Our ankles twist off the cobbles as the snarling dog pack heads our way. A brown stray with clumps of fur dangling from his hind leg edges towards us, and the steep road falls away to the valley behind. From above, our picture is framed with a backdrop of grey granite hemmed with ashen grass, and stone walls that any Yorkshireman would be envious of. But we cannot afford to take our eyes of the wild dogs, saliva swinging from their mouths and pink grey gums exposed. Across the terracotta tiled roofs of Cusco, and beyond the Catholic cathedral that throws its shadow over the town square, the words ‘Viva El Peru’ is etched on the far mountainside. But this offers no consolation for any of us, and the lone dog’s fate looks sealed as the pack advances.
A ginger mongrel weaves through our boots to the action and stands between the growling pack and us. Despite the altitude, the air becomes cloyingly thick. The dogs instantly disperse, as if an invisible sound has distracted them to their next venture. The cornered dog scampers in the opposite direction, holding his tail high in defiance. As we collectively exhale, the ginger hound wags his tail and swings round to approach us. We gratefully run hands across his long fur and ignore the fact that he is the perfect mobile home for the local mountainous ticks.
We continue up the hamstring-cramping vertical stone steps towards the top of the valley, following our new furry guide. It is no wonder that the Incas chewed coca leaves for bursts of energy. The route is narrowly flanked by open houses with dim interiors offering only monochrome impressions of the contents. A wooden stall lined with the toxic green Inka Kola lures tourists closer, and we’ll pay anything for the scratched glass bottles of nectar. Eventually, we reach a section of land so steep that even the local builders have not attempted to monopolise here. Boulders fighting overgrown spiky shrubs block our path to the white marble figure above us. Cristo Blanco outstretches his arms inviting us to the peak, but we cannot reach him.
Our undignified panting calls for a rest, and we giggle at the name of the ancient ruins opposite, called Saqsayhuaman. We sip our water and retrieve crumbly packs of ‘Kraps’ biscuits from our backpacks. A lonely line of telegraph poles winds back down to the base.
Myself and another volunteer step forward to scout out the best route to the summit. I take the path to the left, following the dog who seems to have a nose for this. We pass two men lie slumped in the shade, their neckerchiefs stopping insects being sucked into their snoring mouths as they enjoy a siesta. We continue another hundred yards but a landslide has greedily consumed our way, leaving a gaping hole of 10ft which even the dog won’t attempt to clear. Retreating back, we find the path to the right to be a dead end too.
The dog, sensing our despair, begins to bound up the track. We lose him instantly – the thorny bushes hiding his wispy tail. We give chase, and find him waiting for us. As soon as the first of our group catches up, he leaps ahead once more. The shrubbery disappears as we get higher, and fine silty dust clouds cover our faces as we claw our way up.
We arrive at the top in the shadow of Christ, his cold white marble arms looming over us. Our guide sits down, his rusty fur matching the landscape and his tail whipping up the dust around him. I cup my hand and pour water into it for him. I wonder how many other tourists he has helped find their way.
He escorts us back down to town, and once we arrive at the cathedral he disappears down the cobbled street into the masses.