Day 1: HEADACHES AT HIGH ALTITUDE
After a very long day and night of flying from LA nonstop to Lima (despite our no-check-in packing, the folks at LAN Perú forced us to check in our carry-on luggage), we caught an early 9:25am flight from Lima to Cusco (or Cuzco). From reading the guidebooks and talking with friends who have already been to Perú, we knew that Cusco was at high altitude (3362m or about 11,030ft to be exact). I couldn’t recall in our past experiences when we had ever spent any extensive amount of time at such altitude. Our High Sierra hikes in Yosemite were all around 8000ft or lower. I guess we’ll just have to take what comes on this trip then.
We arrived pretty much on time, picked up our luggage, and met up with our guides María and Kerry at around 11:30am. It was a pretty warm and partly cloudy day, but more importantly, we could feel right away the change in altitude as our breathing was a little bit more labored than before. I figured this will pass as we’re spending the night somewhere between here and Machu Picchu before actually getting to the main attraction.
Since we were limited on vacation time and this one was preceding a larger round-the-world trip, we packed a Southern Perú and Northern Perú adventure into a span of less than 10 days. The so-called Gringo Trail part of the trip (i.e. Cusco, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu) was only for 3 days. And right off the bat, María deferred us to Kerry, who spent time with us along with driver Wilson. The tour kicked off immediately with a drive out of Cusco and towards the Sacred Valley.
As we were leaving Cusco, we could see how it was a pretty happening and bustling place. From the plane, we could see it was a pretty big town. But as we drove past the Plaza de Armas and then through Avenida del Sol, both Julie and I thought about how this looked like a pretty cool place to walk around.
But before we could imagine how we’d spend our time in Cusco, we drove up some tiny roads up out of town, past some ruins, and ultimately on some mountain roads leading us to what I imagine would be the Sacred Valley.
Since I didn’t do much planning on this trip, I had no idea where we were going nor appreciate how long our travels would be. Julie had a better idea as the Gringo Trail attractions (i.e. Machu Picchu) was what she was looking forward to.
I took this opportunity to practice my spanish so I tried to speak as much of it as I could to Kerry. Before we got settled in, the van stopped at some wool-making area where there were a bunch of llamas, guanacos, alpacas, vicuñas, and other similar mammals.
We had a cheezy, but fun, time feeding these mammals. Kerry assummed our whole tour could be in Spanish as I had tried to practice earlier, but Julie had me tell Kerry to use English. After being led through an area where children were dying and weaving products made out of the wool from these mammals, we got back into the van and proceeded to head towards the Sacred Valley.
Driving through more winding mountain roads, we snapped a few photos from a pullout overlooking the fertile Sacred Valley before descending into the valley itself and noticing mountain-clinging terraces towering over some neighboring small towns.
By 1pm, we entered the town of Pisac. After passing through some intriguing narrow cobblestone streets, the van stopped at a marketplace area full of Incan wools and crafts. Apparently, this is supposed to be a happening place on Sundays, but today was Saturday so we had to settle for a more subdued experience.
As we took a brief moment to explore the market and ponder whether to buy souvenirs, we were constantly hounded by kids insisting that we take photos with them for a fee. Despite our “No, gracias,” replies, they shadowed us until we finally left the main square and into the rows of adjacent stands of Incans selling their wares.
Throughout the drive, both Julie and I were experiencing headaches. The car doesn’t have air conditioning and it appeared the vehicle didn’t have enough circulating air despite the partially-open windows on the front seat.
Our hunch (that the headaches were from the lack of air in the car) was confirmed when we felt better leaving the vehicle and heading towards the lunch buffet.
Julie followed Kerry to the buffet area. Before I had a chance to join them, Wilson broke the ice by conversing with me in Spanish. Apparently, he doesn’t see many American tourists who speak the language so I gladly engaged him (and was appreciative of his praise of me speaking the local language). Since that moment, Wilson and I were quite chummy whenever I saw him.
I was looking forward to some Peruvian ceviche (raw fish drenched in lime juice) for lunch, but the buffet had more conservative fare of soup, chicken, potatoes, rice, steamed veggies, and plantains.
After the lunch, we continued our drive onwards along the Sacred Valley through more small towns. During the drive, we managed to discuss the politics of Perú after the topic of the Machu Picchu train was brought up. Apparently, a foreign national company has a monopoly on the train and very little of the proceeds of the tourism dollars go back to the community. In fact, Kerry pointed out that there are many other facets of the tourism industry where nonlocally-owned hotel chains and conglomerates have the marketing and means to make tourists want to avoid the services of the indigenous peoples.
I guess it’s a problem seen just about everywhere in the world, but the noticeable amount of poverty we could see just from the van kind of hit home in terms of the relationship between what we as tourists do at home and abroad and how that impacts people from other parts of the world.
While on the topic, the issue of the high cost of food also came up. Apparently, Perú is no exception to the worldwide protests that were going on as the modernized world essentially trades food and climate stability for biofuel and a consumption-oriented lifestyle, respectively. Consequently, people are priced out of food and starving around the world.
Eventually, we reached another charming little town with a market called Ollantaytambo. Here, the van stopped and we got out of the car. After a few paces of walking through the marketplace, we were face-to-face with an impressive row of stone terraces and ruins.
With Kerry doing some explaning about the Incan culture and what went into building this ruin, we huffed and puffed our way up the steep terrace steps towards the top of the ruins. Immediately, we could feel the low oxygen and were quickly out-of-breath. Still, it didn’t deter us on this excursion and mercifully, the walking was mostly flat after the initial climb.
These ruins of Ollantaytambo were our first upclose experience with Incan ruins on this trip. We could sense immediately the ruins-in-the-sky feel as this structure overlooked the town of Ollantaytambo. Across the valley, we could see a mountain abutting the juncture of two valleys. On that mountain, we could see ancient storage structures and terraces perched impossibly high up the steep mountain face.
As we walked along the top of the ruins, nearly picture-postcard photos could be taken of the scene. It was quite an experience as neither Julie nor I have seen ruins such as this since perhaps our brief visit to the Mayan ruins near Cancún (Chichén Itzá and Tulum to be exact).
It was amazing how precise and clever the Incans were and we could tell Kerry was quite proud of her Incan heritage. Julie was especially impressed with how some of the water channels and “fountains” were still functional even to this day.
These water channels held a particular interest for me as I wondered the source of the water considering how dry this area was. Apparently, these channels were fed by springs, which themselves originated from glaciers and precipitation seepage further upslope and up the valleys. Being around 10,000ft here, it’s not surprising that further upslope exist glaciers (though global warming continues to undermine their existence). We could even see some snow-capped peaks in the distance from where we were at.
As the harsh and intense afternoon sun started setting behind the 20,000ft peaks surrounding us, we returned to ground level and rejoined Wilson who awaited us. From there, he drove briefly to our hotel for the night just a few minutes walk from the neighboring train station. We only took out from our luggage the clothes we would need for the day since the transportation in and around Machu Picchu was limited and we couldn’t lug our stuff everywhere. So we left the main carry-on luggages with Wilson and Kerry in the van while taking just a day’s worth of clothes along with our daypacks and camera gear.
But after all that, we’re finally able to unwind and check into the hotel. After a whirlwind day of touring immediately after landing at Cusco, it dawned on us that this was the first time we finally got settled, unpack, have a dinner, and shower.
Under the full moon, we slept soundly as Ollantaytambo was pleasantly quiet (a stark contrast from the hustle and bustle of Cusco).
Day 2: POR HOY
We awoke at 6am in anticipation of having breakfast, checking out, and getting to the train station by our 8:25am departure. After getting the morning formalities out of the way, we walked to the nearby train station where there was a surprisingly bustling scene with a handful of stands.
We got there around 7:45am and just in time for the arrival of a cargo train full of local Incans as well as a handful of adventurous backpackers amongst them. It seemed like a real shoestring way to travel. A few minutes thereafter, the guard let us through and we awaited our own train (which was the considerably more upscale Vista Dome).
And before 8:30am, the train showed up (having come from Cusco 2 hours earlier). When we boarded the train, we put our daypacks in the luggage area before getting seated in seats 1 and 2. Unfortunately for us, these were crappy seats as we were sitting backwards and had very limited views of the entire train ride. While the transparent dome windows at the top of the train car offered limited views of the mountaintops and forests above, I wondered whether they were worth the extra $80+ USD we had to pay over the backpacker’s train solution.
In any case, Julie stuck with her decision to upgrade and we moved on from there.
The train passed along a deep river canyon surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks with vegetation gradually shifting from cacti and other dry foliage to more lush jungle vegetation. The river along which the rail pretty much followed raged with foaming whitewater.
At times we could see and smell the black smoke coming out of the obviously coal-fired engine at the head of the train.
On the train itself, we were served a bunch of snacks and drinks, which we gladly took mate de coca (tea with coca leaves). The leaves are like a staple in the country, but the tea was said to help with any discomfort at altitude as well as some other ailments.
Deep into the train ride, we noticed a pretty impressive waterfall next to some Incan ruins. Unfortunately, the train doesn’t slow down nor stop for it and our crappy seats made it especially difficult to take a photograph of it. Oh well, hopefully, we could take a photo of it on the return journey.
After about a 90-minute ride, the train stopped at a station in the Machu Picchu pueblo. On the map, this was also known as Aguas Calientes.
We exited the station and found the next tour guide representative, who managed a rather large group of people and directly all of us to board a bus bound for the Machu Picchu attraction itself.
After boarding the bus, the vehicle proceeded to drive along some mountain roads and then up a series of switchbacks. Along the switchbacks, we caught dramatic views of the steep-walled valleys surrounding Machu Picchu pueblo. High up on the switchbacks, we could catch glimpses of the ruins of Machu Picchu up ahead. After another half-hour or so in the bus, it finally stopped in front of the Sanctuary Lodge.
From there, we spent some time dropping off at the storage facility some of the stuff we brought that we didn’t really need. I think it was around 5 or 10 soles per piece and decided to drop off my pack along with Julie’s bag. We only took our DEET and cameras.
The tour proceeded along around 11am as we showed our tickets at the gate and headed onwards into the archaeological reserve. Immediately to our right, the dropoffs provided dramatic views of the canyon surrounding the Machu Picchu pueblo and train station way down below. With such steep terrain and trouble to get up here (as evidenced by our ride up), it seemed amazing that such extensive structures could exist up here.
We thought Ollantaytambo was impressive, but Machu Picchu was on another level. Even my jaded perceptions of this place being like Disneyland with hordes of tourists couldn’t deter my appreciation of it.
Anyways, the tour began in earnest as we huffed and puffed our way up a series of steep stone steps. Right off the bat, my arthritic knees were already starting to feel it as the unforgiving stone surface, steep steps, and altitude didn’t help matters. I had to adjust the way I walked to minimize the pain.
As the tour group gathered around a shelter with a straw roof, Julie and I and a handful of other tourists in the group went forward and took in the familiar view of Machu Picchu itself backed by the picturesque Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu?).
Needless to say, the view was breathtaking and we wasting no time taking as many photos as we could of the scene. No wonder why this place gets all the Perú marketing efforts as well as a place in the new so-called Seven Wonders of the World (Maravillas del Mundo).
Thereafter, we followed the guide, walked amongst the ruins, and tried to listen to what he had to say. Like Ollantaytambo, this place was full of nuances and structures that any engineer could appreciate. It had fountains that worked and strategically-placed windows and sundials to accurately predict the summer and winter solstices.
It was easy to envision wandering amongst the ruins in much the same way as Indiana Jones or Lara Croft would do or seeing how games like Hexen II, Ultima, and just about all Role-playing D&D type games were influenced. After all, these structures had every bit the mystery and grandeur envisioned in both the movies and video games.
At first glance, it seemed like Machu Picchu was a fortress because of its strategic position atop a mountain at some 7000ft or so. But it was really more of a religious site as the Incans revered the sun and moon and places like this brought them closer to their deities.
In fact, they also worshipped Mother Earth and were perhaps one of the original environmentalists as they revered the condor (sky), puma (land), and snake (underworld).
Considering how they lived off the land and built in harmony with their surroundings, it wasn’t much of a stretch to see why they considered their land a providing “mother” while the light brought from the heavens guided other facets of their life. Come to think of it, this way of worship certainly makes a lot more sense than worshipping some arbitrary guy with a book written about him.
By about 2:30pm, we caught one of the frequent buses back down to the train station at Aguas Calientes. After going through the usual formalities of showing our ticket and getting on board the train (to the tune of El Condor Pasa, which was remade by Simon and Garfunkel, in the signature Incan instruments), we sat further into the middle of the car this time around, but still facing the wrong way (i.e. away from the action)!
That’s ok though, I figured the goal is to try to shoot that waterfall by the ruins we missed earlier in the trip.
We managed to make good conversation with the folks across from us. The guy sitting across from me had the same zoom lens as mine as we broke the ice by discussing camera-related stuff. He hailed from Oregon and was shown around by his sister-in-law, who sat next to him. His sister-in-law had been living in Cusco for a few years now, and she’s writing a book about her journeys. Quite cool!
When the train got to that waterfall by the ruins, I had my camera ready and armed at a high ISO and in rapid-fire mode. Unfortunately, the best photo I could get of both the falls and the ruins was this unsatisfactory blurry image of foreground foliage getting in the way of the nice scene before us. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
The long train ride continued beyond sunset. During the latter stages of the train ride, there was a little fashion show that was going on where the crew would wear wool-related products from the local livestock. There was even a guy wearing a white mask with a cross on his forehead. A local guide sitting near us told us that he was supposed to represent the white people who came to the New World. I wasn’t sure whether this was an inside joke mocking the gringos (a term that’s now expanded to include all foreigners regardless of skin color), but it was entertaining and it seemed quite a chore for the dancer to maintain his balance as the train teetered from its movement on the tracks from time to time.
As we got closer to our destination of Poroy as instructed yesterday (which was where a lot of other people were also getting off), we got into a discussion of how that town got its name.
You see, Poroy is neither the native tongue of Qechua (sounds like “ketch-wuh”) nor seemingly Spanish. But the lady who lives in Cusco told us that conquistador Francisco Pizarro was supposed to make a long trek with his group from some place far to Cusco. But given the high altitudes and mountainous terrain, Pizarro stopped in what was now Poroy and said that was “¡Basta por hoy!” or “enough for today.” At that point, a light clicked in my head and I realized, Poroy is short for “por hoy” (for today). Aha!
Anyways by about 6:30pm, we got off the Poroy station and rendezvous’ed with María and driver Wilson with a hug and firm handshake, respectively. We managed to pick up a pair of American backpackers looking for a ride as María indicated that it was Sunday and many bus services don’t run.
Back in Cusco, we dropped off our packs at the charming Midori Hotel, which reminded us of the Posada Angosturra in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela with their tight corridors, outdoor courtyards, and spanish style roofing and balconies.
María suggested we check out La Retama, which was a tourist restaurant with Peruvian food and performances. It was a bit pricey, but being late at night, we didn’t do the walk around Avenida del Sol as we had intended earlier on.
The dinner consisted of Julie’s Lomo Saltado and my cuy, which was guinea pig. I guess it doesn’t get much more traditional than this so I decided to give it a go. Definitely one of my more adventurous things to put in my mouth.
The cuy was a bit salty, tough, and boney, but it wasn’t all that bad. But at 58 soles, it was quite pricey.
In any case, we got out of La Retama lighter on the wallet and spent a few more moments in the now-quiet Plaza de Armas. We took a few evening shots while trying not to mind persistent children trying to either sell something to us or steal from us. Fortunately, a cop shoo’ed them away.
Light in the head from the altitude (even after this being the second or third day of our trip), we both slept uneasily despite our long day of touring. All those classic symptoms of altitude sickness – headaches, difficulty sleeping, etc.; yeah, I got that.
Day 3: PROTEST IN THE STREETS
After going through our whirlwind Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu tour the last couple of days, we slept in and looked forward to a relatively more “relaxed” day of touring Cusco before flying to Tarapoto for the second, more adventurous, leg of our Peruvian trip.
We got a later start to the day (meeting with Kerry at around 8:30am), but from there, Wilson drove us over to Saqsaywaman, which was an Incan ruin overlooking the town of Cusco.
After seeing Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, Saqsaywaman (which sounds close to “sexy woman”) lacked the glitz and drama. However, it was no less impressive as it was pretty big and extensive. After walking up a few flights of steep stone steps, we got to a mirador (viewpoint) of the town of Cusco where we snapped a few more photos while admiring the view (and minding my headaches and shortness of breath). Afterwards, we returned to the awaiting Wilson.
Then, we drove to a few more ruins (such as some place worshipping water as well as some ruins underground). Apparently, more and more places like these are being excavated as the Spanish conquistadors thought Incans were practicing pagan rituals and destroyed and buried many of the Incan structures. It would’ve been something to behold had these structures been allowed to persist intact.
Back in Cusco, it was around 10am when we returned to the Plaza de Armas and toured the big church (La Catedral) full of precious metals and murals. Adjacent to the cathedral (La Iglesia del Triunfo – the church of the triumph) was the site where the Incans almost managed to burn a large group of tricked Spanish conquistadors before rain managed to douse the rain and allow the Spanish to regain control of the Incans.
Next, we walked around another Incan structure called Qorikancha. Here, we saw some interesting structures like windows peering into more windows as well as interesting displays of Incan depictions of the Milky Way Galaxy. I guess Incans were also inquisitive astronomers.
While we took some time walking around Qorikancha, we noticed a large and loud procession of parading protesters dominating a neighboring street. Kerry explained that this protest was over the rising food prices, which is keeping many poor Peruvians from eating. This procession might have also complicated how Wilson was going to pick us up and take us to the airport.
But by 12pm, we were back with Wilson and Kerry (after a pleasant farewell), and they handed us over to María, who in turn led us back to the Cusco airport. We exchanged more farewell greetings before we parted ways.
From there, we waited for our flight to Lima where we had a rather long five-hour layover for our evening flight to Tarapoto. So we were done with the Gringo Trail (my eyes were still red btw), and now comes the more off-the-beaten-path part of our trip to the edge of the Amazon Rainforest.