Ahh, a free day. Unfortunately, JJ wasn’t feeling well, so the rest of us trekked back to the San Pedro market, tried to get photos at the train station across the street (photos are prohibited so that didn’t happen), and went back to the market to pick up various food for lunch back at the hotel. JJ was better when we returned, so we ate in their outdoor courtyard. The plan was to visit several museums including the Inka and Casa Cancha (Machu Picchu) museums, have roasted chicken (a specialty) for dinner, and watch the native Peruvian dances in the evening.
Due to proximity the Inca Museum was first and turned out to be disappointing. No photography and not well maintained. The better museum would likely have been Casa Cancha, but when we got there we discovered the cost was twice the previous museum and again, no photography. It came highly recommended, but we were starting to deplete our funds and couldn’t justify it. I believe we would have all preferred to have gone to that one over the Inka Museum though, since it holds the most artifacts from Machu Picchu and could have bookended that visit nicely.
Instead, we walked to the ChocoMuseum, which turned out to be a lofty name for a store with a few plaques explaining the chocolate process. For how many street vendors and dogs chased me along the way, I would argue this is not worth the time and harassment. From there we really just meandered the streets until it was late enough for dinner at PolloAbrosa, the recommended roasted chicken restaurant.
The sun was setting at this time, and I started shivering. Regardless of the baby alpaca sweater, I was chilled to the bone. I had also quite stupidly worn shorts (it was a nice day when the sun was up…), so while standing in line we purchased some large scarves from street vendors. I am glad for that because the building was not heated. After standing in the cold dark line on the sidewalk, we sat in a chilly auditorium for an hour watching sometimes creepy dances (they wore masks that spooked me out) and mostly colorful traditional outfits. The performances were heavily influenced by the Spaniards, but we did see a few more traditional numbers. Stopping for some baked goods afterwards, we quickly made our way back to the hotel to pack for our flight into the jungle.
Back to Day 4 | On to Day 6
4 a.m. The earliest train to Aguas Calientes required a 4:30 a.m. arrival time at the station. The hotel provided us boxed lunches since we left before breakfast opened. At the train we found out, pleasantly, that we had first class seats in a heated dome car with a large windows and partial glass roof. We spent 45 minutes riding in darkness, but once dawn broke the scenery was beautiful. The tracks were laid in the crevasses, alongside the Urubamba River, which snakes around the mountain plateau Machu Picchu resides on. The night before had rained, which does not happen often in the dry season and creates the setting for very dynamic photography as clouds roll over and around the peaks.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu town) at the foot of the hill, and crossed the street to the bus that takes the Hiram Bingham road to the lodge at the top. Checking the price of the lodge rooms, I can see why it wasn’t even considered by our tour agent (would have doubled our total trip costs per person for the cheapest room!). We took the thirteen switchbacks, made a rest stop (no bathroom inside, and no food allowed) before entering the official monument park.
The forest was so thick we could not see much as we huffed and puffed up the newly constructed stone stairs. At the top of that pathway, however, was the Inca Trail. Go left to visit Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) and turn right to go to Machu Picchu. Before we descended into the ruins, Edwin brought us to the southwest corner terraces, where we took picture after picture, watching the clouds hide parts of the city, the river wrapping around Macchu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, the much taller peak with the Moon Gate that is more restrictive (200 visitors daily) and much more dangerous.
We followed the terraces past the cemetery with its large ritual stone and to a lone house, a lookout and the place where Hiram Bingham set up camp as it had the most expansive views including the three then-known of the nine now-known paths into the ruins. A large portion of the area has yet to be excavated, and new caves are still being unearthed. From this vantage point many of the terraces were visible. A few llamas roam them, although they do not enjoy the climate.
Entering the ruins, Edwin took us on a tour focusing on the varying degrees of stonework quality. We walked all of it, taking about three hours to see all the temples, soldiers’ and royals’ residences, and other unexplainable items like the twin “mirrors” (two stones carved to possibly hold enough water to create a reflection). Afterwards we got our passports stamped at the exit and parted ways with Edwin for part of the day. We had a brief lunch then went back inside to walk to the Sun Gate. Halfway up we all felt like we couldn’t go any farther but ran into a German in the same situation and so buoyed each other the rest of the way. And what a view! So we made it to the Sun Gate, walked the Inca Trail, and saw all of Machu Picchu before we took the bus back down to town. We were too pooped to do more.
Back in town we putzed around the market a while then had a late “second” lunch. It’s amazing how much food is necessary to fuel the body when walking so much in high elevation steep uneven terrains… we caught the last train back to Cusco around 4:30 p.m. and spent four hours looking at photos and playing Citadels. A van picked us up at Poroy (the train doesn’t go all the way to Cusco), said our farewells to Edwin, and returned to Tika Wasi to crash and sleep in. A well deserved sleeping in!
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We packed light bags for our overnight trip to Machu Picchu and joined Edwin at the Cathedral at a reasonable 8 a.m. He suggested we respectfully walk around the interior (we didn’t have time to do this the day before), since services were being held. We made our exploration brief, then hopped in the van for our circuit around the Sacred Valley.
The first stop was a small village named Chinchero, and more specifically the Textile Center. Ladies in traditional dress showed us the process of making textiles using the natural plants (and animals, red is made with what looks like a white cactus fungus and is in fact an unusual type of spider, likely a cochineal) for dying, the spinning and weaving. As she was demonstrating, the guinea pigs squeed in their cage under the firepit and one escaped. Another lady chased it around, shooing it back into the large cage. She pointed out the meanings of each pattern then set us off to look at their stock. Herr picked up a baby alpaca blanket and a sweater for me.
From Chinchero the road got a little bumpy and very much unpaved. Moray, our next destination, felt off the beaten path, but it seems to be standard for getting around parts of the Sacred Valley. Moray is believed to be an experimental agricultural testing ground. The Inca would take seeds from the rainforest and attempt to acclimatize them to the thinner cooler air. The largest of the three testing areas has seven rings (to match the sacred number representing the chakras as well as four earthly elements plus three layers of earth – divine, earthly, and spiritual); they would start in the lowest (deepest) circle and slowly migrate them up each ring. I found this space to be peaceful and calming.
Back on the road (or dirt paths), the Andean mountains hemmed the valley around us and the farms we drove past. The farm lots were separated by two rows of large agave plants that created a walking path to force herds through without them wandering into farmland. Apparently, Herr is not the only one who strongly dislikes large aloe-like plants… I did not know, though, that agave plants are used to make (Peruvian) whiskey. Random trivia fact.
The driver took a precariously narrow road (of course, no railings, hardly ever see railings on narrow mountainside roads…) into a mountain crevasse full of salt ponds. Maras produces a considerable amount of salt, naturally, and is second in quality only to Himalayan salt. A stream trickles into the ponds and sits in the basin as the sun evaporates the water leaving behind various grades of salt (the lowest grade is slightly brown from the clay basin, the best is pink from the middle, and the top is white). About 200 families “mine” the salt and send it to Cusco for iodizing.
From Maras we stopped for a fantastic buffet lunch at San Agustin de la Recoleta, a monastery-turned-resort, in Urubamba. A well received dish was a quinoa “bar” with avocado lime mousse on top. So good… I haven’t found an equitable recipe online yet. Peru has a lot of corn, but it’s much different than American varieties. Often much larger kernels. The carrots are considerable in size as well, and also tasty. Dessert, suggested by Edwin, was a combination of puddings: rice pudding topped with blue corn pudding. Not very sweet, but delicious! The café sat across from a colorful chapel, with a fountain in between. It was a scenic location.
Fully satiated, we traveled the rest of the way to our final destination for the day: Ollantaytambo, or Ollanta for short. It’s a quiet town, very traditional yet. Edwin asked a local family if we could see their house, which was a one room structure with meats hanging from a low bar, a stone oven fire in the corner, an altar along another wall, and plenty of guinea pigs. Afterwards, we had the option to see the crowded fortress ruins or the granaries. We chose the granaries, although we didn’t make it all the way there before it closed. We did make it pretty far, with strong winds trying to blow our hats away. The park worker shooed us back down the hill. Edwin deposited us at our hotel, Pakaritampu, just a few minutes’ walk to the train station. Because we would be waking up very early, we had an early dinner at the hotel: I had quinoa soup, Herr had an alpaca steak, S had a fried guinea pig (which tasted fishy to me), and JJ ate lightly with a ham and cheese sandwich. After a short exploratory walk to the station and back we made it an early night.
Back to Day 2 | On to Day 4
The plane for Cusco left at 8 a.m. and flew over the Andes landing at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. At first I thought I’d be okay, but one moment of extra exertion and it went downhill from there (figuratively only). We met our guide, Edwin, a native and guide for over twenty years, and he got us to Tika Wasi Boutique, set us up with coca tea, and updated our itinerary to see many additional sites I had mentioned interest in.
He left to get us a driver, and we wandered to Cusco’s Plaza de Armas for some lunch at the world’s highest 100% Irish owned Irish Pub: Paddy’s. And it was good. He grabbed us from there (thankfully, some street vendors had attached to us), and we went from the valley Cusco sits in up the mountain to Saqsaywaman, temple ruins that were built by the Incas later destroyed by the Spaniards. This is a great example of fitted stones; Edwin pointed out patterns in the rocks such as a guinea pig, snake, llama, and giant puma paw. On the “back” side of the complex were rock “slides” that several locals were enjoying. We all took a turn.
The van we hired had mechanical troubles, so we ended up in two taxis from that point. I was experiencing soroche (altitude sickness) strongly by this point, my head swimming in lightheadedness and shortness of breath (taking a lot of extra breaths to make up for the loss). Our next stop was a large rock that was carved into to make a “hospital” space. Our next stop was Tambomachay, a water temple with small aqueducts and more stone work but much smaller than the other locations. On the way back to Cusco city we stopped by a textile shop to get a short lesson in the different types of animals sheared and the quality. Across the road, locals flew colorful kites up in the hilly peaks of the Andes.
The sun was setting when the taxis stopped in front of the Qoriconcha monastery, built on top of two Incan temples. The Catholics had plastered the temples using them as additional rooms, but most of the plaster has since been removed to expose the Inca stone work. From there we walked through town to the San Pedro market, which was quiet, being a Sunday evening. By this point we were barely functional (JJ’s Fitbit counted 26,000 steps), so we ate at a small restaurant off the main plaza (alpaca pizza was involved…) and climbed our way (literally, I suggested a “shortcut” that included a lot of stairs and a great view at least) back to the hotel. What Cusco lacked in honking cars it made up with barking dogs though. Sleeeeeep…
Back to Day 1 | On to Day 3