Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu and The Sacred Valley of the Incas

23 May

I’m starting this journal rocking and rolling on the ‘Expedition’ tourist train from Poroy (just outside Cusco) to Aguas Calientes, the end of the rail line and the town immediately below ‘New Wonder of the World’, (since 2007) and UNESCO World Heritage listed Machu Picchu.
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The first Peruvian Airlines flight from Lima got us to Cuzco by lunch time. Unfortunately three full planeloads from Lima arrived simultaneously causing chaos in the car park as tourist minibuses vied to exit first. Not a great first impression.

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This is a return trip for me but Stuart’s first. We dropped our bags at Hotel Casa Andina and went in search of food up the hill in San Blas neighbourhood. This was our first test of lungs and legs as Cusco is at 3,300 metres, a little higher than most of our travels in Northern Peru. Stu’s weren’t happy.

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San Blas and Cusco have several distinct foreign tribes. Cooler than thou dreadlocked, nose ringed, rainbow coloured beanied and tattooed are plentiful. San Blas church plaza was heaving with them selling jewelry, wrist bands and semi-precious stones. Felt like I was back in Granada. Then there’s the Inca Trail tribe, young and old in wash and wear, zip off trousers and hiking boots, and finally the cashed up seniors shopping like demons. Not sure which tribe we belong to.

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Everyone eats well in Cusco. Oodles of great restaurants offer everything from super expensive French degustation menus, like Le Soleil, to a five nuevo sole set lunch. It’s also vegetarian and vegan friendly with several veg restaurants, but even those that aren’t have at least a page of vegetarian/vegan options.

We chose a tiny Quechua restaurant T’Oqo Kachi. Their 14 neuvos soles (AUD5.50) set lunch of guacamole and home made tacos, quinoa and vegetable soup, spaghetti pomodoro and spaghetti verduras plus coca tea was exactly what we needed.

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Mr Gemini.

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This one’s for you Eliza Elliott.

On the way back down to the centre of town we looked in at Maximo Laura’s weaving studio and gallery. It has three rooms full of his exquisite, vibrant, evocative hand-loom woven wall hangings. The one Stu liked was priced at USD5,700. How strange that a Peruvian man is now an internationally acknowledged woven textile artist when it was solely a woman’s craft for millenia.

The evening started at the Pisco Museum, a bar set up by three Peruvian guys mad about pisco. They’ve done a classy job. It was worth falling off the temperance wagon for the experience. They offer guided tastings, and the cocktail menu runs to several pages. We settled for the classic pisco sour, a mango and pisco concoction and finally one made with muddled mint leaves, sugar and ice, strawberry cordial, gooseberry juice and pisco. All delicious. One more and we would have been on our ears.

Big shout out to Paula and her two sisters (one of whom was marking a life milestone). Hope you girls enjoyed the rest of your trip as much as your first night in Cusco!

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Joe, one of the barmen, has a ‘made in Peru’ tattoo he’s very proud of, but all of them are seriously knowledgable about their product.

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Nohlemi, who was to guide us around Machu Picchu, met our train in Aguas Calientes. We left our bags at the Hotel Andina sandwiched between the railway track and the fast flowing Urubamba River. This was the view from our balcony. It was so loud in our room we felt like we were trying to sleep in a waterfall.

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No queue for the bus so we were up at the top in thirty minutes and had only to navigate the entry queue and bag check. Since Machu Picchu hit the ‘Seven Wonders’ list six years ago there’s been an explosion in visitor numbers. An attempt to limit entry a few years ago caused such a backlash the authorities have given up.

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Tip for first timers to Machu Picchu – once through the gate, if you are physically able, don’t enter from the lower route, walk up via the top path or you won’t get the jaw dropping first ‘Wow!’ impression.

I don’t think Nohlemi was terribly fit as she never actually took us to the higher sections, we did those ourselves. That said she was an interesting story teller and covered a lot of archaeology, botany and ethnography in two hours. Inca history is an educated guess so you can pick the version of events that suits you. What’s not in doubt is the sheer beautiful physicality of Machu Picchu, her higher and greener sister Huaynapicchu behind, and the surrounding layer upon layer of cloud wreathed mountains. It’s a view to ponder but take ear plugs to tune out the gabbling hordes and go as early in the day as you can.

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The weather is very changeable like all of the Andes. We had rain and sun at least three times in the one afternoon so be patient and just wait, it will change.

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20140522-194102-70862032.jpgPart two of Machu Picchu was the return next morning to summit Huaynapicchu. The Incas appear to have used the mountain top for ceremonial purposes. I hadn’t been able to climb it on my previous trip and to be honest it scared me. This time I decided to challenge my vertigo and attempt it with a guide. Only 400 people may enter Huanapicchu each day, 200 at 7am and 200 at 8am. Our ticket was for 7am. We were met by our guide, Jose, at the hotel at 6am and were up the mountain and waiting at the gate by 6:45am. At 7:02am two imaculately uniformed female attendants walked by to open the check-in/check-out booth, one in stilettos.

20140522-194231-70951494.jpgWe warned Jose that Stuart was experiencing some altitude effects and that I suffered from vertigo. We agreed to tackle the ascent slowly but steadily. It was a good plan. Stopping only for photos we reached the top in 33 minutes. Jose said it usually takes people 45 minutes to an hour so we were chuffed.

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Our guide, Jose, with Stuart.

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Amazing what Stu can do without knee cartilage!
One narrow, sheer section without wooden guard rails had required a little mind over matter and at the upmost section you have to squeeze through a tiny tunnel and up a short ladder. Very large people could be in trouble and indeed several people have died on Huaynapicchu. Two sad cases occured recently, one in February. A Russian man stood at the peak and raised his arms in a ‘Corcavado Jesus’ fashion. He was struck by lightning and died on the spot. Another was a young, male Japanese tourist who fell from the top whilst taking photos.

We passed a lot of people, young and old, on the way down who were clearly not in a fit state to attempt it.

20140522-195224-71544489.jpgThe perfect followup to the climb was a shoulder and neck massage followed by lunch overlooking the plaza of Aguas Calientes. We’d done our gift shopping in the market the night before so were happy to idle away a couple of hours until our train to Ollantaytambo.

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How Peruvians learn to drive.

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20140522-195859-71939543.jpgWe had much better viewing seats on this return trip and plenty of sunshine to show off the snowy mountains.

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20140522-200126-72086559.jpgPorters for Inca Trail trekkers.

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20140522-200322-72202031.jpgOur instructions were to walk five minutes down the street from the Ollantaytambo station to our hotel, Pakaritampu. Once through the touts and hustling taxi drivers what a pleasant surprise to find a cluster of walled ochre adobe buildings set in spacious gardens with lawns and terraces backing onto green hillside. The hotel is owned and managed by Gabriel Perez del Solar, a two time Peruvian volleyball olympian. I rank it one of the top ten three star hotels I’ve stayed in. I would happily have stayed a couple of days for the restaurant food alone.

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20140522-200637-72397604.jpgThese women weave souvenirs for guests. Couple coming your way Lila and Ivy. Their babies had no stranger anxiety so I got to play Grandma.

20140522-201029-72629202.jpgBut the schedule must be obeyed so we pressed on with our day tour of Ollantaytambo and Pisac with Emilia as our guide and Raoul as our driver. The Incas’ Sacred Valley follows the course of the Urubamba River and has hundreds of significant archaeological sites, including burial caves on the steep mountainsides, grand temples, agricultural terraces and dwellings. In its own way it is as impressive a feat as Machu Picchu.

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Ollantaytambo market.

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20140522-223008-81008445.jpgLunch stop in Pisac was my favourite menu, organic quinoa and vegetable soup and guacamole wholewheat panini plus mate de coca at a restaurant overlooking the busy Pisac craft market. Who said it’s difficult for vegans to travel?

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20140522-223635-81395264.jpgInca terraces above Pisac. The workers repairing the terraces have stopped for lunch.

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Tunnel carved with hematite.

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Now this is the height of madness as far as I am concerned, three self-contained hotel rooms 150 metres or so above solid ground.

20140522-224318-81798747.jpg Guests climb up aided by wires and wire ladders.

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Not sure if some of these guests made it.

20140522-224520-81920822.jpgOn our final night in Cuzco the Andino Hotel chain upgraded us. We returned to find our left luggage in a much grander bedroom in the Andino Private Collection Hotel just around the corner. Our laundry even found us later that evening. No idea why but no complaints!

The Cusco-Aguas Calientes-Ollantaytambo-Cusco section of this trip was tailor-made for us by Latin American specialist tour company Toucan Travel. I’d tried to arrange it myself but several wasted hours trying to book two Machu Picchu entry tickets online were hours I would never get back so paying for a seamless experience with a local company that took care of all accommodation, entry tickets and transport for five days seemed sensible.

No regrets about our time in Peru except that there are many places we would like to visit that couldn’t be fitted into into our three week self-imposed limit.

I’m finishing this in the clouds fifteen minutes short of Lima airport. I wish I could have taken a photo of the mountains around Cusco as we flew over but I obeyed the captain and kept all electronic devices switched off. As far as the eye could see the Andes looked like someone had draped a pale, gleaming, crushed velvet cloak over steep, shapely contours. And in the distance the even higher cordillera was blanketed with snow. Breathtaking!

6 Responses to “Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu and The Sacred Valley of the Incas”

  1. Marion Mitchell May 23, 2014 at 4:42 am #

    Hi Sharon & Stuart (birthday boy)

    What a fantastic trip you’re having – marvelous travel diary Sharon & photos to boot.

    Take care

    marion xxxxxxxxx

    • Sharon Tickle May 23, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

      Thanks Marion. Slower pace now we are self drive in Chile. Stu is learning to sleep in!

      Sxx

  2. Cassie Neilson May 24, 2014 at 12:02 am #

    Hey Sharon and Stu, After reading your Machu Picchu blog and a bout of Shingles John has decided to scale down his ‘working’ commitments. He has asked me to find out how word press works. I am in the process of planning a 3 month Europe trip in 2015. Hallelujah!!, after 2 years of reading your blogs he has finally made the decision ‘Lock it in Eddy” I say.

    • Sharon Tickle May 24, 2014 at 1:10 am #

      Fantastic Cassie! Now John’s made the decision it will all fall into place. I think you guys have iphones-ipads so you just need to download the wordpress app. I write on the ipad and email to myself (Stu writes his on his laptop then emails to me ) to upload text and photos/videos with iphone. Then use ipad for comments etc..

      Can show you when I am back in June if you like.

      Happy planning!

      S&Sxx

  3. Maryse May 24, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    You are amazing 😉
    Now I reed your travel story with your photos I want to go to Peru !!!
    Have a nice trip back to Australia
    Bises

  4. Heather May 26, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    Gosh we were wondering where you were when I found all your blogs in our “junk mail”. How rude to put you in the “junk”. Anyway seems you are both well and enjoying yourselves. All well here. Looking forward to seeing you both in June.
    George and Heather

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