The best part of exploring the Cusco region is visiting places that very few people take the time to see because almost know one outside locals know about them. Kinsa Cocha, a small lake 25 kilometers up into the mountains above Pisac in the Sacred Valley, is one of those places.
[ Note: Be sure to click on the individual photos to see a larger version. The scenery on this hike is some of the most spectacular anywhere in the region.]
Yesterday my friend, Thuy Mai, and I went up to Kinsa Cocha and had a great time hiking high in the Andean altiplano before walking back down along ancient Inca roads on the way back to Pisac.
Getting to Kinsa Cocha is pretty easy, though not so cheap as public transportation doesn’t normally go there. Once we got to Pisac on a colectivo we hopped on in Calle Puputi, we had to ask for a taxi up the valley into the mountains to the lake. (We ended up paying 70 soles for a taxi to take us there, but could have paid the driver 40-50 soles more to wait a few hours to take us back down.)
The taxi let us out at the lake where we started hiking the trail with the cold wind in our faces. Strong winds aren’t common so this was unexpected for me as I only had a long sleeve T-shrirt and a very light windbreaker! I know — it wasn’t very smart of me.
Kinsa Cocha is actually dammed up on the east end to make sure there is a steady water supply for Pisac far below. You can take trails around either side of the lake and you’ll likely see alpacas, llamas, and sheep along the trail. It’s not the prettiest alpine lake I’ve ever seen, but if you’re patient you are soon rewarded with incredible views.
The climb above Kinsa Cocha is very rocky with some slightly steep sections, but there are nice steps cut into the rocks most places and there is relatively little climbing involved the entire hike. That makes it a pretty easy hike for anyone willing to explore this remote area.
This was my second time there and I have never seen another person except for an occasional shepherd along the way. We didn’t even see any animals after the first 200 meters. I have a feeling it was because of the season as I saw a lot more when I was here last spring.
Off in the distance we saw dark clouds and the concern for rain was very real, but fortunately it was only cold and windy as we left civilization behind.
Once you pass over the high part of the climb above Kinsa Coach, you’ll find yourself steeping back in time as the only sound you’ll hear is the wind and the chirping of small highland birds. (We did see a pair of huge Andean geese — biggest I’ve ever seen — far below us on the edge of a second small lake, but they were too far away to photograph.)
As you leave Kinsa Cocha behind, you realize you are walking among the ruins of a very, very old Andean settlement that likely originally pre-dated even the Incas. None of the handful of remaining houses was occupied and likely they were only used as shelters by shepherds in case of bad weather needed to escape the severe storms that frequent the highlands.
The more I looked around, the more obvious that this was a small village that had been abandoned long ago. Stone walls surrounded us along with the foundations of a few stone buildings. The bleak landscape made me wonder about the life that people must have led here perhaps centuries ago long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
As the dark clouds moved closer and a few drops of water began to fall, Thuy wisely decided that we needed to head back down to the village lest we be caught in a storm without shelter.
Sure enough, as we were almost back to the village on the east side of the lake, a cold rain began to fall. Again, being much wiser than me, she spotted a man outside his home a little farther down the hill and said we should go see if he would allow us to shelter in his home until the rain passed.
We were thrilled that the man, Felix, actually had a small room with large table in a room connected to his home where he offered us some coca tea. As we relaxed sipping the hot tea with the sound of raindrops falling on the roof above, he soon returned with a nice bowl of fresh popcorn! After a couple of hours’ hiking at over 4000m (13,500′) in altitude, it was a pleasant and much appreciated surprise as we shared this wonderful snack with Felix.
Finally the rain seemed to almost come to a stop and we decided to start out hike to the highway about 8 km (5 miles) in the valley below. Of course, it didn’t take long before powerful winds started to blow and light rain began to fall once again, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t manage. (Thank goodness the wind was at our backs!)
As we walked along the dirt road, soon saw an incredible sight in the distance. Ahead of us was perhaps the most spectacular and longest lasting rainbow I have ever seen. We took lots of photos from several places along the road before it finally faded away.
The next hour found us walking along mostly ancient Inca roads cutting which are used by the local campesinos who normally walk up and down the mountains instead of taking the very rare cars that pass on the dusty road.
We passed idyllic fields, stepped aside as old women led their family cow up the mountain, skirted an unfriendly horse who seemingly wanted to kick rather than let us pass on the narrow trail, and were even asked by one old woman to go around her cow who had taken over the trail ahead in search of grass to eat.
I guess local cows have the right-of-way over foreigners. Such is life in the Andes highlands.
As we both began to grow quite tired, a car approached from above and the driver stopped to ask if wanted a ride down the mountain for 5 soles each. He probably would have taken half that from a local person, but as we’d already hiked about 5 hours it was a bargain we couldn’t pass up.
His old car rattled its way down hill towards Pisac while he and his passenger in the front seat chatted away in Quechua, the language of the Incas that is still spoken by almost everyone in the region as a wonderful day’s trek came to an end.
If you ever have a spare day, Kinsa Cocha is one of the best hikes in the region. You’ll likely not see another soul and you get a chance to experience an other wordly view of a lost Andean village from another time long ago in the highlands.
And if you’re willing to hike down towards Pisac you’ll have the chance to see a bit of Andean life that has changed little in centuries and perhaps share a bit of it with friendly local people.
Thanks, Thuy, for a great hike!
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