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Published: December 13th 2006
The back door to the Lost City
Sitting on the upper terraces of the guards house - the spot where "the picture" was taken to bring fame to the rediscovered lost city of the Inca empire - I watch some clouds rolling in over that sacred place hiding it in a cloak of mist. Seconds later the evening sun breaks through and its light is reflected by the humid air in a ray of colors. With the crowd gone and the shifting clouds the only movement (except for a couple of ill-placed llamas and three or four guards, unmissable in their bright red, blue and orange raincoats) this legendary place feels just mystical. It has been written a hundert times, but I happily confirm it once more: if it isn´t for the factor of the unknown and mystery surrounding it, nor for the size of the complex, nor for the beautiful stonework, nor for the historic value, Macchu Picchu still earns every bit of its fame for the most spectacular setting you can imagine. It is settled on a steep hill which stands out connected to the range just on one side where the Inca Trail comes in through the Gate
of the Sun. All other sides are unaccessible - vertical slopes about 300 metres deep where the Rio Urubamba has forged a valley. And in the background more mountains - if you are lucky enough to see them.
I had to admit that it had been worth the effort and even the 38 US Dollars entrance fee - eventhough I cannot understand how you can charge that much money for a single entry to a single sight which is only valid for one day and then charge extra for the toilets! At least we had saved the ridiculous 68 Dollars they ask from the gringos for a train ride which costs a local just ten bucks. We had chosen instead to take the back door in and out - a two days bus ride for 7 Dollars one way, which was quite an adventure in itself.
The trip started at the bus terminal Santiago in Cusco where a couple of buses per day leave for Santa Maria - a little town remarkable only for excellent value bananas and mangoes, hordes of sandflies and inhabitants with a likening for very early buses. The six-hour-ride took us first to Ollantaytambo and from
there the road started to climb up a mountain pass on what must be the most twisting road in the world (which makes Swiss mountain passes look like a highway in Holland). I soon got a sickish feeling in my stomach which still suffered from the cheap shrimp soup I had eaten against my better judgement two days ago. When we finally reached the pass on 4600 metres the paved highway turned into a narrow one-line gravel road and a slight sense of unease added to the sickish feeling as our bus curved around huge heaps of fallen stone and rock, and through pools of water which flooded the road. Luckily, the driver neither seemed to be drugged nor drunk nor in the kind of suicidal mood we had experienced in other parts of the world, and as the weather and our seats in the bus didn´t permit us to follow our route precisely we didn´t feel that unsafe after all. Anyway, we got off the bus unhurt in the above mentioned town of Santa Maria which is big enough for a couple of cheap guesthouses and food stalls, but despite its important sounding name not to be found on
The next stage was a two hour minibus ride up another mountain to the slightly bigger Santa Theresa. As the afternoon bus had been cancelled due to lack of passengers, it was the 4 am bus which brought us there - certainly a much more conveniant time to travel.
In the meantime, we had hooked up with a couple from France and the four of us made our way on foot to Aguas Calientes. Of notice on the way was a innovative ropeway to cross the river which is best described as an iron basket on a winch, and the huge amount of very colourful butterflies.
Aguas Calientes is a small ugly tourist town full of future 4 star hotels in their very first steps and overpriced restaurants. Even so, we managed to find a decently priced room to rest for a bit before the final ascend early next day to the magnificent site of Macchu Picchu...
PS: We took the same route back, in contrary to our French friends who thought that 30 Dollars were actually well spent if you can avoid that dangerous bus ride. Well, we didn´t. The bus back to Cusco left Santa
"Finger Puppet?" - "no gracias" - "finger puppet?"
It has to be noted that this woman in Arequipa posed voluntarily.
Maria at 4 am (of course) and it took us almost seven hours to Ollantaytambo due to roadwork which was probably (or rather definitely) necessary. At least, the train company did not get a single Sol from us. Take only photos. Leave only money.
The moment you set foot on the Plaza de Armas in the heart of Cusco's old town you are stunned by its charming beauty. A moment later two pleading eyes try to sell you a nice but quite useless painting. "No gracias." As you walk across the square you are offered free tourist information in heaps, "no gracias", and when you turn into one of the cobblestoned alleys a beggar is tapping your leg with his hat. As you slow down for a moment the young girl from across the street takes aim at you. "Finger puppets?" "No gracias." After half an hour in Cusco you feel almost as miserable as the thousands of street vendors trying to earn some soles from the many tourist which are invading the city. For them all foreigners seem to be ATMs on legs but unfortunately only a few live up to their role (for example
buying plastic cigarette lighters for 5 US$). Decades of mass tourism have created an aura which hovers above the place like a cheese cover suffocating the beauty beneath. Too many tourists with an illusion and too many disillusioned locals create an awkward atmosphere.
Many Peruvians have come to the city with nothing but their llama dressed up as if taken straight out of the Muppet Show, trying to sell the only thing they have to sell: themselves. Now they are pestering you to take their photo - eventhough in fact they dislike being photgraphed - for a propina (tip) preferably payable in dollars. Often they are ashamed in such a way that they even refuse to look into the camera.
In Calle Hatunrumiyoc the famous twelve angled stone, eventhough only moderately inpressive, is a must-see for every tourist. A nine year old boy is offering his guide service in perfect English. To our questions which were intended to be critical he has the perfect answers ready. "Yes", he goes to school and the money he earns he gives to his mother to buy him school books and clothes. Other travellers we met have come across less modest child guides who
Plaza de Armas, Cusco
Every Peruvian city seems to have a Plaza de Armas. But this one is arguably the nicest of them all.
have directly introduced themselves as professionals...
While eveybody is desperately trying to get some soles from the tourists the big money is inevitably realized elsewhere. The ridiculously priced train to Machu Picchu (return trip for backpackers 68 dollars, for locals 10 dollars) is one example. Also the entry fee to the lost city seems to me rather high with 38 dollars (toilets extra!). Ironically these cash cows are owned by foreign companies and the dollars go straight out of the country. No wonder the locals are despearate to get their share of one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world. But it is also no wonder that some tourists are pissed off with the existent gringo prices and the prevailing attitude that you should buy this and that to be a good tourist. The beauty of a place can also be its doom and Cusco is definitely a beautiful place.
Find more stories and pictures on our Lovelyplanet-Homepage
. Planet Portrait
* Top 3:
Rainbow over Machu Picchu
Old towns of Arequipa and Cusco
Butterflies in the Urubamba Valley
* Our route:
Arequipa - Chivay - Cabanaconde - Cusco - Santa
Cusco alley in the morning
Notably, before the tourists arrive to admire the famous Inka wall.
Maria - Aguas Calientes - Puno
* That was good:
Excellent value for food and accomodation
* That was bad:
No condors on the famous condor lookout in the Colca Canyon, eventhough we tried twice.
* Recommended guest house:
In Arequipa just next to the Plaza des Armas. We had cable tv, own bathroom and balcony for only 25 Soles. (Unfortunately, we can´t remember the name.)
Free on arrival
* We paid for a meal:
between 2 and 7 Soles. Planet Pictures
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