What must it be like to live in a small village already at way over 3,000 metres, where sheer mountains rise up directly above for maybe up to 1,000 to 2,000 metres more like a giant fence of random but all encompassing rock.
We have been in this environment for a few days now. I try to take some comfort from the fact that the mountains appear to be solid rock in light of the huge amounts of seismic activity in Peru. The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes follows the river along a very narrow passage through the mountains. Sometimes it is too narrow and we pass through a tunnel. The peaks rise up above us like giants looking down benignly with the highest reaching a snow capped 5,700 metres. A number of snow caps are more easily seen on the return journey.
Meanwhile the river is like none I’ve ever seen before. Full of absolutely massive rocks, the water tumbles through at phenomenal speed in an absolutely lethal spectacle. It is awesomely mesmerising.
Maybe halfway into our 90 minute journey the vegetation changes from being quite sparse with cacti and bromeliads to a more sub tropical feel. Warmer temperatures and more rain allow high altitude palms and orchids to flourish.
We kept our eyes peeled for the Spectacle Bear and the National bird Cock of the Rock along the way but no luck there.
Aguas Calientes is an end of the line pit stop with a feel of the wild west. Wall to wall eateries compete for your custom. Luckily someone from our hostel met us at the train as I don’t think my mud map would have worked in the rabbit warren. Looking over the rooftops reveals what looks like a shack shanty town on top of the touristy outlets at ground level.
Just up the steps is The Tree House restaurant. Obviously a foodie spot that we managed to luck into.
We meet people who like us have trained in to do Machu Picchu the next day. I would love to know how it panned out for some. A young Paraguayan woman who didn’t like heights and wasn’t sure she’d even go. An American woman just puffed out from walking up to the restaurant had a ticket to climb the mountain behind Machu Picchu which appears to be a vertical climb taking a couple of hours.
We head out at 05.30 and the queue for the bus is good 300 metres long – and it’s uphill to get to the end of the queue. People would have been there at 03.30 to get the first bus. It’s pretty efficient though and we are on a bus in 40 minutes with a 20 minute ride up the mountain.
A number of fit young things are walking up from the base. Extremely hard work
There is still cloud cover but we hopefully head up to the Sun Gate. Lots of early arrivers are heading down not having seen the sun. We pike at a great spot after 20 minutes and are rewarded with the sun breaking through the clouds wafting over the main site.
Fascinating with cloud cover, it is stunning in full sun light. We head down to join the masses. This is low season yet there are hundreds of people still and more continue to arrive.
My big mission is to find the location of my 1974 photo and recreate the event. I was already sure this would not be possible having seen many lovely places roped off.
We show the photo to one of the attendants. He smiled “Yes it is 3 Windows, but no puede”. OK, I can’t, so I find something a bit similar and Kerri snaps away until another attendant tells me I can’t have my leg hanging down.
It has been a full on few days and we leave Machu Picchu satisfied but exhausted. We jagged the timing for the day. Around lunch time it started to pour rain – those who got a later start would not have had such a pleasant experience.
There are 2 seasons here, wet and dry. So, for visitors in the rainy season, an overnight in Aguas Calientes with a very early morning start to get up the mountain would be my top tips to give yourself the best chance of a great experience of this magical place. We haven’t been here that long but it seems to rain later in the day and overnight.
I am glad I first visited in an easier and less well touristed time when you could clamber wherever you liked, but it’s pretty special to return nearly 43 years later and fulfil that long held promise to myself. So here’s the homage to my youthful adventurous self albeit not quite as I planned. 1974 – 2017.
Finally we are heading for the Sacred Valley and will use Ollantaytambo as an entry and exit point. The collectivo drops us of in yet another charming village Plaza and we make our way to Intitambo, our resting spot for two nights.
What a warm and welcoming hostel. None of these mountain hostels have heating but seem to be very well designed and constructed with extremely cosy beds.
The terrace looks straight out onto the ruins and always up, up to the peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Climbing any of the ruins in the Sacred Valley has an element of risk. We hear that the Pisac ruins are closed due to someone falling. Another person has died while doing a star jump for a photo and falling off a cliff – that is according to some reports. We see people doing exactly that so could be correct (star jumps that is, not falling).
The Ollantaytambo ruins extend up the mountain with various temples and the ever present water features at the base. In the wet season, mornings seem to be the optimal time to set out. The tracks may be a little precarious in the rain, though the yellow ponchos high up tell the story that people do undertake it in the rain.
Time is obviously a factor for a lot of people heading to Machu Picchu, so many seem to head straight back to Cuzco. Exhaustion plus in my book after a big day at MP. But if time is not an issue, Ollantaytambo is a perfect spot with nice accommodation, food and coffee. What more could you need?
Cuzco is a gem in the Peruvian Andes. Hippie heaven in another time, now a flashpacker paradise. This time I fly in rather than take an arduous bus ride from Lima. The taxi winds its way in El Centro through streets absolutely never designed for vehicular traffic.
We rattle over cobble stones and take our chances with the oncoming vehicles. Backing up is the only option, in the narrow streets that are reminiscent of Sevilla in terms of the dimensions.
At our highest elevation so far, there is no time to worry about altitude sickness, important business to attend to. First stop Plaza Mayor for Peru rail, but we just have to stop and take it in, the Plaza is splendidly beautiful and grand.
Train tickets to Aguas Calientes in hand and at phenomenal expense for a 90 minute journey, next stop the government department that sells entry tickets to Machu Picchu. A bit of a queue here and luckily we have plenty of soles because US$ are not accepted. Passports are required for both the train and MP tickets.
So over $300 each all up just to get the return train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and to get into MP. Will be another US$50 for the return bus from AC to MP and return. Luckily it is only about $4 to get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco!
Priorities complete, we can now eat lunch, it’s nearly 4pm.
One of the things I love about South America and Cuba as well, is that there is never a wrong time to eat. If you want a 3 course meal at 4pm, no problem. If it’s only a small snack at 8pm also no problem.
Back to our lovely hostel, so convenient apart from the fact it’s uphill with just 67 or so steps at the end of the climb – that’s Cuzco. After 3 weeks of internet deprivation in Cuba, there is a lot of catch up and research waiting to be done.
Day 2 in Cuzco and instead of searching for the local bus, we take the expensive option and get a taxi to Tambomachay. It’s only about 8kms up the road, and the key word is UP. We go to about 3,700 metres and the plan is to walk back to Cuzco taking in the Inca ruins on the way.
There is quite a long walk in to the Tambomachay ruins and we are puffing a bit even on the flat to start with. We purchase the tourist ticket that covers 16 different sites through the Sacred Valley and will cover us for 10 days.
Such a beautiful location with the inevitable fast flowing water that seems to be present in every Andean location in this part of Peru. A herd of sheep flash down the adjacent hillside adding a touch of life to the ancient beauty we are exploring.
Just across the road is Pura Pucara, stop two in the ruins exploration for the day.
From here, we decide to take unmarked trails cross country to get to the next site. I have written some directional notes so we set off confidently past a huge stand of very tall eucalypts.
Immediately we know this was a great decision. It is so green, lots of rain here, and the countryside is stunning. We pass crops, stock and farms.
After about half an hour or so, my notes seem to taper and we are on the verge of heading back toward the road. Suddenly, from behind, we are hailed. “Going to the Temple of the Moon? I am going, come with me.”
Carrying an enormous shovel, the local man is clearly on his way to work somewhere. Seems like a great option so we take up the offer. He speaks no English but endeavours to educate us on the way, drawing a mud map of the extent of the Inca empire.
He points out the potatoes, an amazing range available in Peru, and plucks two different sorts of wild mint. The aroma of the first is so strong and aromatic, unlike any mint I have smelt before.
In spite of these interludes, he is clearly in a hurry. “Walk faster”.
We walk at an absolutely cracking pace, luckily mostly downhill. I am mesmerised by his feet and legs and keep a close eye on where he is stepping as we proceed along the rough and sometimes wet track.
His lower legs and feet look as if they have been beautifully crafted from clay, they are so sturdy, brown, strong and slightly muddy in the simple sandals.
Muy tranquilo he says waving at the spectacular landscape we are walking through. Absolutely, there is no better description to describe where we are. Just a wonderful 20 minutes or so sharing a small journey with this lovely man.
The Temple of the Moon is a good resting spot after our exertions in getting there. Having seen no one for an hour or more, it suddenly becomes comparatively busy. Locals are enjoying a Sunday picnic and tourists are coming in on horses from the lower ruins. Feels pretty special to have had that interlude on our own.
Next stop Q’enqa followed by the big one Saqsahuaman.
Coming from this direction and after such a huge effort already, it seems like a very long walk in to Saqsa. Beats coming the other way though which is as uphill as you can get from Cuzco.
Have to say I am a bit excited as this is one place I visited in 1974 and here it is. Wonderful to see again.
In spite of weary bodies, we have to do the main section, then it is downhill, sometimes just as difficult as uphill, back to Cuzco.
Plans for further activities are abandoned as we are stuffed to use the vernacular, so have a late lunch again, a coffee at our favourite spot and retire for the day with a cup of coca leaf tea.
The bed is super cosy with blankets and doona, no heating needed though I sneeze if I venture to the bathroom in bare feet. Quite cold at night. In spite of walking maybe 20kms at altitude over about 5 or 6 hours I don’t sleep as well as I thought I would. Maybe the body is overtired or maybe a couple of late coca leaf teas was not a good idea.
Real yoghurt, white and creamy is a treat for breakfast. I have to say that because to date Peruvian yoghurt has been bright pink and fairly liquid. Cuzco offers plenty of culinary treats. Kerri tries alpaca steak which she enjoys.
What I enjoy is a menu that has GF written after many meal options. That’s a first for me in South America even though I have no problem finding gluten free food. It’s a little more expensive not being able to eat a sandwich or pizza which seem to be available everywhere.
You’ve not heard anything until you hear prolonged, enormously loud claps of thunder bounce around the surrounding Andes mountains. Stupendously awesome. Even our favourite coffee barista was moved to call on her God at the noise level.
She recovers enough to tell us in such careful Spanish that I am able to get most of it, about the Fiestas that are currently happening in Cuzco. Every day different areas or suburbs are celebrating their saints. With a warning to be very careful of our belongings in the crowds, she encourages us to go to one. Sounds too good to miss.
San Sebastian Plaza is a riot of colour and noise. Participants are dressed in so many varieties of elaborate costumes. Masses of bands are playing so loudly the noise seems to vibrate right through me. As they finally start to march off, various band members gradually straggle out from a nearby drinking establishment. The crowds wait patiently but surge and relocate as the procession moves on. The dancers and musicians must be exhausted by the end. The day is very hot and most of the costumes are all encompassing often including full face masks.
Tomorrow we head off for three days to Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the Machu Picchu adventure.