Cusco, Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu

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June 13th 2009
Published: June 13th 2009
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After one night in Lima, in which we saw only a supermarket and the hostal, and a 21 hour bus journey on a luxury bus (still doesn´t change the fact you´re on a bus for 21 hours!) we arrived in Cusco. This city is the ancient capital of the Inca empire, which at one time covered much of Peru, Ecuador, and parts of Brazil and Argentina. It is apparently the finest example of Inca architecture in the world, and the city certainly is very beautiful.

We spent the first night recuperating from the bus and went exploring the next day. We visited the Temple of the Sun, which was the main Inca temple hidden under a Catholic church until excavated, and strolled around the various plazas. We were interested to see lots of rainbow flags around the city and wondered whether there had been a gay pride event. Turns out that this is actually the flag of the Inca´s, which makes more sense given how heavily Catholic the country is. We also blew a few pounds on a whole new Peruvian outfit for Joey and a silly alpaca hat for Sarah.

The next day we got up early, in near freezing temperatures (a result of the altitude), to get the train to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu. The train was a bit of a rickety affair but probably a better experience than the gruelling Inca Trail, although at times we did wonder if we could walk faster than the train, especially when it broke down for an hour on the way back.

Aguas Calientes is a totally tourist-oriented town. Every restaurant is a pizza place and every bar has happy hour all day. We got screweed over by one place, which gave us change in a fake 50 soles note, admittedly only GBP10 but it´s the principle of the matter. We got a feel for the town in the afternoon even witnessing a local parade that seemed to involve leprachauns and we laughed quite heartily when the whole procession walked unknowlingly through a big pile of dog poo. We also visited the hot springs that give the town its name. These are sulphur pools that are naturally heated and some of them were actually quite hot (Budapest "hot" springs take note!). At one point a Frenchman was accosted by security and I managed to convince Joey it was because he was wearing Speedos, which have been ruled to be a crime against common decency in Peru (actually he just had to put a big bag in a locker, but my version was funnier). We weren´t the only ones giggling over this confrontation so the Speedos reputation is obviously a global one.

The next day we got up early, again (some holiday this is, we´ve had only 2 days in 4 weeks when we have got up later than we do for work) and got the 7am bus up to Machu Picchu. Despite arriving this early (in our opinion) the site was already pretty busy. Machu Picchu is utterly awesome, but it is a shame you have to share it with so many other tourists! Reportedly 3,000 per day.

The site took us about 3 hours to get around in total, including a walk away from the main site to see the Inca Bridge, which was not so much a bridge but a walkway built onto a sheer cliff face that once was sufficient to stop the Spaniards in their path (maybe they were scared of heights too?). The walk around to the bridge was a bit scary, with sheer drops beside the path of about 2,000m - Daddy Gough would have loved it (not!). We returned to the main site at a fairly high point, which provided stunning panoramic views of the ancient city. It is crazy to believe that so many years ago a whole civilisation built and lived in this city. It is a large complex site set on row upon row of terraces, used for agriculture, all precariously balanced on a small plain on the top of a very steep sided mountain. It is surrounded by many other steep, tree covered mountains and this all adds to the wonder of the setting that makes the site breathtaking. We didn´t make it up the mountain that overlooks the whole site (Huaynupicchu) as numbers are limited and it looked far too steep and scary for poor little Sarah (who isn´t great with heights) to deal with.

We left the site around midday to get the bus back to Aguas Calientes and then the train back to Cusco (well Poroy actually as the Cusco section of the track is currently closed for repairs but this did allow us a 20 minute taxi ride in which we spoke almost fluently in Spanish with the taxi driver about the difference between dogs and cats in Peru and England!).

Whilst we are not sure we (by that I mean me - Sarah) could have hacked the Inca Trail ourselves, I can see that the pain would be worth it to arrive at Machu Picchu for sunrise. It is an awe inspiring site in stunning surroundings, and quite amazing to think it was secret until less than 100 years ago. It´s just a shame that it´s not so secret anymore and the world and its dog have turned up to see it.

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