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Peru - Maccu Picchu trip (and escape from Cusco)

PERU | Monday, 27 October 2008 | Views [1514]

It was fabulous to not have to get up at the crack of dawn and go somewhere. We hada very leisurely breakfast with Katie and Kerry and made our way to SA explorers having bade farewell to the girls who were off to Puno and then to Bolivia. We had a few objectives to achieve, get some advice on Maccu Picchu and do some exchanging of books. I had finished Bill Brysons " A Short History of Nearly Everything" and Danny Wallaces "Friends Like These" (Which is not half as good as "Yes Man" but still readable) and Claire had managed her way through a Jodi Poucault about child abuse. I had high hopes and was very content to have acquired The Penguin History of Latin America, Emma and a big hefty Tom Clancy. Those should see us through the dark nights for a while at least, and the history book is quite useful in contextualising what we see and hear on our trip.
But I digress. We got our advice on how to get to Maccu Picchu and then had a wander around Cusco cathedral. Its a large imposing building on the main square which was constructed on top of the Inca foundations and is sidled by 2 seperate churches. It´s incredibly ornate inside, but as no photos are allowed my descriptions will have to suffice. Of particular interest were the Cusqueño school of painting´s interpretation of the last supper, replete with Guinea Pig and glasses of Chicha Morada neither of which was about in Judea so I like the localisation they employed so far ago. The main altar also left an impression, being made of solid silver and very ornately decorated. All in all a pleasant afternoon.
We got back to the hostel and started to prepare our small bags for the trip to Maccu Picchu (MP) when, lo and behold the English girls showed up again. They, like the Russians had had some transport issues. Apparently there was a transport strike. Which meant our plans to go to MP could be in jeapordy, but it was only for long distances. For the second time we said sayonnara to the girls and got an early night as we needed to get up early to make all the transport links ahead of us.
So there are a few ways to get to Aguas Calientes, the town nestling at the bottom of MP mountain and the place to stay before or after a visit to MP. First and most usual is the train, which is about $150 each (or about $450 for the nice train). Not cheap. Second is with a group as part of a trek. Well the Inka Jungle trail didnt really work out for me, and you also only get a few hours in the sanctuary before having to catch the train back to Cusco. The third option is a little more hectic, but gave us a bit more independence and saved some cash so we went for the following. Shared taxi at 7am to Santa Maria (yes the same one I had the dodgy tummy in a few weeks ago), taking about 6 hours (10$). Then a Combi to Santa Teresa ($2). Then a combi to Hidroelectrica, a power station ($3). Then a 2 hours walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes ($0). All in all about 10% of the train price!
So we got to the shared taxi, this was the luxury part, we could have got a big bus for less... As we were waiting for it to fill up we witnessed a crash between 2 taxis.  The bumper fell off the little tiny taxi and after a good 10 minutes of passersby rubbernecking (as were we!) and pontificating, the police came on and the driver of the small taxi put his bumper in the boot and picked up his next fare. Life goes on! With the taxi full (they never leave empty) we got on our way. I knew the road quite well as this was my third time on it and it was nice to be able to show Claire where I had done the biking. As we pulled into Santa Maria, another taxi driver told us he had 2 spaces free going to Santa Teresa right now, so we duly got in and carried on. It should be noted that they fit 4 in the back of any car in Peru so beware! Lots more sheer drops and fabulous scenery and we made it to the slightly bigger town of Santa Teresa. A Combi driver accosted us before ewe even stopped and offered us places in his combi, leaving in 40 minutes. We said yes and used the opportunity to have some lunch. about 2 hours later and after a long wait for it to fill up we finally left for the 30 min trip to the power station.
It was about 3pm at this stage so I was keen to get a move on and arrive at Aguas Calientes before dark. Never good to be walking on the train tracks at night. It was quite interesting trying to keep a ÷pace on the unevenly spaced tracks. Somehow strangely therapeutic. The train track wound around a large mountain and I spied a few old buildings up at the top so I reckoned (correctly as it turned out) that we were actually rounding the mountain itself. We got in to the pretty town of AC just as it was gettign dark.  Pretty it is but its a total tourist trap - everything is very expensive and shock horror the place was full of tourists. Now Claire and I have been pretty lucky so far. The majority of people we have met have been long term independent travellers like us, or at the very least holiday makers who are aware of their impact on the local society and on their fellow gringos. Not so in AC and MP. Large tour groups of Japanese or Germans (or Americans or Brits or Irish) who basically push you out of the way at any opportunity and walk straight into your photo and take one themselves. Tirade over. I hate tourists even though techically I am one myself.
So we found our hostel and were pleasantly surprised that not only was it cheap, clean and right beside the main squatre but we had our own shower. Hot Shower to ourselves! This was cause to celebrate. We got our tickets organised and bought our supplies for the next day. We even had excruciatingly expensive but very tasty Nachos and beer!! Noelle and Buutiste were staying at the same hotel so we got the hints and tips on what to do when from them. Merci!
Up at 4.30am to get in the queue for the first bus up at 5.30. We could have trekked up but that would have meant getting up at 3.30 which is a good time to be going to bed not getting up to go trekking up a mountain. We made it onto the second bus and then once the main gate opened at 6am, pretty much ran across to the other side of the sanctuary. You know the photos of Maccu Picchu with the mountain in the background? Well MP itself is about 2800m up. Wayna Picchu, the name of that mountain in the background of the main photo is anout 7 or 800m up. They only let 400 people a day go up it, from the 4000 that visit MP and we were going to be part of the 400!
We made it in time and began our trek along small cut Inka steps. The going got quite tough towards the end as the way up is incredibly steep and the fact that we were surrounded by fog and that it was raining didnt help. The whole point of  the exercise was to see an overview of the place before we wandered around it ourselves. Ah well. We made it to almost the top and the cloud cleared for a few minutes to reveal an incredible view of a very large anciant community nestling on top of a mountain. It really is a magical place. However the Disney moment came to an abrupt end when Claire suddenly burst into tears. She had donce very well conquering her fear of heights all the way up but now that we could actually see how high up we were it became too much for her. Change in objectives: get an increasingly hysterical Claire off the mountain ASAP. Foot by foot, step by step we made it off the really high place and back on the trail with things to hold on to. I think it was the people sitting on the edge of the precipice and munching on chocolate bars that really freaked her out. Anyhow, crisis averted we made out way back down to the sanctuary and started to have a look around.
Maccu Picchu was built some time late in the 15th century when the Inca empire was at the height of its power. It is divided into 3 distinct zones, agricultural, urban and industrial although a large part of the urban zone is devoted to temples, sun dials, courtyards and a large main square. The agricultural zone is split into a lrge number of terraces, each of which has an irrigation system. It was "discovered" by an American explorer called Hiram Bingham in 1911 although the locals had known about it for years. The archaeological process began soon after and a whole town was uncovered. Bingham took 74 boxes of artefacts back to Yale university, having signed an agreement with the Peruvian government to return them once examinations were completed. All 74 boxes remain with Yale University. The $450 train is called the Hiram Bingham express.
We started to wander around at about 10 am and it was pretty miserable I have to say. It was pouring with rain, we were cold and Claire was still a bit shaken. Plus the bloody toursists were everywhere. Of course we all had a right to be there but did the tours have to be so in your face and annoying? We wanderd around for a while and I have to admit I started to lose the will to carry on. It just was not fun or even interesting.
Rather than throw the towel in we decided to go and find the furthest away place from anyone to go and have lunch. This was our best move all day. The place we found gave an amazing view of the sanctuary and Wayna Picchu. In fact I think its where they take "the photos" for the postcards from. And there were wild llama. And the weather started to clear up. And we had the palce to ourselves for about an hour. Things were starting to look so much better.
By the time we finshed lunch the tourist crowds had started to thin out, and we were both feeling more positive about thew whole thing. A quick loo break, a decision whether to get a guide for 100 soles or buy a book for 10 soles (the latter) and I was ready.  I became Dimitry, the abusive Russian tour guide.
Dimitry was much more fun than any of the serious guides and teh book priovided him with just enough information to prevent the tour from being a complete fabrication. We saw the scale model of Wayna Picchu, the 3 windows, the dry moat, the temple of the condor, the aquaducts and all sorts of other fascinating things. And just as wew were leaving, a Chinchilla (like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel) said hello to us.
We hiked down the mountain, and got back to AC at dusk. You may know that Aguas Calientes means hot waters in Spanish and our evening activity was to be lying in some hot water. About 2km walk up the main street and we arrived in a slightly bizzare setting of a pool full of gringos drinking cocktails and a pool full of 10 year old boys (sans cocktails). We decided to stick with the former pool. As the place was supplied by hot river water it wasn´t very clean but God was it pleasant to immerse ourselves in it for a few hours.
We made our way back to Cusco the following day, retracing our steps and being very lucky to have chanced up on the combi to Santa Teresa at the right time. It could have been a long time waiting for him to fill up his van!
The plan was to go to Puno on Friday (I write this on Sunday), but the strike that affected the girls is still in force. Bascially some country folk and protesting against a new hydroelectric power staion in Sicuani. This town is between Cusco and Puno and bascially the only way out. They have blocaded a bridge and its all pretty ropy. The most recent report is here: http://www.larepublica.com.pe/content/view/252219/483/. So they have been negpotiating with ethe government today and the reports are quite mixed. Fingers crossed we can get to Punio by the morning and then cross into Copacobana Bolivia tomorrow. Its been lovely having a few "days off" (please dont take offence at that phrase if you are reading this in work and muttering expletives) but after over a month in Peru and 3 weeks in Cusco it´s time to move on. Hopefully the next entry will be from Bolivia!!

Tags: maccu picchu, strike, trekking


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