Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru (February 2014)

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February 28th 2014
Published: February 28th 2014
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23 February 2014 – Sunday – Lima to Cusco, Peru

We decided to fly to Cusco from Lima instead of taking the 20 hour bus ride; the flight was less than an hour! The buses were overnight so we would have seen very little scenery anyway. We arrived in Cusco and we met at the airport by a tour guide who works with our hostel. She spent most of the trip talking to us about trips on offer and was disappointed to learn that we had already made our arrangements to Machu Picchu and that we intended to spend the first day just wandering around Cusco on foot. The Hostal Qorikilla is located at the edge of the old city, slightly uphill, and has a very nice view out over the city from its fifth floor terrace.

Cusco is a high-altitude city, 3400 meters above sea level, and the now familiar tightness-in-the-chest sensation was quickly apparent. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cusco is situated in the Andes mountain range and was developed as an ‘Imperial’ city by the Incas, a complex urban centre with distinct religious and administrative functions and exclusive homes for the royal families. The area around the city was isolated from separated into clearly marked areas for agriculture, artisan and industrial production. When the Spaniards conquered it in then 16th century the preserved the basic structure of the city but built their magnificent Baroque churches, monasteries and manor houses and palaces over the ruins of the Inca buildings. Many of the Spanish buildings remain and the city is a compact and wonderful place to wander around for a few hours.

The downside is that, as Cusco is the start-off point for visits to Machu Picchu, it is filled with touts selling tours as well as a plethora of street hawkers selling tourist tatt. They are as persistent as mosquitoes and just as annoying.

We were undecided about lunch. We felt that we had perhaps missed an opportunity in Lima to experience some quality Peruvian food so we asked the hostal manager to recommend a couple quality Peruvian restaurants for us. He recommended three different ones, all located overlooking the Plaza de Armas. We found the restaurants and looked in through the windows and Joan studied the menus and they all seemed geared to tourists with western prices to match. We were hoping for a more genuine Peruvian dining experience. We visited one of the travel agencies to enquire about bus tickets to our next destination, the town of Puno on Lake Titicaca (gotta love that name!) and also asked him about restaurants. He recommended a place called La Chomba that was a few streets away from the centre and was a local eating establishment. We found it and entered and it was full of Peruvians with not a tourist in sight. We both ordered the chicken soup and shared a large fresh-squeezed fruit juice that was a shade of purple and came in a massive glass. The chicken soup was really only a chicken broth with a boiled chicken thigh, a boiled potato, a yucca and a globe artichoke. It was nice but not great. The room was lively and our server had very good English. Three local musicians appeared and played guitar and sang a few songs for spare change. While we enjoyed the experience, afterwards we decided that we should have perhaps gone to one of the restaurants on the main square, that what we are really looking for is quality Peruvian food prepared with Western knowledge and experience. So we might try one of those restaurants tomorrow.

The flight and high altitude and long day walking in the blazing sunshine had zapped our energy levels so we headed back to the hostal in the early afternoon. While passing through one of the squares we happened upon a market fair which consisted of games such as ‘drop-the-coin’ and a form of roulette, and a group-rap that had an audience of over 100 persons, some stalls selling food and juice. These were the local Peruvians spending Sunday at the fair. We watched for awhile and I took more photographs. Continuing on we met a young man from Argentina who was carrying a small basket filled with baked coconut-covered balls the size of golf balls. He had excellent English and we engaged him in conversation and learned that he was travelling north from his home, stopping to sell his baked products on the square to earn money to continue his travels. We purchased five of his goods and ate them later and they were delicious and we hope to meet him again in the square tomorrow to buy some more!

24 February 2014 – Monday – Cusco, Peru

There are a few Inca sites on the hill overlooking Cusco, including Saksaywaman, a walled complex made of large polished dry stone walls with boulders carefully cut to fit together tightly without mortar, which we can see from our hostel. We caught an early morning taxi up to the site and wandered around it and a couple of the other sites, took a few photos and gazed out at the view over the city, and watched the local women in their colourful clothing leading their pet alpacas down to the city centre to pose for tourist photographs. A local man with very good English tried to sell us a 2-hour horse tour to a few more Inca sites but Joan wasn’t keen. We also walked up another nearby hill to the Blanco Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue. (Many South American cities have these statues on overlooking hillsides, the most of which is of course the statue in Brazil.) We used this statue as a sort of North Star when walking around the city when we became disoriented; we were guided by Christ (I never thought I would write this phrase in connection with myself!).

From the hilltop we followed a stone pathway back into the centre of the town. We spent the rest of the day just wandering around Cusco. We had a very good lunch at Limo on the balcony overlooking the Plaza de Armas. We visited a magnificent market on San Pedro square that was recently mentioned in an article in the Guardian from a famous Peruvian chef who was born in Cusco. Like all the markets we have visited in South America, this one was colourful and full of life and everything anyone could want (but no jazz cds!). Joan marvelled at the food stalls and all the fresh fruit and vegetables and the bucket of pigs heads and rounds of cheese (first time we had seen these) and the large round loaves of bread. These are great places to just wander and watch.

We hopped on a collectivo down to the bus station to purchase our onward ticket for Puno and Lake Titicaca on Wednesday and were informed that a general strike in Cusco planned for Tuesday and Wednesday would mean that there would be no buses leaving the town for anywhere! We found one company who seemed to think that the strike would have run its course by lunch time Wednesday and normal service would resume then so we reserved our seats and walked back up to the town.

We went to the PeruRail office to ensure that our planned trip to Machu Picchu on Tuesday would proceed and were assured that as PeruRail had its own buses and rail rolling stock that it would be okay. We stopped for coffee and cake on Plaza San Francisco and then made our way back to our hostel around 7pm. Our scheduled PeruRail bus was 5am, so we arranged a wake-up call for 4 am and a taxi for 4:30 with the porter of the hostel.

Joan checked her emails on the Nexus tablet that is as constant companion to her as I am, and she had received a notice from PeruRail announcing that their bimodal service from Cusco to Machu Picchu was cancelled on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the strike. They offered full refunds or transfer the reservation to Thursday. The rail part of the journey would proceed as scheduled if we could find our own way to the train station, about 90 minutes from Cusco, at a place called Ollytantambo.

We went down to the hostel reception to seek their assistance and found there, Vicky, the travel agency woman from Andean Journeys Peru who had met us at the airport. She was sorting out a private bus for four Brazilians who were in the same situation as ourselves. She was telephoning her contacts in the transport business and arranged for the six of us to be collected at 4am and taken by bus via a back-road out of the town to the train station. We returned to our room, grateful and relieved and very thankful to Vicky for her efforts. We returned to our room and decided to have an early night because of the early morning wake-up. A few minutes later Vicky knocked on our door and said the bus would be leaving at 2am instead of 4am. We prepared our backpacks for the day and showered and lay on our beds unable to sleep. About an hour later the hostel porter knocked on the door to advise us that the bus would now be leaving before midnight as the initial signs for the strike were that it was going to be widespread and would start exactly at midnight.

We were in the reception room of the hostel at 11:30 when the four Brazilians wandered in from a nearby bar, obviously intoxicated, having just received a text message from Vicky about the new departure time. They seemed to sense no urgency and staggered up to their rooms to prepare while the bus waited nearby to depart. We hurried up to the bus, gasping for breath in the high altitude. It held about 30 other people, mostly Peruvians, who had also scheduled a day trip to Machu Picchu. Eventually the Brazilians made it up the bus and we crawled out of town in the midnight dark. We were exhausted by our long day walking around Cusco and fell into the half-dazed slumber that we have gotten used to while travelling the buses of South America. We arrived at the train station about 3am as the driver had to take back roads the entire route to Ollytaytanbo. We slept there in the bus until the train station opened and took the 5am train through the magnificent Sacred Valley, following the rough-running dirt-brown waters of the Willkanuta River to the very cute town Aguas Calientes, also known as Machupicchu Pueblo.

In Machupicchu Pueblo we purchased our entrance tickets to the site and a bus ticket up to the entrance. Against the odds, we arrived at the entrance to Machu Picchu at 7:30am!

25 February 2014 – Tuesday – Machu Picchu, Peru

Nothing prepares you for Machu Picchu: it is truly awesome. From the entrance gate you follow a path around the edge of a hill. Machu Picchu is hidden from view. You come to a short set of stairs and when you crest them, there it is in all is dramatic splendid and magnificent glory! You’ve seen it countless times on television and in photographs. Still, that does not really prepare you for witnessing it: the cut stone walls of the houses and temples on the plateau, the sharp-angled mountains pointing diamond-like into the sky; the hovering clouds. Machu Picchu is awe-inspiring.

Machu Picchu stands 2,430 m above sea-level, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, in the middle of a tropical mountain forest. It is the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height. Its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments.

We were some of the first visitors of the day. We took a bus from the village up to the entranceway. We had considered walking as it was only about 2 kilometres, but it was straight up all the way and with the high altitude would have been a tremendous strain. (We did, however, walk back down the trail and our knees were wobbly and shaking at the end of the descent.)

The early morning cloud cover over Machu Picchu was thick and low on the site. It is as large and impressive and very well maintained. The ruins of the domestic houses and temples and the terraces where the crops were grown and harvested can be clearly seen and imagined as they must have been when this was the Inca capital. It is all just simply and utterly spectacular. People walk about as if in a trance. We walked along a narrow mountainside pathway to the Inca bridge; about a twenty minute walk from the main site. It is sheer drop cliff on both sides. The ‘bridge’ consisted of a few logs placed over an open space between two ridges. When we returned to the main site most of the cloud cover had been cleared away by the rising sun and the view was even more breath-taking, if such a thing was possible. After the trauma and stress of the night before and the possibility of not getting here, we were absolutely thrilled to walking among the Inca ruins in the middle of the Sacred Valley.

We walked down a stone path back to the village. We had our late picnic lunch in a river side park that was filled with local families. We watched the younger children playing soccer and the parents hanging about and the young teenagers-in-love chasing each other around. It rained as we walked back to Machupicchu Pueblo, the constant roar of the raging river made it nearly impossible to have a conversation. We changed our return journey ticket at the Peru Rail office and returned to Ollytantanbo station, exhausted and completely sated. We were met at the train station by the same bus man who had brought us there the previous night. Once his bus was filled, we started off. He was driving and talking on two phones at the same time and after about half an hour he pulled into the driveway of a small cafeteria and stopped. We learned that the buses and taxis trying to pass the strike lines and enter Cusco were being stoned. We sat for about four hours while the bus driver talked to colleagues and friends in the city until he determined it was calm enough to return. Even then, however, he did not go via the main road but cross-country via dirt roads, through farmer’s fields and even along a prohibited road which looked to me like an access road for mining vehicles as it passed through kilometres and miles of quarries. We did meet one road block that consisted of one man and two boys of about 10 years old. They insisted on the driver paying a ‘toll’ for them to remove the rocks they had placed on the road. A few of the Peruvian occupants of our bus chuckled at their request and the bus driver handed them a few coins and we proceeded without further incident.

As we approached Cusco we witnessed more evidence of the strike in the form of more large rocks about the size of soccer balls strewn on the road. It was as though we were driving through a maze. There were also telephone and fence poles rolled onto the road. The bus driver had to stop and get out a couple of times to widen the gap between the obstacles in order for the bus to pass through them. We arrived safely into the main town and trudged wearily up the hill to our hostel and fell immediately into a deep and wonderful sleep.

26 February 2014 – Wednesday – Cusco to Puno, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Today was a day wasted! The strike continued which meant the buses weren’t leaving the town limits. We decided to go to the bus station anyway and just get the first bus available going to Puno. There were, however, no taxis. So we had to walk to the bus station, about 3 kilometers away, wheeling our 20k suitcases down the cobble stone streets and through the squares. Many people were walking to work, at least those that were not on strike! We saw some of the groups of strikers, made up of indigenous people in traditional dress and led by some stick-thumping and shouting young men in baseball caps, marching up and down a few of the streets in preparation for the large gathering later. We stopped on Plaza de Armas to go to the Peru Rail office to arrange a refund on our biomodal ticket but the office was closed. We were sitting in the middle of the square talking about whether we would bother going to their other office when a young Peruvian woman, Sonia, approached us and asked if she could be of assistance. We explained our situation and she told us the Peru Rail office was closed all day yesterday and most likely wouldn’t open today either, because of the strike. We had noticed that most of the shops were closed; but there were still those pesty street hawkers who never seem to stop selling! Sonia worked in the tourist industry in Cusco and seemed to be just hanging around the Plaza de Armas offering to help visitors in distress. We talked about the strikes and its potential disastrous consequences for tourism. She advised us just to stay an extra night in our hotel and tomorrow all would be back to normal. And that is what we should have done, but we were determined to continue on our journey and travel to Puno and Lake Titicaca that day. The woman arranged a lift for us part of the way to the bus station in a massive four-door tourist police pickup truck. The two police officers were apologetic while at the same time driving slowly and careful not to provoke the anger of the strikers who were continuing to gather and march up and down the main streets. They dropped us off and we rolled our suitcases down the hill in the middle of the traffic-free street to the bus station.

There was slight and building tension and hostility in the atmosphere, as well as a spirit of a communal gathering, as there probably is with all strikes where potential violence is threatened by ignorance and self-righteousness. We noticed groups of riot police with batons and plastic shields standing in rows beside some of the most important buildings, including the beautiful churches on the Plaza de Armas. We read later that there were violent clashes at the airport when protestors tried to occupy it. As we walked down the centre of Calle de Sol (Street of the Sun) we were watched alternatively with shameful and embarrassed glances by some of the people as well as snide, under-the-breath comments by others. We were neither threatened nor harassed and allowed to pass without confrontation or incident.

Before heading to the bus station, the manager of the hostel had rung the bus company to enquire about our reservation for the 1pm bus and was told it would depart at 2 pm. When we arrived at the bus station less than an hour later we learned that the bus would not now depart until after 6pm. We sat in the bus station all day and the bus finally left at 7pm. We should have stayed an extra night in Cusco and gone to Puno the following day instead. The bus journey from Cusco to Puno was entirely in darkness so we could see nothing of the countryside. What we could see, however, was a roadway full of debris left by the strikers. We arrived in Puno at 2am, exhausted and annoyed with ourselves for making the wrong decision in insisting on travelling. We should have stayed the extra night in Cusco and we could have witnessed the entirety of the protest, from the safe distance of a cafe balcony of course!

The next morning the local Peruvian press reported that the strike cost local businesses over 6 million Peruvian Soles (about 2 million US Dollars). The two-day strike was organized primarily by the Cusco Departmental Workers’ Federation (FDTC). During previous strikes in the región of Cusco, protesters allowed transit to continue in order to facilitate tourist activity. However, the leaders of the current strike have refused to open the customary “tourist corridor” in order to allow travellers to circulate this time and the public transit was been effectively shut down by the protesters for the duration. The strikers’ principal grievances are the continued delays of important infrastructure projects by the regional government, including the South Peruvian Gasoducto, and the Chinchero International Airport. According to Peruvian officials, over 5,000 foreign tourists had planned to visit different sites in the Cusco region during the two days of the protest. Their statement also warned that the protest might “irreversibly damage Peru’s image abroad” and adversely affect tourism in future. (We are reminded of the article we read recently about the decimated Egyptian tourist industry. Like the Egyptian pyramids, Machu Picchu will still be there in five or ten or twenty years, and travellers may decide that it best to go elsewhere while there is unrest in this area of Peru.),

We were annoyed by the inconvenience, and annoyed with ourselves for not making a better decision, but just consider this part of our ‘true’ genuine South American experience.


7th October 2014

No rain in February?
Hey, thanks for this wonderful blog entry! I am considering going to Machu Picchu, and I would like to go in February because it is cold over here, but what I am reading is there is a lot of rain. But you don't mention it at all in your blog! Do you remember any rain?
9th October 2014

Rain in February in Machu Picchu
Hello Stephane: Yes, we experienced a sudden and heavy rain storm when walking back to the village, but the experience of visiting Machu Picchu and the subsequent interesting journey back to Cusco must have removed it from our memory when we were writing about it. Our advice would be don't let the possibility of rain deter you from an incredible experience. Thank you very much reading and commenting on our blog. Enjoy your journey, Greg and Joan

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