From Cusco to Machu Picchu-Mystical, mindboggling, marvelous, magnificent!

Leaving Arequipa was done so with huge excitement, for now we were heading to Cuzco-the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, and the gateway from which we would be visiting one of the most enigmatic sites of world archaeology, Machu Picchu. Through the process of accurate planning, it would also be where I would be celebrating my birthday-bonus!

One of the things that we have had to be mindful of as we have travelled is getting ahead of ourselves-yes Machu Picchu is just around the corner, but prior to that we have the quite majestic city of Cuzco to explore first. As mentioned earlier, the city was the capital of the Inca Empire between the 13th and 16th centuries-until the Spanish conquests of South America, although the actual date of construction of Cuzco is thought to be in the 11th century. As such, in the Old Town there are pre-Columbian buildings, plazas and churches round every corner, and the atmosphere feels thick with history. With the city being the gateway to Machu Picchu, its UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the numerous Inca ruins and wonders throughout the Sacred Valley, it’s no surprise that Cuzco is absolutely swarming with tourists like us…Yet somehow it manages to maintain its dignity and charm! Yes you will be pitched for food, massage, trinkets and alpaca clothing numerous times each day, but it’s ok-no problem!

At 3,400 m above sea level, altitude sickness is an issue for some and so you are quickly introduced to the wonders of chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea. And yes we are talking about the raw ingredient for cocaine, although it’s important to distinguish between the drug and the plant. Coca leaves are something of a national treasure in Peru, and for thousands of years South American indigenous cultural groups have used the coca leaf in many of their significant ceremonies, as well as using it as a day to day supplement. Everything from improving oral hygiene and alleviating altitude sickness, to increasing stamina and improving your all round work ethic(!). Indeed if you believe everything that Wikipedia has to say (as I am guilty of sometimes), then you will also find that the Spanish actually encouraged the use of coca leaves to increase the productivity and reduce the appetite of their newly acquired slave workforce!
From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that neither Jo or I had altitude sickness-and nor did we tire over the next week or so hiking up and down various Inca trails…Whether that can be attributed to the benefits of coca or not I cannot say, but it was the the only adjustment that we made to our diets-I’ll leave it with you to come to your own conclusions!

So, what about Cuzco then? Well it is everything that you will read about it! Enchanting, historic, beautiful, magical-there are many superlatives that you can describe this city, and it deserves each one of them. You simply have to look around you to see the mountains that surround the city, and then the historic buildings at closer quarters-there’s enough here to keep you captivated for as long as you may wish, with no fear of it losing it’s sense of mysticism.

And we only really scratched the surface of the city….

 

One thing that you are never going to struggle with in Cuzco is finding a tour operator to take you to Machu Picchu-there are LOADS of them! In fact, choosing who you are going to spend your money with is one of the most difficult things about the place….More specifically-finding a tour operator who will accept anything other than cash! Fortunately we were introduced to ‘a guy’ by our AirBnB host, and (spoiler alert!) it was awesome!

Ideally we would have like to have done the full Inca trail, but you really need to book that in advance and have a set schedule-as were prepared with neither, we had to go for an option that was feasible as and when we got there! On good advice from a friend from our first placement way back in September, we opted to go for the Inca Jungle Trek-which goes a little something like this:

DAY 1: CUSCO – ABRA MALAGA – SANTA MARÍA 65km Mountain Biking.

Starting at 6 am, we were driven by minibus through the amazing sacred valley of the Incas.  Passing the indigenous town of Chinchero with amazing views of Vilcabamba and Vilcanota mountain range, enjoying the panoramic views of the small towns in the sacred valley. Eventually you reach Abra Malaga pass at 4350m, and at this point we started the mountain biking down to Santa Maria town at 1435m. Biking starts high in the Andes with the majestic view of the snow-capped Veronica mountain.

DAY 2: SANTA MARIA – QUELLOMAYO – SANTA TERESA – COCALMAYO HOT SPRING 22km Hiking.

Another 6AM start, although this time it is people power as you set off on the most challenging of the hikes. After just 45 minutes from our hostel we get onto the original Inca trail that used to connect Machu Picchu with Vilcabamba considered the last Inca capital, hiking through plantations of bananas, Coca, yucca, coffee, and many other ‘unknown’ fruits! 3 hours hiking on the original Inca trail with magnificent views of the Vilcanota valley and panoramic views of the hills before a lunch pit stop at Quellomayo. From there we continued the hike along the Vilcanota River for another 3.5 hours until we arrive at the ‘cable car’ to get to Colcamayo hot springs. The ‘cable car’ is actually a platform on steel cables across the river-and let’s just put it this way, it would never pass H&S sanctions in Blighty! Anyway, once you had braved the river crossing you find yourself at the stunning natural and outdoor hot springs.

DAY 3: SANTA TERESA – HIDROELÉCTRICA – AGUAS CALIENTES 19km Hiking.

After breakfast in Santa Teresa we set off on our hike to the hydroelectric power plant for 2.5 hour hiking on the road along the Vilcanota River. During the hike we see the power plant of Santa Teresa and Hidroelectrica. Before long you have the first view of Machu Picchu then we hiked along the train truck for 3 hours to Aguas Calientes town-the gateway to the mighty Machu Picchu.

DAY 4: AGUAS CALIENTES – MACHUPICCHU – OLLANTAYTAMBO – CUSCO

The most important day, and the earliest start! Up before the crack of dawn (4.30AM) to start the 1.5 hour hike up to the hidden city itself. On arrival there is a two hour tour with the guide and then we had the rest of the day to explore. Then you have free time to explore Machu Picchu by yourselves. We booked to climb Machu Picchu Mountain as well, which is a further 2 hour climb to majestic views of the ancient city from above! Machu Picchu is located in the middle of nowhere and up on the granite mountain edge, there is no any records about Machu Picchu of the Incas time. It is not mentioned in any of the chronicles of the Spanish conquistadors and archaeologists. Machu Picchu was under the dense vegetation until July 24th 1911. When the American historian Hiram Bingham ‘discovered’ it and called it “the lost city of the Incas”. We spent 8 hours exploring the city, before reluctantly going back to Aguas Calientes town.

 

The entire 4 days turned out to be as amazing as you would hope, and we had a really great group of people to share our experiences with. It didn’t start out so rosy though, to begin at Abra Malaga we were met with heavy rain, freezing cold and limited visibility-not the perfect conditions for a downhill bike ride! Still, after about an hour and a half the weather started to clear and soon enough we were hurtling down the mountain roads with little/no fear! It was exhilarating, however the biggest adrenaline rush actually came that evening in Santa Maria when Jo and I were attacked by wasps! We had taken some time to walk around the village and explore the surroundings when we found a path that lead down to a bridge over the river. As we walked down the path suddenly I felt a sharp pain on my head, and then another on my hand-so I start thrashing around not knowing what was going on-and Jo was soon in the same predicament. As it turns out, Avispa’s (South American wasps) are absolutely relentless, and will dive-bomb and attack you fearlessly! Fortunately the stings die down pretty quickly, but we didn’t know that and were soon running for our lives! Obviously this kind of incident couldn’t go unseen, and as we hightailed it away from the wasps we turned the corner to find a group of elderly locals watching on with some bemusement…funny now, scary at the time!

Day 2 saw me begin a two day celebration for my birthday, for as it turned out I shared my birthday with one of the other guys in the group, and how lucky we were to be able to visit the hot springs! The days hiking was superb, our guide was super knowledgeable and shared a lot about the fauna and flora, local customs and lives of the Inca’s. The Inca trail itself was stunning, and after a full day of hiking arriving at the hot springs were absolutely magical-as you will see from the pictures. Having had a couple of hours to really enjoy, relax and soak, we eventually dragged ourselves away and ended up having something of a night out in Santa Theresa-the entire group insisting that we all party past midnight to see in our birthdays! And party we did…hard! It was great, a really good giggle, but it made day 3 a little more challenging given the huge hangover and long walk ahead! Still, we survived the hangovers and made it to the wonderful town of Aguas Calientes-with excitement levels at maximum for the culmination of our journey the following day. Jo and I made an effort to hit the hot springs in Aguas Calientes as well-although they turned out to be something of a disappointment in comparison to the gorgeous tranquillity of the previous day’s experience! With an early rise in order, bed time couldn’t come soon enough-for now we were here, and Machu Picchu was waiting… The hike up to Machu Picchu itself was a lot more challenging than I was expecting-and hour and a half of relentless ‘Inca steps’ at 4.30AM really does get the heart racing and the core body temperature up-it really feels like your ‘earning’ the right to see this wonder. Of course there are other options-you can take a bus, or even a train-but for us that wasn’t a consideration. Much can be said about how you feel when you finally arrive and look over the city for the first time, but no words would do it justice-it was quite overwhelming. Something that we had seen pictures of throughout our lives was finally in front of us-and it was majestic, emotional, magical…Something that we are lucky enough to now have etched into our memories…..Which is quite lucky really, cos my camera had started playing up and I had managed to get water on the lens! Still, frantic times trying to dry and fix my camera to get some shots to help with the aging memory!

 

 

 

The charms of Arequipa

Having finally made it into Peru, our journey from the border took us through what felt like 5 endless hours of epic desert scenery on our way to Arequipa. So here’s a funny admission, I hadn’t ever really thought about the scale of South America, and in my head I imagined Peru to be a relatively small country….Just demonstrates my casual ignorance! Peru is actually the third largest country in South America, behind Brazil and Argentina, and is about 5 times the size of Great Britain…..Here was I thinking that it was a country roughly equivalent in size to Wales-how wrong can you be?! Still, the landscape was breath-taking, and it gave us time to build the excitement for the travelling ahead; for now, after mostly volunteering in Argentina and Chile, we were back to travelling and on route to the first of our must see destinations, the exquisite Machu Picchu…But more on that later.

First up was Arequipa, the capital of Peru from 1835 to 1883, following their independence from Spain. Now the historic center of Arequipa is a World Heritage Site and a major tourist destination. With stunning surrounding natural scenery, and a wonderful blend of architectural influence-the city was sure to be a great introduction back to the world of sightseeing! Given that I am no architectural expert, I’ll refer to Wikipedia to give you a succinct description of the style:

The religious, colonial and republican architectural styles blend European and native characteristics into a unique style called “Escuela Arequipeña”

We headed to the Old Town, as most tourists’ will I would imagine, and what we were met with was a picturesque city with plenty of colonial influence. The Plaza De Armas is absolutely beautiful, with all of the buildings surrounding the square being made of sillar-a white volcanic stone, and for the most part that we were there, it was absolutely buzzing with locals and tourists. Artisanal markets, alpaca wool clothes stores (Arequipa is called the World´s capital of the Alpaca), skyline dominating cathedrals and shoeshine boys-we were back to being tourists with aplomb; time to search out the museums, sights, and shops!

You don’t have to wonder far from the main plaza to find one of the most famous tourist sites in Arequipa, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Very much like a city within a city, this place is absolutely mind boggling. Built in 1579 it covers over 20,000 square meters, and used to be home to a community of 150 nuns and 300 servants (!), although nowadays the monastery is home to just 20 nuns who live out of sight in the northern corner of the complex; the rest of the monastery is now open to the public. The nuns that lived here did so in complete silence and isolation from the world around them, and as you walk around you get to see these funny interfaces where they used to have goods delivered through what I can only describe as ‘rotating dumb waiters’, ensuring minimal contact with anyone from the outside world. When you start to walk around this place you do start to ask yourself the questions about whether they just wanted to protect their own little paradise rather than any other holy motives-the entire monastery is a made up of quant and picture perfect brightly coloured streets, beautiful courtyards and even an orchard. Each of the nuns had private dwellings and were known to be quite handy when it came to baked goods-it really was quite lovely….That was until you saw the tools for self-flagellation, and then you remember that this place is a home for devout Catholics…Enough said!


Having spent a couple of the days in the old town we were planning our off once again. There is certainly a lot more to do in Arequipa, and in the surrounding areas. Condor watching in Colca canyon for example, the canyon is one of the deepest in the world, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the Andean Condor is a protected species-alas we just didn’t have time to explore this ourselves, we had a plan of getting to Cusco and to Machu Picchu for my birthday, and so time was of the essence.