"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges -- Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and wating for you. Go!" The Explorer, by Rudyard Kipling
I decided on Machu Picchu for Spring Break this year! Super excited to head to Peru, I was understandably worried when I arrived in Lima in the wee hours of Monday morning and learned that all fights to Cusco had been canceled the day before due to a plane malfunction on the runway there. Luckily, after a few tense hours, the runway was cleared and I arrived in Cusco before noon.
From Cusco I took a shared taxi up to Ollentaytambo (13 soles/$4) and got checked in to my very quaint hotel, the Sumac Chaska (50 soles/$15 per night). Ollenta is about 60 km from Cusco, and in the 15th century was a royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti (whose name meant “Cataclysm”), and later the stronghold of Manco Inca Yupanqui- the only site where the Incas did in fact defeat the Spanish in battle. Next to the city is an area of terraced farming that the Incas used to create microclimates in which to raise different crops. The city of Ollenta itself is still based upon the original Inca layout and includes cobblestone streets and walled alleys, with beautiful hostels and restaurants hidden behind them.
(Un)fortunately Ollenta is a bit rustic, and the internet was not working throughout the entire Urabamba valley, which caused problems trying to get a train ticket to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu). In addition, the number of people who had had flights cancelled the day before, who were all trying to move their train tickets and Machu Picchu tickets to a date later in the week, combined with the fact that it was Semana Santa (Easter Week), which all Peruvians had off- made the train station a madhouse. After visiting the station three times, and still resulting in no train ticket, I decided to go the alternate route: a four hour bus ride, and a 9 mile hike. For those wishing to go, a train ticket from Ollenta to Aguas is between $68-90, or the bus costs 40 soles ($13).
The bus ride was beautiful but scary, with high speeds and winding mountain roads, and soon enough the bus dropped us off at the Hydroelectric station, and we were told to walk along the train tracks until we saw the town. Pretty simple directions, so I put on my ipod and listened to a podcast (Serial- wow, so riveting!) as I walked along. Almost three hours later, I saw the tiny tourist town of Aguas Calientes (it did not exist at all in 1911 when Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu but had begun to spring up by his last visit in 1916). A lot has changed in 100 years- old Hiram would be shocked if he could visit now. I found my hotel (Rio Dorado, and paid extra for a room with hot water- 114 soles, or $35). I walked around town, found some dinner (alpaca!), and went to bed early, eager to wake up early and get to Machu Picchu.
You can walk from Aguas Calientes straight up a mountain to Machu Picchu (free) or you can take a switchback bus route, starting from 5:30 am ($12). I chose the bus. 25 minutes later, I was at the gates of Machu Picchu, which open at 6 am. Upon entering, you have the choice to go up or down. Having been advised to go up first, I did, and was rewarded with the early morning view of all of Machu Picchu, another royal estate of Pachacuti, below me. Very few tourists were there that early in the morning, it was foggy and misty, and it was just gorgeous. Until the sun rose fully at 8 am, it was quite cool, easy to get around, and as Ben and Jo would say, not too many “bloody tourists messing up my photos!”. After 8 am it began to warm up and by ten am it was hot. I decided not to hire a guide, as I had just finished an excellent book on the subject of the Incas, Hiram Bingham, and Machu Picchu (Turn Right at Machu Picchu, by Mark Adams), and I felt I pretty much had the gist.
I didn’t want to leave but eventually it got pretty hot and I was running out of water, so I decided to head back down to Aguas Calientes. I spent another night there, and then luckily scored a train ticket to Hydroelectrica ($25), thus sparing myself the three hour walk. After the bus ride back to Ollenta, I was happy to grab some dinner, a Happy Hour two for one Pisco Sour special, and go to bed.
After a shared taxi ride back to Cusco (15 soles/$4), I found my hotel just off the Plaza des Armas in the centro historico (the very peaceful Triunfo Hotel, across the street from Cusco Cathedral, built from 1559-1654). Being Good Friday, there were lovely services in all of the churches nearby (8 churches, by my count) and at dusk, a procession of the “Santo Sepulcro”, involving a statue of Jesus in a glass coffin, a crown of thorns, and a statue of the mourning Virgin Mary. Close to this part of the city is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”), the fort built by Tupac Inca and later used as a defense by Manco Inca against the Spanish (okay, technically, the fortress was built by a preceding culture, and the Inca simply fortified it and enlarged it). The huge stones (the largest weighs between 130-200 tons) used to create Sacsayhuaman are immense, and nowhere else in the Americas is there stonework that is more precise (all without the use of mortar or the wheel).
Also in Cusco I visited the Inka Museum (15 soles), and learned more about the history of the area, both before, during, and after the Inca Empire.
A short Inca history lesson: Pachacuti Yupanqui (his name meant “Cataclysm”) was the ruler of the Incas from 1438-1471, and he built the royal estates of Coricancha, Machu Picchu, Pisac, and Ollentaytambo. When an Inca ruler died, one son received his estates, while his other son received his title, and had to build new estates. Pachacuti’s son Tupac Inca (“Inca” meant “noble”) ruled next, from 1471-1493, and built the estates of Chinchero and Choquequirao. Tupac’s son Huayna Capac (“Capac” meant “ruler”) ruled from 1493-1527, and built Quespiwanka and Tombebamba. When he died the Inca empire stretched from Ecuador to Bolivia, and when the Spanish encountered the Inca near Quito in 1531, the Inca empire was still fractured from a civil war between Huayna Capac’s sons Atahualpa and Huascar (who lost). The conquistador Pizarro invited Atahualpa to a ceremonial dinner, and when Atahualpa attended with only 5,000 unarmed men, Pizarro took the initiative to slaughter them all in under an hour (no losses to the Spanish). Pizarro kept Atahualpa alive, and was promised a treasure of a room of gold, and two of silver. Incas scoured the empire and stripped their temples of the precious metals, but after delivery, Pizarro killed Atahualpa anyway (1532). His younger brother, Tupac Hualpa, was a puppet ruler for the Spanish, and later their younger brother Manco Inca Yupanqui staged a last rebellion against the Spanish, engaging them in geurilla warfare and evading them for 36 years. Manco Inca Yupanqui’s sister/wife was brutally murdered by the Spanish in the main Cusco square when he rebelled against the Spanish. Manco Inca is generally regarded as the last true Inca ruler (1536-1572), although as several members of the Inca royal family did inter-marry with the Spanish nobility, the Inca line did live on for many years after the Spanish conquest.
After a day of walking around the historic district, and sitting on the restaurant balconies along Plaza des Armas watching the processions, it was time for bed, and my three flights that would get me back home the next day.