Ok, this took me a while to get round to writing, what can I say, I work all day and I don’t want to spend my evenings and weekends staring at computer screens. Nevertheless…

18 09 2008

“World renowned for breathtaking architecture and scenery, Machu Picchu is a must see for any visitor to Peru. Found by Europeans almost 400 years after the fall of the Incas, its seclusion and serenity are both humbling and thought provoking. Every corner of these beautiful ruins is filled with intrigue and intelligence, and it fits in perfectly with the mist of the towering green peaks that surround…”

I wrote these words weeks before I’d seen Machu Picchu. As a web content developer for a travel agency in Peru, I am being given money to write itineraries that sell travel packages, and the vast majority of these itineraries include the Inca Citadel. It is by far the most visited tourist spot in the country – if not the continent – and it is the selling point for almost every person who books a holiday to Peru – if not the continent.

So, being a visitor here and everything, I was itching to see whether I agreed with myself or not. Moreover, my friend Ed was soon to leave the country, so together we thought we should maybe check it out. I soon talked with my boss to ensure that it was ok to take a couple of days off work for the venture. He agreed that Cusco and MP (working itinerary abbreviation) might be a good place for someone who was doing an internship based in Peruvian tourism to visit. Cue two weeks of anxious waiting, daydreaming, attempted planning, trawling travel websites and learning the Spanish for “I’m going to Cusco, I can’t f**king wait”.

Cusco

Cusco

We finally blasted through the Lima haze early in the morning on the 21st August 2008 (yes it takes me that long to write a blog).

Andean peaks soon became close enough to touch. Poking from the clouds like icebergs, stretching northwards as far as I could see, iced with snow yet dark with mystery. I looked down at the ground below: apart from the odd winding road and village hugging the mountainside, the remote wilderness of Peru’s hinterlands became apparent.

For snacks, LAN Peru served cake, bad coffee and a little chocolate …

Nestled high in this vast mountain range – the worlds longest – is the city of Cusco. It was founded hundreds of years ago by the Inca’s as the capital of their far-reaching Andean empire. Although elements of this culture still remain, its character has since been shaped by the events of the Spanish conquest and its subsequent existence as an economically sidelined colonial town. Ironically, in recent years, the surge in the tourist industry surrounding Machu Picchu has caused Cusco to resurface as Peru’s second most important economic centre next to Lima.

Our plane had to lose very little altitude to land: the city stands at an astonishing 10,800 feet. It swept around the edge of the hills to find a favourable approach, and descended into the bowl shaped valley onto a runway directly in the middle of the city.

Within seconds of landing Simon starts taking pictures

Within seconds of landing Simon starts taking pictures

From the moment we stepped into the airport, the tourist heart of the city became noticeable. The small airport was crammed with tour agencies offering either hotels or trips to Machu Picchu. We promptly avoided this melee, and walked far away from the airport to find a taxi that wasn’t going to charge us a gringo tax. A quick spot of bartering soon found us heading to the Plaza de Armas, the city’s Main Square.

A Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas that the Spanish built

Fresh air and sunshine – two things of which Lima has deprived me – were abundant in Cusco. This made me very happy. I felt had finally got to see what I had come to Peru for. Cusco has the feel of a Mediterranean town with terracotta rooftops and winding alleyways; trendy cafés and beautiful restaurants. There is a certain amount of peacefulness that it captures but this is offset by an almost haunting rememberence of its brutal history.

View from hostel

View from hostel

Spanish cathedral built on Inca walls

Spanish cathedral built on Inca walls

Gringos

Gringos

We spent our first day ambling around the city, visiting a few cafés and museums and admiring both the Spanish and Inca architecture. Of utmost priority were organising tickets Machu Picchu, not as easy a task as it may seem. Travel to Machu Picchu is difficult, and not always available in the high season. Moreover it is expensive. The train track is monopolised by a single operator – the aptly named ‘PeruRail’. We had to visit the train station in person, avoiding all of the people trying to give us deals. Eventually, we managed to arrange return tickets from a town called Ollantaytambo which sits half way between Cusco and Machu Picchu. We would have to make our way there on our own, and we were pleased to be going off the beaten tourist trail to do so.

It is fair to say that both of us were quite overwhelmed by the altitude difference, and our ambitious trekking throughout the city made us tired very quickly. My bones and muscles ached and my head, though not particularly sore, felt like it could explode with the pressure at any given moment. But adrenaline kept us going, along with the odd delicious coffee and a spot of Coca tea. The latter beverage is made from the same plant as a certain white powdered narcotic of which consumption would probably land me in a Peruvian jail – not, I might add, on my to do list.

***

After a literally sleepless night – caused in part by altitude, another part by our choice of noisy backpacker hostel, and a final part by tequila – we spent the morning exploring more of Cusco’s offerings. Sacsayhuaman – or ‘sexy woman’ as it is more affectionately known, although as a historian of the Inca empire I should point out that this is somewhat disrespectful to its graceful Quechan etymological roots – is a fortress outside of Cusco. Its gigantic blocks, slotted masterfully together, stand imperiously and impressively over the city. They are arranged in a zig-zag shape to represent the teeth of a puma, Cusco, naturally, being that very puma.

"Sexy Woman"

Nearby, we caught a glimpse of the routine ‘cristo la redentor’ statue (you might have heard of him, he’s quite well known) which was erected at a higher spot than Sacsayhuaman. This was a symbol to remind people of HIS superiority over anything the Incas ever did, and thus the Spanish superiority over indigenous peoples. Swords and disease certainly helped to prove this theory correct.

Man stands in Cusco with arms held out

Man stands in Cusco with arms held out

An afternoon in the chic and arty San Blas district was followed by our departure from Cusco by bus. Our journey to the fabled Machu Picchu had begun … ahem, it’s real, sorry.

Our bus travelled over a high plateau as we approached the Sacred Valley. The scenery was spectacular. I gazed out at the sun setting over the ubiquitous Andes; into the sleepy villages constructed from burning red mud; at the yellow maize swaying in the wind; at the Inca terracing that still runs along the contours of hills. Away from Cusco poverty became much more apparent. Many buildings lay in a state of dilapidation and villages seemed ghostly and empty. Some of the roads too were in a poor condition of which I shall not describe so that my mother does not fear for my safety.

View from bus window

We eventually winded down the side of the Sacred valley into a town called Urubamba, where we planned to catch a ‘combi’ for the next part of our journey up the valley to Ollantaytambo.

This stretch was far from comfortable. As I explained in my first post, combis are not built for tall people, and I was consequently crammed in the back of a sardine tin packed with Quechan speaking Andeans. They seemed less than impressed with my botched attempt at ‘Castillano Espanol’ and the conversation that had sprung from the novelty of the length of my legs soon became non-existent. My legs themselves almost followed the same path after half an hour of being jammed against the back of a chair. The view I’m sure remained beautiful though with my head buried in the ceiling I simply could not appreciate it.

In Ollantaytambo things took a familiar turn back to the touristy. My legs sprang out onto a plaza with overpriced restaurants that were not of particularly good quality. We headed down to the train station, decked with vendors of all sorts of generic Andean goods sweets and soft drinks.

None of the tourism in the world could have prepared us for Aguas Calientes. This town exists for the sole purpose of providing people with a place to sleep before they hit MP in the morning. This breeds the least authentic and most commercial tat that you could ever imagine.

Within moments of stepping off of the train our fears of not being able to find a hostal were quickly destroyed: “Hostal!”; “Hostal senor.”; “Quiere una hotel esta noche?”; “Senor, you need a room, yes?”; “Senor why don’t you stay in my hostal?”; “por favor” “solo treinte soles senor”; “My hotel have private bathroom, hot water… te gustes?”; “Tengo bueno hospedaje para usted ahora…”

The sound of the rabble died away as we walked with a guy who had had a suitable pitch. Of course by this point, having secured the sale, he became our best friend, and was chattering excitedly about his hostal that had opened just two weeks ago. He was a young guy, and I respected him for trying to make an honest buck, but it seemed so out of place that our conversation, just like this entire town, would not have existed if it were not for tourist money.

That night, for the first time in Peru, we received a charge for tax on the bill at a restaurant. After double checking the menu to see if this had been stated, we queried the waitress. After she reassured us that tax was normal, we reassured her that, in Lima, where we had lived for several weeks, that added taxes were not in fact a normal charge in her country.

“Tip.” she promptly revealed, “It’s a tip!”

“But, [Ed explained in Spanish [at least I think he did…]] surely, that’s our choice to make?”

She looked perplexed so I cut to the chase: “Machu Picchu?”

“Yes. Yes. Machu Picchu. It’s because it’s Machu Picchu.”

“Machu Picchu tax,” I replied. “Claro.”

***

We awoke at half past three the next morning, determined to beat the first buses to the front gate. The walk from Aguas Calientes to MP takes approximately an hour and a half, but comprises a hefty climb through a forested path. Since arriving in Cusco I had managed a paltry four hours of sleep in two nights. This mattered very little and we approached the task ahead with relish.

In pitch darkness we climbed a trail that clings loosely to the road built for buses. We passed a few early punters who shared our bus avoidance ideal but our conversations were minimal and we marched on alone. I was pretty exhausted as we traipsed up the jungle path but adrenaline kept this in check: In a matter of hours we would see Machu Picchu.

So many times I had been told how fantastic this place was. I had read every travel guide for work and a thousand more websites; every description ringing the same message but yet holding its own unique take. The history books I had perused to write for my dissertation reverberated this message. There are Inca ruins across the Andes, from southern Columbia to Northern Chile, but Machu Picchu was the one that every visitor had to see. It was one of the first photographs that captured my imagination and made me want to come to South America.

As sunlight slowly began to creep into the sky, so too did the mist: an unremitting mist that clung to the surrounding jungle. It began to dampen my spirit a little as I had hoped we would see the full glory of the site blazing in the full light of the object worshipped by the Incas. (The sun)

How they had managed it I don’t know, but we arrived at the entrance to find dozens of people ahead of us. I think they might have been Inca trailers. We waited until 6pm for the doors to open, it was imperative for us to make it in first as only a limited amount of people can climb Huanya Picchu – the mountain in the background of the picture every day. So the gates opened and we marched straight through the ruins of Machu Picchu to where the entrance for the mountain trail was. I could not take very much in, partly because of tiredness and partly because of the mist which hung around the ghostly buildings that we could just make out.

After another hour long queue our fatigue was given another test: an hour’s climb up a near vertical path to the top of Huanya Picchu. This mountain towers behind Macchu Picchu and features in many of the most famous pictures of the ruins. It hosts its own set of beautiful ruins perched on the edge of the mountaintop. Although still disheartened by the mist that blocked our view, it swooped around the ruins with an eerie silence that created the most amazing atmosphere. The agricultural terracing was a marvel: made parallel with accurate precision and appearing like large steps down even the steepest of slopes, curving naturally at the edges as though they had simply been sculpted straight from the rock.

Climbing Huana Picchu

Climbing Huanya Picchu

Appreciating Huanya Picchu

Appreciating Huanya Picchu

Huanya Picchu in mist

Huanya Picchu in mist with people

I cant remember if it was because we were pretty tired after so much climbing and very little sleep or whether we were so impressed with the ruins that we decided to stay at the top for a little while. No matter, it turned out to be a good decision. Glancing down the mountain we began to see the mist starting to sweep away at some points. This became stronger and stronger and we could see the Urubamba river deep in the valley below.

Wave after wave of mist began to clear. More and more we could see through, into the surrounding hills caked with forest. Glimpses of the base of the valley which was far below. And then lines and lines of people in multi coloured coats, walking along the walls of Machu Picchu. The hexagonal shape of cleared jungle, marking the boundary of the preserved area of the Inca Citadel, stood out vividly from the landscape. The maze of walls  that were Machu Picchu looked perplexing from so high up. This is truly a genious piece of urban planning.

So it was well worth the climb, and we spent a while gazing from our high perch. After our descent, the rest of the day was spent exploring the intricacies: the temples; the altars; the houses; the storerooms; the sacrifice areas. World renowned for breathtaking architecture and scenery, Machu Picchu is a must see for any visitor to Peru. Found by Europeans almost 400 years after the fall of the Incas, its seclusion and serenity are both humbling and thought provoking. Every corner of these beautiful ruins is filled with intrigue and intelligence, and it does fit in perfectly with the mist of the towering green peaks that surround. What more can I say?

Temple of Three Windows

Temple of Three Windows

Huanya Picchu from below

Huanya Picchu from below

The famous view

The famous view

The famous view

The famous ... haircut

Except for about the people. People, People, People, People. French, German, United States of American, Argentinian. Everywhere. At one stage I could not climb a flight of steps because there was a continuous flow of people coming down it. I wish I had a sol for every Che Guevara T-shirt I saw. But this is all only because it is so beautiful. In conjunction with those bastard tourist agencies who try to make a quick buck by selling it as a one-off package.

Anyway, one new world wonder out of the way, six to go. And many many more Inca and pre-Inca ruins, except quiet, isolated, still covered by foliage, barely touched and not commercial. This makes me happy.

After a day of winding around as much of the ruins we could see, we ran back down the path towards Aguas Calientes in about a third of the time it had taken us to climb that morning. A quick beer at a bar and it was time to head back to Ollantaytambo by train. I had no trouble sleeping that night.

***

The next day we awoke at our idealiclly located hostel in Ollantaytambo. The sun shone through trees into the garden courtyard as the noise of a river trickled in the background. We climbed early to the ruins that looked like they were built like giant lego blocks and towered around the town. It was easy to notice the peace and quiet compared to frantic MP.

Hostal in Ollantaytambo

Hostal in Ollantaytambo

Lego Blocks

Lego Blocks

We spent the day cruising down the Sacred valley in taxis and buses. We made a quick stop at Urabamba where we visited a pottery workshop with excellent modern designs that try to capture all of the pre-Colombian styles in one.

We went onwards down the valley towards Pisac which host a massive market on Sundays. Ed used the opportunity to pick up a few last souvenirs to take back home. The market suffers slightly from displaying the same generic Andean goods that you can find anywhere in the country> one person we met described it like a Scooby-Doo cartoon, going past the same background again and again. But there is enough quantity to find some really good quality goods, which Ed managed to do.

Pisaq

Pisaq market

Unfortunately one day was not enough time to explore the Sacred Valley. There were several other ruins that we did not have time to see. The towns, though still close to MP, had managed to shake off some of the tourist attire and were much more laid back and relaxing to spend time. Luckily for me, I have time to go back, and I certainly intend to do so.

On our last night in Cusco I was given a friendly reminder of life at home. We popped into an Irish bar for a quick pint of good old English (!?) Ale to celebrate the success of our trip – a commodity hard to come by in Lima, especially on tap. Before I knew it we were downing several more at the insistence of a Liverpudlian high school physics teacher. He had just been on a tour of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, finishing off with Cusco and Machu Picchu. I can swear at one point in that pub it felt like I was back in Scotland, at a bar with a nice pint of beer: the décor and banter probably helped this to happen. We visited a few more bars and a restaurant, Ed ate alpaca, I ate trucha, we drank more beer. I had a hangover. Brits abroad…

Plus the next morning I had to fly to Lima, acclimatise to low altitude, and go straight back to work. I almost fell asleep at my desk.

So, the question you’ve all been waiting for, what did I learn? Well, to tell you the truth, I have just spent four months harping on about how brilliant the Incas were at everything in my dissertation, so inevitably a lot of this was clarified by seeing mmasterful architecture that had survived five centuries and a European conquest. Sadly, money and tourism has deteriorated the entire region. Machu Picchu, beautiful and intelligent to every end, is a theme park.

Apart from this four day extravaganza life in Peru has remained pretty much the same. Delicious food at every corner, good times with good friends, an expanding vocabulary of Spanish and also beer. I tried fresh mojito which was damned good and also conchas parmesano, which is like the most delicious oysters grilled with, you guessed it, parmesan cheese.

I’m going to Arequipa tonight, which is why I had to finish this post now. Fourteen hours on a bus in Latin America should be fun. Don’t worry about the hijackers mum 😀

Caio

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