~And let us pursue that most tempting of
Saturday, March 23, 2013
We rolled into Cuzco, Peru tired, worn out and sick of night buses. We’d done a pretty good job of avoiding American chain restaurants, but it was early, I wanted to look up the results of the Sounders first game and we wanted to sit for awhile.
So in the old, beautifully architected town square of Cuzco, replete with touristy shops, stone buildings and character-laden alleys, we ducked into the Starbucks. It tasted like home.
The city of Cuzco was much more beautiful then we expected. Most of Peru was like this, meaning it was my expectations of the country that needed to change.
We had spent three weeks in the south of Peru at this point and we knew we needed to get north, but there was one site that drags tourists to Cuzco. The one and only Machu Picchu.
We’ve seen more Americans in Peru than any country, with the possible exception of Ireland. Our theory is that this is a relatively easy place to get to from the US and there is the massive draw of Machu Picchu. As a long-term traveler, this can make it difficult, because the short-termers drive up prices. In other words, Machu Picchu ain’t cheap.
The Inca Trail is the most famous way to get to Machu Picchu. Its a five day, four night trek including lodging, porters and all the necessities. It looked like fun, but it is necessary to book in advance and can run $500+ each. Our budget is about 15% of that.
A second common way to get there is to do the “Jungle Trek”, which is a back way including mountain bikes, rented vans, hiking through the jungle and a guide. It cost about $230. Still too much, but possibly acceptable.
Third is the bus/train. You can take a bus to Ollantaytambo then take a train to MP for $70. Still too much.
Finally, there was the local bus, minivan, minivan hike route. It was guideless, had a good chance of getting lost and was cheap. Bingo.
We wanted to talk to some other people who had done the hike before we headed out, and more importantly, we wanted to grow our party. If one of us broke an ankle or something on the trip then we would have difficulty getting out. We thought it would be safer with more of us.
We ended up on a little hike to Christo Blanco, a statue of Christ overlooking the city when we ran into Witold. Witold is pronouced VEE – tek. I gave up on Polish prononciation a long time ago . Witold was a Polish friend we had made in Arequipa who also hadn’t been to MP yet. We decided to join forces and rallied at the Irish Pub that night to figure out our plan of attack.
The next day we went and dropped the $50 necessary for MP and the extra $10 for Waina Picchu tickets. Waina Picchu is the cliff visible in all of the famous photographs, but only allows up a few people per day. We ended up buying for two days out, which was great because it meant we didn’t have to rush so much.
Then, we made the march out of downtown Cuzco to Santiago. I’m still not sure if Santiago was another city or just a district. Either way, it was about 30 minutes walking and off the beaten trail. We then purchased the Santiago bus ticket for 20 soles, about $7. Finally, we hit up the central market where we purchased a ton of dried fruit and nuts.
More importantly, I got my first choclo con queso. Choclo is a type of corn with really big kernels. Its commonly steamed in large metal pots then served with a big hunk of cheese for about 75 cents. Leslie didn’t like the cheese. I ate hers.
The next day we were off, hopping on the bus at 8am and winding through the picture-esque landscape. Rolling mountains abandoned as we went through small mountain towns, locals hopping on and off.
Food vendors came running onto the bus at various stops hawking their wares, meaning I got some more choclo con queso.
We ran into a couple tour groups on the way. They were doing the jungle trek and riding bikes down the mountain. It looked like fun at first. Then it started raining off and on and the bikes looked like a lot less fun.
The ride was beautiful, but long. It took us about 6 hours to get to Santa Maria, the first small town. At this point, we knew we needed to get to Santa Teresa, either by hiking or taking a mini van/taxi.
There was a cartel of taxi drivers ready to take us on our way. It was one of those things where you can pay a little extra and go now or wait for the taxi to fill up. It took another thirty minutes or so before some people from Cuzco joined us and the five of us were off to Santa Teresa.
That night we stayed in a little hostel in Santa Teresa for about $7 each. It wasn’t very fancy, the hot water looked like it might electrocute us and there was constuction outside, but it was fine.
Santa Teresa was also the site of the best natural hot spring we’ve found. It was three pools right up against a cliff-face. They’d been developed enough so that they were safe, smooth and nice, but still made mostly out of the natural surroundings so it didn’t feel like a swimming pool.
The next day saw the skies open up.
It rained. And rained. And rained.
We had a quick breakfast of fruit and drinkable yogurt from the market before realizing there was a cheap breakfast place that served full breakfast. Well, a full breakfast in Peru is coffee, a single egg and bread, but it was hot. The coffee was also interesting. The waiter brought us a small, glass pitcher of cold, very dense coffee and a thermos of hot water. I then mixed them together to create a cup of coffee.
The hope was to wait out the storm, but after about twenty minutes it became apparent that it wasn’t letting up. We had a couple plastic ponchos, as we had forgotten our nice raincoats on a bus in Bolivia. They didn’t seem like they’d do the trick.
There was a group of laborers who were building a road outside and they were all wearing the same poncho. It was black, had a hood and buttons on the side. Basically, it was a rectangular tarp with a hood.
We ended up getting one “classic black” for me and a bright yellow for Leslie. Mine did a bit better in the rain, but hers packed to about 1/3 of the size. They both cover backpacks as well as bodies, so that’s nice.
Before long we were off again, taking a taxi for 5 soles to the hydro-electric plant and giving the ponchos a workout before trekking into the jungle.
Supposedly, there was going to be a cable-car across the river, but they had recently built a bridge. This also made it much more difficult to figure out where we were going.
Soon, we saw one of the oddest waterfalls I’ve ever run across. The water was running fast, but I had to assume the waterfall itself was pretty new. Rocks were constantly getting knocked out of the riverbed. We could see rocks bouncing their way down the waterfall, some of them were pretty big. The waterfall turned back into a river at the bottom. The bridge over the river had a chain-link fence to hold back rocks and a sign saying it was dangerous to stop on the bridge.
We would have preferred a sign that said, “you are going the wrong way to Machu Picchu.” Thankfully, a friendly construction worker stopped us and pointed us in the correct direction.
After taking a bit of an odd detour through a construction site we found the train tracks that would lead us to Aguas Caliente, the town right below Machu Picchu.
It was still raining as we trudged through the forest. It was a bit hard to see as the rain was thick and our eyes were down, but before long I heard a “splut”.
Not being sure what it was I ignored it and kept going.
Eventually, I saw where the splut was coming from. Thick, worm-like bugs about half again as long as your index finger and twice as thick were falling from the trees and hitting the ground. They were jet-black, but had a bright yellow bands every inch or so. Usually, bright colors in the jungle means poison.
I tried not to think of the big poisonous worms that might fall on us.
The walk was long, but not overly tough and after three hours or so, we finally reached the small, incredibly touristy town of Aguas Calientes.
The town was nice, but had been overrun by the tourism industry. The “Hiram Bingham Express” was taking tourists to the small town by the hundreds. There were no cars in Aguas Calientes, as the town is supposedly cut off from all traffic. There were buses that were intended to get people from the town to MP itself, which made me a bit skeptical about how the town was “cut off”.
I also saw the price-tiering on the train. $70 for foreigners, $5 for Peruvians, $3 for locals.
The whole place felt like a ski-town, where the visitors vastly outnumbered the locals. The restaurants were priced accordingly, with costs being at or slightly above Seattle prices in most cases. Fortunately, we had gotten some advice from some people we passed on the way up and went to the food court above the local market. It was the exact same food, except instead of being served in a nice restaurant it was served at a small bar with a front row seat into the kitchen. It was about $3 per meal and pretty good.
The next day we were supposed to wake up at 4:30am to start hiking up to MP. Unfortunately, I slept right through my wristwatch alarm and ended up waking up around an hour later. The goal was to be up there for sunset so we could get some good pictures in MP.
We had actually brought clean clothes, and Leslie had brought her makeup so we be all set for the pictures.
Then we had the hike to MP.
I use the word “hike” losely here, because for me, I think of hikes as a walk through the woods, sure there’s usually some up and down, but nothing like this. This was 45 minutes of going straight up very steep stairs. The buses which shuttled people from the town to MP would go back and forth on switchbacks, whil our staircase went right up through the middle. Before long, we were drenched in sweat, had missed sunrise and were convinced that we were going to be sweaty, gross and miss all opportunity at pics. At least it wasn’t raining.
We reached the top when the sun was already up and had little choice but to spend the $3 on a small bottle of water. There were people streaming off the buses who looked relaxed with a full belly, but they weren’t on our budget.
Nevertheless, tired, sore-legged and sweaty, we had made it to Machu Picchu.
The site itself was incredible. There is still some disagreement as to exactly why the Inca built Machu Picchu, but prevailing thought nowadays is that Inca himself used it as a home. It probably could have housed about 300 people.
Unlike many sites, parts of MP have been rebuilt, using the same methods as they would have hundreds of years ago. Its nice to be able to see what it looked like, as opposed to a pure ruin.
Llamas roam over the entire place with a smattering of bunnies running around.
At ten o’clock we made the second steep hike of the day, tackling Waina Picchu. This one was hard, but by now we had gotten a few decent pictures and we knew we could eat our snacks when we got to the top, so spirits were higher. Upon reaching the top we could see out in 360 degrees, including down on the main site itself.
It had taken three days, a few major hikes, ponchos and dodging falling poison-bugs, but we had taken the back way to the top of the world.