Cusco and Mach Picchu
We prefer to skip tours whenever possible, but since we had such a limited time in and around the Sacred Valley, we decided to have everything organized ahead of time. Golden Destinations gave us the best rate for the custom tour that we had requested. It included five nights of accommodation, 9 meals, airport transfers in Lima and Cusco, a Sacred Valley Tour, train and buses to/from Machu Picchu, a one day guided hike to MP and a second day to explore MP for $600 each.
We left half our luggage, surfboards and dive gear behind at the Miraflores apartment, as our town car picked us to take us to the Jose Chavez Airport in Lima. After a quick hour plus flight, we were picked up at the Cusco airport and dropped off at our pretty hotel, Hosteria de Anita to relax and acclimate to our quick jump in elevation at 3,400 meters (11,200ft). The hotel offered endless Coco tea, which we ritually drank throughout each day.
On our second day, our tour coordinator picked us up early and walked us to a bus stop. We had expected a tour with Golden Destinations, but it was just the daily tour bus taking anyone who bought a ticket around the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Pisac. This small charming town was my favorite and had the best shopping we had seen in all of Ecuador and Peru. It was good quality and they didn’t try to haggle you with high prices. It’s a great place for silver and textiles. Unfortunately, as we reached the Ruins of Pisac, the weather had begun to change. Rather than the tour guide immediately taking us up to the ruins, he allowed one of the tourists to ask questions. Instead he really just talked about how much he knew on the history of Peru until the rain began to pour. There is always one of those annoying showoff tourists on every tour. We were quickly shuffled back on the bus as we watched others that had arrived at the same time coming down from the ruins. Grrrr. Our next stop was for lunch in Urubamba. This town has less charm than a fly and should be avoided if possible. Past Urubamba is the lovely town of Ollantaytambo. This is also where the train to Machu Picchu begins. We entered the religious ceremonial ruins as a group with one hour to spend. We only walked up three tiers of Temple Hill before our guide pulled us aside to give us a history lesson and allow his little buddy to continue to ask and tell his story. Already impatient from not getting to see the Pisac Ruins, I told Abe, “lets go”. So we ditched the group and hiked up the stairs to the top of the ruins and explored. After 40 minutes we looked back down and the group had only walked up two more terraces for I’m sure an even more in-depth history lesson. Once again those poor followers only got 10 minutes to explore the actual ruins. Our last stop that day on the way back to Cusco was the small town of Chinchero. Here we saw a church, an open field they hold sporting events in and a house where women use local materials including bugs to make dyes for the Alpaca textiles they produce.
Our third day was a free day to explore Cusco, also spelled Cuzco, which is a beautiful city with lots of little stoned pathways that are easy to lose yourself in. There are so many wonderful shops, coffee, food and textile markets, and tasty restaurants. We could have easily spent a few weeks here. That night we were debriefed on the next day. We would have to carry everything we had for our overnight in Aguas Calientes along the hike and our guide would meet us at Kilometer 104. This meant some repacking, since I didn’t actually have a backpack to take, only the small Peruvian duffle bag I had bought in Pisac.
At 6:30am the next morning someone from Golden Destinations picked us up and drove us to the bus stop. Once again we were on the local tour bus headed to Ollantaytambo to catch the 8:30am train. The train was much nicer than expected. It had windows on the ceiling so you could see the high green mountains as we moved along the rickety track. We handed our tickets over to one of the stewards and noted that we will be getting off at Kilometer 104. The stewards walked up and down the aisles trying to sell you food and beverages, then merchandise, then passed out free coffee and snacks. Tricky tricky trying to get you to buy things first!
The steward told us we were about to reach our stop, so we grabbed our bags and waited by the door. We hopped off at Kilometer 104, which wasn’t actually a station, just a sign post stating 104. The train quickly continued on its way leaving only Abe and I along the tracks at the base of the beautiful Andes Mountains. Shortly after, we saw our guide, Franklin up ahead. He led us through a checkpoint that required our passports and a fee and on we went onto the Royal Inca Trail.
Our first archeological site was Chachabamba. There wasn’t much left of these ruins, but Franklin seemed excited about them. We hiked for three hours along the side of the mountains overlooking the Urubamba River until we reached the second most important archeological site, Winayhuayna (or Winay Wayna) which is Quechua for ‘Forever Young.’ It was built into the steep hillside overlooking the river. The site consists of upper and lower house complexes connected by a staircase and fountain structures. This ruin was beyond impressive and still mostly intact. The fountain structures allowed for all the running water to be purified….perhaps this is what keeps you young forever. This ruin was special in many ways, but mostly because we had it all to ourselves.
We continued hiking along the beautiful peaceful trail in the rain until we came upon the last camp on the Inca Trail, which had the first people we had seen since our first checkpoint. From there it was only one more hour to Inti Punku, The Sun Gate. It was still raining and a bit cloudy over Machu Picchu, so we sat at the Sun Gate and waited for it to clear. And sure enough, we got our first full view of the infamous Machu Picchu. It was actually much smaller than we both had imagined from the photos, but still nothing less than exquisite. It was already 5pm, so we didn’t get explore it that day, but at least we got a birds eye view of what we were up against the next day. We caught one of the many buses down the switchbacks road to Aguas Calientes, also called Machu Picchu Town. We checked into our mediocre hostel for the night, but it had a hot shower, which is all we craved after a long day in the rain. So we were happy.
We were up by 4:45am the next morning for a quick hotel buffet breakfast in order to get in line for one of the 5:30am buses up to Machu Picchu. It was still raining and socked in fog when we arrived, so Franklin slowly led us through the spiritual ceremonial sections of the ruins. By 7:30am the rain had stopped and the sun immerged shedding light and warmth on this spiritual wonderland. By 8:30am, Franklin said his goodbyes allowing us to explore the rest of ruins on our own. We popped in and out of the living quarters section enjoying how the light and shadows presented themselves through the open stone lined windows. From there you find the local llamas grazing and lazing around. We spent a lot of time watching and following them down and around the ruins leading us to a perfect quiet spot away from all the people. Here I meditated overlooking the lush green mountains and Urubamba River, while Abe took photographs of the beautiful flowers surrounding us.
By 10am, we were exhausted and ready to head back down to town. We found a spot for coffee along the river and a delicious gourmet Peruvian lunch spot called Chullpi (included in the tour after complaining about the dinner the night before). This wonderful restaurant is at the end of the main road on the right-hand side of the train tracks. After lunch we headed up to the hot springs. We had expected something more natural than just a few swimming pools, but it was set along the river and surrounded by trees so we gave it a shot. Since our train wasn’t until 7pm we lounged in the hot springs for 3 hours with other passing travelers. As wonderful as the hot springs were this was our biggest complaint with our tour company. Our agreed upon itinerary said we would get back to Cusco in the afternoon but after our long hike the day before, our guide handed us train tickets for 7pm. It takes 1 ½ hours by train and another 1 ½ hours by bus to get back to Cusco. We were also flying out early the next morning back to Lima, so we were looking forward to one last night in Cusco and time to pack that night. We were very disappointed, but made the best of our time. We didn’t get back to our hotel in Cusco until 10:30pm. When we checked in they put us up in a 2 bedroom suite overlooking the city. We thought the tour company had upgraded us since we weren’t happy with them, but I think it just ended up being the last room left by the time we got there. It made our exhausted bodies feel a little happier. If you go with a tour company make sure you are clear with what time you want the train to return to Cusco after visiting MP.
Our tour coordinator picked us up at 7am the next morning and dropped us off at the airport for one more night in Lima. This time Ashley’s dad was there, so we got to spend a little quality time getting to know him better and one more night of drinks with Alberto. Later that night we reorganized our luggage again leaving behind all but one of Abe’s surfboards, our dive wetsuits and a few other heavy items as we were about to meet up with my mom and embark on our next adventure… Chile – Santiago, Maipo Valley, and Valparaiso/Vina Del Mar for Christmas and New Years.
Cusco and Machu Picchu: Watch the Video