Ancient Capital of the Incas

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

We turn up at the bus station in Arequipa and find out that we have mistakenly arrived an hour early. Not a great start to the day, since we were out of bed at 6am. We hang around for a bit, chatting to a Brazilian traveller in broken Spanish. It transpires he paid 20 Soles for his ticket and we paid 35 (GBP6.00), so we didn´t do so well there either. Thats what happens if you are lazy and get an agent to buy it for you instead of going to the bus station yourself.

The Julsa Tours bus turns up late and it looks like a bit of a wreck; easily the ugliest bus in the entire bus station. Bus leaves half an hour late and everyone on board is frustrated.

Two hours into the journey and everyone is desperate for a piss but no-one feels like telling the driver. People joggle around in their chairs trying to distract themselves from the burning sensation between their legs.

Eventually someone cracks (not literally) and asks the driver to stop. The entire human contents of the vehicle burst out on to the roadsides to relieve themselves. The ladies dressed in traditional flared and pleated skirts have it easiest; they just squat beside the bus with big smiles on their faces. Rachel finds a large road sign and hides behind it instead since she is not wearing a large pleated skirt today.

The journey passes slowly. Half way through we have the delights of driving back through the dump-town of Juliaca. Apparently this hole is also the centre of Peru´s piracy and counterfeiting industry. Fake documentation, cigarattes, and branded goods is what everyone is up to.

At dusk we arrive in Cusco and Rachel reminds me that we are on a mission to find a NICE hotel. Forget budgets, its time we stayed in a decent place she says. We take a taxi to the Plaza Armas for 2 Soles (GBP0.35) in one of the ubiquitous little Daewoo micro-cars that must have been bought as a job-lot of thousands from Korea a few years back. If only taxi´s were that cheap in UK, I think to myself as we speed along through the streets.

We get out at the Plaza and we are immediately impressed by its stately grandeur. Huge colonial churches overlook floodlit fountains, tidy gardens, and manicured trees. We pull out our map and start off in the direction of the first candidate hotel of the night.

The Swiss-run place is full. After a couple of other abortive attempts to find the hotel of our dreams we end up at Hotel Niños, a Dutch run establishment where all the profits are ploughed back into feeding and helping street children Click here to jump to more info . At reception we are informed that it too is full, but, they have rooms free at the imaginatively named Hotel Niños 2 just down the street. One of the staff members accompanies us in a free taxi, and helps us get checked in. We take a room for USD$28 which is way more than we normally pay but it is absolutely vast, clean, and decorated in pale shades of white and cream that are somehow reminiscent of our house in St Neots. They even have fresh flowers in the room.

We go out and find a place to eat. Walking along I can see many of the buildings have original Inca foundations, characterised by the huge dressed stones that fit together perfectly. The most unusual aspect is that the stones are generally not rectangular or evenly shaped, but despite this they sit flush to adjacent ones like pieces in giant stone jigsaw.

We find a Japanese run restaurant, Pucara, and order up a couple of dishes. Rachel chooses her favourite Lomo Saltado, but it lags the standard of what we ate in Arequipa. I eat some beef kebabs with tatties and veg, and its a long time since I´ve eaten such tough meat. Maybe Peru can´t raise cattle like the Chileans or Argentinians, and I´m actually eating camelid? We decide its not bad enough to bother complaining.

Back at the hotel Rachel has a smile on her face as she collapses into the big comfortable bed.

In the morning we eat breakfast in the spacious courtyard of the hotel. Jolanda Van den Berg, who founded the hotel, originally came to Cusco as a tourist in 1995. She was moved by the number of street children she encountered, and came back a year later on a one way ticket, unable to speak Spanish, but with a strong conviction that she wanted to help. She rented an apartment in town, and over time got to know children who hung around the main Plaza. Soon she had invited two boys to live with her, and rapidly that became four, and then twelve. In time she opened up restaurants for feeding the children and a hotel which she felt might serve as a place of employment for the youngsters (not to mention that all the proceeds from the hotels goes towards feeding the homeless children). She is, I suppose, a modern day missionary.

We walk down through the streets of the town and find San Pedro railway station where all the trains to Machu Pichu leave from. We decide to buy our train ticket now as this is the only way to get to the famous Lost Inca City, and sometimes the tickets get sold out. We discover that we have to go to another train station on the opposite side of town to buy them. We take another 2 Soles (GBP 0.35) taxi and arrive at Huanchac train station where there is an office selling the illusive tickets.

Armed with our tickets, for the day we want, we feel quite pleased with ourselves. Its just as well its not high season.

We walk through the city to get to Museo de Santa Catalina, a huge monastery beside Iglesia Santo Domingo built on the site of an ancient Inca temple called Corincancha. The foundations of the church and Monastery are Inca, but most of the construction on top is Spanish. Inside the main quadrangle of the monastery, there are remnants of beautifully preserved Inca buildings where the walls and door jambs are angled at precisely 13 degrees off the vertical, and the stones are dressed to perfection so that they almost fuse together. Outside on the old peripheral wall there is a vast smooth curved section of skillful Inca craftsmanship that has withstood six hundred years worth of earthquakes without the need for mortar or repairs.

We eat lunch in a gringo-run restaurant called Al Grano, who offer a menu of the day for 8.50 Soles (GBP1.40). Its the first time we´ve eaten ´curry´ in a long time, and it makes Rachel crave more of the sort of food that we ate so much of in South East Asia.

In the afternoon we wander back to the Plaza and I see one of the churches, Iglesia de La Compañia, is open. Hesitating at the 10 soles entry fee (GBP1.70) the fat lady on door duty immediately says we can go in for 5. The church has a vast golden alter that looks decadent, forboding and ugly. I find a little staircase that leads up to the choir and then after another rickety ladder, a little door that opens out onto a ledge on the facade of the church. A young male attendant with rotting teeth looks on nervously as I stand on the ledge and take photos of the Plaza.

From the ledge on the church we see a steep hill behind the town, Sacsayhuaman, which apparently is the site of a major Inca fort. We take another taxi (this time 4 soles or GBP0.70) which winds up to a ticket office on the edge of the ruins. We find out that we have to buy a special ´boleto´ that entitles us to enter this and 15 other museams and archeological sites around Cusco. We grit our teeth and pay 70 Soles (GBP11.50), since it looks interesting. However I am already starting to get ´Incad-out´ and I wonder if we´ll bother to use any other parts of the boleto.

The fort is a pleasant place to wander as it is on a high hill overlooking Cusco, who´s red roofs are spread out in the valley below. Many young Peruvian couples also seem to like the place as they roll around amorously in the grass. We see a three-tiered and zig-zagging perimeter wall which has been built with the familiar Inca precision. Some of the vast stone blocks in it are said to weigh over 300 tonnes.

We walk down a well-defined Inca staircase back to town, stopping en route for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (1 Sol or GBP0.20) from one of the many portly female vendors. People in Cuszco seem really friendly and offer an abundance of ´buenos..´.

That evening we wander down one of the main gringo streets in town, Procuradores, since we have no clear recommendations for good restaurants. Practically every building is a food establishemnt offering almost identical menus that include Italian, Mexican, and Peruvian food. Making the mistake of showing mild interest means we are rapidly surrounded by about 10 touts all desperate to get us into their restaurants to eat the 10 Soles (GBP1.60) three course, Menu de Dia. We choose one at random which turns out to be not bad. As usual there are several groups of musicians that come to play for tips during our supper. During the meal I realise that I now hate the pan pipes.

In the morning we decide to wander around town in search of the perfect breakfast. Lots of places sell an American breakfast for 6 to 8 Soles (about GBP1.00 to GBP1.40), but we are in search of two illusive elements: real coffee not Nescafe, and butter not margarine. I talk to one tout in the Plaza who assures me they have both. Inside their restaurant I check again with the waitress before ordering. A few minutes later there is a saucer full of margarine on the table, and we walk out. Some tourists on another table tut-tut at us.

In La Tertulia restaurant we have a similar experience as a bowl full of small balls of margarine is laid before us on the table. I speak to the owner of the restaurant who assures me it is definitely ´mantequilla´ or butter. It definitely isn´t. So I begin to doubt whether the Peruvians differentiate at all between the two. Perhaps lack of a dairy industry is the reason. Anyhow the lady owner knows about customer service and produces something else called ´nata´ which is definitely made from milk, and tastes a bit like homemade butter or cream cheese, and is absolutely delicious on the freshly baked bread. Fortunately the coffee is also excellent and we consider our mission accomplished.

We decide to buy our onward bus tickets to Nazca. Down at the bus station we trawl around several companies who all seem to have ´semi-cama´, or partly reclining seats, not ´cama´ which is fully reclining. For a 14 hour overnight bus journey we really want to get it right this time, especially considering our poor track record on buses. We bump into a couple of German girls, Sandra and Sinita, who we keep meeting on our travels, and they advise us to go with a company called Flores. Not only is the ticket cheaper (70 Soles or GBP11.50) it is also a Cama seat. I love bumping into familiar faces when we travel. These people are like our neighbours in the global travellers village. I might easily meet more people I know walking down a street Cusco than I do walking down the street in St Neots. Isn´t that bizarre?

In the afternoon we begin our long journey to the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. It is a very complicated place to get to because the road does not go all the way there, and you must take the train. The train company has specially inflated its prices because it has a monopoly and everyone wants to go to Machu Picchu. So our guide book recommends that we take the bus as far as possible (Ollantaytambo) and then just take the train for the last obligatory stretch.

We also find out that the train only goes as far as a little tourist village called Agua Calientes, and to get to Machu Picchu you can either walk for 2hrs (including a 600 metre altitude gain) or take a bus with a vastly inflated price.

Here are some of the financial facts (all for return journey):
- Cheapest possible train ticket Cusco to Agua Calientes: USD$68 (GBP40.00)
- Cheapest possible train ticket Ollantaytambo to Agua Calientes: USD$44 (GBP25.00)
- Saving (GBP15.00)
- Bus fare Cusco to Ollantaytambo 8 Soles (GBP1.30)

So we establish that out GBP15 saving on the train more than covers the bus journey. The bus is also much faster than the train.

The bus journey itself isn´t that straightforward which probably puts off a few people. We firstly pay 3 Soles (GBP0.50) for a ticket to Urubamba, where we change to a local bus for 1 Sol (GBP0.15) which takes us to Ollantaytambo.

Ollantaytambo is a beautiful village of rustic adobe houses and red tiled roofs nestling in the mountains. Beside it is an enormous Inca fort which we find is included in our ´boleto´. We take a walk up through the steep terraces and enjoy the view of the green valley below. I am surprised how quickly the vegetation seems to becoming lush and jungle-like as we head deeper into the mountains.

In the little town square we find a restaurant that caters to the locals and only has one dish on the menu - chicken. Without reference to the sparse menu, we order our meal, and we are surprised to find that it is preceded by a bowl of soup - chicken soup of course. We hear lots of sizzling and frying noises in the background and soon the meal appears; a huge portion of oven roasted chicken and chips with a Scottish-sized salad (ie one slice of tomato and cucumber). Not bad for 7 Soles (GBP1.15).

Since there are no drinks on the menu except beer, we wander into another more touristy place round the corner where we order hot chocolate and tea. After killing an hour or so chatting to some French travellers, we gathering up our stuff and walk down to the train station. Its exciting because this will be our first train journey in South America.
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