Cuzco and Machu Picchu

Trip Start Feb 21, 2006
Trip End Sep 11, 2006

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Hmm, it´s a bit hard to write in an inspiring way about all the amazing things we´ve seen in the last few days here in a noisy internet cafe with the football blasting out at full volume (as you can imagine, the whole continent has gone Copa Mundial crazy since yesterday) but I will do my best...

We arrived in Cuzco a bit over a week ago and spent a few days exploring the city with the help of our English friends who had been here before and could point us in the direction of the English cafe that does great fry ups and pots of real PG Tips tea (I didn´t realise how much I was missing decent cups of tea but man, it was fantastic!), the Australian-run cafe where they make Ponsonby Rd-style brunches and flat whites, the bar where you can watch bootleg DVDs of latest release movies in the early evening while they serve you food and drinks, and many other Cuzco delights. This place is definitely the most insanely touristy place I have ever been to - everywhere you go there are people hassling you to buy postcards, have your shoes cleaned, listen to information about tours, come into their restaurant... apparently you can buy t-shirts which say "No Gracias" to save you from constantly having to say it yourself. Despite all that though, it is a lovely city with steep cobbled streets an immaculate colonial buildings, often built right on top of the Inca foundations.

There are lots of ruins around the city as well and we spent a couple of days visiting them getting into "ruins mode". The Inca style of construction was really amazing - huge blocks of stone were hauled massive distances and carved to fit together perfectly without morter, sometimes so perfectly that you can´t even slide a piece of paper between them - engineers today still have no idea how they managed it. They built everything in harmony with the environment and to line up with the stars and the sun - for example in the sun temple at MP there are two windows facing east, and the sun rises right in the middle of one at the summer solstice and in the middle of the other at the winter solstice, and apparently the whole Sacred Valley was designed to reflect the Milky Way. We also managed to work on our fitness at the same time as visiting Inca ruins tends to involve a lot of steep uphill walking - and consequently fabulous views. Then we were ready for our pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.

Having not been quite organised enough to book ourselves on the official Inca Trail, we decided against the high altitude, hard-core trekking, camping in below zero temperatures nonsense and instead spent the first day of our four day tour downhill mountain biking - similar to what we did from La Paz but without the terrifying steep drop to one side of the road, although not entirely without its dangers - Dave almost skidded into a river trying to avoid some cows on a bridge, causing another person in our group to laugh so hard that he didn´t see the cows himself and very nearly collided with them head on.

The next few days we spent walking through a sub-tropical valley, passing isolated little villages, tropical flowers and fruit trees, coffee and coca plantations and sections of one of the old Inca paths to Machu Picchu. We trekked along the valley of the Urubamba River which was devastated by a flood caused by El Nino in 1998 - several villages were washed away and the entire railway line for the valley was destroyed. The villages have now been rebuilt on higher ground and the bridges have been replaced by various rickety alternatives and a couple of cable cars (which were heaps of fun to cross!), but the survivors in the valley who once had a train service now have to rely on a few dusty tracks and their own two legs to transport themselves and the produce from their land, and the valley is still full of huge rocks from the landslides and some mangled remains of the rails. We finished our third day walking up the train tracks towards Aguas Calientes, a town built entirely for tourists visiting MP. It was a very bizarre sight after walking through such a remote area to come across a collection of brightly coloured hotels, restaurants, souvineer shops and a long line of fancy-looking buses getting washed in preparation for carting hundreds of tourists up the hill the next day.

Luckily our rather half-hearted attempts at exercise had been at high altitudes and actually served us well back down around only 2,000m, so Dave and I felt the fittest we´ve been in a long time. We have to confess though that we stayed at hostels along the way instead of camping, and the first day of trekking finished up with us drinking beers in a thermal pool - we´re so hardcore! There was no messing around on our last day though - we were up at 4am for breakfast before an hour-long march up the hill (really a massive set of stairs) to get to Machu Picchu when it opened at 6am.

We were among the first people through the gates and although we heard the first bus pull up as we went in there were surprisingly few people in the site at such an early hour (although there was a man mowing the grass with a weed eater which somewhat destroyed the tranquility!). We took a few tourist-free photos of the ruins as they faded in and out of the mist and watched the sky get light - no sunrise unfortunately as it was too cloudy, but the clouds and mist had a dramatic effect as it hovered around the sheer peaks surrounding us. We had a tour of the ruins, then as the tourists really started to pour in we headed off to climb Huanapicchu - the highest steep hill behind the ruins that you always see in photos. The climb was a lot of fun and quite scary - some parts are so steep and narrow that you are almost climbing as you would a ladder, and the sides of the hill plummet straight down into the valley hundreds of metres below. We enjoyed the incredible views from the top for a while before scrambling back down, quickly eating lunch and practically running up the hill to the Sun Gate so we could be back in time for our bus to meet our guide - aah, the joys of tours! MP is an incredible place, the ruins are so well preserved and the setting is stunning - definitely an experience of a lifetime.

We spent the next night at Ollantaytambo and visited the ruins there this morning - I think we´ve been rather spoilt for ruins after MP but it was a nice place to chill out and rest our muscles after 4 days on the road before hitting Cuzco again.
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