Nov 17 Thursday – Travel: Cusco to Starlodge Sacred Valley

Alli’s journal:

Kyu’s ponderings:

Tetsu’s jibber jabber:

After a somewhat nervous night talking with our significant others in the USA as they worried about our altitude sickness issues, we woke up feeling a little better. I had purchased altitude sickness pills as well, and alli had some in her med kit, so we had plenty to keep things going.

The night before we weren’t sure we’d do the Starlodge adventure, but by this morning we made the call that we would all do it. 

Because we also wanted to give Alli the opportunity to see downtown, and didn’t want to climb back up to the airbnb afterwards, but also make the tourist walk lighter for Alli, we decided that Kyu would walk down to the square with her, and I’d take the gear by cab.

Here’s a selfie with Mary, Rodrigo’s wife.

Kyu and Alli went on ahead. While waiting for the taxi to arrive, it was fun to chat with Rodrigo, his wife, and later, some customers as well. I met Dante Bejar, a former Inca trail guide.

The cab took quite a while because of the difficult streets by the Airbnb, but once arrived, it was quick work getting to the Armas.

It was fun to again walk around the Armas, this time in daylight, admiring the second floor terraces. They are so cool, I wish I could build these second floor terraces in my own home, lol.

Just at the corner of the Armas is Yaku restaurant, already familiar from the night before.

Yaku is very cool. There are actually 2 connected brands, Organika, which is more like a coffee shop, and Yaku, which is the main restaurant. Since it’s one building, you can basically sit anywhere and still get food from either.

The rear of the restaurant opens to a large courtyard with a friendly, casual, almost familial atmosphere, and there are upstairs areas to sit that overlook either the courtyard or the main street.

The front entrance is where the Organika coffee shop is, and just behind the main counter, there are a few more tables. Ideal for us since we had large packs we could get out of the way. We met Eduardo & Leslie working the Organika counter.

We had a light and healthy breakfast, and then headed out to meet the shuttle bus.

The drive from downtown Cusco to Starlodge in Sacred Valley takes only about an hour, but it’s a beautiful drive the whole way down.

Pretty soon, we dropped into Sacred Valley and soon after, arrived at the Skylodge base camp.
Though we were staying at Starlodge, which is newer, Skylodge is the older “hotel”, and is also where the day’s adventure happens.

Quick background here:

Skylodge has been around for a decade. The cliff capsules are all glass and look very cool. The bathrooms, however, are dry bucket style bathrooms. Getting up to the sleeping capsules is more adventurous, with rebar bolted into the rock, making easily climbable ladder steps, and ziplines to come down.

Starlodge is about 5 minutes away from Skylodge by car, and is made of steel plates over a roll cage, with ovals cut out. Glass panels are layered over the steel plates. Starlodge was finished earlier this year (March of 2022), and the capsule’s bathrooms are flushing toilets. Starlodge has stairs (steel plates) bolted into the cliff face instead and is much easier to climb. Starlodge also has a platform partyway up with shower pods and hot tubs.

Upon arriving at the Skylodge base camp, the capsules looked really high up and a little intimidating.

After a short orientation, we got our gear.

Our guides were Wally and Cesar, and they provided the perfect blend of making sure we had fun while being very firm with regards to our safety.

And then we were off!

Not for the feint of heart

The handholds bolted into the cliff are fairly close together, so muscles aren’t needed to do the climb. The easy thick gauge handholds also pretty much eliminate the need for finger strength. So this isn’t like climbing at all. If fear of heights can be overcome (or isn’t a problem to begin with), anyone can do it regardless of fitness level or age.

Also, the path isn’t always straight up. Often the handholds require sideways traversals

A good number of spots are also on narrow ledges, making for nice places to take breaks along the way.

Wally was able to take a great picture of all three of us. The guides are well aware of guests’ desire for pictures and have long ago mapped out where to get the best photos.

There was even a super cool suspension bridge from one part of the cliff to another. You’d think balance would be an issue with no rigid rails, but the lines were structurally much more taught than expected and remained very stable, even in the middle of the bridge.

Once at the top, we climb over the Skylodge capsules and walked over to the first ziplining platform.

There are 5 ziplines on the way down, some short, some fairly long.

What a blast!

And the final one leads back to the base Skylodge base camp.

After a short break, Wally left, I assume to help with another group. And Washington, the driver, brought us over to the Starlodge basecamp.

The Starlodge base camp is a little more spacious than the Skylodge base camp, and has a large firepit in addition to the kitchen and dining tents.

There were two other groups at the Starlodge, One group was a couple, and the other were two women who go on adventure trips together.

They had gone to the hot tubs earlier and were still there, so we chose to have dinner first, to get the tent to ourselves.

We grabbed a quick selfie with some of the staff, and were surprised to learn that the climbing guides also help out with food prep.

Here’s a quick photo with the amazing staff

David: Starlodge base camp manager
Wally: climbing guide
Cesar:  climbing guide, built like a rock.  Also making dinner
Washington:  driver (nicknamed cholo, little brother)

We got some advice from David, the base camp manager, who also spent a few minutes hanging with us, and poured us a local wine, a Malbec, called Intipalka.

Talking to him about how we were planning on leaving Cusco the next day on an early evening flight, we asked for some advice on how to spend the morning and afternoon to get the most out of the day before heading to the airport.

There certainly wasn’t time to hit Pisac the next day, but there was a famous ruin at the north end of Sacred Valley called Ollantaytambo, so we could get there early, check it out, and still get back to Cusco and explore the market for a bit before heading to the airport. Other options included the Maras Mine, famous in the Sacred Valley, but we decided to forego that.

After dinner, we decided to check out the hot tub real quick as the sun had already set, but a little light remained.

Cesar walked us up to the hottub platform, and was responsible for staying with us, and guiding us up to the capsule afterwards, and finally talk us through how everything works.

The climb up to the hot tub wasn’t too hard, though we did need to put the harnesses back on.

The hot tub is sort of a multi-tiered platform with shower/bathroom “pods” and three outdoor hot tubs that are each large enough for maybe 4 people to sit comfortably.

The shower pods are singl person bathroom/shower pods, and while I forgot to grab a photo, the insides are pretty fancy and comfortable.

Kyu skipped the shower and ended up chatting for quite a bit with Cesar while waiting for us. It seemed worth it, as he learned a lot from Cesar during that short break. Cesar used to be an Incan Trail guide, a business he inherited from his father. Today he works with the Skylodge Starlodge company, owned by two people (the land owner and the entrepreneur who started it). Cesar shared stories with Kyu about all the different kinds of guests they’ve had, from the super brave and adventurous to those who struggled with the suspension bridge.

And finally, we climbed the steps bolted into the cliff to get to our capsule. Given the darkness and knowledge that a fall would be deadly, I don’t have any photos of the night climb, but once in the capsule, we settled in and got comfortable, playing a short game of Poison and then bunked down for the night.

This was one incredible day.

Not knowing the headache awaiting us at the end of the next day, I drifted off to sleep thinking about the entire trip, feeling a little melancholy but also determined to make the most of the next morning and afternoon before our flight home in the evening.

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