Cusco and Machu Picchu

If, after sailing half way around the world and crossing mountains kitted out in heavy armour, your band of 168 men is faced with an army of tens of thousands, many of whom are wearing more gold than you can imagine, there is only one thing to do – act with extreme treachery. This, at least, was the conclusion the Spaniards reached in 1532 when confronted with the army of Altahualpa. Under the guise of a peaceful meeting the Spaniards ambushed Altahualpa, with a cavalry attack, slaughtering 6 thousand largely unarmed attendants, many of them noblemen, and capturing Altahualpa. In exchange for his life, Altahualpa proposed that he provide the Spaniards with a room full of gold. All over the Inca empire, temples were ransacked to provide the gold required for Altahualpa’s ransom.  From the sun temple Qorikancha alone the Spaniards prised off seven hundred plates each averaging 2kg of gold. The ransom was paid but it was to do Altahualpa no good. The Spaniards did not, as Altahualpa had perhaps anticipated, take their gold and leave his empire. Instead within a few months Altahualpa was garrotted and then partially burnt to prevent the Incas from mummifying his corpse.

On the drive from the airport to the hotel, Qorikancha was our first real introduction to what makes Cusco so extraordinary. Today all that remains of the original temple is a meticulously cut granite wall with the ruins used by Spanish colonists as the foundation for the Church of Santa Domingo. The amalgam of Spanish colonial architecture with Inca walls built with enormous, tightly interlocked granite stones appears all over Cusco. It is unlike anything I had ever seen before and you can well understand Cusco’s place on the UNESCO World heritage list. We had come to Cusco for the sole reason of acclimatising and then departing for the Inca trail. Sitting later that afternoon in the Plaza de Armas in the bright sunshine surrounded by stunning architecture I could only kick myself for not having come sooner.

Do

If you have time, then, at least for the first day, you should try to not do very much at all except soak in the atmosphere.  Cusco sits at 3400m and the human body (at least mine) is not really designed to move from sea level to that height within a couple of hours.

On the second day, assuming that you have semi-acclimatised (I never became fully acclimatised and remained fairly breathless for the duration of our stay), just grab a map and walk around the Centro Historico. If visiting any museums, purchase the Boleto Turistico which provides entry to the major museums in Cusco and Inca sites around Cusco and in the sacred valley. If you are religiously inclined the Boleto Religioso provides entry to the major churches and cathedrals in Cusco.

In the afternoon walk up through the San Blas district (on the northern side of Plaza De Armas) where artisans can be seen in workshops and continue north west for about one and a half kilometres through San Cristobal and along an old stone path up to Saqsaywaman, the huge impressive Inca ruins that overlook Cusco. Whilst the Spanish used a lot of the stones from Saqsaywaman to build their own houses many of the walls were built from stones simply too large to move. About 20 per cent of the original structure remains and it is sufficiently impressive that you can’t help wondering how the whole complex would have looked had it not been ransacked by the Spanish. If you are still feeling energetic after walking around, Christos Blanco is on an adjacent hill.  The walk up to Saqsaywaman which involves a 300m gain in elevation, was sufficiently taxing on my second day at altitude that I was happy to enjoy the view of Christos Blanco from afar. I also vetoed Rob’s ever hopeful suggestion that we walk to the 3 other ruins within 8km of  Cusco – Q’enqo, Pukapukara and Tabomachay.

On day three we undertook a tour of the Sacred Valley. Whilst we could have done this with one of the large bus services, as there were six of us we opted to organise a private van and driver for the day. The cost worked out to $US 25 each. We organised this through the hotel and did not haggle so undoubtedly the more budget conscious could organise a cheaper trip. I was just happy that we did not have to get on and off a large tour bus with people that we did not know at times and places determined by the tour guide and were able to largely avoid crowds of tourists by visiting the sites in the opposite order to that taken by most of the larger tour buses. We visited the major ruins accessible through the Boleto Turisico – Chinchero, Ollantaytambo and Pisac.  There are a number of other Inca sites in the area, but these sites combined with lunch and a visit to a textile workshop made for a full day.

Each of the sites is very different and worth seeing.  Chinchero is a fairly small set of ruins but is combined with a Spanish colonial church and, located at 376om, provides sweeping views of the Andes.  It is accessed by walking through an Andean village. We didn’t really know where we were going and just followed a series of small flags hung out various dwellings.  Whilst we successfully found the ruins we later found out the flags just denote a place that sells chicha (corn beer).  The village is sufficiently small that you will eventually end up at the church and ruins, even if you get temporarily lost.

Ollantaytambo, the fortress where Manco Inca defeated a force of 70 conquistadors by throwing spears and boulders from the top of the step terraces and then flooding the plain below, is now a fairly well set of preserved ruins and terraces. Just like the conquistadors, however, I found it a steep and hot climb up the terraces to the temple area at the top of the ruins. I was just thankful no-one was throwing boulders at me.

In contrast the carpark area for Pisac is close to the top of the terraces and these ruins can be visited without expenditure of too much energy. The agricultural terraces at Pisac are much more extensive than those at Ollantaytambo and provide views across the valley to the Andean villages below.  Pisac is nowhere near as popular as Ollantaytambo and save for workers repairing the terraces we had this site to ourselves.  The more energetic and adventurous (everyone in our group except me) can take a path on the side of the cliff  through stone doorways, up some rickety stairs to a short Inca tunnel carved out of the rock.

On our last day before embarking on the Inca trail, we did some essential last minute shopping for the trail and visited the Choco Museo. The Choco Museo is more shop than museum, but does that really matter when chocolate is involved? The nephews and I learnt the ins and outs of the chocolate making process in a two hour workshop which importantly resulted in our own creations to take on the trail with us. The cost was S70 (about US$25) and well worth it.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one destination for which the words “awesome” and “amazing” cannot be overused. If, like me, you were thinking it was probably overhyped you could not be more wrong, at least if you visit in the low season. Arriving there after 4 days of solid hiking was breathtaking, and not merely because of the altitude and hiking.

There are obviously those who will want to spend part of their time in Cusco by visiting Machu Picchu by train rather than taking four days to hike there.  You can do this in a day trip, but unless you are really short of time take 2 days and stay overnight at Aguas Calientes. To get to Machu Picchu from Cusco your should anticipate at least the following – a half hour trip to the train station, followed by a three and half hour train trip and a further half hour bus ride from Aguas Calientes. The return trip takes even longer as the train travels up hill. Machu Picchu is a once and a life time experience which should be enjoyed and savoured, not rushed when you are exhausted from travel.  Taking the extra day will allow you to see all of the main ruins, hike up to Inti Punku (the Sun Gate – allow an hour assuming you are middle-aged and want to take photos on the way) and, if you want, further along the Inca trail. Other tips:

  • think carefully about the time of year to visit. The high season is May to August, the dry season and when most of the northern hemisphere take their holidays. Machu Picchu will be filled to capacity during this period. We travelled in December and there would only have been a few hundred people at the site in the morning. I am not sure we would have had the same experience if the place had been packed. November to March is, however, the rainy season. We were fortunate because it only rained at night but the area has been known to experience mud slides during periods of excessive rain. Our guide told us his favourite time of year to visit was April and September;
  • book tickets for the train, entrance and, if so inclined, Huayna Picchu (the adjacent mountain with a steep path) in advance. You can do this either through the official sites: perurail.com and machupicchu.gob.pe or get a reputable tour company to organise the whole thing for you.  We used Llamapath and they were very good;
  • you can either catch a bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back or walk. There is a very steep path that heads up the mountain, but as this path continually intersects with the road the bus takes I would not bother with the walk, but would instead use any energy to head out to the Sun Gate and beyond or to climb Huayna Picchu – both will give you excellent views of Machu Picchu;
  • you don’t need to walk all the way to the Sun Gate to get that famous Machu Picchu shot. Instead the photographs that you see gracing travel magazines have probably been taken from a spot only about 5 minutes walk from the main gate, at the bottom of the path up to the Sun Gate. Head up the mountain to the left of the main control gate on entering the complex. You won’t be able to miss it – there will be a queue of people waiting patiently to take a photo.
  • you don’t need to stay in the Sanctuary Hotel adjacent to Machu Picchu to get in early to miss the crowds. Buses leave early and regularly from Aguas Calientes so staying on the mountain gives you no real advantage and leaves you captive to the accommodation and food prices on the mountain.

Cusco – Stay

As we were using Cusco as a base for some of our travels we stayed in several different hotels. Our favourite was Tierra Viva Cusco Saphi. It was quiet,  conveniently placed (not on the Plaza de Armas, but a short walk on a gentle slope), had a nice sunny courtyard, clean and spacious rooms and helpful staff. For those who are less able than others it should be noted that Cusco is quite hilly. Many hotels, particularly those in the San Blas district will involve a steep climb from the Plaza de Armas. We heard one American lady complaining volubly about the failure of the hotel to warn her that it was located on a hill as she dragged her luggage behind her.

Cusco – Eat

We did not have a bad meal in Cusco. Calle del Medeo was well located with a balcony overlooking Plaza de Armas with good food, if a bit pricey by Peruvian standards. The Australian owned Los Perros (undoubtedly named for the numerous dogs wandering around Cusco) with its couch seating and fusion menu of mexican/asian flavours was fun, inexpensive and just around the corner from our hotel. Our favourite, however, was Pacha Papa on the Plaza San Blas with its open courtyard, wood fired oven, hot rolls straight out of the oven and stuffed capsicums (peppers for the non-Australians) to die for.

Health and Safety

There are two main health and safety issues in Cusco – altitude related illnesses and robbery.

Cusco is located at 3600m above sea level, a sufficient elevation to cause altitude sickness in some people. We met several people who either spent most of their time in their hotel room feeling dreadful or had to leave Cusco and descend to a lower altitude. We took Diamox the day before we arrived in Cusco until we passed the highest point on the Inca trail. All six of our group were able to cope with altitude with little difficulty, except, in my case, for the problem of hiking up mountains – but that was, undoubtedly, a general fitness issue. In contrast, the 18 year old nephews seemed to bound up the mountains with ease. It is worth seeing your doctor to see if Diamox is suitable for you.

Pickpocketing and snatch and grabs are a problem in Cusco. There is little you can do save for the standard precautions – be aware constantly of your surroundings, avoid carrying a purse or bag, and if you are female travelling alone try and stay around other tourist groups.

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