Cusco & Machu Picchu

For being my longest single bus ride yet, the 22 hour trip to Cusco was by far the most pleasant. That’s because you get what you pay for. In this case I opted to take Cruz del Sur, the Rolls Royce of bus companies.

My luxury liner included La-Z-Boy comfortable recliners, personal TV screens with a selection of popular films, two hot meals, blankets, pillows – the works. The often promised on-board WiFi even worked for the first hour. Even though it nearly sucked up a whole day, it was a relaxing experience. I nearly finished a whole book on my iPad.

Arriving in Cusco around noon, and it didn’t take more than a short walk around town to know I liked this place. 

Cusco (also spelled Cuzco or Qosqo) means belly button in Quechua, because it was the center of the Incan Empire. The city is the most beautiful I’ve seen in South America – a stark contrast to lifeless giant Lima – and just the right size.

All the buildings have roofs (in the historic part of town at least), the architecture is colonial but with bits of Incan influence as well. Plaza de Armas, the main square, is wide and gorgeous with a large fountain, green grass and manicured flower beds. The whole place is a fairy tale version of what a South American city should look like.

The tradeoff for Cusco being such a nice place to visit is that it is gringo central. Never have I seen so many pale faces in alpaca sweaters. As a result of the tourist presence, the locals are a little more pushy when it comes to selling you shit on the street. However, the safe, fun city with countless activities, llively night life and quality restaurants is still an awesome place to be.

The greatest find on my orientation stroll was San Pedro. 

The huge open-air market sells everything from fruit, cheese, bread and meat, to home supplies, tourist crap, and more. One of the more interesting items available in the meat section was donkey snouts. I was told that along with alpaca fetuses and other oddities, certain locals use them for some sort of Quechua ritualism. More shocking than some of the products in this section was the smell. 

I got myself a drink from the juice lady stand, a concept I was familiar with from Ecuador. They have four long rows of women selling the exact same fresh juices at the exact same prices, made to order. I love these stands but I don’t know why no one tries to distinguish themselves from the others to earn a competitive edge. I must be missing something.

After my walk, I rested a bit and bought my tickets to Machu Picchu before meeting Sarah, a friend from back home who is studying in Cusco for the semester. 

We met for drinks at Paddy’s Pub, an Irish bar favored by gringos in the know for its happy hour and escapist atmosphere. She brought along many friends from her program too. After a couple rounds they showed me something I’m eternally grateful for: the Falafel House. Later I would realize that falafels were to my experience in Cusco, what churros were to my time in Lima. I haven’t had a falafel so good since I was in Denmark, and that’s saying something. I had one every night I spent in Cusco. At 10 soles ($3) they were super cheap compared to any other food near Plaza de Armas.

Along with Sarah’s roommate and couple South American friends, we played a few rounds of pool at a hostel bar, but after a while the study abroad girls had to go home (Sarah’s roomie is a bit of an easy drunk). I was happy to return to my cozy hostel and go to bed at a reasonable hour.

The next day Sarah met me after her morning classes for a hike up to the big Jesus on the hill overlooking Cusco. 

I like to view a new city from above, which is usually an easy thing to do in the Andes. The first route we tried to take funneled us into a national park that required a 70 sole entrance fee to continue. We said to hell with that – we just wanted to see Jesus – and took a very unique route through back alley residential streets and up a sketchy little trail. While Jesus was having some cosmetic work done, we were there for the view, and it was splendid.

After the walk down, we went to San Pedro where Sarah showed me my other Cusco culinary trademark, arroz con huevo. From another row of monotonous stands with the exact same prices and offerings, we paid a mere 3 soles ($1) for a heaping plate that included rice, french fries, fresh veggies, and a fried egg. I covered mine with delicious pickled chilies, and would later discover that I could get half an avocado on top for another 50 centavos.

Sarah had to split after that, and I filled the afternoon with a more ambitious walk halfway across Cusco. 

Along the way I took some pictures and got myself an alpaca sweater (touristy but so soft). If there is any place to buy Andean souvenirs (for variety and price) it is this town, so I was a little sad I’d already sent a package home.

After returning to the hostel I ran into Juan, a Venezuelan guy I met in Lima. Though I wasn’t so sure about him at first, he quickly grew on me. Having spent six years in the U.S., Juan is actually the most relatable person I’ve met on the road, and for a while I felt like I was in Boulder.

I met Sarah (and roommate) for drinks at Paddy’s again, running back to the hostel to grab Juan and our German pal Daniel for falafel. They were equally as impressed. The girls said goodnight, and I said goodbye to Sarah because I wouldn’t be seeing her again. Though it would have been wise for me to go to bed also (my bus to Machu Picchu was leaving at 3:30 a.m.), I was having too much fun with Juan and Daniel to call it quits right away.

In true backpacker style, we drank in the dorm room, putting a dent in the Jameson I’d been carrying since Bogota and enjoying a 25 sole bottle of cheap Venezuelan rum upon Juan’s recommendation. It was a good time, however I did a shit job of packing my day bag and I would later pay for.

The big day started early. 

Though all guides suggest booking Machu Pichu as early as possible, I ignored them, giving me no choice but to commit to the early riser option. I was in the bus by 3:30, half dozing off for most of the first leg. After about 2 hours we switched to a train (my first in S.A.!), where I bought a coffee and some semblance of a breakfast pastry. Trains are by far the best way to travel and this one had large windows and skylights to fully enjoy the lush canyon landscape. The train hit the end of the line in Aguas Calientes. I’d be spending the night there, it was straight to another bus for me. After a 20 minute climb I was at the gates of Machu Picchu.

I came into this day with somewhat skeptical expectations, in part on the advice of other travelers who said it wasn’t the psuedospiritual experience it’s made out to be. On top of that, the standard Machu Picchu package – including transport, entrance fees, obligatory guided tour, a night in Aguas Calientes, etc. – costs about $230, and it’s near impossible to shave off much cost by stringing it together yourself. This is a big blow to the shoestring traveler’s budget, but it’s not something you can consider missing. With those expectations in check, I think I was able to make Machu Pichu a special experience well worth the price.

My day at Machu Picchu could be divided into three parts. 

As soon as I walk through the gate around 7:30 a.m. my tour was beginning. Especially in the morning, Machu Picchu is admittedly a cluster-fuck of fanny pack wearing tourists that rivals a holiday weeked at Disneyland. Every other doofus hoists a DSLR camera he doesn’t know how to use and an embroidered bucket hat with the gift shop tags still hanging from it. Before you see anything you have to climb a short but steep trail that turns into a conga line thanks to a road block of grannies and crying children.

When you make it past the entranceway rush hour, your first view of the ruins does not disappoint. It is the exact perspective recognizable from every postcard and advertisement you’ve ever seen of Machu Picchu – but it’s real! With the crowds as they are, you might have to push a few Japanese tourists aside to get your money shot, but it’s so beautiful that any concerns of cost dissolve away.

The tour takes a logical but abbreviated loop around the ruins. You learn a lot about the what is known and theorized about this unique place, which was was lucky to have never been discovered and destroyed by the Spaniards (dicks). With over 200 separate rooms, the tour skips many things, but it’s a good primer for exploring it on your own later.

After the tour, you are cut loose and the rest of the day is yours. 

I had purchased tickets to hike Machu Picchu Mountain. While the most coveted option is to hike Wayna Picchu (the egg shaped peak in all the iconic pictures) Machu Picchu Mountain is taller and said by many to be a better hike with better views. It also doesn’t sell out 10 days in advance.

I started the hike with two people from my tour group – Railene, a Guam-born girl who you’d never expect to be an Air Force pilot, and Josh, a closet case attorney from Oakland. It became immediately apparent that Josh was in no shape to keep up with the pace we were setting, and Raliene and I left him in the dust. She was a sweet person to hike with if not a little boring.

Though the hike is almost entirely made of primitive stairs, it is the steepest, longest staircase you have ever taken. With many exposed sections and steep dropoffs it is not a trail for those with a fear of heights. The view was incredible all the way up, as the ruins slowly shrank in size. We were busting our butts to get to the top before they closed it at noon. What is supposed to take most people between 1.5 and 2 hours, took us 60 minutes. After hiking under such a deadline, we were exhausted by the end, but it was well worth it to get to the top with time to enjoy the 360-degree view.

By the time we returned to the bottom, the crowds had thinned out substantially. 

I spend the next couple hours wandering the ruins myself, exploring every nook and cranny, and trying to take pictures of the tame but uncooperative resident llamas and alpacas. While the hike was rewarding for the effort and payoff, this was an just as special for its intimacy. By the time Machu Picchu was supposed to close, I was completely alone with the ghosts of the ancient granite city.

I won’t say the Machu Picchu experience is perfect. Crowds are a drag, and I saw a lot of people who simply showed up, snapped their pictures in the first hour, and returned home. However, it’s unavoidable that so many people want to visit because it really is a place worth seeing in your life. I don’t need to return for a long time, if ever, but I will always remember my day at Machu Picchu.

Returning to Aguas Calientes was lackluster experience. 

I was once again stuck with Josh, who was also staying the night at my hostel. I could have been disappointed with the whole night if hadn’t of had such an amazing day. It had been nice traveling the whole day with my tiny day pack (my big pack in storage at my hostel in Cusco), but there was a reason it was so light. I paid for my drunk packing by having failed to include a change of clothes or any toiletries. I was so beat that I didn’t care, and besides a walk to see the town and find dinner, I stayed in and went to bed early.

Aguas Calientes is a town whose only saving grace is its proximity to one of the seven wonders of the world. The town completely built for tourists, with probably 100 overprices restaurants that offer the same extensive but unoriginal “tourist menu” that includes, Peruvian, Italian, Mexican and American cuisines. After spending way too long finding a place that is unique and/or cheap, I walked into a random joint and got a burrito. They tried to charge me a 10 sole service fee.

The train out of town left at 8:30 a.m. I had breakfast and walked the town to snap some pictures, slightly more impressed because of the massive vertical hills on all sides of town. Of course my train seat directly faced Josh, who I knew I was yet to escape given that he was also staying at my hostel in Cusco. An iPod and headphones are the least rude way I know how to escape an unpleasant social situation.

After changing to a bus, we were back to Cusco by noon. 

While I had thoughts of catching a bus out of town to keep up with my schedule, I knew I wanted to stay, and something was telling me to stay. I found out what after a shower and lunch at San Pedro, when my Huaraz/Lima friends Kate and Santiago walked through the door. They had just arrived that morning and I think they were as happy to see me as I was to see them. We immediately decided to order some beers.

We shared a few rounds and I showed them falafel (once again a hit). While our friends James, Graham and Owen were also in town, we failed to meet up with them, but had a fun night talking about all subjects and making each other laugh. Running into good friends again makes me want to believe in fate.

The next day was my last in Cusco. 

I could have stayed a week or more but from this day I had exactly a month left in my travels and so much to see. Having seen most of the city, I took a short day trip outside of town. The cheap but worthwhile tour, which Josh of course signed up for after I did, included three stops.

We first arrived at the residence of an artisan group of ladies who make traditional Andean crafts, from sweaters and scarfs to rugs, blankets and everything else. They gave us all coca tea and showed us how the entire process, from shaving the alpaca with a piece of glass, cleaning, spinning and dying the yarn with bright colors taken from local surroundings.

Of course they hope that you buy some of their products afterward, and if I had had the cash and space in my bag, I would have. Compared the this stuff, the items you find in Cusco are crap.

Next we visited Maras, the famous salt mines of Peru. 

I took full advantage of telling people I was off to the salt mines that day. When I signed up, I knew this stop would be incredible for picture taking, and I was right. The endless pink and white and orange terraces stretch over an entire hillside, fed by a sodium rich spring that has been utilized since before the Incas. We got to wander all over the upper terraces, and I would have loved to stay longer if our tour guide wasn’t such a Nazi for keeping us on his schedule.

Finally we stopped by Moray, a well-known site of Incan ruins.

Though it is little more than a terraced valley used for growing crops, Moray is an impressive sight for the perfect circular symmetry of its layout. From above it looks like a Tuborg beer logo. The real genius behind it is how the sunken bowl-shaped valley was deliberately designed by the Incans to create a microclimate, allowing them to grow crops that would not normally survive at such altitudes. They were some smart people, and aesthetically gifted.

When I returned to Cusco, I got my last plate of arroz con huevo at San Pedro, which was my final activity with Josh. For being such a nice guy, he bothered me so much, and I was not alone. In traditional Cali style, he just does not know how to shut up, nor can he stop talking about how great California is.

Perhaps his worst quality is how he thinks he is fluent in Spanish (he is so not), and takes every moment to embarrass the people around by trying to use it. When he found out poor Santi was from Argentina, he would not leave him alone. Some people just rub you the wrong way, and especially because I’m on my own for this trip, I find it hard to tell someone like him off when he has good intentions.

After a couple last minute errands, I found Kate and Santi, who invited me to come to the Cusco Planetarium with them. 

Though my bus left at 10 p.m., going would still give me time to eat and get a beer with them before I had to go. I’m so glad I went.

“The Professor,” as he was called, picked us up near our hostel, and we took a taxi up to his quiant planetarium on the hill. It was everything the experience should be, with the perfect balance of professionalism and South American jankiness. We were first given an overview of the Incan’s relationship with the sun and the stars, with examples from the Sun Temple at Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and some of the world’s earliest astrological observation sites. Then, while part of the sky was clear, we did some stargazing. The Professor is a lovable eccentric who gets so excited to talk about what he’s passionate about. We saw Venus, a bianary solar system and some impressive clusters.

We elected to take the first part of the program in English by the Professor’s well-meaning assistant because I doubted my ability to understand complex scientific words. We later switched to Spanish to hear from the expert’s mouth. Even if I wasn’t getting everything, I understood most of it, and was getting a lot more than they were able to translate into English. Especially when it comes to listening abilities, I think I need to give myself some more credit for what I’m capable of understanding. On my tour earlier that day as well, I listened to the Spanish version and got the gist of all that was being said.

The last part of the night was the planetarium itself. Looking up at the dome ceiling, we watched the Professor point out the constellations, with a heavy emphasis on those unique to the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. Where most constellations in the north come from greek mythology, the southern constellations are mostly animals found in South America. My favorite was a dark constellation, found between the negative space within the Milky Way, known as the Big Black Llama. It’s huge and easily recognizable once you see it. Next time I get a clear enough sky back home, I’m going to try to find it.

While I would not have signed up for the planetarium myself, I was so happy to have gone, especially with Santi and Kate, who have become great friends of mine. 

Afterward, with little time left, I grabbed my last falafel and we went to Paddy’s for my last beer in Cusco.

Kate observed that I was a little down, and I admitted I didn’t want to go. It is frustrating to leave a place you really enjoy. On the road, your sense of what home is changes. Instead of a stable place you always return to, home is created around the people you meet and the experiences you create. Cusco was great itself, but the hard part was leaving my friends, my falafel ritual, the temporary sense of normal I had created.

As hard as it can be, I remind myself that this trip is about me and the goal I set for myself. It’s about exposing myself to the new, not getting too comfortable with anything. With the 31 days I have left, I’m bound to meet just as many great people and see just as many great places. Even when it hurts a little, I have to keep going.

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