Our Collectivo dropped us off in front of one of the historic churches on the Plaza in Cusco. Even at 11:30 at night, the plaza was impressive. Grand in size with manicured flower beds, stone pavers, plenty of benches and a central fountain, the plaza itself is beautiful. It is edged with historic Spanish buildings, some built in part using pilfered Incan dressed stones. These buildings have open porticos, so walking around the plaza can be dry even in heavy rain.
During our time in Cuzco we crossed this plaza several times daily, it came to feel like the center of the tourist experience when in Cuzco. As we oriented ourselves on that first night, I had an idea of where our hotel was, so we headed in that direction. A few blocks later we dragging our bags up a really steep street, but our little hotel was there, they let us in and we crashed into bed after our long trip getting into town.
The city is at 11,200ft, and it is recommended that visitors spend their first day acclimatizing. We did. We slept in, then ventured out to buy Machu Picchu tickets, the train tickets to get there, the” Boleto Touristicos” needed to visit other sites, and little else. On our first night we discovered a restaurant nearby that made great soups, so we were happy. Big bowls of hot soup in a cool climate are just perfect.
Cuzco is a normal, living, breathing town, but its also a town packed full of history, both Spanish and Incan. Prior to the Spaniard’s arrival in 1533, it was where the Inca ruler lived, and the administrative capital of all Incan territories. According to Spanish writings of the time, it was much more advanced than the Spanish cities from their homeland. The central plaza was surrounded by the royal residences of each successive Inca king. It had temples literally covered in gold. Most of the buildings near the plaza now house restaurants, tour companies and shops selling “100% baby alpaca” everything.. hats, sweaters gloves, blankets, you name it…
If you are an archaeology enthusiast like me (Sara) Cuzco is a pretty amazing place to be. The Spanish destroyed most of the original Incan buildings, but they reused the perfectly cut stones for their own construction, so everywhere you look you are seeing the handiwork of historic stonemasons. The quality of the work is mind boggling in its precision. Even our little 10 room hotel had some Incan stones and artifacts. It was cool, parts of it were built in 1620 and the walls were about 2 feet thick.
We spent a few days visiting the many historic sites in Cuzco. We walked up to the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, up an incredibly steep street that turns into stairs half way up. Made of immense stones cut to fit perfectly with their neighbors, this site north of the historic center has 3 tiers of easily defended zigzag walls. It is enormous but is estimated the be just 20% of its original size, according to our guide.
Back in the city, we checked out museums, and smaller plazas and old streets. One evening out, we stumbled across the famous 12 sided stone in a pedestrian alley. Every angle fits perfectly with the stones it meets. We weren’t the only ones looking at it, some nice folks from Puerto Rico took our picture there.
Cuzco’s primary business is tourism, I think about 2 million people a year visit and it’s full of people trying to make a living by tapping into the tourist experience. It can be pretty intense to walk down any street and be continually bombarded by people trying to get you into a certain restaurant, or selling massages or tours or handicrafts. We would always walk across the plaza, and not around it because folks are not supposed to solicit there.
Most visitors to the Sacred Valley ( the region that includes Machu Picchu but also numerous other Inca sites in about a 75 mile radius) buy all inclusive tour packages. As mentioned earlier, we put our trip together ourselves and took local transport to the town where the train trip begins.
There are no roads into the town of Aguas Calientes, the town nearest to Machu Picchu. The 2 options to get there are to take the train or hike in following the railroad tracks. We swallowed our shock at the ticket price and took the train. At about $125 per person for a 70 mile round trip, It may be one of the most expensive trains anywhere.
Our visit to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley unfolded like this. We took a collectivo taxi from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo. These minibus or van taxis drive specific routes and depart once they are full. They always try to get you to pay a much higher rate than is normal, so you need to know what the cost SHOULD be, and then bargain down to that price. Once in Ollantaytambo, we spent the day visiting a famous Incan fortress, where an Inca uprising almost defeated the Spanish.There are also amazing ceremonial baths and watercourses, which are in large part still working today.
The town is tiny, but many houses still used today still have walls and doorways built 500 years ago. There are also ancient water canals that run through the streets and right in front of peoples houses. It is a cool little town.
Later in the day we boarded our train to get to Aguas Calientes. On arrival into town we found our hotel, then went out for dinner. Let me just say this out loud.. Aguas Calientes is a classic tourist trap experience. Visitors are a captive audience since they have to stay there in order to see Machu Picchu. The hotels and restaurants are overpriced and food quality and service are notoriously poor. Our dinner was no exception. We had an expensive mediocre pizza and went to bed.
Visiting Machu Picchu is a dream for a lot of people. Positioned up in the mountains on a broad ridge that falls away steeply on 2 sides, it is easy to imagine how it remained hidden from the Spanish. High Inca roads led there and can still be traveled today as part of the Inca Trail. It is flanked by Wayna Picchu, (also spelled Huayna Picchu) a tall narrow peak just to one side of the primary site. At Machu Picchu you see temples, storehouses, terraces, residences and an amazing water delivery system that still works.
The peak of Wayna Picchu can be climbed with the purchase of an additional ticket. Access is restricted, 200 people at 7am and 200 at 10am. Everything you read about visiting Machu Picchu says “get there early” to avoid crowds of people. Well, we had to because we bought 7am tickets to the peak. We got up about 4:45, wolfed down some breakfast and dashed for the place where the buses start from. Buses start heading up to the entrance at 5:15 and we were nowhere near the head of the line! But, the early start was smart; once we made our way through the gate along with a huge crowd of other early risers, we were able to spread out. We were inside by 6:15.
One of the best things about arriving somewhere early is the light. Warm and at a great angle for photos, we snapped away as we made our way toward the entrance gate to Wayna Picchu. It was impossible not to stop and just take in the view and incredible ruins. Paul made friends with a llama that was close to a pathway, they are clearly there for photographic purposes, but they also keep the grass short. We had lots of opportunities for pictures without other visitors as we walked.
Steep. This is the first thought when you look up to the summit of Wayna Picchu. There are ruins of terraces, granaries and walkways at the very top, but you can’t really see them as you start up the path. The path is comprised of hairpins turns and it’s all uphill. I was glad that we normally reside at 7000ft, since I am not very fit! Occasionally we would get a glimpse of Machu Picchu behind us, the promised view was a great incentive. Near the pinnacle, the steps are so steep that you put your hands on the steps at shoulder level to keep yourself steady as you climb up, its almost like a ladder.
At the top the views are amazing. Machu Picchu can plainly be seen, and the distance allows for a full understanding of the scale of it; it also helps to understand what it took to build it… agricultural terraces fall away and surround the main buildings and temples. None have roofs, (except one, that has been re-roofed for interests sake ) they were thatched with grass on wooden frameworks originally. The primary temple structure can be seen. All Incan stonework is precisely fitted, but structures built for the Inca himself or ceremonial areas have perfectly dressed and fitted stones.
We had met an Irish guy on the bus ride up, and though we didn’t hike with him specifically, we kept bumping into him, so at the top of Wayna Picchu we hiked together. He said he was afraid of heights, but it didn’t seem like it!
Although the weather had been perfect for our hike up, rain was predicted, and the clouds were rolling in. We knew the trail would be slippery in the rain, so after an hour or so at the top we made our way back down, now ready to visit Machu Picchu in its entirety. Later we heard that the 10am group was postponed for hours, the park rangers had closed the trail, so we were glad for our early spot.
There are several aspects of the actual Machu Picchu experience that are frustrating. Throngs of people are a given and everyone comments on it. Often these folks don’t walk very far, and most rush to a famous viewpoint where they take goofy selfies. Also, there are no bathrooms at the site itself…so if you need to pee but don’t want to head all the way back to the entrance, you are out of luck!
Another frustrating thing is that the trails through the site are one way. Once we returned from Wayna Picchu we were swimming against the current, and we kept getting fussed at by park rangers. The only option was to exit, show our tickets at the gate, re-enter and go with the flow. O.K fine…..
Despite the minor annoyances, our visit felt magical. The valleys that edge the site are so deep, and the peaks of the mountains nearby are so sharp and steep. We were surprised at how jungle like the vegetation was.
The rain chased away some of the other visitors and so we often had rooms to ourselves. Many of the rooms feel maze like, and when you look over the walls and down into the valleys its hard to believe that the place was built at all.
The rain came and went, and the clouds, often hanging low in the valleys on both sides, made our pictures more interesting. We walked the entire site, marveling at the planning and architecture. Lunch was had in a drizzle while sitting on one of the top terraces and looking down, down, down to the river below. Empty of other tourists, it was a nice opportunity to feel like we had the place to ourselves!
After lunch we walked to the Inca Bridge, a path on a cliff face with one portion that was reinforced with masonry, and crossable only on logs. Clearly it was meant to be easily defended, and also easy to cut off, just by removing the logs.
Mid afternoon we decided we had visited thoroughly. On the bus down, we again bumped into the Irish guy who was staying at the same hotel. While waiting for our return train, the 3 of us spent a few hours drinking tea, watching an old soccer match on the T.V and chatting. It was nice to be warm and dry.
We caught the train back to Ollantaytambo in the early evening, and stayed the night in a B & B there, sleeping well after our long day of hiking and ruin walking.
Anyone who knows me knows I love textiles. The previous week, while in Cuzco, we had visited the Center for Traditional Textiles where I had admired the amazing ponchos, bags, runners and scarves produced regionally and had watched local weavers put their skills to work. One of the villages where weavers still work their craft is Chinchero.
Close to Ollantaytambo, it has a Sunday market that sells locally made textiles and is infrequently visited by tourists like ourselves. From Ollantaytambo we grabbed a collectivo to Chinchero where we spent a rainy morning talking to sellers and slowly looking at the items on offer. Sellers are fierce in their determination to sell you something, and buyers are just as determined to find the right thing at the right price. “Is it wool? Is this Alpaca? How much?” All bargaining was done with a smile, and in the end we came away with some beautiful things. We have not bought much on our trip, but this was an exception for us..
My handicraft shopping fix obtained, we headed back to Cuzco and to our previous hotel, where they had kept our luggage. In the following few days we continued to enjoy the old city, walking all over, but we also ventured out of town to visit other places in the Sacred Valley.
Another collectivo ride out of town for 50 kms or so dropped us off at the Salinas de Maras. Salt has been collected via evaporative ponds here for more than 500 years. Salty water comes out of the ground in a natural spring, it is then directed via channels to several hundred shallow salt ponds. The ponds descend down a narrow valley and so the water is able to reach every working pond via gravity and careful channeling. Once a pond has dried out the salt is collected and shoveled into 50kg bags that are carried up the hill on the backs of the workers. The ponds are held and worked by individual families, who may have been harvesting salt for generations, but it is sold collectively. The community works together.
Since it had rained the day before our visit, the salt ponds had the pink color of the ground around them, but apparently, in the dry season the entire place is blindingly white. It was amazing to watch a man carry an enormous bag of salt from the bottom of the valley up to the storage buildings, walking carefully on narrow walkways between the ponds all without shoes. We bought a couple of bags of salt to support their efforts.
The other place we visited that day was Moray. An unusual Incan site, it has round concentric terraces, the difference from top to bottom is almost 100 feet. Moray is situated at 11,500ft. Archaeologists believe that Moray was an agricultural testing site. There can be a significant difference in temperature from top to bottom and the thinking is that different crops were tested for performance on different terraces. There is an irrigation system in place (I continue to marvel at the complexity of Incan water delivery systems) so this idea makes sense. Like so many other Incan sites, Moray is not only impressive for its function, it is also beautiful to look at.
While there we met a Peruvian geologist and his Russian counterpart who were standing at the top deep in discussion. Having said hello they asked us if we thought “higher minds” had constructed Incan structures….”like aliens?” I asked. Maybe, they said. Although this is crazy to me, I guess the complexity and perfection of so many places, constructed so long ago without strong metal tools or the use of the wheel (!) makes people think this way. It is useful to remember that during the heyday of the Inca empire, every family owed the ruler something like 3 months of labor…maybe having the use of tens of thousands of workers at any one time was how these places were constructed.
Having spent 8 days in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, we felt like it was time to move on…where to? Arequipa.
An 8 hour overnight bus dropped us of at 6:30 am or so. Sleepy eyed, we grabbed a taxi, who took us to our funky hotel, where we could actually check in and catch up on sleep! We spent a few days there. Arequipa is known as the white city. Numerous buildings are constructed of white volcanic stone, which is plentiful, 3 volcanos ring the city.
The highlight for me was a visit to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. A convent founded in 1579, it is an enormous complex in the historic part of Arequipa. Apparently the nuns were selected only from rich Spanish families, they brought not only money when they entered religious life, but also ‘worldly goods’ such as statues, fine plate ware, beautiful furniture and… servants. Behind high walls and separated from the rest of Arequipa, they lived the high life, not lives of contemplation and simplicity… A strict reformer put and end to the excesses in the 1870’s. The complex is the size of a full city block. It houses residential streets, plazas, small orchards and chapels. It is completely beautiful. It is still a viable convent, 20 nuns call this place home. They range in age from 18 to 100.
After a few days we were ready to head back to Emcinco, who was patently waiting for us in Nazca. This time a day bus trip was the way to go. 9 hours later we arrived, checked into our simple hotel and crashed. We knew it would be a long day departing Peru and entering Chile so we wanted to be ready.
We were glad of the rest, it took 4 hours to depart the Nazca airport and we weren’t even going through Customs and Immigration!. When we tried to pay for our airport parking, the Peruvian computer system wouldn’t accept the 15 days we had been parked there. We were told no one had ever parked a plane there for so long…..!!!!! Anyway, it was finally figured out after many phone calls to Lima and we were on our way. We landed at Tacna, cleared out of the country and made the 10 minute hop across the border to Chile, landing at Arica airport.
Welcome to Chile