In search of the Incas – Machu Picchu and Castles in the Sky!
And so to Cusco, the Sacred valley and, of course, the inestimable Machu Picchu, one of the most iconic symbols of the Incas. We were a bit bemused by the thought of arranging Machu Picchu: do we trek, do we train, do we trek the train track, what time do we want to be there? So in true Hermit Crab fashion we pulled our heads into our shells and left the problem for later.
An overnight bus took us from Nasca and towards Cusco. An hour away from our destination, we got stuck: a landslip up ahead had blocked the road. As we stretched our legs, the traffic built up behind us. After an hour, a convoy of bright orange Dutch cars – apparently on a sponsored road trip – took things into their own hands and pulled out into the oncoming lane and up to the slip. So now both lanes were blocked. Finally, and with a great deal of honking involved, the logjam dissipated and we were off. We soon wound our way down into Cusco, getting a great view of the mountains and red rooftops.
We checked in to Hostel Kurumi and found ourselves in a room with huge windows revealing a panoramic view of the city. It took us a while to pull ourselves away and actually go see Cusco. When we did, we found the town itself lively, friendly and beautiful. Old colonial buildings with Incan walls, stone stairways and narrow streets led us down to the main plaza: a huge square surrounded by the Cathedral de Santa Domingo, another church and colonnaded shop fronts.
There seems to be a massage parlor industry in Cusco. Young and older ladies catch your eye and say “massage, manicure” in an attempt to lure you in. One told me I looked tired. Not the way to win my business. Apparently it’s legitimate (not like your standard Edinburgh massage), untrained and cheap. Restaurants tout for business, drug dealers offer their wares and somehow the mix of internationals, locals and lowlifes gets along famously. Tour agents are everywhere which just makes the infinite choice of tours and ways to see Machu Picchu more intimidating.
In Cusco you can eat well and cheap, chill, shop, gorge on culture, browse markets; it’s hard not to love the place. So it has passed qualification and added itself onto the list of places we could conceivably live. We even toyed with the idea of renting a flat there for a while. But Cusco is also high (3,400m) and cold, so we started to think about the need for warmer clothes as we head south for winter. How the hell did we manage to arrange it so we hit the south as it gets bitterly cold?
Aside from the superstar Machu Picchu, there are numerous impressive archaeological sites to visit, each one full of merit in its own right. The simplest way is to buy a tourist Boleto for approximately $43, which gives one access to 16 separate places.
Stage 1 – Time to ease ourselves slowly into this Incan ruins business. Saksaywaman is 2km uphill from the hostel, so it should be easy: no negotiations or transport required.
It’s an incredibly important Incan site, constructed as a fortress and famous for its dry stone walls. I saw pictures of them as a child and they make a mockery of the dry stone dykes found all in the UK. All the stones are massive, differently shaped and they’re fitted together so tightly that you can’t slide a piece of paper into the joins. The walls slope inward too. The different geometries and inward slope make them almost entirely earthquake proof.
Overlooking Cusco, this site is extremely beautiful around sunset. On either side of a huge plaza, the walls rise up in terraces. As I walked off to test the paper theory, babbling contentedly about how I’d seen these walls in a book as a child, I eventually noticed that Alison was no longer there. Naturalist to my archaeologist, she’d found some llamas to play with and was cataloguing them all a hundred times on digital film.
As dusk fell we rejoined and sat on high looking over the city. If this was a secondary attraction, Machu Picchu must be amazing.
As the light fizzled out and stars began to twinkle into existence above, we walked down a small valley with its own babbling burn, content with our first Inca excursion and hungry.
Stage 2 – Still befuddled as to the logistics of our main prize, we decided to take in the sacred valley. Braving the travel agents, we soon found all the tours to be nigh on identical, but with some wildly different prices ($10 to $100). Satisfied we’d found a decent price, we signed up for one. The only thing missing were free Pisco Sours, a must-have item when choosing a Peruvian restaurant (if not a tour).
It proved a long day but packed full of sights: markets, ruins, lunch, ruins, weaving ladies, colonial churches all interspersed with a backdrop of picture-book Andean mountain scenery.
As our guide reiterated fifteen times: Pisac is a market town AND a set of ruins. We started at the market in a silver workshop, watching the owner inlay semi-precious stones into silver frames for all manner of bling.
Then we made our way by bus up to the ruins, with tantalising glimpses of the huge curved terraces appearing around each corner. The ruins cover a mountain, a big one. The two areas of buildings, accommodation and religious areas are separated by vast semi-circular terraces cascading down the hill-side. At the rear of the site a cliff face pock-marked with hundreds of holes. An Incan cemetery.
Walking around, up and down, looking through the windows of Incan buildings into an immense mountainous land-scape was awe-inspiring. Pisac is huge and atmospheric and you could easily spend hours here soaking it all up.
Set in a valley and the hub for the train to Macchu Picchu lies Ollantaytambo, a distinctly Incan town. Many of the houses still sport original Inca walls and doors. Above the town the main archaeological site rises through a series of stepped terraces to an unfinished temple on the top. The Incans abandoned the site as the Spanish arrived, leaving stones unfinished on the apex. Here we learned that the dressed, gap-free finish was achieved by sanding the blocks gradually until they could slide into place. Discussions still continue as to whether this theory is correct.
On the mountain on the other side of the valley, grain stores sit high up the steep slopes, open to the air. Ventilated and cool, they functioned as pest-free refrigerators and are aided by local pesticidal herbs. Above this mountain the sun rises in precise positions on each of the solstices heralding the change of seasons and harvest time.
Another huge and impressive site, and a stellar attraction anywhere else, but not the main event in this part of Peru.
The final stage of our tour was a visit to the town of Chinchero, where the first stop was a women’s cooperative making products from llama and alpaca. They greeted us with a song-and-clap session, after which one lady that presented the co-op’s work took us through all the stages: making yarn, dyeing the wool with local products etc. Throughout she somehow managed to comically intersperse ribald, smutty humour, lots of references to the uselessness of their husbands and offers to marry the tourists. In the background, the more demure older ladies continued working immune to the stream of double entendres emanating from their spokesperson.
Next we visited a colonial church with some amazing altar pieces and frescoes. When the Spanish took over, they imposed their religion using the rich art and complex symbolism to aid in their attempts to convert the locals. Cannily, they allowed the Incans to add in their own symbolism, effectively integrating their beliefs into the New Catholicism.
Stage 3 – We’re finally going for it! Complex logistics, bus, train, bus – 5 hours in, 5 hours out. Requires precision organisation, pre-booking the in-demand trains and careful planning. Many do all this planning a year in advance. Others walk in (17km) along the train tracks to save money. We managed a single-day tour, booked only 24 hours in advance, by flying by the seat of our pants and bagging the last two train tickets. Not necessarily the best or cheapest way, but it worked.
Another round of agents, and after many go-rounds we settled on one with the best price ($190 each). When we went to seal the deal, however, they were closed. Shit. What does the agency next door have on offer? Additional premium of $25pp, protracted negotiation and a flurry of train timetables later we were done. Annoyed, but excited too.
So, at 2:30am the next morning and after not much sleep, we emerged in front of the cathedral to await the bus. We were just up and bleary-eyed. Everyone else was still up and bleary-eyed for a different reason. It’s always fun watching a town, that is largely drunk, through sober eyes. People really do incomprehensible things! Of course, not us.
Journey, train, blah, blah, blah. Nonsense with guide (see below), blah, blah. And then we were there!
Purposed as a University for nobles and their progeny, Macchu Picchu was a sacred place in the heart of the Incan empire. Kept secret and abandoned, the Inca trails that service it are precipitous and heart-stopping. The site was left as a secret until re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. He asked a local farmer if there were any ruins nearby and, too busy to help, the farmer sent his son to show Bingham the old jungle-covered ruins. And so it was uncovered again! Even now Yale University and Peru are in dispute about the trove of artefacts spirited away by Bingham.
In person Machu Picchu is incredible, too much to take in. Small and huge at the same time. Small in proportion to the mountains as you look on it from afar, but huge as you arrive in the midst of it. It has been heavily restored and the guides will take you through it: temple of the sun, gatekeeper house, three doors, agricultural terraces with their own micro-climates and much more. But it’s best when you’re set free to wander. You can find and climb down into terraces in small sun-spots away from the world, sheer drops below, and feel alone.
We took a sun-baked walk to the sun-gate, along the stone trail to a high crevice in the mountain above and sat in awe, eating lunch at the head of the Inca trail.
We saw the Inca bridge: three unimpressive planks over a 30 foot break in the stone trail that works its way along a sheer face. On the other side of the bridge you see it as a path of vegetation a thousand foot above the valley floor on the sheer cliff-side. Should invaders be spotted, remove the planks…simples!
We sat with llamas on a terrace close to the gatekeeper’s house.
And as the afternoon sun cast shallow rays, bathing the site in golden light and playful shadows, we walked down the trail to the valley to find a cold beer and await our return train.
It was worth it and everyone should see it at one or multiple points in their life when they can appreciate it. Whether as a child, running around and playing fort, a twenty something backpacker hiking in through the jungle, a couple seeking romance or when more advanced in age as a life ambition realised.
The Hermit Crab High-Speed, One-Day Machu Picchu Itinerary
- Bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo at 2:30am
- First train around 5am from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente
- Bus up to Machu Picchu in time for sunrise.
- Meet guide at entrance for tour in the morning ; wander around ourselves in the afternoon. Walk to the Sun-Gate and Inca Bridge.
- Walk back to Aguas Caliente. Well-deserved beer and some chips, same price as trip on private jet.
- Train back to Ollantaytambo
- Bus back to Cusco and in bed for midnight
Note (i): some people stay in Aguas Caliente for a night…don’t bother! Everything in this town is double price and then tax in addition. Some of the servers are not especially friendly, probably because the tourists call them cheats for the high prices they inflict. A vicious circle.
Note (ii): Don’t wait for the guide, go in for sunrise and come back out in time for the guide. We ended up watching sunrise from the entry gate because the guides arrive later than you do, which we weren’t told. Missed opportunity 🙁
Note (iii): Contrary to most other advice suggesting you arrive as early as possible, we advise arriving at a time when you will have enough energy to still be there for the mid-and-late afternoon. You’ll be rewarded with people-free photos and lovely light.