Race to the South
After a quick stopover in Lima, I was on a short flight to Cusco, edging ever closer to the ancient ruins of an Incan city I’d been waiting my whole life to see. As I was exiting the airport, I overheard someone at the information desk asking how to get a colectivo (shared taxi) to Ollantaytanbo. As I was going to the same place, we decided to join forces to get a taxi to the Pavitos Street Taxi Terminal. It was there that we would find the colectivo that we needed.
First, we had to make sure that the taxi driver wasn’t going to overcharge us, which is where my boss negotiating skills came in handy. I got the price down from 30 Soles (US$8.90) to 10 Soles (US$3), which was lower than the amount that the airport staff had told us to expect. Score! We got to the Pavitos Street Station and found the colectivo to Ollantaytanbo. We checked that the fare would be 12 Soles (US$3.60), as we had been told, then sat inside and waited for the other seats in the van to fill up.
It wasn’t long before we were full up and enjoying the awesome views of the Andes on the 90 minute drive to the town of Ollantaytanbo, which serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu. The colectivo dropped us off right in front of the train station. It was possible to buy tickets at the train station in Ollantaytanbo, but I would suggest booking online beforehand at Inca Rail or Peru Rail, as it makes the process a little bit quicker.
Although it has a name that might prove impossible to say when drunk, Ollantaytanbo is a lovely, quiet Andean town. We saw many people roaming around in traditional Peruvian attire, including this little 2 year old girl. She was so enamoured with the person next to me that she was only half-heartedly into the ‘give me money’ routine that her mother clearly made her perform whenever tourists were around. Using your daughter’s insane cuteness to get money out of visitors; well played mother.
The centre of the town was essentially a huge walk-through market area with many stalls selling local wares. As pretty much the only access point to Machu Picchu, you can’t really blame them for trying to capitalise on tourism, can you? Opportunism aside, the view from anywhere you stood in the town was lovely. It would definitely be a good place to relax for a day or 2, if you weren’t on a tight schedule, as I was.
The views only got better on the train to Aguas Calientes, which is the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. The 30km train ride takes around an hour and a half and prices start from US$50. It is possible to purchase online up to a few hours before departure or get tickets at the train station in Ollantaytanbo.
Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo
The Spanish name of the small town at the base of Machu Picchu, literally translates to ‘Hot Waters’. It was named for the numerous hot springs in the area, but of course, I was more interested in the ruins above it. This town is pretty much built on tourism, so as you would expect, accommodation can get quite expensive. It is probably for this reason that most people only choose to stay there for one night, which means that although it’s right near a world famous tourist attraction, it’s not overcrowded. That makes it quite peaceful and lovely.
I met some beautiful locals in this town. I got the feeling that even though many tourists pass through the town, not many locals can speak English well. I found this appealing as it gave me many opportunities to practice speaking Spanish. I definitely needed the practice. It was actually quite amusing when I needed to get a strap holder on my backpack replaced in the town. Finding the market that had the tailor wasn’t a problem, but trying to explain what I needed fixed was difficult when I wasn’t even sure how to say it in English.
Suffice to say, I managed to explain to the lovely couple running the store what I needed, but they weren’t sure that they had any strap holders lying around. They said I could leave it with them and they’d see what they could do. It turns out they were miracle workers. Not only had they fixed the strap by the time I returned, but they had noticed another problem and fixed that too. All for just 10 Soles/US$3! I could not imagine getting a pack fixed that cheaply in many other places.
The Path to Machu Picchu
Before you start your journey up, you’ll need to stop in at the Direccion Regional de Cultura Aguas Calientes Office, also know as the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre, near the town square, to grab your park entry ticket. This will set you back around 150 Soles or US$45. The Ministry of Culture has a website where you can book in advance, but I had problems paying through this website. I explained my problems when I went to Cultural Centre and they let me pay by credit card, even though they normally only accept cash. They say they also require a passport, but they accepted my government issued national ID card.
There are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, depending on how energetic you feel, or how much money you want to spend. There is a shuttle bus that regularly runs from Aguas Calientes and back between the hours of 7am and 3pm. When I was there it cost 70 Soles/US$21 for a return trip, but as of 2019 it has gone up to 80 Soles/US$24. The bus is comfortable and airconditioned, but as the road is very windy, it takes about 40 minutes both ways.
The other, more adventurous option is to hike up. This way is actually shorter, as it cuts across the road at many points. The trail is probably a bit more challenging than your average trail because it is fairly steep and at a high altitude, but certainly doable if you are relatively fit. I also think this is the best way to go; the views are freaking amazing and you can stop to really appreciate them.
The trail up took me a little less than an hour and I passed a few people that seemed to be struggling with the altitude, so I guess it could take up to 2 hours for some people. Now, this is about the point where I bombard you with photos because it’s hard to choose just a few to sum up the wonder of this place.
To say the place was amazing would be an understatement. It’s quite hard to get a true idea of the scope and extensiveness of the ruins until you see them for yourself. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen beforehand, you’re still likely to be awed when you get there.
I was lucky enough to go there on a rainy day, which meant I got to see more than a few rainbows, which made it even more surreal.
I even walked a bit of the Inca Trail that ended behind some of the ruins which gave me the chance to see yet another awesome view.
After refilling my water and getting called muy bonita by some of the park staff near ticket checking point, I was feeling a bit excited and managed to get back down to Aguas Calientes in half the time it had taken me to climb up. When I got back to my accommodation, I was greeted by some drunk Chileans who were super disappointed when they found out that was leaving the next morning. They tried their hardest to convince me to stay an extra day so I could drink with them, but settled for promises to keep in touch.
I think I was so tired that I may have napped for most of the trip back to Cusco, or Cuzco in Spanish. This southeastern Peruvian city was once not only the capital of the Incan Empire, but the historical capital of Peru. Now it serves as the capital of the Cusco Province. With under 500,000 people living there, it’s by no means a large city, but it certainly has a lot of character.
The centre of this Andean mountain town is roughly shaped like a puma, as indicated by maps and pavement slabs around the town. The Puma is said to represent the power of the earth, with a fortress at the head built to protect the city from invaders. It ultimately failed at it’s job, since the Spanish Conquistadores invaded and took control of Cusco in the 1500s
Cusco was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1983 and it’s not hard to see why. There is a lot of history in the town, from Incan, pre-Incan and colonial Spanish societies. I was told that the Spanish mostly built on top of existing Incan structures, so there are still a lot of Incan buildings in the city underneath or behind the colonial buildings.
It’s also a vibrant city with a lot going on, including random carving competitions and art displays in the streets.
And of course there are Alpacas.
But perhaps my favourite thing about this city is the traditional culture and how willing folks are to share it.
I stumbled upon this performance in the centre and it was amazing! All of the instruments this guy used were hand made. The sounds that came out of them were divine. He had everyone’s undivided attention!
After he’d finished, he invited everyone watching him to have a look at his instruments and try them out. He made it look so easy, but when I tried, I just looked like an idiot. Not that I minded, because it was really fun to have a go.
I thought I could sneak out of the area without anyone noticing while people were having their photos taken. The performer foiled my escape plan and insisted that I put on some traditional cloth and have my picture taken with him. So here’s the cheesiest photo I’ve ever been in.
I ended my trip on a high note with a free Peruvian cooking and cocktail making class in a quirky little hilltop pub. Nothing beats looking over a beautiful town whilst eating and drinking things that you’ve made yourself.
Have you had an amazing experience in Peru? I’d love to hear about it! :o)