Peru – the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

April 20 – 30, 2003

Day 2

The Bus Ride to Pisac

I woke up at five in the morning. Wanted to establish a clearer outlook moving forward, I took out my notebook and began planning what I was going to do for the next ten days.

Puno and Lake Titicaca?  Not enough time.

Inca Trail?  I really wanted to do it, but between its cost and time commitment of four days, I had to give it a pass.

Ok, so a basic Cusco – Arequipa – Nazca – Ica – Pisco – Lima itinerary was in place.

More urgently, what to do today?

Since I was feeling much better already, I figured I was ready for Machu Picchu.  Most people opted to take the direct train to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu.  I didn’t find that to be very interesting, so I chose to cover the same route by local buses through some of the towns in the Sacred Valley (the heartland of the Inca Empire).

I left my backpack for storage at the hotel, bringing only my daily knapsack, and went for an early morning walk.  I finally had a good look at Cusco – its narrow streets, its many colonial era buildings, and its people.  Children were making their way to school.  The local market had just opened.  I kept walking along, making several turns, until I was once again at Plaza de Armas.

I bought a muffin and sat on a bench in the middle of the plaza.  Cusco, before the arrival of the Conquistadors, was the centre of the Inca Empire.  Almost all of the Inca architectural past was demolished in order to provide building material and space for the town’s colonial constructions, such as Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco. I did find it to be a little disappointing to fly all the way to Peru for a poor’s man version of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor mixed with some Latin American flavour.

The bus station to the Sacred Valley was quite difficult to locate.  I followed my guidebook’s map all the way out of town, then turned around and searched block by block before stopping at a lot that looked like an used car dump.  Well, there was the bus station.  I somehow made me understood by the ticket man, got my ticket and hopped on a bus just getting ready to depart for Pisac, one of the major town in the Sacred Valley.

The bus quickly left town and onto a winding mountain road.  Initially there were still some brick houses, and the households’ sheep and pigs freely roamed along the road.  After twenty minutes or so, the number of houses were greatly reduced, and the scenery was one of rolling hills and vast grassland.  Sometimes there were some ladies selling produce or handcrafts along the road, or porters carrying goods on their backs.

I was getting a little dozy as our bus was descending a long and winding road when suddenly, BAM, our bus ran into something and halted to a complete stop.  As I sat at the seat directly atop the left rear wheel, I felt the wheel hit into a speed bump. The driver got out of the car and each one of us turned around and looked at what we hit into.

It was a goat, completely squashed at the spine but somehow the entire body was still in one piece.  Its eyes were blood-red and lifeless, but the goat was alive and inhaling heavily.

The shepherd, a middle-aged woman, was on her knees and started to cry.  The confrontation between our driver and the shepherd was loud, with a consistent mix of screaming and crying from the woman.  I was the only non-local on the bus, and everyone else didn’t seem to be bothered by what had just happened.  They started chatting with each other and some were shouting for the driver to hurry up.

Our driver did return to his seat soon, and my bus ride continued, leaving behind a dying goat and a shepherd who was still on her knees crying.

Pisac

Not long after the incident, we arrived at our destination, Pisac.  Everyone else knew exactly where they were going and soon I was the only one left, not sure which way I should go. Pisac, a town with a population of 2,000, is famous for its market on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.  Without proper planning, I arrived on a Monday, so the town was completely deserted.

I walked to the town centre where the market was normally held but not a single person could be found. I began to doubt if there were really two thousand people living in this town. I finally spotted an elderly shop keeper several blocks away from where the buses stopped.

I hired a taxi to a nearby hill famous for four sets of Inca ruins scattered along a trail. The ride was around fifteen minutes, and we stopped at the literal end of the road. A big pile of dirt blocked the pavement, and my driver told me to walk pass the dirt pile and the trail would begin on the other end. This location looked like the perfect place to kidnap a tourist for ransom, and I sure would not get off the car if I were at home, but that’s why we travel, right?

The trail was there, and I started walking under the midday sun.  The ruins existed as part of the landscape without any protection or restoration, which I guessed did add to its authenticity.

At the highest point of the trail I began to have a shortage of breath while my heart was pounding and my legs felt like lead –  all were signals from my body that I was still adjusting to the high altitude. Besides, my neck and arms were sunburnt because I forgot to put on some sunblock in the morning and I had left it in my backpack.  I was dehydrated, tired a little disoriented. Maybe it was not a wise decision to hike on a desolate trail in the middle of nowhere on the second day after flying a long flight.

To continue sitting down and rant to myself wasn’t going to help, so I pushed myself to get up and move. As I slowly dragged myself forward, a sound of flute broke the long quietness. A local man was playing the flute, probably as a tourist act. I didn’t slow down, and he didn’t stop playing either, and we maintained our distance until I reached the last complex of ruins where I bumped into a group of travelers, a first since leaving Cusco. The flute player immediately went over to introduce himself to those Caucasians.

I tagged along for a taxi ride back to Pisac with them, then I caught a bus to Yucay, where I could take another bus to Urubamba, the transit hub in the Sacred Valley.  As I was waiting for the bus, a collectivo (minibus) appeared and I waved my hand spontaneously.  The collectivo stopped in front of me and the door opened.

I climbed into the minibus and sat down in a vacant seat while all the other passengers were staring at me.  The children were especially animated, perhaps they rarely get to see an Asian face.  Again, somehow I made myself clear to the driver. I paid the fare, and the minibus sped off.

After the initial curiosity, nobody paid attention to me anymore.  It was an exciting ride for me, as I had the chance to people-watch the many different locals who hopped on and off along the way. Time flew by, and I arrived Urubamba’s bus station before I knew it.

Ollantaytambo

Unlike the other towns, including Cusco, Urubamba had a real bus station with clear signage.  I was heading to Ollantaytambo (Olly for short), a town famous for its Inca fortress and as the standard starting point of the Inca Trail.

I had not seen other travelers except the group at Pisac, but that took a dramatic turn in Olly, where there was a direct train connection from Cusco. I had not eaten since breakfast and I was starving after getting off the minibus. I went into a random eatery, ordered a random dish, couldn’t recognize what it was, finished it and left the place in a span of fifteen minutes.

The fortress is situated on the slope of a hill overlooking the town.  This was also one of the stronghold of the Incas during the Spanish Conquest.  I walked to the base of the hill and looked up to the vertical slope in front of me.  My legs felt numb, and each step felt heavier than the last one.  I took plenty of time in between each step. After scaling past the agricultural terraces, I reached the middle sector of the complex. I headed south to the location of the temple and was greeted by a panorama of the town and the surrounding valley and mountains. Such an uplifting feeling it was to realize my goal of watching the sun slowly dropped into the horizon atop an Inca ruin.

The train to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu, was scheduled to leave at nine.  I found a cafe with a terrace and spent the rest of my early evening having a light dinner and chilling in my seat.

Walking to the train station on the unpaved road with no street lamp required a little getting used to. I had to walk carefully to avoid the many barking dogs and reckless motorcycles. I lifted my head up unintentionally, and there it was, in the sky – the Milky Way.  The spectacle in the sky took me completely by surprise.  I never expected it.  I held my head up until my neck hurt, took a couple of seconds to relax, then held up my head again.  I repeated this cycle until time was running out on me, and still I wasn’t willing to put my head down.  I ended up had to run to the train station in the dark.

The train arrived on time.  I got to my seat and fell asleep almost immediately, holding my knapsack in front of me.  The two hour train ride went by in a snap, and I again entered into complete darkness once I stepped off the train.

There was no street light in Aguas Calientes so I could only follow the tiny amount of light emitting from some of the buildings’ windows.  I checked around several hotels before choosing one that charged $10 USD and had a room with private bathroom.  The bathroom was not as private as I thought, as the window was just a giant hole, and I could hear dogs barking right next to the opening.

It didn’t matter. I took a quick shower and then immediately went to bed and slept like a log.

Day 3

Machu Picchu

I woke up to the sound of a rooster at 5:00 am, half an hour before my alarm was set to sound off.  My legs were still a little sore but I already felt much better than last night.

The sky was beginning to brighten up as I walked to the bus station in the cool air. Yesterday’s cloudless weather was replaced by a sky full of clouds. Locals were setting up their stalls near the bus station while a long lineup of people were waiting to buy bus tickets. The process went smoothly and I bought the ticket for the 5:40 bus.

This bus was in much better condition than those that took me through the Sacred Valley yesterday.  After ascending a densely vegetated mountain for forty minutes, we arrived at Machu Picchu.  Everyone got off at an empty plaza, and the entrance, a few dozen metres away, was in sight.

The price of admission was an outrageous USD$30, more than what I had spent over the entire day yesterday (I had a quick look online today, the admission price has inflated to USD$42).  I grudgingly handed over the greenbacks but it was well worth it when I received the admission ticket in return.  My heart was pounding as I walked past the entrance, both because of the high altitude and my high spirit.

I took the path to the left to the Caretaker’s Hut, and without expecting it, there it was, the classic postcard overview of Machu Picchu. The complex was well tendered, with domesticated llamas grazing the grass field near the residential section. Just when I took out my camera, a thick mist blew over and covered up everything to the point that I couldn’t see my outstretched arm.  The mist left as suddenly as it appeared, and at the wake of its departure was a glimmer of sunlight cast upon the ruins.

Time couldn’t have gone by faster, and my time at Machu Picchu was only enough for me to walk around the entire complex once, including the abandoned city’s numerous temples, terraced fields and houses.  I was impressed by the Inca’s city building approach – one that was much more sustainable than most other ancient civilization’s. Most impressive were the terraces, an engineering feat that manage to lay the foundation for the city while allowing rainwater to flow freely along the slopes.

I left at three in the afternoon to catch the train back to Cusco for the night, and in truth I was too hungry and exhausted at that point – the prospect of some food and a bed rarely seemed as enticing.  On the painfully slow train back to Cusco, I tried to recall my day at Machu Picchu, the place I had longed to visit and which I was finally able to. Memory is a funny thing though – the details collected by my senses from a mere half day ago was beginning to blur.  Even so, I sat in my seat feeling satisfied and proud of the distance I had traveled to reach this faraway place.

Day 4

Saqsaywamán

It was a chilly morning.  I took a seat on the same bench at Plaza de Armas as two mornings ago.  The place was rowdy as a demonstration was marching through.  I had heard that some transportation union was protesting for a higher rise in wage.  While holding my breakfast in one hand, I took out my notebook to see the progress of my trip.  If I were to complete the loop to Lima, I had to leave for Arequipa tomorrow.

The cheapest one way plane ticket to Arequipa I could find was $60 USD, leaving tomorrow morning.  With that settled, I planned to spend my last day in Cusco out of town, to an Inca ruin called Moray, about 50 km northwest of Cusco.  There was no public transport to there, so I would have to hire a car for the day.

Bargaining with Cusco’s taxi drivers was a tiring exercise that involved three steps: hand waving, head shaking, and walking away.  At last I agreed to a reasonable price with a driver, and for the next five hours, I had the freedom to travel to wherever I liked.

Our first stop was Saqsaywamán, a walled complex located on a steep hill that overlooked Cusco. The fortress’ massive zigzag-shaped wall was all that remained at the complex.  The Sun Temple and the surrounding plaza were all destroyed by the Spaniards, which supplied most of the building material of Cusco’s colonial buildings.  The large stones of the walls, because they were difficult to move, saved the fortress itself from destruction.

My driver tried to persuade me to visit some nearby ruins, but I insisted on going to Moray.  He said he had never heard of the place, and complained about the distance.  It was another tiring exchange, but I stood my ground and he relented.

Moray

I was once again traveling across the green valley of the Sacred Valley, only this time with much more flexibility. The roads were in better condition than I had anticipated.  Even though much of the Sacred Valley remained poor, it appeared investment had been pouring in to improve the tourist infrastructure.

Along the way we were stopped for a few times by herds of road-crossing sheep. I never realized how slow sheep moves until our car was blocked and surrounded by a herd of sheep for two minutes until the last one of them left the road.

My driver made a stop at a village called Chinchero, famous for its Sunday market, with the hope that I would buy some crafts so he could collect a little commission. As it was not a Sunday, there were only a few middle-age female vendors at the town’s main square in front of a humble looking church. I bought a pair of wool socks with black and white pattern from a lady for one dollar.

I took a quick look inside of the church. What’s interesting about Catholicism in Latin America is how the local pagan religions have blended with the European teachings.  On the walls were paintings of Jesus with tanned skin surrounded by local deities as his Apostles.

While we passed along more green meadow and rolling hills, suddenly a boy, around five to six years of age, waved at our car at the side of the road. Implausibly, my driver stopped the car and gestured him to hop aboard, without a single attempt to ask for my consent. The long silence since I hired this taxi was immediately broken up by the arrival of this boy.  He took a few looks at me and then began to talk incessantly; soon the car was filled with constant chatters.

We dropped off the boy at his village – a dozen or so brick houses on a piece of barren land.  The vegetation that used to grow on the land had been completely cut down to make room for the houses. I took a quick glance and couldn’t see any person around.

Ninety minutes since we left Cusco, we finally arrived in Moray. Why did I go out of my way to Moray when the Sacred Valley is littered with Inca ruins? Because I was drawn by the ruins’ enormous terraced circular depressions that resembled an amphitheater in appearance.  Moray’s unique design was believed to be an agricultural experiment by the Inca – various crops that required different conditions to thrive could be planted at Moray at once because of the site’s large temperature difference between the top and the bottom.

The ruins were completely deserted, yet it was surprisingly well maintained.  I walked down the large terraces toward the centre, which was also the lowest point of the complex.  From there, I looked up and wondered how this place was like when farmers were working on their crops on the terraces. Even after visiting Machu Picchu, I still couldn’t help but to marvel at this Inca engineering feat.

We headed back to Cusco along the same country road, only with the setting sun behind us.  My journey in Peru was heading into its second phase as I would leave for Arequipa the morning after, but I knew Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley would continue to be in my mind for a long time to come.

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