Peru > Cusco and Machu Picchu

Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru


The name Machu Picchu had been haunting me for years, made famous by the ubiquitous surreal picture of the ruins atop a hill next to a bigger hill. I finally found the opportunity to visit this sacred Incan spot, perfectly hidden in the jungles of Peru. But first we had to travel to Lima, Peru’s capital, then flew to Cusco (another important Incan capital). From Cusco we took a van to a train station in the middle of nowhere called Ollantaytambo, for the journey to Aguas Calientes, deep in the mountains. From this small town, we had to take a dedicated shuttle bus all the way up a steep hill to the ruins. And that’s the best and fastest way to get to Machu Picchu!


We arrive in Cusco after a 90-minute flight from Lima, the capital of Peru. Lima is at sea level, but Cusco is at 3400 metres, so do be prepared for altitude sickness due to lack of oxygen when you arrive. Not a problem for people living here as their bodies have adjusted to the lower oxygen content in the air. At 3400 metres high there is only about 65% of the oxygen found at sea level.


There you go, right at the airport, a huge advertisement offering a solution. And yes, against the backdrop of Machu Picchu, what else?


We were promptly picked up by a local travel agent and taken to their office in downtown Cusco for paperwork and briefing. So this is Cusco, a city of almost 500k people, 3400m up in the Andes, former capital of the Incan Empire, but still manages to retain that nice small town feel.


Well, at least it feels rustic around our cosy home for the next two nights. It’s 7°C now, and at 3400m above sea level, altitude sickness is creeping in again — that tell-tale migraine-like ache at the back of the head, dang!


The locals help as much as they could by offering us coca tea. These are coca leaves, which ummm … can produce cocaine, yes, the cocaine! In most countries you could get hang for owning coca leaves, but here it is legal as tea (by the way, a cup of this tea is enough for you be tested positive for cocaine). In fact the Incans have been munching on it for thousands of years to ward off altitude sickness — a true traditional medicine, right? Nice tea, though.


In this modern time, of course, you can have coca leaf candy, sold at the street kiosks for all to buy.

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Near our hotel, we find the path to Sacsayhuamán, 30 minutes up the hill, a thousand-year-old stone citadel cum temple built by the Incas. We are heading that way later. Uphill walk and lack of oxygen, not a good combo!

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We decide to stroll to the town square, via ancient lanes full of shops and fluffy friends.

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The icon of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas. It is described as a fusion of ancient Incan culture and Spanish conquest. Cusco was founded a thousand years ago by the Incas, and was the capital of their empire from 13th till 16th century, before it fell to the invading Spaniards.


Sabariah trying to figure things out, next to a discreetly-advertised popular fast food outlet. Nobody is allowed to change the character of this place.

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This square used to be an ancient Incan ceremonial site, before conquest by Spain in 1533, who converted wholesale the citizens into Catholicism. They built this Church of the Society of Jesuits in the late 16th century, but rebuilt it in late 17th century in Baroque style.


There seem to be some sort of celebration here, people with colourful Andean costumes.


The humongous Cathedral of Cusco faces the square too, also from late 16th century, in the style of Spanish Gothic-Renaissance.


Next to the cathedral, the Temple of the Holy Family, a Renaissance church from early 17th century.


At the top of the church, the Holy Family indeed.


The other side of the square is a cloistered corridor with a row of shops. It’s quite pleasant here, so these fellas are fast asleep. As they say, let sleeping dogs lie …


A stroll along the covered corridor is quite enjoyable, the view, the shops, the ambience, etc. Of course at such a high altitude Cusco is cold, and now in February, it drops to below 10°C at night.


Along the sidewalk sometimes there is a large door and being curious I enter, to find a nice colonial-era courtyard, such as this one.


Sometimes the door leads me to a stately looking entrance to someone’s home.


We pop into a restaurant and have our first taste of the ancient Inca staple called quinoa, essentially seeds from a type of flowering plant, native to this area. It tastes okay, well, we can take it. But we never knew it had become a craze among health freaks.


We bump into a market and those colourful stuff really pulls us in — typically Andean design of various hues.


But what amazes me is the presence of the original city walls built by the Incas, maybe almost a thousand years ago, in this old quarter. The typical wall is simply made of smooth well-cut stones, so that they fit perfectly without the need for anything else.


The old quarter extends to the foot of the hill, where houses were built on the slopes. They look after the environment rather well. Could be dangerous if they don’t since Cusco has a rainy season, such as now. Futhermore being a Unesco World Heritage site, care must be maintained all the time.


Done with the old quarter, we stroll up the hill towards Sacsayhuamán.


Along the centuries-old steps up the hill to the Incan temple of Sacsayhuamán, life is as modern as anywhere else. The girls probably represent the people here — mainly Mestizos (Quechuas + Spanish) and Quechuas (formerly Incas).


Strenous uphill walk, not helped by lack of oxygen. A lot of huffing and puffing.


A nice view of the valley of Cusco. It’s quite amazing to see people building houses all the way up the hills. There’s an old colonial-era cathedral there as well.


This part looks quite congested. If only the buildings were painted, it would have been more pleasant to look at. The sun is setting soon so we return to our hotel for dinner, and calling it a day.


After a full day of walking around Cusco yesterday, we started the second day very early with a 3.30am pick-up by van to take us here — Ollantaytambo. We are catching a train to Machu Picchu, finally! It’s 5.45am but already bright, and freezing cold. The train leaves in one hour, so we do breakfast first.


Back at the station, and the distinctive blue PeruRail train is warming up for its two-hour journey to Aguas Calientes, the only base for Machu Picchu.


Nope, we are not taking the bright blue train, but we are booked on this one – IncaRail. I’m told their cost and service are almost similar, so I don’t really care.


But this is a real surprise — we never expected the train to be so luxurious! I guess it’s only meant for foreign tourists with dollars to spend.


Sabariah is very comfortable, ready for her two-hour ride through scenic valleys, to Aguas Calientes.


I for one, can’t sit still — always moving around looking at things. Reminds me of the Japanese local trains — you can pretend to be the driver too.


Soon we are chugging along, past fertile pastures as the train snakes around the mountains. Yes, we also have a river following us, but the weather is not too good for photography.


Almost two hours after leaving Ollantaytambo, we arrive at Aguas Calientes, a mountain village, whose claim to fame is being the base-camp for Machu Picchu. Now it officially rebrands itself as Machu Picchu Pueblo (‘Machu Picchu Village’), a smart move.


I guess that’s the main street, and with a railtrack right through it.


So I just have to wait for this — a beautiful train rumbling past the shops.


From Aguas Calientes we are supposed to ride these mini-buses up the hill to Machu Picchu, a 20-minute trip. These are the only authorised vehicles for the route. Otherwise you have to hike up.


The bus journey is pretty hairy — countless hairpin bends, offering fantastic views as we slowly ascend.


The bus comes to a halt and we climb these stairs to get to the main entrance of Machu Picchu. They only allow 2,500 visitors per day in order to preserve the place. More restrictions could be imposed in the near future.


And of course the house rules. Note the Unesco World Heritage Site logo.


First sight once we are clear of the gate — fantastic! First close-up encounter with a llama too.


At this vantage point we can see the subject of our query already, how exciting! This place was just discovered a bit more than a hundred years ago, in ruins and overrun by vegetation. It took a lot of effort to clear the thick undergrowths and to rehabilitate the ancient structures into what we see right now.


This Japanese dude is really into these Incan stuff. Japanese always make interesting travellers.

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We just stand around, absorbing what is around us. It’s pretty overwhelming.


The stuctures are in classical Incan style — using polished dry-stone walls, with each stone fitting the others perfectly. But only the walls remain, with the roofs missing.


Here is a representation how the Incan roof would have looked like.


We enthusiastically walk the path with a guide leading the way. Restoration works in some places are still in progress. I guess the whole place is work-in-progress as the archaelogists are always discovering new stuff in their digs.


Looking back at the terraces we have just passed — these are for food cultivation. The actual reason the Incas built Machu Picchu in the early 15th century is still a mystery. Even mysterious was the reason it was abandoned just a hundred years later.


This spot is well-hidden and protected by nature, located in the remote mountains of Peru, far away from civilisation and very difficult to reach. Why would the Incas choose this place for the complex? Was it a get-away private home for the royalty or was it a sacred site? From Cusco it’s 80km as the crow flies.


One of the major halls in the complex, probably an observatory. Note the smooth stones, fitting each other rather perfectly.


A spot to observe the night sky? Or a temple? We are 2,430m above sea level, so it’s about 1,000m lower than Cusco. This is rainy season, which runs from October to April, hence the thick clouds.


Very fascinating stuff, the way they cut the very hard stones to perfectly fit each other. What method did they use to do this?


We keep walking around trying to find the best vantage point of the whole set-up.


We take a trail which leads us to higher ground, and everything is starting to get very familiar.


Anything goes here, virtually, especially with us Asians, not a problem. There are plainclothes guards around, who would warn us if we do something silly.

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I think we have found the perfect spot! That big hill at the back is Huayna Picchu, with Machu Picchu the name of a smaller hill behind me. So the famous ‘Machu Picchu’ ruins are actually located on a saddle between these two hills. By the way, you can climb Huayna Picchu, but slots are limited so you must book early.


This is a view not normally seen — Machu Picchu with the forking Urubamba river to the left. Water is yellowish due to the heavy rains now. We are about 400m above the river below.

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The Condor God of the Incas Rules the Upper World.


A very fascinating culture the ancient Incas had, beautifully embodied by the graceful Machu Picchu. But a common theme threads its way through countless (old and current) cultures that we have had the opportunities to experience — extreme subservience to the supreme beings to the extent that humans were willing to go to any length to ‘appease’ these gods. Do the gods actually need all this? I doubt it.

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More antics at this favourite photoshoot spot. It’s like an open-air studio, amazing ambience too.


Can’t imagine what had been happening there some 500 years ago. It’s believed this place can support a population of just 700-800 people. They grew their own food and were self-sustainable, but water must be carried all the way from the river far down below.


I’m not worthy of this awesome place, really, but that the heck … here goes!


Our time here is almost up, so we start to make our way down. The steps are narrow and steep, so be careful.


As we are on the way out of this wondrous place, this nice chap says good-bye.

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We duly took our designated bus down to Aguas Calientes, but now we are stuck here. Since our IncaRail train back to Ollantaytambo leaves at 7.00pm (we should have booked an earlier train), we have four hours to kill! So I decide to watch trains while Sabariah disappears to somewhere.


Luckily I have company, this little fella decides to join me watching the trains.

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Soon we settle down in a nice cafe overlooking the raging torrent of the Urubamba river — it’s rainy season now, remember?


We caught our 7pm IncaRail train, took two hours to Ollantaytambo, then another two hours by van transfer to Cusco. We got back to our hotel room at midnight. It had been a most tiring but exciting day — indeed one of the highlights of our lives, this visit to the fabled Machu Picchu. Totally worth it!


THE END (02/15)


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