Visitors come to Peru for many, many reasons, but the site that tops every list of “Must Do’s” is a visit to Machu Picchu. Even if you are, like me, an “off the beaten track” kind of traveler and prefer to avoid the tourist spots and crowds, the mysterious lost city of the Incas beckons. So, ignore the tales of crowds, lines, train and entrance fees and include this wonder of the world in your itinerary.
A trip to Machu Picchu does not start at the entrance gate above Aguas Calientes. Instead think of it as an Inca experience, beginning in Cusco, a high altitude city far up in the Andes. This was the capital of the Inca kingdom and today is a vibrant city from where you can follow the Inca’s trail till the time of their conquest by the Spaniards. I spent several days exploring the ruins inside and outside the city, sampling the wonderful sweet tamales, and shopping in the wonderful ‘mercado’ and craft shops. In order to adjust to the high altitude I took the first day very slowly, huffing and puffing my way along the streets. I am a great believer in coca tea as a way to combat altitude sickness.
Visiting the Temple of the Sun was for me a bittersweet experience as it was crystal clear how a powerful culture could dominate and erase evidence of a less powerful civilization: the Spanish took over the site of the great Inca Temple and built their cathedral squarely on top of it!
I visited Sacsayhuaman, a short ride from Cusco, in order to continue to create anticipation for Machu Picchu. It is a marvel of engineering and ingenious warfare and I enjoyed the chance to leave the hustle of the city and visit this large and somewhat rural site. I took a wonderful half-day trip to the Salinas de Maras, an astonishing and ancient series of salt pools, and Moray, an ancient and ingenious Inca agricultural seed growing site. On a different day, I went to Tipon and at my return to Cusco I tried a street-side restaurant famous for chicharrones!
There are several museums in Cusco, but my favorite is the Museo de Pisco, not really a museum at all, but a great pisco bar where the barmen taught me all I needed to know about the local Peruvian brandy. Actually, a real and little known museum is the Museo de Plantas Sagradas, Magicas y Medicinales: a lovely building with an extensive display of the history and uses of coca. I discovered many interesting things about Coca Cola that I had not known before: for example, did you know that the shape of the bottle is taken from the coca seed and that the logo colors represent the colors in the Peruvian flag? A free taste of tea in the quiet courtyard ended my trip.
If you can, take a bus to Ollyantantambo and then catch the train to Aguas Calientes. Ollantaytambo was my next stop in my quest for the Incas. The water system was built by the Incas and many houses and apartments were once Inca homes and palaces. The town isn’t very big so I was able to wander the narrow streets without getting lost. I was lucky enough to be there in mid-May during the celebration for the town’s patron saint: the main square was full of dancers (all local) and bands dressed in the local costumes. There also was a bullfight in the town’s bullring, which was unfortunate for the bull because this was a deadly fight and the bull was not the winner!
Then it was time to go to Machu Picchu! Some people walk the Inca Trail or the less travelled Salkantay trail but this was not for me! I enjoyed the panoramic cars of the extremely expensive (but well worth the price) train that wind through the valley of the Incas. I chose to arrive in Aguas Calientes in the afternoon and stay in the bustling little town, listening to the roar of the Urambamba River and talking to other tourists about their experiences, because I wanted to be at the gates of the great site very early the following morning. Some people choose to walk up the steep hill to the site but I took the first bus at around 6:00 am.
Yes there are crowds. But the air is slightly chilled, the mist, the rays of the sun and the perfectly placed monuments peaking through the glowing dawn make it magical. It was easy for me to find a quiet spot and absorb it all. I decided to take a tour in the morning so that I could learn about the history and understand the highlights and then wander all afternoon on my own. I took a private tour and the guide was very knowledgeable and I was glad I spent the time and the money. I visited all the main sites and then in the afternoon I went to the less visited places and found many spots where I could be by myself and bask in the atmosphere. I loved touching the stones and trying to “feel” their history.
That evening I stayed in Aguas Calientes and returned to Cusco the following day, but many people hopped on the afternoon train (having made reservations well in advance) and was back in Cusco the same evening.
For me, Cusco, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu are all part of one great adventure in the Inca world.Ellen