Published: February 28th 2006February 8th 2006
Colourful local girl
We encountered this polite young girl on our way to Pisaq
As fas as being on the tourist trail is concerned, Cuzco is right up there. The discovery of Machu Picchu some hundred years before turned what was once a relative backwater into something of a tourist hotspot. It was with some cynisism therefore that we travelled to Cuzco - but how could you possibly visit Peru without seeing Machu Picchu?
For those that don't know what all the fuss is about, Machu Picchu is the most complete Inca city discovered, perched atop a mountain in the a most innaccessible region of Peru. The location itself is incredible enough, let alone the incredibly well preserved ruins that sit precariously in the clouds.
Our arrival in Cuzco went according to plan, avoiding the many touts by virtue of a prior reservation secured (including a sizable discount - low season is a good time to bargain!) at the Hotel Wiracocha. Although it wasn't quite as flash as we'd hoped, it was plenty good enough for us. We spent the first day or so wandering around town and admiring the ultra-precise Inca stonework on which much of the city is built. It's amazing that even after 500 odd years the stones fit together
so well that in the vast majority of cases you literally can't fit a sheet of paper between them. Cuzco is a tourist city, true enough, but that wasn't enough to quell the rising sense of excitement that we were all feeling about exploring the various archeological treasures that the area had to offer.
After gorging ourselves on pseudo-English food - it had been far too long since our last Full English brekkie - we bought our tourist tickets, required for entry to most of the ruins in the area, and arranged for our trip to Machu Picchu. We decided that, since the train tickets are ludicrously expensive ($68 return from Cuzco, and you can only get there by train) that we would instead get a much cheaper $47 return ticket from Olyantaytambo to Aguas Callientes (the station nearest the ruins), and get to the former by bus for a piddling 5 soles - about a pound sterling. The train left Olyantaytambo at 8pm, leaving us plenty of time to explore the ruins near the town before getting the train to Machu Picchu, where we would stay the night, and explore the ruins in the morning - hopefully before
many other tourists arrived to spoil the photography!
The terraces at Ollantaytambo are a great sight and well worth some time spent exploring. One frustration of all of the archeological sites that we've encountered in Peru is that there is little firm information as to what the sites were used for, as the Incas didn't have a formal system of writing, most current thinking therefore being derived from theories and speculation.
The train in the evening was frustrating as we couldn't enjoy the view to Aguas Callientes, which must have been spectacular. Nevertheless we were in good spirits when we got to our destination and were relieved to get through the masses of touts and tourists and be guided to our hotel of choice, in this case a very new and highly recommendable hotel, if I could remember the name which I unfortunately can't! Aguas Callientes is designed with one thing in mind: exctracting money from tourists' wallets. We knew this in advance and so weren't shocked. What did surprise me was how much I warmed to the place, it really wasn't as tacky and unpleasant as I had made myself believe. That night there was little time
The postcard shot
Machu Picchu in all it's glory
to appreciate the village though, as we had set the bar quite high for the following morning; the plan was to get up at a leisurely 4:30am (!!!!!) and get the first bus to Machu Picchu so that we were amongst the first there.
Against all the odds, despite Peruvian beurocratic inneptitude at the ticket office, we were on the first bus and through the ticket gates without too much trouble. I hate to sound clichéd, but despite all the hype and nonsense that accompanies Machu Picchu, nothing can prepare you for that first glimpse. It's breathtaking. Whilst our view was slightly impeded by clouds - it is the rainy season after all - the ruins are just spectacular and the setting couldn't be beaten. We had decided not to do the Inca trail itself - a 4 day hike following an original Inca trail, supposedly excellent but we assumed very touristy and not as good as our experience in Santa Cruz - and on seeing Machu Picchu I experienced a pang of regret which luckily passed quickly.
We decided to climb the mountain overlooking the ruins as it afforded a different view of Machu Picchu than is
commonly seen, and although it wasn't easy we were pleased to get to the top and see the ruins spread out beneath us. From there it was possible to see another feature of the site, namely the river that flows around the mountain on which the ruins are perched, and one of the reasons that the Incas believed the area was so sacred. Emma and I left Jon and Ruth at that point and climbed down a trail on the other side of the mountain which took us through some beautiful cloud forest, to a fairly unimpressive cave temple, and back to the site via a different path.
We stayed at Machu Picchu for about 6 hours in total, braving intermittent but heavy rainfall, determined to see every part and constantly referring to Jon's book on the area (the excellent "Exploring Cuzco" by Peter Frost - much more believable than most of the local guides who I'm convinced make it up as they go along!). When we were finally finished, Em and I decided to walk back to Aguas Callientes, down some undeterminable number of steps, much to my left knee's disgust. Nonetheless we arrived back at the hotel,
despite the pouring rain, feeling that we'd had a great day and seen something really special.
Back in Cuzco the following day we did very little, save pay a deposit to hire some motocross bikes for two days time. We needed time to recover, but there was much to see. On our day off we visited the Cuzco museums afforded us by our tourist ticket - in short, don't bother!! They're underfunded and frankly a waste of time. The private museums, they're another story - the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art for example was excellent, despite the nonsensical pseudo-intellectual art jibbering on the labels attached to the exhibits.
The time came soon enough though to get on our bikes and explore. I'd tried our bike the day before, and was very very excited about getting to ride it on the open road. Instead of the customary 250cc bike that we normally hired, I'd taken the chance to hire a whopping Honda XR400 offroader instead, reasoning that with both Em and I on the machine we needed a bit of extra poke. Not entirely justified, no, but a whole load of fun! It was with a wide grin that we
all (Jon and Ruth on a 250 slightly behind us) set off for the ruins at Moray, apparently an Inca agricultural research station. You can see from the photos that the site is very extensive, again nobody knows exactly what they were used for, but it's said that each level has it's own microclimate and were maybe used to test for the idea conditions for various crops. Whatever their purpose, they are a visually interesting site, and make a great destination if you're on a Honda XR400!! On the way there we did have a slight mishap, having stopped at the edge of the road Em and I were unable to hold the bike up, both of us uncerimoniously falling over and me ending up in the nearby field. Luckily nothing was damaged but pride, noteably mine, and we were off again in a flash.
The next day Jon wasn't feeling up to scratch, and the weather was foul. Being the stubborn creature that I am, I was in no mood to waste the bike for the day, so Em and I donned our waterproofs and headed out into the grey. Lucky for us the weather improved quite early
on - not before my hands had turned into ice lollies I hasten to add - but enough that by the time we got to Pisaq (home to a large weekend market) we needed to remove our waterproofs. We didn't buy anything at the market, far too touristy for my liking, except some bananas for lunch. We decided to head up into the hills for lunch, the view from up there looked great, and it would give us a chance to do a bit of proper offroading. I can't say I was expecting that
much mud, but we managed not to drop the bike again (just!) and have lunch overlooking the ruins. After lunch we headed back down (carefully) and explored the ruins of Pisaq, as interesting and inexplicable as those we had seen before. It was with a heavy heart that I returned the bike that evening, having deposited Em at the hotel, although I vowed to get myself one when I got back to England. They're just too much fun not to....
The next day we all explored the ruins just north of Cuzco - Sacsayhuaman (pronounced "sexy woman" by the majority of visitors!), Puca Pucara and
one more whose name escapes me. They were all cool although not a patch on what we'd seen up until then, although it's hard to say whether that wasn't just due to a case of "ruins fatigue" which it was hard not to experience having seen so many in such a short space of time. The following day was Valentine's Day, and with Jon and Ruth off to Puno on the bus, Em and I were left to enjoy each other's company and a marvellous dinner in the evening courtesy of the Inka Grill Restaurant. A word of advice: if you're in Cuzco and want a nice dinner, GO TO THE INKA GRILL. Don't believe what people might tell you, it's not the same as the other restaurants in the area but more expensive.
Finally it was time to leave Cuzco and head to Puno and Lake Titicaca, our final destination before leaving Peru altogether. We had opted for the slow train to Puno, more expensive and slower than the busses, but apparently more picturesque. At 7am we were up and by 8am we were loaded onto the train and on our way. The scenery started off fairly average,
but after a while we were up in the mountains....... beautiful...... NOTE: Well done if you got this far! I've just read this back and can't believe how much I managed to waffle on. Just goes to show what a remarkable place it is I suppose.
There are more photos below