of Cusco (2,430m, compared to Cusco’s 3,400m) the Inca Trail rises to a height of over 4,200m before descending to the famous ruins.

The Trail is not a technically challenging hike. Just as it was with Kilimanjaro in 2012, I suspect altitude will be the biggest challenge to overcome – and we’ve organised our itinerary to help us with that. That said, neither Brett nor I are as fit as I was back when I climbed Kili. We are also not especially well-equipped for hiking at altitude, where the temperature varies dramatically between the heat of the sun and cold of the clear nights.

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The foundations of the Temple at Saqsaywaman

Arriving here several days before the hike has given us time to take stock of what gear we have, and to think through how we can either work around not having it, or buy or rent it cheaply for the duration. Having sorted through our clothes and toiletries and reviewed all the advice on what to take, we spent this afternoon touring the (many!) outdoor equipment shops around town to pick up warm hats and mittens, torches, wet wipes, etc.

We have a briefing with the tour company tomorrow evening, where we meet the rest of our expedition group. Then we come home, pack our luggage into two sets; what we are taking and what we are leaving stored in Cusco. Then at 5am on Wednesday morning, we rendezvous with the group again to set out on the trail. Excitement, mixed with trepidation!

In the meantime though, we have found time for a little sightseeing…

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The golden altar in the Cathedral of Cusco

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The silver altar for the Virgin Mary

On Saturday afternoon, we took a city tour. Partially on foot around the centre of Cusco and then partially on a bus to visit some of the nearby Incan ruins. We saw a number of spots we will want to revisit in the days following Machu Picchu. I also got quite a profound sense of how the Conquistadors – and the priests they brought with them – destroyed a flourishing and advanced civilisation. The tour of the cathedral was loaded with examples of how elements of the native religion were leveraged to convert the populace to Catholicism; the massive altar piece, entirely in gold, because gold represents the Sun, who is the Father. Similarly, a completely silver altarpiece of almost the same size for the Virgin Mary, because silver represents the moon; the Mother.

Our guide also pointed out differences in how native and European artists depicted their subjects. Andean artists always depict Mary with a wide, triangular dress because the triangle has long been held as the symbol of fertility. It is quite distinct from the slim, hourglass figure in European representations.

On Sunday we took a longer tour along the Sacred Valley to explore more impressive ruins. Luckily we had the same guide both days and we found German to be very knowledgeable and willing to talk in depth about the sites we saw – as well as not overdoing the retail stops! One of the few we retail stops we did make though, was at a co-operative where we saw alpaca wool being cleaned, dyed and spun, with guinea pigs running around underfoot and several adorable llamas penned-up nearby.

On the whole though, I can’t decide what I feel about Cusco. On the one hand, the old town is beautiful. On the other it exists today for the large numbers of tourists who pass through it – and it is quite tiring to be having to decline tours, restaurants, massages, paintings, etc. every few yards as you walk along the street.

I think it is somewhere I would like to visit again, but mainly as a base to spend longer at some of the sites we have visited too briefly on the tours, as well as some of the more out-of-the-way ones we won’t be able to see this time around. I don’t think it’s somewhere I’d want to live.