In three months I will be flying to South America. I’ll be there slightly less than a month.
My thought when I booked the trip was to dedicate my time to one country, but the reality is I don’t have that luxury if I want to do most South American countries in 30 years.
I will spend one week in Peru before I fly from Lima to Santiago. In Santiago I am left to my own devices for almost three weeks. I intended on travelling to the far south into patagonia territory and flying back.
I want to visit my ex while I’m in Peru. If I’m not careful I will be blogging about my ex, and I do wish to avoid that. She lives in Cusco, which is quite far from where I intend to visit.
The good news is it could make sense to fly to Cusco if I consider another option. I could fly to Cusco from Trujillo, in the north where I used to live and want to see again, and from there bus it across the Bolivian border to La Paz.
I climatise in Cusco, stock up on items that I need, hang out with people I trust, and head to La Paz where I can see Isla de Sol and Death Road. It would be a 14 hour bus ride, which is a perfect distance.
After an uncertain amount of days in La Paz, I would travel south. A train or a bus for 12-14 hours will take me to Uyuni.
Uyuni is significant. It’s a good place to see the Uyuni saltflats for three days. The guidebooks tell me it will be freezing and uncomfortable. But from there I would have to try to coordinate a trip across the border to San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile.
I estimate 10 days in Bolivia, and 7 in Peru, giving me enough time at leisure to get to Santiago.
There was some light in the sky by the time my bus was halfway up the winding dirt road to Machu Picchu. The jagged mountains formed the most intense horizon I had seen in my life.
A few restaurants and a bathroom have been built next to the entrance gate to Machu Picchu. The line of early risers waited while travel guides offered their services, but I had spent too much money to get there. My ticket to the world wonder cost 200 Soles, and that did not include the accommodation or the train tickets.
I bought my ticket from the official government site, Ministerio De Cultura. It was a pain in the arse for a foreigner. My Peruvian girlfriend printed a voucher and paid for the ticket at the bank (of Spanish speakers obviously), and then from there put the voucher number into the website. There are easier ways to buy tickets more directly in Cusco. The problem with buying these tickets in Cusco is that there is a limit of tickets to travel every day.
I was able to buy my ticket the week before I went, in high season, but thousands visit daily and tickets were selling fast in the days ahead. There are three types of tickets to Machu Picchu. There is the visit to the ruin, a bit extra to climb the mountain, and a third more expensive ticket to climb the mountain you always see in the photos (Huayna Picchu). For the third option you need to book months in advance. I didn’t have a chance to climb it.
I was worried I hadn’t beaten the crowd when I saw the line for the bus and the gate that morning (at 5am). I need not have worried. I did beat the crowd that came much later, at about 10am. The ruins are a huge place and when I turned around the first corner and saw the stone ruins for the first time, I was able to get plenty of photos in the grey dawn with nobody in the background. Yet, there was plenty of friendly tourists happy to take photos of me on my phone camera all through the day.
There were amazing things I saw that day. I was worried it would all be overhyped. I wondered how on earth I could possibly spend six hours walking around ruins. I thought I would be bored within the hour after I had taken my selfies. Definitely not.
I heard the gasp of Asian tourists ahead of me in the dark and I wondered what was happening. And then I saw it. A line of silver spread a ring around the peak of a nearby mountain. The silver became stronger, and the sky changed from gray to blue, and the silver became a sharp glare of white, and that ended up becoming the sun. The ball had formed before my eyes in 30 seconds, and it had announced the start of a new day, all justified and collected in those moments. I spared the sun no more thought as I continued through the ruins, and walked the path up the hill for more than 40 minutes to find the Sun Gate, where the travelers of the Inca Trail can first see the ruins from a far distant for the first time.
There’s a bombardment of market stalls, souvenirs, and statues of the Incas, and all in your face the moment you leave the train. The mountains loom above and the first thing you instinctively do in Aguas Calientes is look above to see if you might be able to see the ruins of Machu Picchu.
The river stream descending from the jungle splits the small town in two, and from the train station you almost straight away cross a bridge to the bus station and the main square. If you arrive at any time in the day you will notice a long line rising up the hill. This is for the bus to get to Machu Picchu.
The trains bellow.
Restaurant waiters persuade.
The children are crazy. And there is a frantic manic energy to them, as if they are the hijos of carnies. Two infants are playing blocks with each other when I pass by, and one of them grabs a block and starts chasing me and hitting me.
There is fascinating artwork weaved into the stone of the town, with its own stories. My favourite is of the ancient Peruvian god Viracocha, because it had an insight of him emerging from nature, but some of the other artworks are spread across the town and almost hidden from plain sight unless you stare from the right angle.
There were hot springs in Aguas Calientes but I couldn’t go in without thongs (flip flops), swimmers, and a towel. These could be hired but I didn’t want to be ripped off.
This is a town of transience. Even the locals in the poor end of town, in the dodgy lanes of stairs cut into the hills in the corner of the end suburb, don’t feel local. There is a desperation, a hunger, an aggression, among the waiters that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Peru. The most reasonable meal I could find was a Peruvian menu for 15 soles (which was to include a salad platter for an entree, lomo saltado for the main course, and a crepe for desert).
They forgot to give me the desert and charged me 13 Soles for each beer. At another place the alpaca steak was 40 soles and when I said this was far too much, the waiter brought it down to 25 soles. The other waiter who brought me the check didn’t realise I was given a discount, and also charged me a service tax not mentioned on the menu! My understanding is this is illegal, but no gringo questions it.
Travelers were in the mood to talk here. I met visitors from across the world who had time for friendliness and to share their adventures, including a trio from Argentina who taught me how to say the name of their country properly, and a Canadian.
The main thing to do in town while waiting for your trip to Machu Picchu is spending money, or trying to avoid spending it. You can also walk the steep climb to Machu Picchu, or you could take the bus. From memory it was 50 soles for the return journey, but it could be more.
The trip is worth it but you are at the mercy of the long lines at the start and the return journeys. I woke at 4am for my trip to Machu Picchu and was surprised to see that I had not beaten the line.
The taxi driver dropped me off in the main plaza of Ollantaytambo. I paid him the 15 soles and stepped out a little disorientated.
I sat with a broken backpack in the square surrounded by double story Mexican and Peruvian restaurants. All catered to the tourist. These would be expensive. As it turns out, they were.
I was dismayed to check my Google map to see that my hostel seemed to be distant from the town, and the complete opposite direction to the train station which I would need to arrive at the following day. I paid a Tuk Tuk driver 2 soles and he drove me along a country dirt road, across a winding stream.
The hostel was a work in progress by a strange and abrupt Peruvian by the name of Carl. He was proud of his work and especially of the double story building where at the top we could have breakfast while gazing across the valley. The mountains loomed around us, and he pointed to some of the old brick buildings alone each of the slopes. These were Incan ruins.
The more I stared at the mountains the more Incan ruins I could see. They were everywhere. It was incredible the amount of influence the Inca emperors had over their people to bring the bricks up to those levels to construct their storehouses or fortresses.
I loved Ollantaytambo. It might be my favourite place in Peru. It was safe and I wandered to the town at night. It was a country town built into a grid system, with small canals winding along the cobbled roads. The bases of the houses were the ruins of the Incas. The local children played in the street laughing and at peace. At night after dinner I walked back to the hostel watching a local family or two practice their dancing in the middle of the street.
I wanted to see one of the ruins which I had paid a ticket to see, but I ran out of time. Instead I could see people climbing a steep track to the ruins. This was a free track and called the Pinkuylluna. It took at least 40 minutes of hard climbing and by the time I reached the top point of the path the sun was about to sink. The view of the hills and the town below was glorious. See it.
After dinner I arrived back at the hostel just as Carl was impatiently setting up his camera gear to take photos of the night sky. Mars was coming out over the mountains. He was enthusiastic about astronomy. Maybe too much so. He excitedly woke up one of his guests, a British school teacher, so she could see Mars for herself. I’m not trying to be funny when I say she was not amused. It was freezing up on the roof. I stayed as long as I could because it made a good story, but I was tired.
I shared a room with a Frenchman, who was nice enough, but understood more Spanish than English. It was a common language barrier I was having. He had bought a permit to Machu Picchu for the same day I had, but he was going to take a bus. He couldn’t afford the expensive train ticket.
I wondered if he made it in time.
After check-out I walked to the train station. The sky was clear, the creek was beautiful, and I felt free. I had a broken backpack with all my clothes in it, a depleted wallet, and my Converse sneakers.
I passed a beautiful statue of a beautiful Indigenous woman, and I stopped to look at her. It was the wife of Manco Inca. She was brutalised and murdered by the greedy and lustful Pizarros, who were the brother-conquerors of Peru. This was the only grim moment in my beautiful time in a place of peace, because it reminded me that this place of peace wasn’t always so, and that horrible prices had been paid because of evil people.
I bought a sombrero at the train station, and got on the train for the next step in the journey to Machu Picchu.
The challenge with visiting Machu Picchu in high season is trying to book the ticket. It’s not just the ticket to get onto the site which is the drama, although that is painful enough. You also need to figure out how you are going to get there.
As far as I am aware there are four ways you can get to Machu Picchu.
Walking the Inca trail.
Take the tourists’ train.
Take the residents’ train.
Take a bus to Hydro Electric Station. Then walk about two hours to the Aguas Calientes (the tourist trap you need to pass through to get to Machu Picchu).
Option 1 is not an option if you have a budget, time constraints, and booked last minute. Option 2 is the way most of us seem to travel but you are being ripped off. Tickets are about $55 USD (at least) and you travel 40 kilometres. I tried to do option 3 as I technically am a resident but in high season I needed to book my ticket from Cusco’s San Pedro station in person, and tickets were booked a week in advance.
I now wish I had taken option 4 but I didn’t know enough about this alternative route last minute and I preferred to guarantee making it to Machu Picchu instead. I have heard stories that this is a frightening route through the Andes.
I tried option 3. Failed. So I went with option 2.
To get to Aguas Calientes by the tourist train you can travel from either Poroy (about 15 kilometres from Cusco), or from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. I decided to go from Ollantaytambo even though it was about an hour and a half from Cusco.
I am glad I did it because Ollantaytambo was majestic and a great warm-up to the world wonder itself.
Okay, so I was anxious about how I was going to get to Ollantaytambo. I didn’t need to be. If you go to Calle Pavitos in Cusco (near San Pedro markets) you can take a bus. The tourist guide and the owner of the hostel I was staying at claim 120 Soles a taxi. But the moment I reached Pavitos and was walking to where I thought the bus was, a taxi driver stopped and offered me a shared ride for 15 soles.
We drove through the sacred valley as he picked up hitchhikers, including a Quechua man who played a pipe from the back seat. We picked him up from Urumbamba, and we had a limited conversation in Spanish while driving along roads with snow caps glaring from the horizon.
(*It has since come to my attention, from travelers from Manchester, that there is a much easier and even cheaper fifth option. If I remember correctly, if you pay 120 Soles to the right tourist guide, you can get a ride to Hydro Electric Station. From there you can walk to Aguas Calientes. The price also includes a night (or two?) at a hostel, and the ticket price into Machu Picchu. This seems too good to be true for me, but if it’s the case, this is by far the easiest and cheapest option for a foreigner on a budget).
There have been two reliable resources for me to navigate Peru. The first I use is Hostel World, a website and app which helps me decide the hostels I want to stay in.
It doesn’t often fail me.
The second resource is Lonely Planet’s Peru tourist guide which cost me $35 Australian. In the Lima airport it’s about 120 Soles. While visiting Cusco I decided to take the tourist guide’s City Walk. It begins at Plaza De Armas and has 16 stops. It says it is a four kilometre walk and a three hour journey, but in reality it took me much longer and about four attempts to complete. But here we go….
The guide book advises beginning at the Plaza De Armas (1), which is always a natural starting point. I arrived here directly in a taxi from the airport at 6am. I paid 25 soles to get here but if you walk outside then 25 soles is reasonable. It’s beautiful for the old church and the fountain.
I was supposed to walk through the Plaza Regocijo (2) to see some nice boutiques and shops (3) along the way, but I walked on the wrong street! And because there were so many cafes and shops and parks it took a long time before I realised my mistake! I ended up skipping a few stops to have a juice at the market. But anyway…
The Museo Historico Regional used to be the house of a historian Garcilaso de la Vega, who has recorded many of the stories his family told him about the Incas. He was born several years after the Spanish conquest, and eventually moved to Spain. I haven’t read his work but have read some history books that have relied on his work (although they acknowledge his writing as creative). The museum is interesting and supplies exhibits of the Incas and other Peruvian civilizations such as the Moche and the Chimu. There is also information on de la Vega, and of revolter Tupac Amaru II.
To see many of these museums and the ruins you will need a entry pass called the Boletico Turistico, which only lasts 10 days. It costs about 130 Soles if you’re a tourist and 70 Soles if you can prove you are a resident.
4) The Plaza San Francisco is nice, sure, but I am uncertain whether it was worth paying 15 Soles to enter the museum and church of San Francisco. Well, maybe. Some of the painting were extraordinary and the library is filled with about 10,000 books. There is a small catacomb with bones and skeletons. The church itself is grande, but all I can think when I examined the handcrafted figures within is how much exploitation was necessary to create such beauty. There is a tower but it cost an additional 5 soles and I didn’t have the money.
I suppose it is worth it but there are many churches and buildings that will distract you.
5)If I had done this in order I would already be exhausted. But keep going! Walk along Marquez street through the huge colonial archway (which you can’t miss) past the Santa Clara church. The guide recommends trying to peek through the doors to the mirrors inside, but unfortunately the door was closed. I continued on…
6) The Mercado San Pedro is almost like any typical market to be found in tourist sections of Peru. There’s the tourist products, the clothes and the bags, there’s the fruits, the juice bars, the butchers, and the construction happening in between the stalls. To the back left and outside is a bathroom which costs 50 centimos to squat over a hole, but it may come in use if you need a public toilet and can’t afford a restaurant.
The guide book recommended drinking a juice. This was convenient because the lady at the juice bar saw me coming and called out ‘amigo!’ I paid seven soles for a orange, strawberry, and pineapple juice. It was delicious! She gave me seconds but I’m not sure if that’s part of the regular deal.
Regardless, I had this after 18 hours recovering from altitude sickness and it was the best pick-up.
7) The guide book recommends turning around at the back of the market, roughly turning in the direction of the Plaza De Armas. There’s nothing much more to see except the Palacio de Justicia. The building is grand and it’s the one where police holding riot shields stand at the front. You continue walking past Av Sol and walk into an old lane called Loreto which leads directly to the plaza.
The walls along Loreto lane is layered with old Inca built bricks. The guide book doesn’t mention that in the lane there is a gate into a courtyard filled with old market shops and alpacas.
It’s a nice surprise. I believe that out of all the stores I saw in Cusco the prices here are more reasonable. And there is variety when it comes to the ponchos and scarves and sweaters. The ladies working at the stores here are friendly too.
8) Due to a series of errors involving train tickets, altitude sickness, and a journey to Machu Picchu, I had long failed to reach this point of the guide until my third attempt. If you continued walking along Loreto you would reach the plaza again. From there you would turn right past the Starbucks, the Irish Pub, and the persistent ladies encouraging massages for 20 Soles. The guide says you continue walking past the old palace of the sixth Inca Roca (one I never heard of) which is now a museum. From there I walked to what is described as “the bohemian suburb” which includes a fountain, a market, and nice cafes.
9) The laneways become steep and quirky. The laneways are cobbled and windy and it’s worth exploring these at some point. There are also nice views of the central part of the city from within the alleyways. There are hidden gems among the shops too.
10) The last step in the guide book recommends walking up the steep hill to the ruins of Sacsaywaman on the hill overlooking Cusco. The entry fee is covered by the Boleto Turistico. The view of the city is extraordinary and shows a clear view of the plaza. You can also visit the Christi Blanco, which is a much smaller scale of the Christ Redeemer.
The ruins and the cobblestones is easily worth more than an hour’s exploration, but it’s a wide, clear and green place to play and stretch your legs away from city streets. There’s a good atmosphere here.
When you make a life for yourself in a foreign country, the things you truly came to experience are forgotten, for life often is predictable. Predictability means complacency for someone such as me.
I had one week off for holiday and I knew I had to do something with it. I had to borrow money and use my damage deposit to scrounge up enough money.
I bought a return flight from Trujillo to Cusco for 680 Soles for an overnight flight, packed one bag to last six days, and scoured tickets for Machu Picchu.
While in Cusco I stayed at a hostel called Puriwasi (18 bed mixed room for 29 Soles). That is a decent price compared to other places during this journey.
Here is some quick advice before I focus later posts on experience:
-Altitude sickness! Cusco is more than 3000 metres above sea level. If you fly here you will not acclimatise as well. I was in hell for 18 hours in my hostel bed. Avoid alcohol.
Maybe drink a lot of water, and wear a hat! Avoid too much walking on the first day.
Drink a coca tea from time to time. It is better to drink it before you feel the effects of the sickness.
-To visit many ruins or museums here you will need a ‘Boleto Turisto’ pass which covers about 17 places. Get it from the La Muncipalidad office in Av Sol (near the plaza de armas). The pass lasts 10 days and costs 130 Soles (if you a resident it costs 70).
-Travelling to Machu Picchu is its own story! There are many ways to get to the world wonder. I will mention more in detail in another post.
-Knowing Spanish helps with the experience but most people in customer service have an excellent ability in English (better than many visitors travelling from across the world).
It is a great place to practice with confidence. Try it, and you will meet many interesting people from across the world. For me it included Peruvians, Americans, Canadians, French-ians, amd Argentinians (who taught me how to pronounce their country properly!).