South Peru: Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu

Landscape in Sacred Valley/Peru

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Cusco was a welcome sight and, although it took some time to find, Quinta Lala felt like a refuge when we arrived. There were seven other travelling vehicles, including a motorbike, and the travellers made us feel very welcome. We had 5 days before Sandy was due to arrive and we spent them mostly at the campground, only venturing into the town to shop for supplies and to find Sandy a hotel. The environment was relaxing and the people very friendly - but the effects of altitude were what kept us mostly sedentary. Cusco is at 3300m and the campground is 300m higher. Since we had spent most of our time in Peru near the coast we had to acclimatise to the altitude all over again.
Once Sandy arrived we waited only 2 days before heading for the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It seemed like the best idea for all of us since the altitude is noticeably lower there. We had cleaned out the back seat in the truck (and stored the stuff at the campground) to make a place for Sandy to sit and, after shopping and filling with fuel, we were on our way to Pisac. The road from Cusco to Pisac passes the Sachsayhuaman ruin site near Quinta Lala and several more related sites and then climbs for some time before descending into the Valley of Rio Urubamba. It was Sunday and a good day to visit the Pisac market, which is full of colour and interesting people. We all made purchases, which is somewhat unusual for Juergen and me, since we really don't have space to store too many souvenirs. After spending the night near Pisac, we drove up to the ruin site which is high above the town. It is a very extensive site spread over the mountainside, with acres of terraces still intact since Inca times. The stonemasonry is also a wonder to behold, which impressed us more and more as we moved through the various Inca sites.
We spent what was left of Monday driving along the river valley to Ollantaytambo, where we would spend the night before taking the train to Machu Picchu on Tuesday afternoon. Ollantaytambo Lodge is a little oasis, with a lovely grassy area to park the truck and plenty of room left to relax, in cane chairs provided, in the sun. We set about doing just that, while admiring the view of the surrounding peaks. The next morning we explored the small and very pleasant town of Ollantaytambo. As the main access point to Machu Picchu, there are plenty of people with things to sell to the tourists travelling through, but not very many of them persisted to the annoying stage once you told them you weren't interested. Juergen and I climbed the ruins next to the town and were rewarded with an amazing view of the surrounding area as well as some very impressive Inca stone masonry. How they managed to cut, smooth and even manoeuvre these huge blocks of stone is beyond me - not that any of the people who spend their lives studying these sites have an answer to that either.
Later in the day we boarded the train that would take us to Aguas Calientes. The train trip is very scenic with lots of snow peaks as we descended even further into the valley. We arrived in Aguas Calientes a little late but were met by our hotel 'pickup' (this means someone from the hotel meets you and then guides you to the hotel on foot and uphill, as there is no transport in the town). As soon as we had checked in and we went out to dinner at Indio Feliz, which had been recommended. It has a French chef/owner and the food was scrumptious. They also made the best pisco sours yet - Sandy and I have been making a bit of a study of them!
The hotel staff gave us a 5:00 wakeup call and then held us up with breakfast - which was unexciting, to say the least, anyway. But by 10 to 7 we had taken the bus up the switchback road and arrived at Machu Picchu. The site is large, diverse and impressive. Juergen climbed as high as it is possible to go, but Sandy and I contented ourselves with slowly wandering and climbing a little - she was still suffering the effects of altitude and shortness of breath and I could feel the beginnings of something in my chest. We managed to cover quite some ground, moving at our own rate, and met Juergen when he came back down again to move through the residential areas. By 10:30 we felt we had done the place justice, to our satisfaction and started down to Aguas Calientes again. It is around this time that the biting black flies start to make an appearance because the low cloud lifts and the sun comes out. It is also the time that the busloads of tour groups start to arrive - especially those who have caught the early morning train from Cusco. So for all these reasons, it seemed to be a good time to make our departure.
This Inca site is very different than the Mexican Mayan and Aztec ruin sites, but is nevertheless fascinating for its own reasons. I was actually surprised by my ignorance when I discovered that the Incas were so much more recent than the Mayans and Aztecs. But I was very impressed by their technical brilliance in building with stone without mortar and the water supply system was certainly advanced for the time. And my guess is that there is much more that we can only guess at since it hasn't survived the ravages of time. A great experience, if very expensive. The prices of everything - train, bus and entry - have apparently risen dramatically just this year. I do wonder if it is not to act as a deterrent to some tourists, since we have heard that the site cannot sustain the amount of visitors that currently come everyday. We have certainly met quite a few travellers who have decided that it just isn't in their budget.
Back in Aguas Calientes we had 3 hours until our train back to Ollantaytambo. First we decided to find a decent breakfast and, that accomplished, we wandered through the artisan's market near the station. Juergen and I bought pullovers that are "100% Alpaca" - well, it was obvious by the price, the way they shine in the sun and also crackle with static when you take them off that was not strictly true, but they are very warm... Sandy also shopped for a few things to take home. On the train back we mostly dozed since we had risen so early, but having already done the trip once, we didn't feel like we were missing very much.
Standing at 3800 meters in the Andes

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