Peru: Cuzco

As travelers, we’ve always heard we need to be careful of getting taken advantage when it comes to paying “tourist” prices.  Lucky for us, Joshua is a great negotiator and makes sure this rarely happens.  I can remember one overnight bus in Bolivia where we ended up paying double the local price, and it still pains us.  The moment we stepped foot in Peru, however, we really got slammed for not paying enough attention.  Oscar, our “helpful” bus driver assistant from Copacabana to Puno answered all of our questions while providing information about our next bus from Puno to Cuzco.  Many travelers opt to take the Inka Express, a bus that stops at tourist sites along the Route of the Sun between the two towns.  Although, it’s double the price of a local bus, you get a chance to see interesting ruins, churches, and museums with the help of a guide as well as a decent lunch.   Oscar decided he would give us a “deal,” but not include any of the entrance fees; which he said would be about $4 each.  We thought it would be nice to have the freedom of choosing which sites we wanted to enter.  Unfortunately for us, the true cost of entrance fees was about 4 times that.  In the end, our deal wasn’t so good; and I’m guessing Oscar knew that.  As they say, welcome to Peru.

One of our fellow travelers put it this way: countries go through different stages in how they interact with tourists.  Some countries are in their infancy.  They haven’t realized they can charge a higher price for tourists and many travelers end up paying prices comparable to locals.  Other countries that have been a tourist destination for a while end up pushing the limits to see how much money they can take from the naive.  In this teen phase, travelers get gouged for not doing their research and can end up paying way more than someone else if they don’t have enough information.  As countries mature, they see that providing a consistent price and service is more beneficial in the long run…better reviews, return business, etc.  In negotiating for our Machu Picchu hostels and tours, we got the impression that Peru is “just growing up.”  We received quotes for identical tours that ranged from $180 to $250.  Hostels were even worse.  I don’t understand who benefits when a place calls itself a hostel, but charges $90/night.  People that stay at hostels don’t pay $90/night.  Again, welcome to Peru.

The one saving grace is that Peru may have the most dynamic culture and history in all of South America.  Cuzco is the gateway to Machu Picchu and the navel of the Inca Empire.  It has great museums, beautiful Inca ruins and lovely churches and plazas.  The food in Peru uses the same ingredients all the other countries in South America have access to, but actually makes flavors out of them.  Why not throw a little lemon and cilantro in the mix to spice things up?  There are many things to like about Peru.

When we arrived in Cuzco, we found out that the only tickets available for Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu (only 400 passes daily) were for 4 days later.  All the treks we were looking at lasted exactly 4 days.  At that point, we realized that we had one hour to decide what, if any, trek we were going to do.  The only option was to leave the next morning.  Too bad, it was supposed to be a maintenance day for us…no clean underwear for a 4 day trek.  This is traveling, baby!  Oh, and all the while, it was the Ayamara New Year (celebrated around June 21, winter solstice), a time when the entire country celebrates for a week straight with booze, music and pyrotechnics.  That night, there were estimated 300,000 people outside of our hostel.  It was worse than Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve.

Luckily, tour agents are very motivated when they have open spots the night before a trip leaves, and we were able to work with an agent well after closing, although getting to the ATM through the drunken mess proved tricky.  We chose a tour that included downhill biking (again!), three days of trekking, and options for water rafting and zip lining along the way.  It ended up costing less than a train ride to Machu Picchu, and we’d get to do more than sit and stare out the window of our train car.  Plus, we would return to Cuzco via the train which we heard can be quite beautiful.  Despite the tight timing and lack of clean clothes, we had a lot to be excited about.

The tour started out a little iffy, to say the least.  Our 7AM departure turned into more like 9:30AM because the drivers and tour guides were all either a. still drunk or b. hung over from the huge party the night before. Did I mention that right outside of our hostel there was a party going on until 6AM?  We were quite relieved to be leaving our “central” hostel for the next 4 days so we could have a little reprieve from the festivities.  Our late start meant that our downhill biking (which was actually very relaxing as the road was paved and we had endless views of the valley) ended late, and the rafting didn’t start until just before dusk.

Instead, we opted for a nap and soaking panties in the sink so we weren’t the foulest trekkers on the trail.  We spent the next day hiking along precarious paths (including some of the real Inca Trail) with all too frequent stops to hear our “university-educated” tour guide provide theories on the Incas, aliens and anything else he could think of.

Other than the surprisingly great food and the lovely views, the train was sounding like the wiser choice.  Little did I know, the day’s hike would finish at the most amazing geothermal pools we have seen yet.  It’s always nice when you come across a place that not only the tourists love, but the locals enjoy, as well.  We shared a soak in the warm baths as the sun set over the Urubamba River.

Joshua and I raced forward the next day.  We’d had enough of our annoying guide.  Joshua was using coca leaves to tune him out…pretty soon I was doing the same, even though they taste like dirt tea to me.  Focusing on the numbness in our mouths gave us something to do to pass the time.

The morning hike was hot and ugly, but towards the afternoon we picked up the train tracks at the edge of the jungle as we approached the town just below Machu Picchu called Aguas Calientes.  We passed the ultra luxury Hiram Bingham train stopped at the station at the base of Machu Picchu.

One day when we no longer feel the need to punish our bodies, we’ll definitely have to go that route.  Tickets are $600/each round trip…add in a fancy hotel in Aguas Calientes pre and post Machu Picchu and that is a luxurious and relaxing version of a visit to the most famous Inca site in the world.

The next morning we were set to begin our hike to Machu Picchu at 4:30 AM so that we could catch the sunrise.

Many people take the bus to conserve their legs for the rest of the day.  We (or actually Joshua) decided that we should have to “earn” our chance to see Machu Picchu, and by earn, he meant walk up 2,000 irregular stone steps in the dark.  By the time we arrived at the entrance 40 minutes later, Joshua was shirtless and my glasses had fogged up.  We were both sweating profusely, hidden only by the fact that it had started to rain.

The fog was so thick we couldn’t even see Machu Picchu.  Had we climbed all this way on a bum day?

Our worries were subdued when our substitute tour guide (yes, our obnoxious guide bailed and provided us with a sub) arrived to tell us that he had spoken with the sun gods, and the sky would be clear by 9AM.  Thank you new guide, Mr. Darcy.

(The couple who took a photo after us got engaged on THIS rock!)

Mr. Darcy was right.  By the time our 2.5 hour informative tour ended, the mountain was completely clear save a few picturesque clouds.  Machu Picchu is truly indescribable.  Other tourists have said that pictures don’t do it justice; and now we can see why.  Not only are you at 8,000 feet elevation, but you are surrounded by mountain peaks and the valley below, clouds and terraced hills that frame the immaculately constructed city.

Using primitive tools, the Incas were able to shape huge stones into (mortar-less) bricks, with as many as 32 corners, that somehow align perfectly with each other.

In addition, every structure had a purpose, whether it was creating an acoustical room, a geographical compass (both magnetic and directional – no seriously we tested it with an iphone), or even a solar calendar through the placement of window openings aligned to the sun.

To prevent erosion, the Incas built retaining walls (terraces) and layered large rocks, smaller rocks, and sand to withstand earthquakes.

There is even an aqueduct that runs through the site, filtering water as it flows.  The truly remarkable part is that all of this was done between the years 1450 and 1540 when the city was abandoned.

We stood in awe of Machu Picchu for much of the morning…the design, construction and the green, green grass.

But, at 10am, we had tickets to climb Wayna Picchu which is another mountain that provides an overlook down onto Machu Picchu.  It is said that this is where the famous pictures of the site are taken.  We took our turn at the Wayna Picchu gates, guest numbers 209 and 210 for the day.  Immediately, we started climbing large stone steps straight up, hanging on to metal cables for balance.  The stones were slippery from the early morning fog and rain.  We had people coming down the mountain from the early group passing us on the narrow ledges.  The top of Wayna Picchu was confusing…you never really know if you made it.  There’s no outlook, really, just a few precarious rocks that travelers sit on to get an overview of the Inca site and to rest your lungs from the climb.  We had the view to ourselves for the first few minutes before any other travelers completed the climb.

It was spectacular, and if we had any other camera, we would have gotten one of those famous Machu Picchu pictures, but it was not to be with our tiny point & shoot.  Soon, the 198 other people in the second group ascended, and we gave up our spot at the top of the mountain.  We had a few more hours to enjoy, so Joshua suggested we continue on to the Gran Caverna which is a relatively unknown and un-visited side of Wayna Picchu.  Immediately, we began going down steps taller than they were wide like those we had come up but on the back side of the mountain.

The stress on my knees and quads was similar to running a marathon, but before long we knew it was too late to turn back…my only hope was that we wouldn’t have to come back up these same stairs on the return.  We went down so far we could hear the river that we had once loomed above at Machu Picchu. We visited the Caverna which is another Inca site with intricate brick work carved into a cave.

Only one other person visited that day out of the 400 who had access.  Heading back it was straight up again—my legs were shaking, using a mind of their own to miss steps and trip me up.  Basically, I was not in control of my body as we climbed all the way back up the mountain.  From there, we got to descend AGAIN with the rest of the group.  By the time we finished Wayna Picchu and the Gran Caverna trail, I was jello.

We walked through Machu Picchu again, admiring the work, deciding if we should do the Sun Gates or not.  The Sun Gates are the entrance from the real Inca Trail.  Coming through at sunrise, you can see the ceremonial site in its entire splendor.  Based on the feeling (or lack thereof) in my legs, we decided to save that part of Machu Picchu for when we hike the real Inca trail (requiring 9 month advance reservations, these days).  We hope it’s better to leave a little undone for the next visit…that way we have a great reason to come back.

Before we left for the day, Joshua and I enjoyed the most expensive and delicious Coke Zero I will ever experience.  For the first time on the trek, I was grateful that Joshua lugged a 2 lb. avocado up the mountain that we could enjoy for lunch.  It gave us the energy we needed to walk back down the 2,000 steps we had come up that morning en route to Aguas Calientes.  We watched the bus riders zoom down the switch back road, as we marveled at what we had just seen.  Machu Picchu should be on everyone’s bucket list, no matter how old or fit, but I’d only recommend the Gran Caverna to those who are ready for a challenge.  There is a way for everyone to see this magical place.

We took the early evening train back to Cuzco and were welcomed back to our dingy hostel on the square.  It was the last day of the crazy Inti Raymi ceremony at Sacsayhuaman (my favorite word in quechua, sounds like sexy woman).  Luckily, we were so tired from our 4 day trek, that the twin bed they gave us that was shaped like a banana, the drums beating until 6am and the horrid hostel smells didn’t wake us until the next morning.

We spent the following day in shorts even though it was freezing cold because ALL of our clothes were at the laundry.  We filled up on delicious food at a total tourist spot, Jack’s, where we could eat burgers, tuna melts and milkshakes like they make in the states. As our bodies began to process what we had done to them, we were forced to move slowly in Cuzco.  We decided to visit the Sacsayhuaman ruins just above the city as a leisurely stroll.  Note to self: never visit the second best ruins a day after you’ve seen the crème de la crème.  It’s not fair.  We took a horseback ride tour of the Temple de la Luna and the Temple de los Monos, but can’t tell you what we saw beyond a pile of rocks.

We asked our young guide, Miguel, if we were at the right place.  It was such a disappointment after Machu Picchu, but I imagine not much else can compare.   Having truly enjoyed Cuzco and the surrounding Sacred Valley, it was the perfect time to move on to our next adventure.

3 thoughts on “Peru: Cuzco

  1. We’ve loved reading about your adventures. What fantastic experiences!
    Are we going to see you in London for the olympics?

  2. totally feel you about the food…we thought Peruvian food was the best in SA of the countries we visited (which isn’t saying much in our opinion, Central American food was much better). how much potatoes, rice and mystery meat can one stand to eat? plenty if you’re Bolivian apparently! the pictures of the fog on Machu Picchu are lovely by the way, I’m glad you did get some sun though too. we loved Jack’s as well- I think we are there 3 times in one week 🙂

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