Peru – Part 2 : Machu Picchu and beyond

OK, so here we go! We were very much undecided as to whether to make the trek out to Machu Picchu (MP) until about two weeks beforehand. On the one hand, it’s an iconic destination and we were kind of in the vicinity anyway, but on the other hand we knew that it was going to be the mother of all tourist traps (and we have developed a healthy dislike of these types of places during our trip). In the end, we decided that we had better just do it, because we would most likely end up regretting it if we didn’t go, and were so close by anyway…

Here is my version of our journey to MP, in all its gory detail. Let me start by saying that they are about to trial new entry rules for visits to MP, so it is possible that some of this information will no longer be valid from July 1, 2017, but will most likely only have a small effect on your trip (you will basically have to choose between a morning or afternoon visiting session).

The town of Aguas Calientes, base for MP

We decided to go for it while in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The first step was to locate train tickets to MP from Cusco. There is only one option: Peru Rail. They have the only access to the town of Aguas Calientes (there is no road), and so they can pretty much charge what they like. However, we were unable to access their website for several days. It was on June 13th, on a beautiful sunny afternoon in Samaipata, Bolivia, that we finally managed to access the website. So, armed with my laptop and my phone with a fairly lousy 3G signal, we launched into what was to be a grueling ordeal.  We wanted tickets to arrive on the 22nd June, and return the next day. The outbound trains still had some availability, but the only available return trains went to the town of Ollantaytambo, which meant we wound need another means of transportation to get the remainder of the distance back to Cusco. Not having much choice, we decided to book these tickets on the Vistadome train, which is the class up from the backpacker train called Expedition, yay! The total fare was US$ 470, and after entering our life details (including passport number, DOB, etc. in triplicate) we got to the payment section. So far so good, we thought. We entered our credit card details, and clicked the PAY button, and……. the web script crashed with the sad error face of the Chrome browser. We waited for minutes, but obviously nothing else was going to happen, so we just assumed that the payment had failed and started over again. We got to the same point, and….. the same error! We then tried a different browser, and a different card all to no avail, until as a last ditch effort, we tried PayPal, and lo and behold, we got a confirmation! All of this took over an hour of messing around, and we had only completed the first hurdle of the process. We gave no further thought to the “incomplete” transactions.

We’re finally there!

The next step was to book the tickets for entry into the site, via the government website. Again, we had to enter all of our details, passport numbers and the whole works, but the cheeky buggers won’t allow you to purchase child tickets online, so we had to get adult tickets for the kids, and at US$45 each, they are not cheap either! So, we are now up to a total of US$650, and we haven’t booked any accommodation there, nor the bus fare to get up the hill (more on that later). Make no mistake, MP is not a cheap outing!

Solar observatory

Fast-forward now to the morning of the 21st June, in Cusco. We had been into the Peru Rail office to collect our tickets the previous day, and there was some confusion, since we told them that we had paid by PayPal, but they wanted to see the credit card that was used to make the payment. Alarm bells should have rung straight away, but they actually went off at 6 am the following morning as I was lying in bed. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I checked our credit card transactions…. to find there were THREE transactions of US$ 470 from Peru Rail! We had also tried Sophie’s Visa card, so that meant four, plus the PayPal transaction. If we couldn’t get this sorted out, it would turn into a hugely expensive trip. We were not looking forward to explaining all this to the agents at the Peru Rail office, but they did not seem to find it unusual, and after a long period on the phone, the lady at the desk gave us her word that the erroneous bookings would be refunded “in a few weeks”. Oh boy.  The lesson here is to beware when using the Peru Rail website. Lesson learned. Alternatively, you can avoid all this hassle and book a fully-inclusive tour with one of the many operators in Cusco, but that will cost you at least US$400 per person for a day trip.

Greg & Nina at MP

On the morning of June 22nd, We had ordered a taxi to take us to the train station from our hotel at 6:30 am, and were told the price would be 35 Soles (about US$12). So off we went on the short journey up the hill to the station. Our driver was angling to know when he could pick us up on our return, but we pretended to not understand him (and that was not much of a pretense!). We arrived at the station, and the driver demanded 50 Soles for the trip, since he knew he would not be seeing us again. I hate getting nickel-and-dimed by taxi drivers, so I told him to call the hotel. “No tengo numero.” was his reply. Not really having much option, we paid him and I made a mental note to mention it to our hotel upon our return. We were no longer in honest and friendly Bolivia 🙁

The Sacred Rock, MP

It was cold and overcast at the station, and the gringos were now arriving in droves to wait for the train, which was to depart at 7:35 am. The train was nice and comfortable (as expected), but we did not expect waiter service at our seats. As we sat watching the countryside drift slowly by, we were served with coffee and a brownie, followed by sandwiches. So this was what we paid all that money for then! Might as well enjoy it. The first part of the 3-hour journey was not very spectacular, it’s only when you enter the steep valley that things start to get interesting. We caught glimpses of the towering snow-capped peaks beyond the valley every now and then, including the majestic Cerro Veronika. The train follows a boulder-strewn river as it winds its way down towards our destination, and the valley got steeper and narrower as we continued along the tracks.

View from the upper terraces

By the time you get to Aguas Calientes, you really have the feeling that you have entered a different world, secret and cut off from the rest of civilization. Apart from the well-trodden Inca trail, the railway line is the only way into and out of here. Apart from the buses that trundle up the hill, there are practically no vehicles here (since there is no road). The town is therefore very tranquil, and is meant for walking only. I was surprised by how big it was, and also that it was actually quite a nice place. Obviously, it’s full of tourists, but there is enough space for everyone. A lady was waiting for us to lead us to our little guest house, located next to a cascading stream. We checked in and were shown to our room. After a short break and a bite to eat, we headed out to visit MP. The excitement was mounting now – we were almost there! Now comes the ultimate in rip-off tourist services – the bus that takes you up the hill. Although there is a very well maintained walking trail to the top, they know that 99% of people are too lazy / unfit to make the 1.5 hour hike up, so they can, once again, charge pretty much what they like. The cost is US$ 12 per adult ONE WAY, for a 15 minute bus ride! Since we had time constraints (and to be honest, the kids would have moaned non-stop), we took the bus up along with the sheeple, but decided to walk down on the way back. The money saved would be spent on a nice dinner back in town that evening. This turned out to be be an excellent compromise, since the walk down is very easy and pleasant (compared to the hike up which, admittedly, would have been quite intense).

View with the “Alpaca” filter applied 😉

At the top, you have to go through the entrance gate, and they check your passport against your ticket, stamp it, and then you are in! This was it, the big reveal. You walk for a few hundred meters along a pathway, and then you get to a hut, beyond which lies the city in all its splendor! Instantly, all thoughts of the hassle and expense of getting there are banished. We just stood there in awe, looking around, not quite believing our eyes. We have all seen countless photos of MP from every angle, but no photo can really prepare you for the real thing: it simply has to be seen to be believed. There were obviously a fair number of tourists milling about, but the place is pretty big, and there is space for everyone to visit, and even get the odd photo without a bunch of other tourists in the background (a bit of a challenge, but definitely do-able). The ruins themselves are not really that special, it is just the location that makes the place so magical. The many levels of flat terraces just drop down into the deep voids on either side of the city, and you can only imagine how the Incas actually constructed them. In places, there are giant outcroppings of rock that the Incas could not move, so they just built around, against and over them. The huge Sacred Rock appears to be natural, unworked, but has a very distinctive shape that the Incas thought had some godly power.

This photo sums it all up!

After about two hours of wandering around, we went back to the upper levels, where there are grassed terraces you can sit on and just take in the scene. The resident llamas were going about their business of keeping the grass nice and short (and also providing non-stop photo opportunities for the tourists). The sun had come out, and it was just a perfect temperature. We just sat there in contented silence (well, in-between Nina asking when we were leaving), and watched the sun lowering itself towards the rim of the surrounding mountains.  The site was emptying nicely as the day trippers were all leaving, and by 4 pm, there were only a small number of people about. As you can see from the photos, this scene was about as good as it gets. We had taken about a million photos since the place is just so photogenic you just can’t help yourself. Around every corner is another spectacular shot. As the sun descended near to the horizon, we reluctantly headed for the exit and began the walk down the hill. It was practically deserted apart from the dogs that follow you down begging for scraps, and we had a nice leisurely walk back into town. Our wonderful day at MP was capped off by a nice meal in a fancy Italian restaurant in town. We were happy campers!

Town of Ollantaytambo

The next day, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo, and were “treated” to a rather bizarre kind of fashion show and dance, put on by the train staff and some guy dressed in a rather scary costume and mask. The kids weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. They eventually decided that laughing was the correct response. It was pretty damn hilarious, especially when the bunch of Chinese tourists sitting behind us joined in the festivities, and the once-civilized train carriage was transformed into a mobile zoo. We were relieved to get away from the madness when the train arrived at the station. From what we had read, there was not much to do or see here, apart from another Inca ruins, which could obviously not compete with MP. But since we were there, we decided to go for lunch and a look around before trying to find a ride back to Cusco. It turned out to be a lovely little place. It was quiet, but not dead, and you could wander the cobbled streets of the old Inca town, and even climb up the hill overlooking town for a great view of the Inca ruins on the opposite hillside. It was, once again, a lovely sunny and warm day, and I really enjoyed my visit there, and my only regret was that we could not have stayed longer. Sometime mid-afternoon, we managed to find a guy to drive us to Cusco for US$25. His name was Eduardo, and he was a jolly nice chap. He obliged me by allowing me to practice my still awful Spanish on him, and for that I gave him a $5 tip. It was a very scenic drive up to Cusco, much more so than the train ride, which is why I would recommend anyone considering doing MP to catch a taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, spend the night there and catch a train to MP from there the following day. You will save money and get to experience a lovely little town in the bargain.

Greg & Nina in Ollantaytambo

We arrived back in Cusco right in the thick of the Inti Raymi festivities and there were crowds everywhere, you could hardly move. It took us ages to work our way around the plaza and back to our hotel to collect our luggage. Due to a problem with a burst pipe, we were informed by our guest house that our room was not available, but they had found us an apartment instead. What we didn’t realise until we got back to Cusco was that the apartment was located out in the suburbs, far from the center. We had to walk with our cases through the craziness of the festivities to find a taxi to take us there, and were actually quite relieved to get away from the mayhem. The apartment was a huge, modern, 3-bedroom place, which was wonderful, except there was no heating, and it was mighty chilly in there. Sophie went to bed wearing her woolly hat! The next day we took our flight to Lima, and our Peru adventure was at an end. Only one country remaining: Mexico. Arriva, arriva!

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