CUSCO | PERU
BUILT AT THE HEIGHT OF THE MIGHTY INCA EMPIRE AND ABANDONED ONLY A CENTURY LATER, PERU’S LOST CITY REMAINED FORGOTTEN BY THE OUTSIDE WORLD UNTIL IT’S REDISCOVERY IN 1911. WHILE IT MAY NOT BE THE FABLED LOST CITY OF LEGEND, MACHU PICCHU AND IT’S MIST SHROUDED PEAK IS STILL A PLACE THAT KEEPS IT’S SECRETS. LYING 80 KILOMETERS NORTH OF CUSCO IT IS A SACRED PLACE KNOWN AS WHERE THE ANDES MEETS THE AMAZON.
My initial plan to take the night bus from Lima didn’t work out. If ever you are in doubt about anything the last thing you want to do is google it. A common head cold can turn into cancer, your best friend cancelling plans means he is a terrorist, and those noises in the attic is obviously a sign of economic migrants living in your house preparing to steal your job and your girlfriend and her job. So it was a bad idea to google night buses to Cusco, especially after a spate of crashes and robberies. A flight over the Andes it was then. Nothing bad ever happened to planes there.
At Cusco airport a lovely woman handed me some coca leaves to combat the altitude sickness. I love mountains and thankfully don’t really suffer from altitude sickness, but seeing as Cusco is situated at 11,000 feet I thought it best to take them just in case. Plus they were free. Coca leaves are a popular stimulant here in the Andes region of South America. They are either chewed or brewed into a tea. They’ve been a main component of Coca Cola since it’s invention in 1885 giving rise to the urban legend that it contained cocaine. No such luck. Fanta still contains heroin though and that’s a fact.
Cusco is such a beautiful city. The town is nestled inside a small valley on the high Andean plateau. I climbed to the top of my guest house and looked out over the roof. It’s like a sea of orange – pretty terracotta tiled houses, burnt to amber in the exposed sun shine. In the old part of town cute little cobbled streets lead to grand old colonial squares and fountains, all basking in the cool, fresh mountain air. Cusco was originally the seat of the Incan empire from the 13th century when it was known as Qusqu in the Quechua language. The spanish conquistadors invaded and adapted the name further to Cuzco, making it sound like an exotic, South American supermarket chain.
Speaking of my guest house, it – and my host – were tiny and hilarious. I was at the stage where I was convinced I could hold a conversation in spanish. This wasn’t true. Mostly my tiny host was reduced to tears trying to explain shit to me. I still don’t know whether they were tears of laughter or frustration. My room was upstairs inside a hobbit hole. I get that Peruvians aren’t very tall, but neither am I. Still, I felt like Gulliver leaving a trail of carnage through Lilliput as I stomped around constantly butting my head against door frames and ceilings. Maybe the conquistadors didn’t intentionally set out to destroy the Incas? It just sorta happened, like a bear in an Ikea store.
It was a joy to stroll around the old town. The main square, the Plaza de Armas, contains many impressive remnants of Spanish rule. The Cathderal de Santo Domingo stands just across the square from the Church de la Compania de Jesus. Like a lot of colonial cathedrals (remember Mexico City?) they were built over the site of shrines and places of worship important to the original peoples of the area. That’s just rubbing it in.
In the evening I walked from the Plaza eventually making my way to the top of the hill overlooking the city. It was quite a walk but I had made it to the pre-Incan fortress known as Saksaywaman (I was told to think of “sexay woman” – like I needed to be told to think of that). A lot of people assume this was built by the same guys who erected Machu Picchu but it’s actually a good bit older and built by the killke people. Saksaywaman is a poster child for the ancient aliens buffs, believing that the weight of the stones and the craftmanship employed here was beyond the scope of the ancient peoples. In all these stories I find it disappointing that we have so little faith in old technology and techniques. We have lost a lot of ancient know how and practices. Just because we can’t figure something out now doesn’t mean E.T. did it, we’ve already been down that road with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And we all know how that turned out. As it turns out Saksaywaman was a great appetiser for what was to come….
Speaking of appetites I was introduced to my favourite south american dish here in Cusco. Lomo Saltado is comprised of stir fried strips of beef on a bed of rice and chips mixed with onion and peppers and sautéed in awesome sauce. The national dish here is called cuy, and it is grilled guinea pig. I’m always fascinated with western outrage over China cooking up dogs while Peru gets a free pass when it grills every classrooms favourite animal. My only objection was the expense. For such a tiny meatless dish it can cost $15 minumum. Guinea pigs can’t be that expensive to raise surely? They eat cardboard.
The most notable way to reach Machu Picchu is via the famed Inca Trail, a four day trek from Cusco. This can book up months in advance though so the best option for relatively late comers like myself is to take the train. Trains run from Cusco to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes – or Machu Picchu pueblo as it’s been recently renamed. You can go directly there or visit the ruins of Ollantaytambo also situated in the scared valley. The train begins it’s descent from the plateau into the valley, barren red and brown mountains slowly giving way to lush green fields and terraced hills. As the foothills give way and the soaring snow capped peaks of the Andes begin to reveal themselves through the cloud you can begin to understand why this was called the Sacred Valley. Roughly four hours later I pulled into the small village of Aguas Calientes. This is a tiny place hemmed in by steep cliffs and dissected by a fast flowing glacial river. The entire town seems poised to slide further down into the valley itself, the streets can be incredibly steep.
Down in the small square I bought my entrance ticket for Machu Picchu for the next day. I wanted to buy the option to do the optional Huayna Picchu trek. Every morning a very limited number of people are granted access to the iconic peak you see looming over the old city in all the photos. No such luck for me though. Another multi month long waiting list. I did buy access to Machu Picchu Mountain – something I didn’t even know was a thing. “It’s about a four hour round trip hike” she said, “but it’s steep. Very steep”.
Two things. I’m so glad I bought that ticket. But it is steep. Very steep.
Like a kid at christmas it was hard to sleep that night. This was it. The big one. The star of a million Instagrams and the holy grail of adventure travelers. I eventually fell asleep, silently praying the rain and the clouds would hold off for a few hours.
That morning I waddled down to the bus stop. You can either hike up to the mountain from the town, or you can join the world’s longest queue for a ticket for the little green buses that chug up and down the small access road all day. Seeing as I was already committed to a steep four hour hike I plumped for the bus. What a ride! South America is full of dangerous roads anf this has gotta be one of them. Steep cliffs fall away mere inches from the wheels as you pull over to the side to let another bus come back down. The drops are precipitous and the bends stomach churning as the drivers fearlessly whip the battered buses around the hairpin bends. Our driver had the window open and his whispy comb-over fluttered in the breeze like a adventurous piece of string struggling to break free from his head. He was so nonchalant it’s almost like he did this everyday.
After being funneled through the security gates I rounded the ledge which hugged the mountainside. Across the other side of the gorge the jagged peaks of the Andes rose in answer while dead ahead stood the Gatehouse, a small thatched stone building balancing on the edge of the cliff. Trembling I climbed the ladder onto the ledge and through the dingy little dwelling. I can’t describe the view which meets you on the other side. A million cliches spring to mind. For those that have seen it for themselves you’ll know what I mean. For those that haven’t – get your arses to Peru, this is what your eyes were invented for.
My glaze was drawn in a thousand different directions all at once. Downwards to the stone terraces lining the verdant slopes, the stone city perched proudly on top, the sentinel of the “Old Peak” Hyuana Picchu watching protectively, the muddy Urabamba river snaking through the valley below, the razor-like points of the mountains framing it all in one glorious picture postcard canvas. And breath.
I would climb down to the city itself later. The trailhead to Machu Picchu mountain closed at 11 a.m. so I’d tackle that first. It’s very easy to follow the signposts to the guard house being signing in and starting up the path. Initially it’s not too bad, but after twenty minutes or so it becomes almost vertical in parts. The crazy thing about it is that this was also part of the Inca trail, the stone steps here are the original ones laid down centuries ago. Why? Mental. The trail narrows until it’s only about a foot and a half wide at parts while the cliff falls away to a vertical drop of several hundred feet. It’s not for those with a fear of heights. Or a fear of death. And ticket girl was right – it becomes very steep. When does a hike become a climb? Machu Picchu mountain tends to blur the lines at times, at least it did for me before I arrived sweaty and shaking at the summit. Montana Michu Pacchu stands at an elevation of over 10,00 feet which gives you a mind blowing view over the city 2,000 feet below you. Even the mighty Hyuana Picchu appears ant-like as the scared valley spreads out before you. I stopped to catch my breath and took a few pictures, and after enjoying the view I began the dizzying hike back down to the ancient city, passing through the moss encrusted high-jungle.
It’s not entirely clear what Machu Picchu was built for. The general consensus is that it was a summer retreat for the Incan royalty. Despite the Disney-fied tours there is also ample evidence of human sacrifice having taken place here. During the fall of the Inca, it’s existence was kept from the Spanish. The city lost in the clouds remained nothing more than a legend whispered about among the locals until American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911. Up close it’s a bit of a contradiction. From afar it’s stunning, along with it’s setting it creates a vista unrivaled in the world. At ground level it looks at times like random jumbles of rocks piled haphazardly. A second look reveals the understated genius with which it, and it’s terraces have been built, perched precariously on the steep slopes.
It’s also surprisingly large. From the viewpoint atop the Guardhouse it looks deceptively compact, at ground level it spreads out enormously and takes a good few hours to complete a circuit. It is mostly comprised of identical stone houses, but there are some stand out structures such as the Room of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Condor. I’m not sure if this place was intentionally designed to look like a condor, or if that’s just the way the rock fell over. Either way it’s pretty cool. I enjoyed walking towards the far edge. There is a little stone bench here and I stopped to take in some water and just generally enjoy the view. A random guy rushed up to me asking for my email address. Turns out he saw me sitting spaced out on this bench overlooking the mountains and thought it would be a cool picture. He wanted to send me it. I gotta admit, it is a cool picture. One I’ve subsequently lost. That’s just how I roll.
I didn’t manage to snap any Pulitzer prize winning pictures of a llama on top of a high ledge with Machu Picchu silhouetted in the background. I did encounter lots of them in the city below though. It looks like they are intentionally let loose among the ruins to keep the grass down. I think that would be a good option for my dad’s lawns, he’s always struggling to keep the lawnmower going, a llama would be a great alternative.
Tired but overjoyed I ambled back towards the buses. It was another huge queue and another long wait before I descended back down to Aguas Calientes. The next morning I realised my train ticket didn’t run all the way back to Cusco but terminated instead in Ollantaytambo. No need to panic though. As soon as you step off the train you are hounded by touts offering rides back to Cusco. I was herded towards the little vans known as collectivos. These depart whenever they fill up. Luckily I was the last to board and so we set off straight away. Not bad for $2. Back to Hobbiton then.
I mentioned before that Machu Picchu is often erroneously referred to as the Incan “Lost City” (even by me in the title). That honor goes to the still undiscovered Vilcabamba. This was actually the setting for the very first Tomb Raider game on the Playstation. I’m not gonna pretend I was playing out my adolescent Lara Croft fantasies (not all of them revolved around actually tomb raiding….) After all I look terrible in shorts. It’s always fun to visit locations from your favourite books, movies and games especially if they happen to be exotic, overgrown jungle temples. Maybe someday I’ll stumble across Vilcabamba myself. It’s unlikely to be anywhere near Kingscourt though.
I’ve always wondered if Machu Picchu would stack up favourably to the hype. Back at Aguas Calientes as I sat outside sipping a delicious Cusquena Negra beer the smile on my face as I stared up at the misty mountain top said it all. I like to think I’ve seen quite a few amazing things these past few years. People always ask me what my favourite country is, or what my favourite places are. Despite visiting well over sixty countries at this stage the first names that spring to mind are “Peru” and “Machu Picchu”. That says it all really.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll just return to basking in the memories. Uno mas cervesa por favor.
Next time: My first south American border post takes me (eventually) into Bolivia. Cycling along a route known the world over as the “Death Road” sounds lovely right?