Set at an altitude of 3400m the UNESCO World Heritage Site of La Ciudad Imperial (The Imperial City), better known as Cusco, has been one of importance since the 12th century when the Killke built Saksaywaman, before it became the capital for the Inca empire.
The best, and usually the only, way to travel from most of the inconveniently located bus terminals in Latin America is by expensive taxis. Even when asking a local or shop assistant about prices, you still have the feeling you’re being taken for a ride, literally as well as metaphorically.
We’d read previously about the Atawkama Hostel, with its pleasant garden popular with hummingbirds taking solace away from the cobbled streets filled with people and noise, and booked a couple of beds. The hundreds of years old house has a marvelous courtyard perfect for catching the sun, creaking floor boards, squeaky doors and communal showers, giving it that mild romance of days gone by. Combined with friendly staff and a lack of bunk bedding all of this make Atawkama a winner.
A new way emerging to visit Machu Picchu is the ‘back way’, which is ridiculously cheaper than the traditional Inca Trail tour and sees you venturing in via the Hydro Electrical plant. Whilst starting from here actually has been known about previously, we’d found that instead of a laborious mission combining local buses and minivans, making for an early start and a long day, some hostels are now offering a direct minivan trip with hostel pick up direct to the hydro electrical plant for only 80 Soles return (USD$20 – about the same as doing it the hard way but without multiple transfers).
Transport booked for the following day, today begins with a strong coffee from tourist haunt Jack’s. The door constantly revolves with tourists and locals alike and the overloaded plates of the table next to us teasingly wafted beneath our noses, looking tantalisingly tempting. Still full from the free hostel breakfast (actually one of the better ones) we make our exit strolling past one of the original foundations laid by the long gone past inhabitants, the Incas. Lined with impromptu guides and hawkers it’s a patient wait in the Hatunrumiyoc alley to be able to photograph the thirteen sided foundation block that fits so perfectly without mortar, so much so that a sheet of paper is unable to prise the joints.
Rolling down to the Plaza de Armas it’s poignant that, as with the rest of Peru, they are proud of their Inca heritage, using many famous chiefs to watch over the main plazas along with greeting new comers at major entrances to cities. Again the lovingly manicured plaza is rimmed with various jewellery, souvenir and tattoo shops with the odd restaurant or bar adorning the first floors (Check out Norton’s Rats Tavern for craft beer and people watching views). Strolling the streets we come across the San Pedro Market (watch your belongings) in the shadow of San Pedro church which is filled with the typical tourist bits and the typical llama patterned jumpers. From here you can make your way back along the Balcon del Qosqo (Balcony of Cusco) amongst the terracotta tiles weaving toward the main Cathedral of Santo Domingo. Finding it closed (we really don’t have any luck with open times) Norton’s next door makes for a better place for confession over a pint of amber goodness. Basking on the balcony in the early afternoon sun, it’s a perfect perch for everyone’s favourite sport of people watching (don’t deny it).
Having a prearranged meeting with the daughter of a family whom we’d lived with the other two daughters in London and had also sailed in Sardinia with them and their parents, it was only fitting to meet up on the road as Hayley was travelling north in the opposite direction. Meeting at the Aussie run Los Papos for a meal of sharing platters seated at the bar, a few Cusquenos later finds us hanging out with a few local guys in the lounge style room making plans to visit Mushroom night club.
Cutting the queuing masses thanks to the local company, Mushroom’s first floor is part meat market, part grooving dance floor with a service of expensive drinks unless you’re in the right circles. The top floor is a paid for space though the music to us was more enjoyable on the first level. Dancing the night away we chose to ignore the fact that we have a 6am start the next day for Machu Picchu.
It’s needless to say the three hours sleep did little to recharge the batteries. Matt was so passed out that Sarah had to help the poor hostel lady, who was screaming at us from the door, to wake him up. Still way too affected from the night before we throw our packs in the lock up, say our goodbyes (the ladies were sweet about us) and walk up to the pickup point.
Hostel pick up my arse
The walk up is enough to have us gasping for air barely able to wrangle ourselves into the van. Thankful that two single seats have been left vacant we buckle up and within minutes are in a dreamy, yet bumpy, blissful state of unconsciousness. Passing through the towns of Santa Maria and Santa Teresa, some of which are an inevitable overnight stop on the journey made independently in stages, we arrive at the Hydro Electrical plant, also the last stop on the train for Agua Calientes. There’s a few vendors plying the last chance to grab a drink and food, and passing these we get a little confused and end up at the wrong end of the tracks confronted by a wall of earth. Doubling back a friendly chap send us up the side of his restaurant onto the correct path/tracks.
Over a rickety bridge, past a jungle station or two, some hastily erected track side stalls, past a swimming spot and we’re concerned that the walk is taking much longer than anticipated. With light dwindling we round a bend to find secluded in a lush valley the twinkling town of Aguas Calientes. Through two dark tunnel dripping with moisture we finally enter town, knackered and hungry. Meeting the owners to the Waynapicchu Hotel along the trek, we take a room overlooking the town happy for the comfortable interior and hot showers (40 Soles). Be warned – everything in Agua Calientes comes with a hefty, tourist driven price tag. Not venturing too far from the hotel La Choppa around the corner fed us with a delightful pizza called Portal del Inka (Asparagus, mushrooms, red pepper and ham). At 45 Soles (USD 11) it’s steep for the price, especially when the cheeky waitress demands a tip before the pizzas even cooked!
Gazing blankly at the TV for all of 30 seconds the next sound rudely awakens us at 4:30am, bastard alarm. Dragging ourselves out of bed we shun the bus up the hill (at USD 12 one way it can piss right off) and in turn opt for the way the Incas would have journeyed. A strenuous hour climb up the maintained path to the sound of the can’t-be-bothered-bus (lazy tourists) zig zagging up the road. Feeling like we’d earned it, the parking lot is a moving ebb of buses emptying, tourists, hawkers and guides desperate for your coin.Jostling through the throng, we pass the security and make the comparatively short walk up to the mystical height of the city that was only rediscovered in 1911. Shrouded in mist, Machu Picchu reveals it’s beauty amongst the waves of cloud drifting in and out, adding to the euphoric experience. Once the cloud burns off the full extent of the laborious endeavour undertaken six centuries previously is laid out in an orderly fashion below as wafts of clouds add to the mystique.
From our vantage point the easy option whilst up here is to visit the Puente del Inca. Up around the back the entry’s free and the bridge that’s built and carved into the sheer rock face is one you’d not like to slip on.
Free to wander through the ruins whilst eavesdropping on the various guides gathering snippets of info, we weave through the Temple of the Sun, Observatory, pass the resident llamas (wait…let me take a selfie) around the furthest point, an impressive rock whose shape imitates the mountains beyond. With the pick up at two o’clock in the afternoon we descend back through Agua Calientes and back along the tracks to the Hydro Electrical Station.
Back in Cusco, we find a great feed at La Casa de Kabab before a well needed meeting with our pillows.
The following day we had the need, the need for ink. Researching along with visiting a few of the tattoo palours in town, we settle with Willka Tattoo. Colombian artists Albert Santos Carrasco (Manu Tattoo) is on a guest spot for a few months and was proving popular with appointments daily. Into his style and with a thirst for colour we’d booked a few days earlier, Matt to get a leg job whilst Sarah went for a smaller design she drew herself and had done by his girlfriend. Here’s the end results.
A marathon eight hour session in the chair leaving both artist and canvas knackered, we took the night bus out toward the Bolivian Frontier.
For more Peru photos head over to our Flickr page.
TIPS FOR MACHU PICHU
- There is a lot cheaper way to achieve the ascent to Machu Picchu. Ask around at you hostel on arrival and they’ll surely point you in the right way. Piwa hostels have the instructions if you want to do it another way to us. Though you might save a couple of dollars it’s far less convenient than our way.
- If you want to trek Wanyupicchu you can no longer buy the tickets on the day and must BOOK MONTHS in advance.
- Pre purchase your entry ticket to Machu Picchu in the information centre in Cusco before heading out or they will refuse entry.