Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu

After spending time among the mountains of central Peru, it’s time to rub shoulders with what looks like the entire continents of Europe and North America on their summer hols, as I head to the country’s most popular city, Cusco.  Home to the most famous pre-Colombian civilisation in South America, it’s the eastern end of the Sacred Valley, a series of mountainous villages that run along the Andes, all the way to the most famous ruin on the continent.

The plus-side of all this tourism is that, pretty much wherever I go, I’m never far from a hotel or a wifi-ed coffee shop.  But the down-side (along with all the other foreigners – so many French and Germans!) is that the popularity of these attractions means that, for the first time in my travels, I have to really plan ahead.  This is one part of the world where I can’t just turn up and expect to be able to walk straight in.  Unlike plenty of other famous sites around the world, from the Great Wall to the Taj Mahal to the Pyramids to Tikal, you can’t just rock up to the front gate of Machu Picchu and expect to get in – they don’t even sell tickets to Machu Picchu at Machu Picchu!  And if you’re coming in the high season (as I am), you need to buy your tickets as much in advance as possible.

So, my first stop in Cusco is the Ministerio de Cultura, where a very helpful chap explains the myriad options available (or, in my case, not available).  I can buy a ticket just to the ruins, or I can purchase one to the ruins and to the nearby mountain of Huayna Picchu (where there’s a great view of the site and the surrounding mountains), or I can get one to the ruins and Cerro Machu Picchu (another mountain, where there’s an even better view).  The ruins have a limit of 2,500 people per day, and access to the two mountains is restricted to just 400 people per day (hence the importance of booking ahead, especially in the high season).  Despite the fact that Huayna Picchu is the smaller of the two mountains (and, according to all the guide-books, quite a strenuous climb), it’s clearly the more popular of the two, as it’s sold out out until November, three months away.  Bugger that mountain, then.  But there are spaces available for the both the ruins and the other (bigger-but-less-popular) mountain, in 10 days time.  At US$40, the ticket isn’t cheap, and nor is it transferable or refundable.  And I have to pick my time slot (I did say you can’t just rock up, didn’t I?).  So I have a few days in Cusco, and then a week or so to make my way along the sacred valley.

Once that little bit of paperwork is done, it’s time to book my transport – Machu Picchu is in the middle of nowhere, accessible only from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo).  And the only way to get to that town is by train, as there are no roads (actually, there is a road, but it doesn’t go all the way, so I’d have to walk for an afternoon with all my stuff; or I could walk for the entire day alongside the train tracks with all my gear – neither of which I find to be particularly attractive propositions; so train it is).  Having looked at the ticket prices for the two train companies that run the route, the word ‘monopoly’ immediately springs to mind – someone really needs to build that road and give the train some much-needed competition.  And having found the cheapest ticket in the cheapest carriage on the cheapest train, that’s another US$50 each way – probably the most expensive journey, mile-for-mile, in South America.  Now all I have to do is get to Ollantaytambo, the last town on the road through the sacred valley (and the last train stop before Aguas Calientes).

(There are of course ways to get to Machu Picchu on foot, by various treks, but they all require going through a tour company [as they require permits, guides, cooks, porters, etc.], and they’re all quite expensive [around US$100 per day], and they’re all sold out weeks, if not months, in advance.  And the most famous [and consequently most over-subscribed] hike of all, the Inca Trail [which is the one that ends on the last day with sunrise at Machu Picchu], is booked up until 2017!  Seriously, who plans their holidays a year in advance?!).

Despite the higher costs and the hordes of gringos, Cusco is a lovely place to wander round for a few days.  Being the continent’s oldest continuously-inhabited city and the capital of the Americas’ greatest empire, it’s full of impressive Inca architecture and colonial buildings, from the fortress of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced sexywoman, with its monolithic Inca walls) to the Inca sun temple of Korikancha (which was apparently covered in gold, at least until the Spaniards found it) to the central Plaza de Armas (and its enormous colonial cathedral, one of the oldest on the continent).  And, er, the chocolate museum.

After a few days in Cusco, my first sacred valley stop is the small town of Pisac.  It’s most famous for its handicraft market (where you can be photographed next to a traditionally-clothed woman holding a baby llama, and buy a wardrobe-full of alpaca clothes); but when the tourists have left in their buses, it’s a pleasant place to spend the night.  And high above the town, perched on a mountain ridge, is one of the Inca’s many forts.  Maybe it’s the Andean altitude, the daytime heat, or my advancing age, but it takes me a good two hours to climb up through the agricultural terraces to reach the citadel.  And although there’s not much left of the place (save for the Inca’s excellent mortar-less stonework and well-engineered canals), the views are more than worth it – the Urubamba river (which created the sacred valley) flows from north of Cusco in the east, towards Urubamba and Ollantaytambo in the west, with the valley’s fertile sides covered in the Inca’s terraces (which are still used today to grow the locals’ crops).

A short collectivo ride later, and I’m in Urubamba.  It’s nowhere near as small and laid-back as Pisac, but it’s Peruvian and un-touristy, and the perfect base from which to explore two of the valley’s more unusual attractions – Moray and Salinas.  Accessed on a winding road from Urubamba that gives me spectacular views of the valley, Moray is an Inca agricultural site, a series of deep circular holes in the ground, each one comprised of several concentric layers that terrace down.  According to all the guides I earwig, each layer has its own micro-climate, dictated by its depth, and the Incas used these terraces as a kind of laboratory for growing their crops.  Personally, I don’t buy that theory – I’m no expert, but each layer is only 2m or so deep, and surely that’s not enough to have its own micro-climate?  Anyhoo, the Incas never left any records behind (here or anywhere else), and the Spanish never described this place, so nobody’s really sure of Moray’s purpose (no matter how confident the guides sound).  Nevertheless, the man-made symmetry of the terraces, contrasting with the rugged nature around them, makes for quite a photo op.

Back down the valley towards Urubamba, with several impressive snow-capped mountains in the distance, is Salinas, another less-religious-and-more-practical Inca site.  Thousands of salt pans, still in use after 500 years, tumble down the side of the valley.  A hot spring at the top discharges a stream of salty water, and the step-like pans evaporate it, to produce what looks like a massive amount of salt.  Enormous sacks of the stuff are being loaded onto trucks, while bare-legged locals wade knee-deep in the pans.  The angular white pans, set against the rolling green-brown valley, is another beautiful (and surreal) view.

The last town in the valley is Ollantaytambo, where the Urubamba valley closes in on both sides to the point where you can almost reach out and touch them.  The backstreets that lead away from the square are full of the Inca’s well-built stone water channels, babbling away.  And on a ridge overlooking the town is one of their most impressive forts, a site so well-located and difficult-to-attack that it’s one of the few places where the Spanish conquistadors actually lost a battle.

From the top of the fortress, looking east, it’s possible to see Nevado Veronica, a 5700m peak; and in the opposite direction is Salkantay, an even bigger mountain.  The Inca stonework in the fort is so impressive I almost don’t believe it’s 400 years old.  And if it really is that old, how come the locals haven’t improved on it?  Looking at the finely-worked volcanic blocks, perfectly symmetrical and put together so closely you couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between them, and then looking at the brickwork in my hotel later, it seems like they’ve gone backwards in construction ability, if anything.  On the other side of the valley from the fort is another set of ruins, where a steep climb takes me up to some Inca grain stores – apparently, this height (at least 100m) does result in a different micro-climate…

The next day, it’s train time.  After getting to the station and going through what’s probably the most efficient and, dare I say it, Westernised, boarding process in the country (it sure isn’t like getting on the bus here), I spend the next two hours in my US$50 ‘cheap’ carriage, admiring the views out of the windows and domed glass ceilings.  And drinking as much free coffee and eating as many complimentary biscuits as possible.  The train tracks wind alongside the Rio Urubamba, with very little room left for that much-needed road, passing between Salkantay and Veronica, while descending to a sub-tropical 2000m.  We pass the start of the Inca Trail (with some forward-planning tourists hiking it), and we also see a few tight backpackers trudging besides the track.

The towns and villages of the sacred valley are small, relaxing, and photogenic (especially Pisac and Ollantaytambo); but the same cannot be said for Aguas Calientes.  Not connected to anywhere by road, and only connected to the rest of the sacred valley and Cusco by train, it’s clearly a town that exists simply because it’s the nearest place to Machu Picchu.  In fact, if it wasn’t for that, nobody would be here – there are no sights in the town (except the scummy-looking hot springs, for which the town is named), it’s the most expensive place in Peru for everything (from accommodation to food to souvenirs), and the architecture seems to consist of unfinished cement buildings and scaffolding.  But the location is stunning, with the Urubamba river rushing past, and tall forested mountains on every side.

Like the train monopoly, there’s a bus monopoly here too – unless I want to walk uphill for two hours in the morning, I have to take the bus (there’s only one bus company, and a noticeable absence of taxis and collectivos).  And at nearly US$10 for the 30-minute ride, it’s almost as expensive, mile-for-mile, as the train.  But Aguas Calientes does have one thing I like – the climate.  The town is on the Amazon side of the Andes, and even though it’s well above sea level, it’s still noticeably warmer at night than the 3400m Cusco, or anywhere in the sacred valley – I don’t need to wear my North Fake fleece, alapaca scarf, and woolly hat anymore :-).

The next day, I’m up, breakfasted, and out the hostel door by 6 (yes, that’s not a typo, 6AM).  And even though the first bus went at 5:30 (and there are buses throughout the day), there’s already a queue from the bus stop and up the hill for nearly a kilometre.  It takes me 10 minutes just to walk to the end of it.  Fortunately, there are many buses, and after an hour (only an hour!), I’m on my way.

The ride up is actually worth the money – we zig-zag up the steep valley to 2400m, until Aguas Calientes is a small blob at the bottom, surrounded by towering forested mountains.  And after more queuing at the gate, ticket-checking, and bag-examining, I’m finally here.  Except I don’t stop in the ruins, I keep going up, for my hike up Cerro Machu Picchu – among the many restrictions, the 400-people-per-day limit is in two groups, one at 8AM and the other at 10AM.  And it’s 8 now, and I don’t want to be turned away by some Peruvian jobsworth, especially after all the effort it took me to just get here.  Luckily, there’s still a queue snaking down the hill from the gate; and eventually, we all traipse through, register our details, and start trudging up.

The summit of Cerro Machu Picchu is at 3000m, another 600m above the archaeological site, and now the sun’s high up in the sky, it’s a strenuous and sweaty climb.  And not helped by the fact that much of the path goes up steep steps that wind their way around the side of the near-vertical peak – every time I want to overtake someone (or avoid someone coming down), there’s a socially-uncomfortable side-stepping dance, as each person tries to avoid being the one that has to go on the outside edge.

But the view at the top is worth all the time, effort, and money to get here.  Aguas Calientes is barely visible, at the bottom of the valley over a kilometre below me, a Lilliputian speck surrounded by Brobdingnagian mountains.  The Urubamba river snakes around the 2500m Putucusi and the 2700m Huayna Picchu on its way to meet the Amazon.  South of Huayna Picchu is Machu Picchu itself, on the only piece of flat land for miles.  And in every direction are steep green mountains spiking upwards, plus distant glacial peaks, and all covered by an endless blue sky.  It’s as breath-taking as the climb up.

Never found by the Spanish, for centuries Machu Picchu lay overgrown and forgotten, except by local Quechua Indians, until it was ‘discovered’ in 1911 by the American explorer/academic/prototype-Indiana-Jones Hiram Bingham.  He first thought the ruin was the lost city of Vilcabamba, site of the Incas’ last refuge from the conquistadors (although that site has now been found to be at Espíritu Pampa, deeper into the Amazon jungle).

Like the other sacred valley ruins, the Inca’s lack of written records means that nobody’s really sure what Machu Picchu was – trading city, agricultural centre, religious site, or maybe all of the above (there are plazas, houses, temples, and terraces).  Not that the mystery stops the tourists from coming here or enjoying the place.  And by the time I get back down from the mountain and start investigating the ruins, they are here, in their hundreds, by bus from Aguas Calientes or train from Cusco, taking photo-albums-worths of selfies or being ushered along by numerous guides, while an army of zealous guards continually blow their whistles at anyone who climbs the walls or deviates from the paths.  But that (along with all the other hassles in getting here) isn’t enough to detract from the beauty of the place.

Call me a cynical Brit or a jaded world traveller, but I don’t think the ruins are that amazing in themselves – the Incas weren’t into sculpture, so there are no carvings or bas-reliefs (such as you might see in other, pre-Inca, ruins in Peru).  Although they were great builders, and some of the stonework, perfectly carved in rocks hauled up from the valley by God-knows-how, and shaped using the most basic tools, is excellent.  And of course, hundreds of years of weather have taken their toll, too.  So (like most Inca ruins) the site mainly consists of terraces, open plazas, and empty roofless buildings.  But the history of the place is fascinating, the location amazing, and the views stupendous – all the way from the llamas munching on grass in the middle of the main plaza, across the empty temples and cascading terraces, and down the valley to the river, and all surrounded by mountains that wouldn’t look out of place in Avatar.  I could just sit here all day and look at the view.  And considering that my legs don’t seem to work after all that hiking, that’s probably just what I will do…

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