Pizarro World

Trip Start Sep 22, 2012
Trip End Oct 21, 2012

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Where I stayed
Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco
Read my review - 5/5 stars
B&B-Hotel Pension Alemana Cusco
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Peru  ,
Thursday, October 4, 2012

Day 1

We both had an awesome sleep, due to the fact that this bed and breakfast has none of that Argentinian traffic noise we were getting so used to! The people who run the accommodation packed us up a breakfast to take with us since we were leaving early, and we caught our transfer to the airport. The owner of the B&B recommended an hour to get to the airport due to the insane peak hour traffic in Lima. As it happened, everyone in the city must have been sleeping in, because we arrived way early. One interesting thing was how airport security checked the driver's licenses of everyone who drove into the airport. Hmmm...

Since we were so early, it made total sense to take an earlier flight to Cusco (there are almost 20 a day) rather than sit around waiting for ours. The flight itself was okay but the landing - whoa! It certainly didn't help my fear of flying. I don't know whether Cusco is on "World's Scariest Airports" but the plane descended, then pulled back up, then banked left, then dropped, then pulled up again, then tilted down sharply, then landed. Yikes!

Cusco airport is small, yet it has an oxygen booth if needed. After disembarking, we called our accommodation and asked if our transfer driver could come earlier (I'd tried to do it in Lima airport, called the wrong number, and was sworn at in Spanish). The hotel receptionist said the driver was doing another job and recommended taking a taxi. She claimed we shouldn't pay more than 15 soles but after ten minutes of arguing, the best we could manage was 30 soles, under the condition that they didn't try to sell us any tour (so we blew five dollars - the shame!). This altitude has had a really weird effect on Ted - he can't stop laughing at everything! Seriously, it's like sitting next to the Joker. He even laughed at my jokes (which he has only done three times in twelve years).

I asked the driver what the local cuisine of Cusco was - he told me it was guinea pig. As tempting as that sounded, I'd made a rule many years back to never eat any domesticated animal. I was a bit dismayed to see a McDonalds on the way, although if they serve the McCuy on the menu, I'm not trying it (Peruvian word for guinea pig). There was however a pretty cool looking festival in the street, with a lot of indigenous people celebrating.

After driving up several thin, winding streets we arrived at our hostel. It's another awesome place, a German guesthouse with an amazing view over the city. We're only here one night until our tour starts tomorrow, so I hope the next hotel isn't worse! They gave us a cup of coca tea to deal with the altitude (and Ted's strange attitude) before checking in. We weren't sure whether to check out the town and sightsee, or to stay in the room and acclimatize. We chose the former.

This town is awesome! We love the atmosphere here, it almost feels like a Peruvian Mykonos city. Lots of culture, beautiful surrounding scenery and friendly locals. Ted found a pub overlooking Plaza de Armas, where we sat on a tiny, tiny balcony and enjoyed lunch whilst watching the Peruvian world go by. There are rainbow flags all over the place, prompting us to think this is some sort of crazy, gay getaway like Key West or Palm Springs, until we realized that the city of Cusco has the same flag as the gay community. Oops.

There are some amazing things to buy here too which I rarely do, but you can't put a price tag on imitation culture! After walking around for a while, we were both feeling really drained and decided to climb the hill back to our hotel. Easier said than done, as this altitude is really taxing. The strange thing is that Ted is more physically fit than I am, but he's suffering a lot worse. Even though it was only a ten minute walk, we still had to stop and have a cake and coffee break on the way. When we finally reached our accommodation, we decided it made a lot of sense to not overdo it.

For dinner, we went back to town and looked for a nice restaurant or eatery. There are heaps in Cusco! We found a great little restaurant called Macondo, that didn't serve guinea pig, but it did offer alpaca which sounded more appetizing. I ended up ordering it and, to be honest, it didn't taste that baaaaad! (Even Ted didn't laugh at that joke). The guide books recommend not drinking alcohol whilst suffering from altitude sickness, but Ted felt like a beer and it seemed to hit him quite hard. By the time we did the arduous walk back uphill to our hotel, we were so exhausted we went to bed at 9pm. Boy, what a pair of nannas!

Day 2

Ted and I were awake at about 5.30 due to falling asleep so early last night. This is a good thing though - the next few days here in Peru are all very early starts as we'll be making the most of those sunrise moments. We went to breakfast where I enjoyed (?) another cup of coca tea with eggs and toast. We are pretty good with the altitude now, but the more hydrated we can get the better.

The pickup for our next hotel (where the tour starts) came at 10am, so we walked around the area to explore some more beforehand. We got to meet a local walking her llama (or alpaca?) for a prime photo opportunity. Tacky, but awesome Facebook profile picture material. We came back to the hotel and met our rep, an American girl named Corey, who transferred us to our new hotel and gave us all our tickets and passes for the next four days. Boy, what a schedule! Today we're only doing a city tour. Since our new hotel wasn't ready yet, we went for a walk down to Plaza de Armas just to soak in the Peruvian atmosphere, and say no to all the artwork, artifacts and shoe shines we were offered.

Our new hotel is right in the middle of town, as opposed to being up a hill, and is vey schmick. I think they sack the staff daily just to maintain freshness. As nice as it is, it definitely lacks the character of our previous German guesthouse. Our Cusco guide, Marlena came to collect us just after 2pm for a tour of the surrounds. We had another couple, Ravi and Jayantha from Melbourne, on the tour with us. They have virtually the same South American itinerary as we do.

Our first stop was to the hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuaman, which is a walled complex on the northern outskirts of the city, and the former capital of the Inca Empire. It is like a large plaza, surrounded by three massive terrace walls. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper won't fit between many of the stones. They are also held together without any mortar. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes in Cusco. Marlena speculated that the heaviest stone is about 120 tonnes.

We also learnt about the vast differences between the beliefs of the Incas and the Catholic church. The Incans viewed the sun as the father, the earth as the mother and in nature. They did not understand the Catholic beliefs which unfortunately led the Spanish to eliminate 11 million Incan males, meaning that most of the population today are mestizo. Clearly those Catholics missed the part of the Bible that said "Thou shalt not kill". One interesting thing is that some Inca beliefs are coming back into Peruvian society, as there is a diverse mix of Christianity and Peruvian culture.

Whilst we were there, we were at 14,000 feet, feeling no more I'll effects of altitude sickness. It was cold, though! Ted had decided to not bring a jacket, and I could see him being tempted by the Inca stalls that were selling imitation alpaca sweaters. One interesting thing was that the area was surrounded by eucalyptus trees which were apparently brought over by the Irish.

We then headed to Pukapukara, a ruin of the fortifications made by the natives and Tambomachay, which consists of a series of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls that run through the terraced rocks. Both these two names were as hard to pronounce as they were to remember what they were for. Although I remember the first one had a virgin offering stone. Since every good tour involves a sales pitch, we visited a scarf and blanket store, which guaranteed to sell genuine alpaca and nothing imitation. I think Ted and I are more thrilled by the cheap imitations sold by the locals on the side of the road, so we didn't buy anything.

We returned to Cusco where we visited Coricancha (meaning "Golden Temple") which was the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. Stress on the word "was", because those Spanish colonists built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Clearly those Catholics missed the part of the Bible that said "Thou shalt not steal". This is one of numerous sites where the Spanish incorporated Inca stonework into the structure of a colonial building. Ironically, major earthquakes severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand due to their sophisticated stone masonry. Somehow I just couldn't bring myself to be marveled by the ruby encrusted Catholic robes and was a lot more fascinated by the Inca architecture.

Just when I thought my cynicism level couldn't run any higher, we then visited the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the middle of Cusco. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Cusco, they decided to take down the Incan temple Kiswarkancha, and build their Christian cathedral on that prominent site, with the purpose of removing the Inca religion from Cusco. For me, the one saving grace was that the church itself has a lot of Peruvian influences, such as a picture of the Last Supper where they eat cuy, and Judas Iscariot is painted to look like Francisco Pizarro. After that, the tour ended and we returned to the hotel.

Ted and I were both keen for pizza so we bypassed the local cuisine for one night and went to La Bodega. Whilst walking around enjoying the Cusco night atmosphere, a local girl kept hassling us to buy a sombrero. She even mentioned Julia Gillard in her sales pitch. We then headed back before our big day tomorrow of visiting the Sacred Valley.

Day 3

Today was an amazingly long and fulfilling day as we explored more of the history and architecture surrounding Cusco. We forgot about the joy of a buffet breakfast after all those hostels, so it was quite a treat to be able to have toast AND fruit, instead of having to choose which you wanted! We were told by Marlena yesterday that we would start at 9am today but a note pushed under our door advised it would be 8.30 instead. Ultimately we sat outside the hotel waiting half an hour since the hotel had been misinformed. Talk about half an hour of wasted Facebook time!

The scenery today was the highlight as we made our way first to Chinchero where we stopped to photograph the stark and amazing surrounds - snow capped Andean mountains on one side, and green valleys on the other. Marlena told us about the animosity that still occurs between Peru, Bolivia and Chile over the War of the Pacific that occurred in the 1800's, although more so with Bolivia. Also, how the eucalyptus trees that are around have provided so much benefit to the population for firewood and timber for building. Score one for the Aussies!

The town of Ollantaytambo was our next stop, which was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region, then built the town and a ceremonial center. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru it served as a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance. The Inca site is an incredible attraction, almost like a giant stairway to the skies. The Incas built roads connecting the site with Machu Picchu to the west and Pisaq to the east. During the Spanish conquest of Peru, emperor Manco Inca fortified the eastern approaches to fend off Spanish attacks from Cusco, meaning the Spanish never reached Machu Picchu. There were also ancient terraces and storehouses that had been recovered.

Unfortunately for us, we had also run out of sunscreen by this stage, and the Peruvian sun didn't give us much reprieve, forcing me to wear a long sleeved pullover for protection. For lunch, we headed to the nearby town of Urubamba, where we sat in a pretty outdoor garden setting enjoying a buffet lunch. Or so we thought! Ten minutes into the meal, a Peruvian storm blew up, guaranteeing that every table with a shade umbrella would collapse from the tempest. Marlena had recommended some Peruvian dishes that were also offered so I thought I'd try them. Well, the desserts were awesome anyway. The rest - ick!

The next town we visited was Pisaq, which had some diverse outdoor markets. Ted had been saving up his money - and excitement - for this stop. I was keen on buying a colorful blanket, which I regretted not buying when we were in Mexico, as well as a nice throw for my nan's birthday. Ted bartered for some black and white sketches of Incan children will look awesome in a frame from Ikea.

One thing we haven't seen are pumas which are supposed to be native to the area. Apparently they only eat livestock, such as chickens or rabbits, and not tourists. We then returned to our hotel, tired and more knowledgable. Our admission ticket for Cusco gets us into several museums here in the city, but we are really Inca'd out for now.

We were getting a bit tired of tourist restaurants, so we wandered out to the locals area to have dinner. We definitely prefer to do that than sit shoulder to shoulder with obnoxious tourists. We bought a great meal of chicken, salad and potatoes which, for the two of us with drinks, cost about $10. And we could guarantee the chicken would be good too, since the restaurant was called "Good chicken"!

On the way back to the hotel, Ted bought a jumper he has been wanting for ages from a street seller for $8. He didn't have to justify it either, because you just can't beat good acrylic at that price! We have just packed our overnight bags for our trip to Machu Picchu tomorrow. Since you can't take suitcases on the train, we have to cram everything we need into one backpack each. So tomorrow, we are seeing Peru's number one attraction.

Day 4

We were awake by 5am today in order to take our morning train to Machu Picchu. Actually I was awake way before that in anticipation of oversleeping and missing the alarm clock. Since we were already packed, we went downstairs, enjoyed our buffet breakfast again, and checked out of the hotel. Our bags are kept in storage here until we return tomorrow.

Our driver collected us and took us to Poroy station where the train departs from. At the station, we saw Ravi and Jayantha and compared train tickets before boarding. The train is very fancy and is the "Vistadome" train which is Peru Rail talk for middle-of-the-road. In other words, we couldn't afford the Royal Family using "Hiram Bingham" train, and we're too snobby for the backpackers standard "Expedition" train. After getting excited that we were sitting in seats that didn't face anyone else, we were then disappointed when we realized we were in the wrong seats. Even then, we were sitting separately, and had to negotiate with our fellow passengers to sit together.

The train was different although probably not as comfortable as we'd hoped. And hot! Since we were now facing another couple with a squat table between us, there wasn't much leg room if your fellow passenger didn't stow their bag. We were sitting across from a couple from Moscow, Russia who are part of an organized tour. Fortunately they could speak English, so we compared travel stories and talked about life in Russia. Twice on the journey, we got the opportunity to wave to the hikers doing the four day Inca trail, as we laid back on our reclining seats.

The train offered a snack which consisted of pikelets and fruit, with a drink service. They even did a merchandise service, in case the street sellers hadn't sold you enough already. Even though the Vistadome has large panoramic windows, we didn't photograph much since the scenery is the same as yesterday. Also, most of the train passengers seemed to be buried in their iPads playing Angry Birds. The train made one stop in Ollantaytambo before continuing to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu.

At the station, our next guide collected us and we walked to the tour guide office a few minutes away. Since we were going straight to Machu Picchu, we threw what we didn't need into lockers and stood in line for the numerous buses that make the journey to the site. We expected the weather here to be hot, but today was cool and a bit wet. The bus ride - whoa! It consisted of several buses tearing up a one lane zig-zag road and trying to avoid the oncoming traffic without driving off the edge for 25 minutes. To arrive in one piece was a relief.

Once at the site, we met our next guide who led us to the entry (where you could get your passport stamped with a "Machu Picchu" stamp) where we walked behind a tour group of slow moving, non-acclimatized senior citizens up several stairs to the photo stop for the view everyone wants to see. But it was worth the wait - amazing! (actually just look at the pictures).

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti around 1400, but abandoned it as an official site for the Inca rulers a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. Although the citadel is located only about 80 kilometres from Cusco, the Inca capital, the Spanish never found it and consequently did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites. For that, I think we can be grateful. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over much of the site, and few outsiders knew of its existence. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. 

Walking around the site brought so many photo opportunities that I think Ted used up a set of camera batteries. The site is composed of 140 structures or features, including temples, sanctuaries, parks, and residences that include houses with thatched roofs. There are more than one hundred flights of stone steps, often completely carved from a single block of granite, and numerous water fountains. These were interconnected by channels and water-drains perforated in the rock that were designed for the original irrigation system.

Machu Picchu was divided into three great districts: the Sacred District (consisting of the primary archaeological treasures dedicated to Inti, their sun god), the Popular District (the place where the lower-class people lived, which includes storage buildings and simple houses) and the District of the Priests and the Nobility (a group of houses located in rows over a slope). The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.

During our time there, the Peruvian skies opened up, so we were very grateful that Ted had brought the attractive $3 ponchos he'd bought from the Reject Shop. One thing our guide pointed out to us was how the Incas had used the stars for guidance, including showing a ground compass that they had built. To prove the point, we even used the compass on my iPhone (the first time I've used it believe me) to show how accurate they were.

Our tour finished at 2pm so Ted and I were keen to head back for lunch, as we have another ticket to come back at sunrise tomorrow. We saw the horrendous queue of tourists waiting to return, so we decided to eat at the Sanctuary Lodge restaurant there instead. What a joke! They charged a horrendous $35 for a buffet lunch, which they decided to pack up most of before we'd even started. Looks like they'll be getting a bad review from me on Trip Advisor!

When we returned to Aguas Calientes, we collected our things and walked to our hotel El Mapi. This town is tiny, so it wasn't a feat. The hotel is one of those Eco-friendly type places. The design is quite unique, and I think it is trying to minimize its impact on the environment. We even have a view of a jungle construction site. One surprise was that both welcome drinks and dinner were included, which we haven't experienced anywhere yet. We like this town, so we went out to explore.

We've been hassled so many times about getting a massage that we finally decided to get one. I think I enjoyed mine more than Ted did, maybe because they kept playing that weird Gheorghe Zamfir pan flute music! Since we were both oily afterwards, we came back to shower and change before going to check out "Happy Hour".

We were given a free Pisco Sour, which consists of Pisco (a type of grape brandy) with lime juice. Ted thought it tasted like a margarita. Our dinner that evening was awesome, probably the best meal we've had this holiday. We paid extra to take the four star option this tour, and it shows. When we returned to our room, we had foolishly left the bathroom window open, meaning it was now mosquito haven. Since I had a complete fear of malaria, we contacted reception who brought up a bug zapper. Unfortunately they hadn't all gone by bedtime, and I was too scared to go in and brush my teeth in case I caught something. We have our sunrise bus trip to the ruins tomorrow, so it was early to bed.

Day 5

Today proved to be very disappointing, as we didn't make it to Machu Picchu for the sunrise due to the rain bucketing down all night, meaning there was no sun, much less a sunrise to see. Also, the roads leading up are hellish at best, horrendous in the wet. We are vey disappointed but at least we got to experience it yesterday, as opposed to not at all. Aguas Calientes reminds me of Bergen in Norway - beautiful one day, horrendous the next. I guess we can't complain too much. We've had great weather on this holiday so far.

Today is Ted's and mine 13 year anniversary. It is actually October the 9th, but due to time zones, it is our anniversary now. I can't think of many cooler places in the world to celebrate your anniversary than in Machu Picchu.

I barely slept at all last night, as I kept having nightmares about being eaten alive by a plaque of evil mosquitoes. It was almost like a "Nightmare on Amazon Forest Street". Even when I woke up, I checked my body for wounds. Today ended up being a very lazy day as we relaxed around Aguas Calientes before catching our train back.

After breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and explored more of the town. We saw Ravi and Jayantha at the tour office who are catching the later train back tonight, so we bade them farewell. Even though it poured rain last night, today ended up clearing to be warm and sunny. For lunch, we ate at a Mexican Restaurant, which was actually more like being in Russia because both the food and service were lousy.

When we reached the train station, the seats we had today were the ones we coveted on our first journey, which don't share any leg room with anyone else! Unfortunately though, someone parked the train out in the sun without a visor, because it was boiling hot when we boarded. This train journey was just like the last one, except for one small difference - this one featured a fashion show!

After we'd received our meal service, this bizarre music started playing and before we knew it, the attendants came through the cabin modeling various items of Peruvian clothing. They walked up and down the train aisle with all the grace and style of a Parisian catwalk, encouraging passengers to feel the material, and clap in time to the music. Then of course, the same attendants came through the cabin offering the same items for sale. Whilst watching the show, I admit I secretly wished that we did something similar at QantasLink, to make up for our lack of in-flight entertainment.

It seemed like forever before we finally reached Cusco, with darkness already descending and the streets chaotic. By the time we reached our hotel we were pretty knackered, but also hungry, so we wandered around until we found a decent Italian restaurant. Then there was barely time to pack up everything again, before our 4.40am wake up tomorrow. Fortunately from here on in, it's sleep-ins every day :-)

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