October 21-23, 2010
Cuzco was such an amazing city that we could have stayed another week, but it was time to make tracks. Our Peruvian travel visa expired in two weeks and we still hadn’t seen Machu Picchu! Before leaving Cuzco though, we decided to visit the nearby village of Pisac and its famous ruins, Inca Pisac. Situated atop a steep hill at the entrance to the famous “Sacred Valley”, the ruins are separated along the ridge into four different groups, including a citadel that is thought to have been built to defend the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley. It seemed appropriate to check it out before heading off to Machu Picchu at the northern end of the Sacred Valley.
Ollie, our German pal at the Quinta Lala campground, suggested that we park in the village of Pisac and take a taxi up the mountain to the ruins’ entrance. This way, we’d be able to explore the buildings along the length of the ridgeline and then descend down the other side of the mountain back into town. As I never question a German when it comes to efficiency or beer, I wisely took Ollie’s advice.
At the ruins’ entrance, a young Peruvian named Reuben offered his guiding services. Roz and I don’t usually hire guides as we prefer exploring on our own, but there was something intriguing about this guy. He had a gentle, intelligent manner and he also spoke excellent English. But best of all (and probably the final deciding factor for us), he packed a pan flute. How could we say no? As we walked among the ruins, he told us fascinating stories of how and why the Incas built the structures atop the ridgeline. Among other things, they created agricultural terraces on the steep hillside, which are still in use today. They also built a Temple of the Sun that equals anything at Machu Picchu, as well as baths, altars, water fountains and – my favourite – a tower to fill with virgins! Cool.
When Reuben wasn’t telling us something interesting, he played haunting melodies on his pan flute that reverberated against the ancient stone walls. It had the surreal quality of transporting us to another time – another empire now gone. I wonder what instrument future travel guides will use to explore the ruins of Manhattan – a taxi whistle?
At the tower of the virgins, we bid farewell to Reuben and walked to the last set of ruins on the ridgeline. While gawking at some of the incredible stonework, we saw a group of schoolchildren nearby. Pretty soon our paths collided and all of a sudden Roz was surrounded by a dozen new admirers, no doubt intrigued by this “other”, this laughing “gringa”. While she tried to converse with her new friends, I talked to their teacher, a polite man in his 30s. He told me that for a couple of weeks every year, schoolchildren are bused all over the country to visit Peru’s ancient sites – field trips to teach them about their country’s rich history and culture. This group of boys was from the Cuzco and Puno regions. Seeing the camera around my neck, one boy asked if I would take a picture of them with Roz. When I agreed, they all got excited and piled around her, jockeying to get closest. It was a very charming moment.
(ROZ: I will never forget how each of these adorable kids formed an informal “greeting” line, shaking my hand one by one, as they introduced themselves to me in their very formal appellation … Jose Miguel Marcos, Juan Pablo Moran, etc. These are the moments that make traveling so worthwhile – connecting with the locals, however briefly, in a magical place on their turf. I felt truly honoured to meet all these polite boys who seemed to be as curious about me as I was about them.)
After the boys left, thunder boomed throughout the valley. Taking a cue from the women vendors who were packing up their goods to flee, we split too. We tried to hurry down the rocky mountain path, but near the bottom, a dark cloud opened up on us with a torrent of water. We ran through the village’s market soaked to the skin while vendors cheered us on from under cover. By the time we got back to Yuki the Suzuki, we were quite chilled. Thankfully, with the truck’s heater cranked, it didn’t take too long for us to warm up. As darkness descended, we drove back to Cuzco in the rain – tired, but happy.
It rained hard all night, but by morning, the skies were clear. After a slow start, we bid farewell to our pals at the Quinta Lala campground and hit the road for Machu Picchu. It was a sunny day made even better by the gorgeous scenery – huge, snowcapped mountains that fringed an expanse of undulating farmland. Wow. At one of our photo and lunch stops, an elderly indigenous woman sat on a blanket in bare feet selling woolen goods – including socks. Unable to resist the irony, Roz bought us socks from the bare-footed woman and then we carried on.
Getting to Machu Picchu is a bit of a complicated deal. The closest town to the ruins (and where the tourist buses leave to take you to the entrance) is Aguas Calientes, but it’s closed to public traffic, as is the stretch of road from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. So you have to take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Actually, some overlanders drive a long alternate route to within a few miles of Aguas Calientes, park their vehicles in a hydro field and walk the half-hour in, but Roz and I weren’t crazy about leaving Yuki alone, so we opted for the Ollantaytambo train route.
We arrived in the sleepy village of Ollantaytambo and soon found a hotel near the train station, the Hostal Tunupa Lodge. The prices were fair and they would keep Yuki for the two days we’d be gone. Sweet! That evening, while exploring the narrow alleyways of the village, the power went out. For a minute, it was a bit spooky being in a strange village in almost complete darkness, but then a group of kids ran by us laughing and pointing flashlights at each other. There’s just something about playful children’s laughter that takes the edge off of any creepy situation.
We groped our way through the dark alleyways and eventually found a restaurant just off the town square that was lit by candles. As we enjoyed our chicken dinner, we watched a young man court a lady at a nearby table. They both wore their finest traditional Peruvian clothing and in the soft golden light, they made a great romantic backdrop to our dinner. As we were getting ready to leave, the power returned and the spell was broken. We were back in a murky hole-in-the-wall restaurant lit with bare bulbs hanging from a cracked ceiling. And that courting couple, like their clothing, looked a little older, a little more worn than I originally thought. Sigh.
That night we slept like babies in the cleanest, most comfortable bed of the journey so far. The next morning, after locking up Yuki, we walked to the train station. While waiting for the train to Aguas Calientes, Roz spent a half-hour browsing and trying on sun hats at vendor stalls. Unable to find anything worthwhile, she walked away empty-handed, which caused one of the women vendors to snipe at her for not buying anything. Okay, I understand that they just see “rich” folks strolling by without sharing their wealth, but Roz just saw a bunch of mass-produced hats she could have bought in any Peruvian department store. Different points of view I guess. Other than the border guard and the corrupt cops north of Lima, this vendor was the only grumpy Peruvian we had met so far.
Once on the train, we were pretty excited – until it started to move. I swear, if it was going any slower, it would have been going backwards! Two excruciating hours later (I exaggerate, but come on, bump that speed up to at least double digits!) we rolled into the tourist zoo called Aguas Calientes. Like countless other “destination” spots, its existence depends upon extracting as much cash from tourists as possible in the shortest amount of time.
The town’s accommodations ranged from high-end hotels sporting hot tubs to dank hovels with shared bathrooms, and everything in between. The food choices were equally wide. We chose the hovel route by staying at Hostal Joe and discovered a perfectly yummy and economical food court a flight of stairs above the town’s market. All the locals ate there, so it had an authentic, non-tourist feel to it. Besides, it was fun being the only “turistas” and rubbing elbows with the construction workers, bus drivers, and old ladies as we all slurped our soup.
While walking around town, we bumped into Dan (yet again! I think that makes 4!), our Aussie pal, who had parked his Jeep outside the town and had walked in – of course. That guy is an adventure maniac! The three of us explored the town together and then enjoyed a beer at a pub – until my stomach started turning! Excusing myself, I returned to the hostel where I tossed my cookies. This didn’t bode well for our next day’s tour of Machu Picchu. As I drifted off to sleep holding my sore belly, I crossed my fingers that I’d feel better in the morning.
Next: Machu Pichhu!
END OF PART 35