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Cuzco & Machu Picchu

exploring the sacred valley of the incas

Story by Heather & Pravin July 26th, 2017

cuzco

We arrived in Cuzco on a night bus from Copacabana, Bolivia. The border was easy to cross, and we even managed to change money at exactly the current exchange rate. We took a taxi to our hostel, which was quite far from the bus station but in a good location to explore the city, and settled in to relax for a couple of hours until breakfast was served. We didn't have a bed until that night, and since all the common areas were outside, we had to put on all our layers to stay warm until the sun rose.

After eating breakfast, we decided to head out on a walking tour to explore the city. We've done this in most cities we have visited, since it's usually a good way to get an overview of the city and some history, and then we can explore at our own pace later on. We joined up with the free (i.e. for tips) tour in the main park, but ended up leaving it about five minutes in - the guide was mostly only showing wrinkled, weathered photos of jungle animals (in the city?) and mumbling incoherently in Spanglish.

We headed to the market instead, and ended up in the juice section. Fresh juices in markets have been one of our favourite snacks, and the Cuzco market did not disappoint. There were rows and rows of identical stands, all with women shouting at us and beckoning wildly, competing for our business. We decided to have a seat at Vanessa's stand, and ended up chatting with her for quite a while about the area as we sipped our mango and orange juices. Before we left, we had to pledge our loyalty to her and she extracted promises from us to come back each morning that we were in Cuzco to try different fruits!

In Cuzco there are travel agencies in what seems like every other storefront, and touts on every corner trying to sell you tours or souvenirs. It was by far the most touristed place we had come across yet on our trip, but once we got used to the crowds and the gimmicks, it was easy to understand why people come from all over the world to visit Cuzco. The historic centre of the city has been beautifully restored, and there are gorgeous colonial buildings and examples of Inca architecture all around. The plazas are pristine and the gardens are perfectly manicured, and you can get almost any type of cuisine you could wish for at a variety of price ranges.

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vinicunca (rainbow mountain)

For our second day in Cuzco, we decided to take a day trip out of town to hike Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain, as it is commonly referred to around town. The cheapest way to do it is as an organized day tour with one of numerous agencies around town, for just over $30CAD each. We were told to be ready at 3AM for pickup at our hostel, so we dragged ourselves out of bed at 2:40AM, bundled up and packed up our snacks and water...and waited. And waited until about 3:40AM, when the minibus finally arrived.

Several hours later, we arrived at a small village near the start of the hike for breakfast. We had been warned that the included breakfast and lunch would be "basic", so we came prepared with lots of extra snacks. Lucky thing, because breakfast was one cup of coca tea and two pieces of bread with jam. Eventually our group of about 40 people set off for the trailhead, where we were met by the sight of dozens and dozens of colourfully dressed locals leading horses along the trail. Given the high altitude of the trail - starting at 4300m and ending at 5200m, and difficulty of the hike, most of the day's hikers would eventually end up on a horse for all or most of the way up and some even on the way down.

There were certainly a lot of people on the trail, and since almost everyone was there on a day tour, we all started at the same time. We were able to get ahead of a good number of hikers, and since there was absolutely no possibility of losing the trail, we weren't worried about staying with the guide. As we neared the top, we could certainly feel the lack of oxygen in the air, and subsequently slowed down quite a bit (especially me). Fun fact: at 5200m elevation, there is only about 55% of the oxygen available at sea level. No wonder we were tired! Throughout the hike, the views were stupendous, and with mostly clear skies, we could see for a long ways all around. Given the altitude, there were no trees to be found, so the landscape was a mixture of grassy plains with grazing llamas, snow-capped peaks and gravelly slopes rising on both sides.


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Eventually we made it to the top, where we celebrated with a snack of leftover pizza while enjoying the views of the rainbow-coloured slopes of Vinicunca. Although it was quite a sight to see, we both thought that the views of the other mountains, like Ausangate, along the way, were every bit as spectacular as the end goal of Vinicunca. Once we were sufficiently frozen at the top, we started to make our way down. It was much quicker going, and after spotting a familiar Hoyne Brewing Co. t-shirt, we found ourselves chatting with a group of Vancouverites on the way down. Lunch was also included in the tour, so we made our way into the huts where it would be served. We waited a loooong time as a fellow in a chef's uniform and hat put the final touches on a ridiculously elaborate lunch. There were delicately carved decorative whole vegetables atop each dish in the buffet line, and there were entrées from around the world included in the buffet. It was all very unexpected - seems like it would have been a better idea to serve a slightly more robust breakfast and tone down the lunch a little so we could be on our way back to Cuzco sooner. The women were allowed to help themselves from the buffet first, but as we dished up, the chef and his assistants never stopped telling us to hurry up (¡apúrense, apúrense! ¡rápido, más rápido!) and to limit our portion sizes! By the time the meal was over and done with, everyone was exhausted and frustrated and more than ready to head back.

We still had a three-hour bus ride back to Cuzco, and to top it off, we made three separate stops to deal with a flat/leaking tire. Eventually we returned around 7:30PM, which made for a looong 16-hour day.

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machu picchu

Arriving in Cuzco, we were astounded at the various costs associated with visiting Machu Picchu. The entrance fees alone for the two of us were $172, and that didn't include transportation, accommodation or a guide. We were frustrated at the extortionate fees for the train ride to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to the Machu Picchu site, from any of Cuzco (4 hour ride), Ollantaytambo (2 hour ride), or even Hidroeléctrica - only 10km away!

Instead, we decided to piece together our own budget route to Machu Picchu, one included lots (in hind sight, maybe a bit too much) of hiking and a visit to some hot springs. We had originally been looking at doing the Salkantay trek, but given how crowded Cuzco was, we decided to skip the 4-5 trek in lieu of being able to spend more time trekking later around the less-crowded Huaraz, Perú. Here is how we arrived at Machu Picchu:

Day 1:

Shared car from Cuzco - Santa Maria; $12 each

Shared minibus from Santa Maria - Santa Teresa; $4 each

Once in the small village of Santa Teresa, we grabbed sandwiches for lunch, found a place to stay for the night, and took a mototaxi to the beautiful Cocalmayo Hot Springs located just outside of town. We had a fun dinner at a busy local fried chicken joint, and then stocked up on snacks in preparation for the next day's hike.

Day 2:

Shared minibus from Santa Teresa - Lucmabamba; $3 each

11km hike from Lucmabamba - Hidroeléctrica, via Llactapata ruins; free

10km hike from Hidroeléctrica - Aguas Calientes along the train tracks; free

Day 3:

Hike from Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu

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Although we arrived very early, we were still surprised at the sheer number of people at Machu Picchu. Many other people had also hiked up the trail we followed, but even more took buses from Aguas Calientes to the top.

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The weather cooperated with us for the most part, with only a bit of rain, and although it was cloudy, the clouds were quite high and did not obstruct our views of the site. The green grass of the terraces was vibrantly green against the Inca stonework, and it appeared to be quite carefully manicured by the resident llamas! The site was diligently patrolled by guards and some sections were roped off as out of bounds, while others had enforced one-way traffic to try and stem the crowds.

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Machu Picchu is an astounding place and it's hard to fathom how difficult it would have been to construct the site in its mountain-top location! Its well-preserved stonework is also a marvel, as it allows you to see how cleverly the walls were constructed by shaving down the rocks so that they fit tightly together with no need for mortar.

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At 9AM, our window opened to hike Montaña Picchu, one of the peaks encircling the site of Machu Picchu. Due to overcrowding, the government initiated a ticketing system for those who wish to climb Huayna Picchu or Montaña Picchu. The tickets for Huayna Picchu are sold out months in advance, and a few months ago we had no idea exactly when we would be in Perú, so we weren't able to hike up Huayna Picchu. Instead, we went up Montaña Picchu, and although the hike was steep (so many stairs!) and we were already quite tired, the views from the top were incredible and were just what I had always pictured when I thought about visiting Machu Picchu.

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Eventually around noon, after about six hours of exploring, we were ready to call it a day. We were quite tired from the day's steep hikes, and knowing that we still had to walk the 10km back along the train tracks to Hidroeléctrica, we opted to catch a bus down to Aguas Calientes in lieu of descending the rocky steps of the trail in the rain. It took us a couple of hours to then walk back along the tracks to Hidroeléctrica, where we were hoping to catch a ride back to Cuzco. It took a while, but eventually after a combination of a couple of different vehicles, we found ourselves back in Cuzco around 11:30PM, bringing an end to our 20-hour day.

In hindsight, it might have been better to spend one additional night in Aguas Calientes after our morning at Machu Picchu, rather than heading back to Cuzco that same day, but we were eager to get moving towards our next destination: Huaraz, Perú, only 31 hours away by bus!

Footnote: Up next: Huaraz, Perú
Cuzco, Peru